Prefer to define and inherit from abstract interfaces. An abstract interface is an abstract class made up entirely of (pure) virtual functions and having no state (member data) and usually no member function implementations. Note that avoiding state in abstract interfaces simplifies the entire hierarchy design (see [Meyers96] for examples).

Prefer to follow the Dependency Inversion Principle (DIP; see [Martin96a] and [Martin00]). The DIP states that:

  • High-level modules should not depend upon low-level modules. Rather, both should depend upon abstractions.

  • Abstractions should not depend upon details. Rather, details should depend upon abstractions.

Respecting the DIP implies that hierarchies should be rooted in abstract classes, not concrete classes. (See Item 35.) The abstract base classes must worry about defining functionality, not about implementing it. Put another way: Push policy up and implementation down.

The Dependency Inversion Principle has three fundamental design benefits:

  • Improved robustness: The less stable parts of a system (implementations) depend on more stable parts (abstractions). A robust design is one in which changes have localized effect. In a fragile system, on the other hand, a small change ripples in unfortunate ways through unexpected parts of the system. This is exactly what happens with designs that have concrete base classes.

  • Greater flexibility: Designs based on abstract interfaces are generally more flexible. If the abstractions are properly modeled, it is easy to devise new implementations for new requirements. On the contrary, a design that depends on many concrete details is rigid, in that new requirements lead to core changes.

  • Good modularity: A design relying on abstractions has good modularity because its dependencies are simple: Highly changeable parts depend on stable parts, not vice versa. At the other extreme, a design that has interfaces mixed with implementation details is likely to sport intricate webs of dependency that make it hard to reapply as a unit to plug into another system.

The related Law of Second Chances states: "The most important thing to get right is the interface. Everything else can be fixed later. Get the interface wrong, and you may never be allowed to fix it." [Sutter04]

Typically, choose a public virtual destructor to enable polymorphic deletion (per Item 50), unless you use an object broker such as COM or CORBA that uses an alternate memory management mechanism.

Be wary about using multiple inheritance of classes that are not abstract interfaces. Designs that use multiple inheritance can be very expressive, but are harder to get right and easier to get wrong. In particular, state management is particularly hard in designs using multiple inheritance.

As noted in Item 34), inheriting from a type can also cause name lookup coupling: subtly pulling in functions from the namespace of that type. (See also Item 58.)

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