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Is it Enough to Define IMyInterface<T>? Do I Need IMyInterface as Well?by@ahmedtarekhasan
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Is it Enough to Define IMyInterface<T>? Do I Need IMyInterface as Well?

by Ahmed Tarek HasanJanuary 3rd, 2023
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Software Engineers should put more care about how we design our interfaces. In this article we would explain when to define a non-generic interface in addition to the generic interface.
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While working on your masterpiece software system, you define your own interfaces to act as contracts between your different system modules and to expose some contracts to the outside world. This is not rocket science to any software developer.


However, what I learned throughout my years as a Software Engineer is that we should put more care into how we design our interfaces. If you search the internet, you would find tons of resources discussing the best practices to follow when designing interfaces, some of these are actually good resources.


But, I have one more best practice to tell you about which I couldn’t find online except for rare coincidences.


Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash


Is it enough to define IMyInterface<T>? do I need IMyInterface as well?

To answer this question, let’s walk through the example below step by step, so bear with me and don’t rush things out.


We would not follow a lot of the best practices here for simplicity and to drive the main focus to the topic we are discussing. So, no unnecessary abstractions, no care for immutability,….and so on.


Main Entity Classes

These are the main entity classes we are going to use.


// This class is representing the simple entity we are going to use
// in our example. 
public class Data
{
    public int DataId { get; set; }
    public string DataDescription { get; set; }
}

// This class is the first kind of the parent Data class.
public class EmployeeData : Data
{
    public string EmployeeName { get; set; }
}

// This class is the second kind of the parent Data class.
public class AssetData : Data
{
    public int AssetId { get; set; }
    public string AssetName { get; set; }
}


Generic Interface

This is the generic interface we are going to use and we should focus on.


// This is the interface we are going to focus on.
// It is an interface for something that would be able
// to read and write data to something that is ready
// to be used this way.
public interface IReaderWriter<TData> where TData : Data
{
    void Initialize();
    TData Read(int dataId);
    void Write(TData data);
}


We notice on this interface the following:

  1. It is a generic interface which accepts a generic parameter of type Data.
  2. It has an Initialize method.
  3. It has a Read(int dataId) method which expects an integer parameter and returns a TData.
  4. It has Write(TData data) method which expects a TData parameter.


Generic Interface Implementer

This is the class implementing our generic interface. The class itself is generic.


// This is the class implementing our IReaderWriter<TData>
// but now we know that it is going to save and retrieve
// data to and from a file. We would not care about the
// implementation so don't give it too much thought.
public class FileReaderWriter<TData> : IReaderWriter<TData> where TData : Data
{
    public void Initialize() { throw new NotImplementedException(); }

    public TData Read(int dataId) { throw new NotImplementedException(); }

    public void Write(TData data) { throw new NotImplementedException(); }
}


We notice on this class the following:

  1. It is a generic class.
  2. The methods are throwing exceptions and this is intentionally done to drive the main focus to where it belongs.

Inside the Employee Module

Now, in your system, you have a module dedicated to managing Employee data, let’s call this module; Employee Module.


Inside the Employee Module, you are sure of the type of data you are dealing with, it is obviously of type EmployeeData.


That’s why you can write code like the one below without having any problems.


var employeeDataFileReaderWriter = new FileReaderWriter<EmployeeData>();
employeeDataFileReaderWriter.Initialize();

employeeDataFileReaderWriter.Write(new EmployeeData
    { DataId = 1, DataDescription = "Some description.", EmployeeName = "Ahmed" });

var ahmed = employeeDataFileReaderWriter.Read(1);

Inside the Asset Module

Now, in your system, you have a module dedicated to managing Asset data, let’s call this module; Asset Module.


Inside the Asset Module, you are sure of the type of data you are dealing with, it is obviously of type AssetData.


That’s why you can write code like the one below without having any problems.


var assetDataFileReaderWriter = new FileReaderWriter<AssetData>();
assetDataFileReaderWriter.Initialize();

assetDataFileReaderWriter.Write(new AssetData
{ DataId = 2, DataDescription = "Some description.", AssetId = 5, AssetName = "Asset 5."});

var asset5 = assetDataFileReaderWriter.Read(2);

What About a Common Module

Now let’s assume that you have a common module that has a Run(IReaderWriter readerWriter) method. Inside this method, you want to call the Initialize method of the passed in readerWriter parameter.


You would try to write something like this:


Image by Ahmed Tarek


It is clear now that you can’t do it as you don’t have a non-generic definition of the IReaderWriter interface. In other words, we only have IReaderWriter<TData>, not IReaderWriter.


Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Wrong Expectations

Now, I can hear someone shouting from a far distance saying:


Huh, it is a piece of cake. Let’s use IReaderWriter<object>. Every class is a child of Object, right?….. genius.


My answer to him is that he should do his homework as this is not going to work. If you don’t trust me on this, just give it a try and you will see the following:


Image by Ahmed Tarek


You need more explanation right, the short answer is that your interface is Invariant; you can’t call a method expecting IReaderWriter<SomeClass> and pass in an instance of IReaderWriter<AnyOtherClass>. The only acceptable call would be with passing IReaderWriter<SomeClass>, nothing else.


Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

This Is the Way

Now you understand why we need to define a non-generic IReaderWriter interface.


Therefore, moving on to the implementation, we can end up with this code:


public interface IReaderWriter
{
    void Initialize();
}

public interface IReaderWriter<TData> : IReaderWriter where TData : Data
{
    TData Read(int dataId);
    void Write(TData data);
}


Now, we can notice the following:

  1. We defined a new interface but this time it is a non-generic interface.
  2. This interface would define only the Initialize() method as this is what we actually need in the common module or even the new ones if they come in the future.
  3. Now the other generic interface can safely extend the non-generic one with the Read and Write methods without changing anything on the signature.


Let’s Give It a Test Drive

So, now let’s go back to our common module and see if it is going to work or not.


Image by Ahmed Tarek

Finally, it is working. Let’s celebrate and get something to eat and drink, what a trip :)


I don’t want to be a bearer of bad news here, but, I have bad news…


Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

Why So Sad

You have new requirements coming in and the common module needs some modifications. The common module now should be able to store and retrieve data in and from a Blob storage. The Blob storage can store any kind of data.


So, based on this input, you would try to do something like this:


Image by Ahmed Tarek


It is clear now that it is not going to work as IReaderWriter interface doesn’t define the Read and Write methods. They are defined in the IReaderWriter<TData>. However, on the common module and at the moment of calling StoreInBlob and RetrieveFromBlob methods, we don’t know the type of data. So, what to do!!!


Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The Wrong Way To Go

You might now lose hope and sadly decide to drop the whole generic interface thing. You would change the code to the following:


public interface IReaderWriter
{
    void Initialize();
    Data Read(int dataId);
    void Write(Data data);
}

public class FileReaderWriter : IReaderWriter
{
    public void Initialize() { throw new NotImplementedException(); }

    public Data Read(int dataId) { throw new NotImplementedException(); }

    public void Write(Data data) { throw new NotImplementedException(); }
}


So, now the common module would be fine as follows:


Image by Ahmed Tarek


However, you lost the edge of dealing with strong-typed objects as follows:


Image by Ahmed Tarek


Now you have to cast your Employee object so that you can access its unique members, like EmployeeName as in the image.


Image by Ahmed Tarek


Similarly, you have to cast your Asset object so that you can access its unique members, like AssetName as in the image.


So, now what????


Photo by Michael Carruth on Unsplash

Moment of Truth

The keyword for the best solution here is the word new. Let me break it down for you.


public interface IReaderWriter
{
    void Initialize();
    Data Read(int dataId);
    void Write(Data data);
}

public interface IReaderWriter<TData> : IReaderWriter where TData : Data
{
    new TData Read(int dataId);
}


We can notice the following:

  1. The IReaderWriter interface now defines are the required methods.
  2. However, for the Read and Write methods, they are now using the parent Data entity type.
  3. The IReaderWriter<TData> interface now extends the IReaderWriter interface.
  4. This means that it also indirectly defines the three methods we know about.
  5. However, inside the IReaderWriter<TData> interface, we need to use the generic type TData, not the parent Data.
  6. To do so, we need to add TData Read(int dataId); and void Write(TData data); methods to the IReaderWriter<TData> interface.
  7. For the read method, you can’t do this because the parent interface, the non-generic one, already defines the same exact method in terms of name and input parameters, but only a different return type.
  8. This would confuse the compiler at run time as it would not know which method to call, the one returning Data or the other one returning TData.
  9. That’s why the compiler would not allow you to do so unless you add the new keyword at the start of the method definition as in the code above.
  10. This instructs the compiler to hide the Read method inherited from the parent and replace it with the one defined after the new keyword.
  11. Now, you might ask, why didn’t we do the same with the Write method?
  12. The answer is simply that we don’t need to do so. In the parent interface, we already have a method called Write which expects a parameter of type Data which is the parent of all types that could be passed in to the Write method.
  13. This means that this method could be called passing any TData could come.
  14. Another thing, if you try to use the new keyword with the Write method, you would get a warning that you are actually not hiding anything from the parent interface. This is logical as the two Write methods have different input parameter types, so, it is sound and clear to the compiler that they are two different methods.


public class FileReaderWriter<TData> : IReaderWriter<TData> where TData : Data
{
    public void Initialize() { throw new NotImplementedException(); }

    public TData Read(int dataId) { throw new NotImplementedException(); }

    public void Write(TData data) { throw new NotImplementedException(); }

    Data IReaderWriter.Read(int dataId) { return Read(dataId); }

    void IReaderWriter.Write(Data data) { Write((TData)data); }
}


We can notice the following:

  1. The old three methods are the same.
  2. Now we have two more methods implemented.
  3. The first method is Data IReaderWriter.Read(int dataId) { return Read(dataId); }.
  4. This method is an explicit implementation of the Data Read(int dataId); method defined in the parent IReaderWriter interface.
  5. This means that whenever an object of the FileReaderWriter<TData> class is casted, implicitly or explicitly, as the non-generic interface IReaderWriter, this Read method implementation would be used.
  6. The second method is void IReaderWriter.Write(Data data) { Write((TData)data); }.
  7. This method is an explicit implementation of the void Write(Data data); method defined in the parent IReaderWriter interface.
  8. This means that whenever an object of the FileReaderWriter<TData> class is casted, implicitly or explicitly, as the non-generic interface IReaderWriter, this Write method implementation would be used.


This now leads to the following:


Image by Ahmed Tarek


And


Image by Ahmed Tarek


Finally, everything is working as it should :)


Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

It Is What It Is

This design technique -afraid of even calling it a pattern- is already used in .NET classes you are using daily. Did you notice that in .NET we have IEnumerable and IEnumerable<T>?


Could you imagine what life would be like if we didn’t have IEnumerable  :) ?


This would mean that you can’t write code that loops on an enumerable, just an enumerable. You would always need to know first the type of items inside the enumerable.


You can argue that you still can write a method that accepts <T> and then it would pass it to the IEnumerable<T>, but my friend, this would keep bubbling up till you eventually would have to choose an entity type. This entity type is not always defined on all layers or levels of code as we proved above.


Therefore, my final advice to you is don’t try to beat around the bush, it is what it is…


That’s it, hope you found reading this article as interesting as I found writing it.



Also published here.