Split the Root: a little design pattern

Many programs take “execution arguments” which the program users provide at the start of execution. In EiffelStudio you can enter them under Execution -> Execution parameters.

The program can access them through the Kernel Library class ARGUMENTS. Typically, the root class of the system inherits from ARGUMENTS and its creation procedure will include something like

if argument_count /= N then
……..print (“XX expects exactly N arguments: AA, BB, …%N”)
……..u := argument (1) ; v := argument (2) ; …
……..“Proceed with normal execution, using u, v, …”

where N is the number of expected arguments, XX is the name of the program, and AA, …. are the roles of arguments. u, v, … are local variables. The criterion for acceptance could be “at least N” instead of exactly N. The features argument_count and arguments come from class ARGUMENTS.

In all but trivial cases this scheme (which was OK years ago, in a less sophisticated state of the language) does not work! The reason is that the error branch will fail to initialize attributes. Typically, the “Proceed with…” part in the other branch is of the form

               attr1 := u
                attr2 := v
                create obj1.make (attr1, …)
                create obj2.make (attr2, …)
                “Work with obj1, obj2, …”

If you try to compile code of this kind, you will get a compilation error:

Compiler error message

Eiffel is void-safe: it guarantees that no execution will ever produce null-pointer dereference (void call). To achieve this guarantee, the compiler must make sure that all attributes are “properly set” to an object reference (non-void) at the end of the creation procedure. But the error branch fails to initialize obj1 etc.

You might think of replacing the explicit test by a precondition to the creation procedure:

                                argument_count = N

but that does not work; the language definition explicit prohibits preconditions in a root creation procedure. The Ecma-ISO standard (the official definition of the language, available here) explains the reason for the corresponding validity rule (VSRP, page 32):

A routine can impose preconditions on its callers if these callers are other routines; but it makes no sense to impose a precondition on the external agent (person, hardware device, other program…) that triggers an entire system execution, since there is no way to ascertain that such an agent, beyond the system’s control, will observe the precondition.

The solution is to separate the processing of arguments from the rest of the program’s work. Add a class CORE which represents the real core of the application and separate it from the root class, say APPLICATION. In APPLICATION, all the creation procedure does is to check the arguments and, if they are fine, pass them on to an instance of the core class:

                                description: “Root class, processes execution arguments and starts execution”
                class APPLICATION create make feature
                                core: CORE
                                                — Application’s core object
……..……..……..……..……..……..— Check arguments and proceed if they make sense.
                                                             if argument_count /= N then
                                                                                print (“XX expects exactly N arguments: AA, BB, …%N”)
                                                                                create core.make (argument (1), argument (2) ; …)
                                                                                                — By construction the arguments are defined!
                                                                                                — Perform actual work
                                                                                               — (`live’ can instead be integrated with `make’ in CORE.)

We may call this little design pattern “Split the Root”. Nothing earth-shattering; it is simply a matter of separating concerns (cutting off the Model from the View). It assumes a system that includes text-based output, whereas many applications are graphical. It is still worth documenting, for two reasons.

First, in its own modest way, the pattern is useful for simple programs; beginners, in particular, may not immediately understand why the seemingly natural way of processing and checking arguments gets rejected by the compiler.

The second reason is that Split the Root illustrates the rules that preside over a carefully designed language meant for carefully designed software. At first it may be surprising and even irritating to see code rejected because, in a first attempt, the system’s root procedure has a precondition, and in a second attempt because some attributes are not initialized — in the branch where they do not need to be initialized. But there is a reason for these rules, and once you understand them you end up writing more solid software.


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