DEV Community

loading...

We don't really need those setters

maccoda profile image Dylan Maccora Originally published at maccoda.github.io Updated on ・7 min read

Mutability in terms of software usually will describe the ability to change the internal state of an object once it has been created. Many main design decisions on frameworks and conventions favored having mutable objects and didn't really touch on the concept of immutability. The clearest example of this is the POJO concept in Java, or more specifically the notion of getters and setters.

The Notion of Getters and Setters

I will take a short tangent for those not familiar but if you are please skip ahead.

In a typical Java object you will encapsulate fields by making them private and unable to be directly accessed. The access to these internal fields are usually protected by getters and setters, which simply get the current value and update the field respectively. A basic example for getting and setting the name of a person can be seen below.

public class Person {
    private String name;

    public String getName() {
        return name;
    }

    public void setName(String name) {
        this.name = name;
    }
}

Why the Change of Mind?

So if we made all these decisions in languages and frameworks that are now so popular why should I even need to know this? Well this may be a little bleak but in software just because something is popular unfortunately does not mean it is good or right. I would almost argue that it is very hard to find something good in software because designs can be so subjective and things simply move so fast that we can suddenly do things that we couldn't do when our first decisions were made.

My favorite comparison is comparing older languages to more modern languages. A simple example is Java vs Kotlin. Whilst these both live in a similar realm of the language space I don't believe you can justly compare them as they both came from different times when we knew different things. Java is much older than Kotlin, which was a language specifically designed to bake in all the Java best practices into a language. The fact that we can make an entirely new language with the goal to simply enforce best practices is a clear sign that as an industry we discover new and better things arguably daily.

Immutability is now part of the language

In this example one of the things that Kotlin has added that Java didn't have (at least when Kotlin first came out) was the notion of immutability. In Java (and many other languages of the time) the notion of immutability is not as evident. It has the final keyword to enforce variables are set only once but it is an extra keyword always needed to be added and certainly not what you learn in most beginner courses. Whereas more modern languages have introduced separate keywords for a mutable and immutable variable. This makes the thought about this variable's mutability far more apparent.

Let us take a really basic example of getting a result back from a method invocation. In Java I can simply make the types line up and we are good to go. I can almost forget about the mutability question because it isn't required at all. In fact this happens a lot for me so I have actions performed on save to add the final keywords for me.

String result = myObject.invoke();

But if I want it immutable I need to remember my final keyword:

final String result = myObject.invoke();

Whereas in Kotlin, thanks to advances in what we can achieve within the compiler the notion of making the types line up is not as important and the developer's responsibility is to choose the correct keyword to define the mutability of the result.

If the result is to be immutable

val result = myObject.invoke()

If the result is to be mutable

var result = myObject.invoke()

As you can see from this example, the notion of immutability has become more prevalent in the developers decisions. To the point where the compiler can tell you that the mutable variable you made could actually be mutable.

Mutability can bite

So we have explored how the notion of mutability is now brought closer to front in terms of our development, but still have not answered why? The answer is pretty simple, making everything mutable and not addressing that upfront led to a large cognitive load for developers and with that bugs will follow. The issue is embedded in the fact that it lead to objects having vast amounts of way of changing state. The more possible states an object could be in the harder it is to reason with and that is what happened.

An immutable object is one that is set at construction and has no way in which it is able to change afterwards. Of course this does come with a few issues you need to keep track of and I will discuss those later. The main point I want to express here is that mutability can cause difficult to manage code and we should be aware of our decision to use mutable or immutable objects.

Converting to Immutable Objects

So we have hinted at why you might want to try immutability but how can you do it? Every language has its own way to manage immutability and the extent to which you can achieve immutability. We will stick with Java for the time being. Let's return to the person example before but make it a little more interesting. Let's say the person has a name and a phone number and we want to make it a basic immutable object. It would look something like this:

public final class Person {
    private final String name;
    private final String phoneNumber;

    public Person(String name, String phoneNumber) {
        this.name = name;
        this.phoneNumber = phoneNumber;
    }

    public String getName() {
        return name;
    }

    public String getPhoneNumber() {
        return phoneNumber;
    }
}

The key points to note:

  • Whilst not exactly data immutable, having the final class means that the class is immutable and cannot be extended
  • private final variables ensure they are set once and only available within the class scope
  • There are no setters, only getters

Not Everything is Perfectly Immutable

Whilst the above example is the closest we can get to perfect immutable in Java there are some things to consider with these, since Java as a language chose mutability as the default.

One of the biggest confusions is that following those steps above is all you need for it to be immutable but let us consider an extension on the example. Let's say that this person object now needs to cater for multiple phone numbers and my naive implementation is to do this by using a list.
Perhaps it could look something like the following:

public final class Person {
    private final String name;
    private final List<String> phoneNumbers;

    public Person(String name, List<String> phoneNumbers) {
        this.name = name;
        this.phoneNumbers = phoneNumbers;
    }

    public String getName() {
        return name;
    }

    public List<String> getPhoneNumbers() {
        return phoneNumbers;
    }
}

Now this looks pretty good, all our data is only set once and we only have getters. The problem here is that a List is not an immutable object whereas it just so happened in our earlier example String was. Let's delve a little deeper into how immutability breaks here.

The client code for the above Person class could look something like this:

List<String> numbers = person.getPhoneNumbers();
numbers.add("555444333");

Despite the poor choice of example phone number there is also something else concerning here, the client is modifying the list of phone numbers. Now sure enough because the Person class returns the reference to their internal field this is going to modify the state of the original person object.

Let's have a look at what I mean by that (the comments on the right show the value printed)

Person person = new Person("Frank", new ArrayList<>());

System.out.println(person.getPhoneNumbers().size()); // 0

List<String> numbers = person.getPhoneNumbers();
numbers.add("555444333");

System.out.println(person.getPhoneNumbers().size()); // 1

So even without any setters we can see that we have still actually written an interface that allows mutability, but we really want this to be an immutable object so how can we do this? Unfortunately this does involve a little bit of work in Java but certainly does give us the immutability benefits so if it is what you are working for then definitely the cost is worth it.

The general practice is you need to return the value not the reference. For a list this is by making a copy of the list and returning that.

Warning: Making a shallow copy may not always be enough, if the contained object is not immutable then a deep copy is necessary.

Things to be aware of with Immutability

Nothing is a silver bullet and immutability certainly has some caveats to be aware of, here are a few obvious ones:

  1. If the type returned from the getters is not immutable itself, then your class has just become mutable. (Refer to above section)
  2. Java does support reflection so people can get fancy with this.
  3. A lot of frameworks have been built based on mutability so can be difficult to integrate
  4. Can create many copies of objects which can be costly

The last one is particularly important and one of the main reasons immutability wasn't popular earlier. Having pure immutable objects means that you need different copies for every possible value which can consume a lot of your memory resources. Obviously we have a lot more memory we can use nowadays but that does not mean we can disregard this limitation. When making objects immutable consider this, particularly when needing to perform deep copies as these are certainly not free.

Benefits of Immutable Objects

Finally, why am I writing about this, why tell people to aim for immutability where possible? Quite simply it makes me think less. In our profession as counter intuitive as that may sound I find it is a big influencer because there will always be other difficult things wanting your attention.

If you have immutable objects you do not need to worry about shared state and who is modifying what. This particularly becomes useful in concurrency. You can share as many immutable objects between thread as you want and you won't have to worry about landing in a corrupt state because you cannot modify the state of the object but only create a new one.

For the simplicity it has added to my development I would definitely recommend choosing immutable as your standard and then consciously making the decision to make your classes mutable. This has even become a standard for programming languages themselves, Rust is an example of such a language.

Regardless of if you agree or not on the value of immutability, I urge you to at least consider the mutability facet of a class when you are designing and not let it be an after thought because the language you develop in doesn't accentuate it.

Discussion (0)

pic
Editor guide