If You Adopt a Pattern, Stick with the Damn Pattern!

This is a bit of rant, but something that I’ve seen time and again in development groups that I’ve worked with over the years: Engineers adopting a design pattern then falling out of the pattern when it’s convenient. The most egregious is breaking out of the MVC pattern when the interaction gets difficult. Don’t get me wrong, there will always be exceptions; but especially in UI engineering, I see a lot of “falling back” on the tried and true DOM-based operations before adequately exploring whether or not it can be done within the context of the particular MVC engine that is being used.

There are several reasons for breaking from the pattern:

  • JavaScript is wide open, and there are lots of ways to skin a cat, so if you hit a bit of a roadblock, there are lots of tools available to solve the problem. But in rebuttal to that, just because you can do something, should you?
  • Because JavaScript is not strongly typed, enforcing patterns is difficult at best. Everyone has to buy into it.

What I see a lot of is falling back on DOM-based libraries such as jQuery. For instance, if you want to show a popup window to display some information from the server when a user clicks a link, the MVC way would be that the view that holds the link intercepts the click, triggers an “action” event of some sort which is intercepted by a controller that would then tell a DAO that would retrieve the information from the server. When the data is available, the DAO would fire a “data available” event that a model is listening to; the model in turn would update itself, trigger a “change” event to which a view is listening. The view updates itself, then displays the results.

This seems a little convoluted and complex but what it ensures is that you have proper separation of concerns; each different component is responsible for only what it was intended to do. The anti-pattern to this is just call a function and use jQuery or another DOM-based library to handle it all, which is totally easy. You make the call, use jQuery’s AJAX method, then display the message with a jQuery modal dialog. Simple.

But here’s the problem with that: Once you go that route, you’re using an external entity outside of your MVC system that acts completely independently of your system. That entity combines MVC and DAO operations. You could argue that that makes it a self-contained MVC. But that would be wrong because there is no separation of concerns, which is what MVC is all about. If you’re going to follow the pattern, there are no multi-roled objects.

Furthermore, the approach that is commonly taken is to make that function globally available because “Hey! It’s a cool function that we could use everywhere!,” which usually means polluting the global namespace. That has some serious security implications when you do that because you’re exposing the function to the world, and because that function is making an open server call, it is possible to expose it to CSRF attacks. Not good.

You see this behavior mostly from developers who are new to MVC. So how do you teach them? Simple. You have to get team buy-in to specific rules:

1. Obey the knowledge barrier. Look at the diagram below:

The solid lines represent direct knowledge from one entity to another. From that we can see that the controller knows about both the view and the model, and the view also has direct knowledge of the model. The dashed lines represent an implicit knowledge in that the only way for those entities to communicate with the destination object is via messages/events.

2. I mentioned this above: No multi-role objects.

3. DOM-based libraries should only be used to interact with the DOM; that is, they’re mostly used as helpers for the views. However, since they also have AJAX capabilities, they can also be consumed for use with DAO operations, but a DAO object should always be relegated to that whether the DAO is explicitly or implicitly declared. For instance, Backbone.js utilizes jQuery’s AJAX for CRUD operations. In that case, the DAO is implicit, and actually obfuscated from the developer as the models and collections interact with the Backbone.sync object which is itself a DAO.

4. Finally, to mitigate shortcuts, developers have to learn and practice good architecture and design; that is, they need to start using some sort of class and object interaction description methodology such as UML.

Those are four simple rules. Having taught this over several years, I know how difficult it can be to enforce and have developers obey them because the temptation is to always go the easy route. But great programs can only be created with a thoughtful approach to building them. Just as in construction, you wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint, and when you’re building you wouldn’t use construction methods that don’t follow the standards. Why would you do this in software?

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