Cohesive Mechanisms

Cohesive Mechanisms

Encapsulating mechanisms is a standard principle of object-oriented design. Hiding complex algorithms in methods with intention-revealing names separates the "what" from the "how." This technique makes a design simpler to understand and use. Yet it runs into natural limits.

Computations sometimes reach a level of complexity that begins to bloat the design. The conceptual "what" is swamped by the mechanistic "how." A large number of methods that provide algorithms for resolving the problem obscure the methods that express the problem.

This proliferation of procedures is a symptom of a problem in the model. Refactoring toward deeper insight can yield a model and design whose elements are better suited to solving the problem. The first solution to seek is a model that makes the computation mechanism simple. But now and then the insight emerges that some part of the mechanism is itself conceptually coherent. This conceptual computation will probably not include all of the messy computations you need. We are not talking about some kind of catch-all "calculator." But extracting the coherent part should make the remaining mechanism easier to understand.


Partition a conceptually COHESIVE MECHANISM into a separate lightweight framework. Particularly watch for formalisms or well-documented categories of algorithms. Expose the capabilities of the framework with an INTENTION-REVEALING INTERFACE. Now the other elements of the domain can focus on expressing the problem ("what"), delegating the intricacies of the solution ("how") to the framework.

These separated mechanisms are then placed in their supporting roles, leaving a smaller, more expressive CORE DOMAIN that uses the mechanism through the interface in a more declarative style.

Recognizing a standard algorithm or formalism moves some of the complexity of the design into a studied set of concepts. With such a guide, we can implement a solution with confidence and little trial and error. We can count on other developers knowing about it or at least being able to look it up. This is similar to the benefits of a published GENERIC SUBDOMAIN model, but a documented algorithm or formal computation may be found more often because this level of computer science has been studied more. Still, more often than not you will have to create something new. Make it narrowly focused on the computation and avoid mixing in the expressive domain model. There is a separation of responsibilities: The model of the CORE DOMAIN or a GENERIC SUBDOMAIN formulates a fact, rule, or problem. A COHESIVE MECHANISM resolves the rule or completes the computation as specified by the model.

A Mechanism in an Organization Chart

I went through this process on a project that needed a fairly elaborate model of an organization chart. This model represented the fact that one person worked for another, and in which branches of the organization, and it provided an interface by which relevant questions might be asked and answered. Because most of these questions were along the lines of "Who, in this chain of command, has authority to approve this?" or "Who, in this department, is capable of handling an issue like this?" the team realized that most of the complexity involved traversing specific branches of the organizational tree, searching for specific people or relationships. This is exactly the kind of problem solved by the well-developed formalism of a graph, a set of nodes connected by arcs (called edges) and the rules and algorithms needed to traverse the graph.

A subcontractor implemented a graph traversal framework as a COHESIVE MECHANISM. This framework used standard graph terminology and algorithms familiar to most computer scientists and abundantly documented in textbooks. By no means did he implement a fully general graph. It was a subset of that conceptual framework that covered the features needed for our organization model. And with an INTENTION-REVEALING INTERFACE, the means by which the answers are obtained are not a primary concern.

Now the organization model could simply state, using standard graph terminology, that each person is a node, and that each relationship between people is an edge (arc) connecting those nodes. After that, presumably, mechanisms within the graph framework could find the relationship between any two people.

If this mechanism had been incorporated into the domain model, it would have cost us in two ways. The model would have been coupled to a particular method of solving the problem, limiting future options. More important, the model of an organization would have been greatly complicated and muddied. Keeping mechanism and model separate allowed a declarative style of describing organizations that was much clearer. And the intricate code for graph manipulation was isolated in a purely mechanistic framework, based on proven algorithms, that could be maintained and unit-tested in isolation.

Another example of a COHESIVE MECHANISM would be a framework for constructing SPECIFICATION objects and supporting the basic comparison and combination operations expected of them. By employing such a framework, the CORE DOMAIN and GENERIC SUBDOMAINS can declare their SPECIFICATIONS in the clear, easily understood language described in that pattern (see Chapter 10). The intricate operations involved in carrying out the comparisons and combinations can be left to the framework.

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Both GENERIC SUBDOMAINS and COHESIVE MECHANISMS are motivated by the same desire to unburden the CORE DOMAIN. The difference is the nature of the responsibility taken on. A GENERIC SUBDOMAIN is based on an expressive model that represents some aspect of how the team views the domain. In this it is no different than the CORE DOMAIN, just less central, less important, less specialized. A COHESIVE MECHANISM does not represent the domain; it solves some sticky computational problem posed by the expressive models.

A model proposes; a COHESIVE MECHANISM disposes.

In practice, unless you recognize a formalized, published computation, this distinction is usually not pure, at least not at first. In successive refactoring it could either be distilled into a purer mechanism or be transformed into a GENERIC SUBDOMAIN with some previously unrecognized model concepts that would make the mechanism simple.


You almost always want to remove MECHANISMS from the CORE DOMAIN. The one exception is when a MECHANISM is itself proprietary and a key part of the value of the software. This is sometimes the case with highly specialized algorithms. For example, if one of the distinguishing features of a shipping logistics application were a particularly effective algorithm for working out schedules, that MECHANISM could be considered part of the conceptual CORE. I once worked on a project at an investment bank in which highly proprietary algorithms for rating risk were definitely in the CORE DOMAIN. (In fact, they were held so closely that even most of the CORE developers were not allowed to see them.) Of course, these algorithms are probably a particular implementation of a set of rules that really predict risk. Deeper analysis might lead to a deeper model that would allow those rules to be explicit, with an encapsulated solving mechanism.

But that would be another incremental improvement in the design, for another day. The decision as to whether to go that next step would be based on a cost-benefit analysis: How difficult would it be to work out that new design? How difficult is the current design to understand and modify? How much easier would it be with a more advanced design, for the type of people who would be expected to do the work? And of course, does anyone have any idea what form the new model might take?

Full Circle: Organization Chart Reabsorbs Its MECHANISM

Actually, a year after we completed the organization model in the previous example, other developers redesigned it to eliminate the separation of the graph framework. They felt the increased object count and the complication of separating the MECHANISM into a separate package were not warranted. Instead, they added node behavior to the parent class of the organizational ENTITIES. Still, they retained the declarative public interface of the organization model. They even kept the MECHANISM encapsulated, within the organizational ENTITIES.

These full circles are common, but they do not return to their starting point. The end result is usually a deeper model that more clearly differentiates facts, goals, and MECHANISMS. Pragmatic refactoring retains the important virtues of the intermediate stages while shedding the unneeded complications.

Distilling to a Declarative Style

Declarative design and "declarative style" is a topic of Chapter 10, but that design style deserves special mention in this chapter on strategic distillation. The value of distillation is being able to see what you are doing: cutting to the essence without being distracted by irrelevant detail. Important parts of the CORE DOMAIN may be able to follow a declarative style, when the supporting design provides an economical language for expressing the concepts and rules of the CORE while encapsulating the means of computing or enforcing them.

COHESIVE MECHANISMS are by far most useful when they provide access through an INTENTION-REVEALING INTERFACE, with conceptually coherent ASSERTIONS and SIDE-EFFECT-FREE FUNCTIONS. MECHANISMS and supple designs allow the CORE DOMAIN to make meaningful statements rather than calling obscure functions. But an exceptional payoff comes when part of the CORE DOMAIN itself breaks through to a deep model and starts to function as a language that can express the most important application scenarios flexibly and concisely.

A deep model often comes with a corresponding supple design. When a supple design reaches maturity, it provides an easily understood set of elements that can be combined unambiguously to accomplish complex tasks or express complex information, just as words are combined into sentences. At that point, client code takes on a declarative style and can be much more distilled.

Factoring out GENERIC SUBDOMAINS reduces clutter, and COHESIVE MECHANISMS serve to encapsulate complex operations. This leaves behind a more focused model, with fewer distractions that add no particular value to the way users conduct their activities. But you are unlikely ever to find good homes for everything in the domain model that is not CORE. The SEGREGATED CORE takes a direct approach to structurally marking off the CORE DOMAIN....

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