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The “visitor” pattern

Thursday Mar 1st 2001

Now consider applying a design pattern with an entirely different goal to the trash-sorting problem.

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Now consider applying a design pattern with an entirely different goal to the trash-sorting problem.

For this pattern, we are no longer concerned with optimizing the addition of new types of Trash to the system. Indeed, this pattern makes adding a new type of Trash more complicated. The assumption is that you have a primary class hierarchy that is fixed; perhaps it’s from another vendor and you can’t make changes to that hierarchy. However, you’d like to add new polymorphic methods to that hierarchy, which means that normally you’d have to add something to the base class interface. So the dilemma is that you need to add methods to the base class, but you can’t touch the base class. How do you get around this?

The design pattern that solves this kind of problem is called a “visitor” (the final one in the Design Patterns book), and it builds on the double dispatching scheme shown in the last section.

The visitor pattern allows you to extend the interface of the primary type by creating a separate class hierarchy of type Visitor to virtualize the operations performed upon the primary type. The objects of the primary type simply “accept” the visitor, then call the visitor’s dynamically -bound method. It looks like this:

Now, if v is a Visitable handle to an Aluminum object, the code:

PriceVisitor pv = new PriceVisitor();

v.accept(pv);

causes two polymorphic method calls: the first one to select Aluminum’s version of accept( ), and the second one within accept( ) when the specific version of visit( ) is called dynamically using the base-class Visitor handle v.

This configuration means that new functionality can be added to the system in the form of new subclasses of Visitor. The Trash hierarchy doesn’t need to be touched. This is the prime benefit of the visitor pattern: you can add new polymorphic functionality to a class hierarchy without touching that hierarchy (once the accept( ) methods have been installed). Note that the benefit is helpful here but not exactly what we started out to accomplish, so at first blush you might decide that this isn’t the desired solution.

But look at one thing that’s been accomplished: the visitor solution avoids sorting from the master Trash sequence into individual typed sequences. Thus, you can leave everything in the single master sequence and simply pass through that sequence using the appropriate visitor to accomplish the goal. Although this behavior seems to be a side effect of visitor, it does give us what we want (avoiding RTTI).

The double dispatching in the visitor pattern takes care of determining both the type of Trash and the type of Visitor. In the following example, there are two implementations of Visitor: PriceVisitor to both determine and sum the price, and WeightVisitor to keep track of the weights.

You can see all of this implemented in the new, improved version of the recycling program. As with DoubleDispatch.java, the Trash class is left alone and a new interface is created to add the accept( ) method:

//: Visitable.java
// An interface to add visitor functionality to 
// the Trash hierarchy without modifying the 
// base class.
package c16.trashvisitor;
import c16.trash.*;
 
interface Visitable {
  // The new method:
  void accept(Visitor v);
} ///:~ 

The subtypes of Aluminum, Paper , Glass, and Cardboard implement the accept( ) method:

//: VAluminum.java
// Aluminum for the visitor pattern
package c16.trashvisitor;
import c16.trash.*;
 
public class VAluminum extends Aluminum 
    implements Visitable {
  public VAluminum(double wt) { super(wt); }
  public void accept(Visitor v) {
    v.visit(this);
  }
} ///:~ 

//: VPaper.java
// Paper for the visitor pattern
package c16.trashvisitor;
import c16.trash.*;
 
public class VPaper extends Paper 
    implements Visitable {
  public VPaper(double wt) { super(wt); }
  public void accept(Visitor v) {
    v.visit(this);
  }
} ///:~ 

//: VGlass.java
// Glass for the visitor pattern
package c16.trashvisitor;
import c16.trash.*;
 
public class VGlass extends Glass 
    implements Visitable {
  public VGlass(double wt) { super(wt); }
  public void accept(Visitor v) {
    v.visit(this);
  }
} ///:~ 

//: VCardboard.java
// Cardboard for the visitor pattern
package c16.trashvisitor;
import c16.trash.*;
 
public class VCardboard extends Cardboard 
    implements Visitable {
  public VCardboard(double wt) { super(wt); }
  public void accept(Visitor v) {
    v.visit(this);
  }
} ///:~ 

Since there’s nothing concrete in the Visitor base class, it can be created as an interface:

//: Visitor.java
// The base interface for visitors
package c16.trashvisitor;
import c16.trash.*;
 
interface Visitor {
  void visit(VAluminum a);
  void visit(VPaper p);
  void visit(VGlass g);
  void visit(VCardboard c);
} ///:~ 

Once again custom Trash types have been created in a different subdirectory. The new Trash data file is VTrash.dat and looks like this:

c16.TrashVisitor.VGlass:54
c16.TrashVisitor.VPaper:22
c16.TrashVisitor.VPaper:11
c16.TrashVisitor.VGlass:17
c16.TrashVisitor.VAluminum:89
c16.TrashVisitor.VPaper:88
c16.TrashVisitor.VAluminum:76
c16.TrashVisitor.VCardboard:96
c16.TrashVisitor.VAluminum:25
c16.TrashVisitor.VAluminum:34
c16.TrashVisitor.VGlass:11
c16.TrashVisitor.VGlass:68
c16.TrashVisitor.VGlass:43
c16.TrashVisitor.VAluminum:27
c16.TrashVisitor.VCardboard:44
c16.TrashVisitor.VAluminum:18
c16.TrashVisitor.VPaper:91
c16.TrashVisitor.VGlass:63
c16.TrashVisitor.VGlass:50
c16.TrashVisitor.VGlass:80
c16.TrashVisitor.VAluminum:81
c16.TrashVisitor.VCardboard:12
c16.TrashVisitor.VGlass:12
c16.TrashVisitor.VGlass:54
c16.TrashVisitor.VAluminum:36
c16.TrashVisitor.VAluminum:93
c16.TrashVisitor.VGlass:93
c16.TrashVisitor.VPaper:80
c16.TrashVisitor.VGlass:36
c16.TrashVisitor.VGlass:12
c16.TrashVisitor.VGlass:60
c16.TrashVisitor.VPaper:66
c16.TrashVisitor.VAluminum:36
c16.TrashVisitor.VCardboard:22

The rest of the program creates specific Visitor types and sends them through a single list of Trash objects:

//: TrashVisitor.java 
// The "visitor" pattern
package c16.trashvisitor;
import c16.trash.*;
import java.util.*;
 
// Specific group of algorithms packaged
// in each implementation of Visitor:
class PriceVisitor implements Visitor {
  private double alSum; // Aluminum
  private double pSum; // Paper
  private double gSum; // Glass
  private double cSum; // Cardboard
  public void visit(VAluminum al) {
    double v = al.weight() * al.value();
    System.out.println(
      "value of Aluminum= " + v);
    alSum += v;
  }
  public void visit(VPaper p) {
    double v = p.weight() * p.value();
    System.out.println(
      "value of Paper= " + v);
    pSum += v;
  }
  public void visit(VGlass g) {
    double v = g.weight() * g.value();
    System.out.println(
      "value of Glass= " + v);
    gSum += v;
  }
  public void visit(VCardboard c) {
    double v = c.weight() * c.value();
    System.out.println(
      "value of Cardboard = " + v);
    cSum += v;
  }
  void total() {
    System.out.println(
      "Total Aluminum: $" + alSum + "\n" +
      "Total Paper: $" + pSum + "\n" +
      "Total Glass: $" + gSum + "\n" +
      "Total Cardboard: $" + cSum);
  }
}
 
class WeightVisitor implements Visitor {
  private double alSum; // Aluminum
  private double pSum; // Paper
  private double gSum; // Glass
  private double cSum; // Cardboard
  public void visit(VAluminum al) {
    alSum += al.weight();
    System.out.println("weight of Aluminum = "
        + al.weight());
  }
  public void visit(VPaper p) {
    pSum += p.weight();
    System.out.println("weight of Paper = "
        + p.weight());
  }
  public void visit(VGlass g) {
    gSum += g.weight();
    System.out.println("weight of Glass = "
        + g.weight());
  }
  public void visit(VCardboard c) {
    cSum += c.weight();
    System.out.println("weight of Cardboard = "
        + c.weight());
  }
  void total() {
    System.out.println("Total weight Aluminum:"
        + alSum);
    System.out.println("Total weight Paper:"
        + pSum);
    System.out.println("Total weight Glass:"
        + gSum);
    System.out.println("Total weight Cardboard:"
        + cSum);
  }
}
 
public class TrashVisitor {
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    Vector bin = new Vector();
    // ParseTrash still works, without changes:
    ParseTrash.fillBin("VTrash.dat", bin);
    // You could even iterate through
    // a list of visitors!
    PriceVisitor pv = new PriceVisitor();
    WeightVisitor wv = new WeightVisitor();
    Enumeration it = bin.elements();
    while(it.hasMoreElements()) {
      Visitable v = (Visitable)it.nextElement();
      v.accept(pv);
      v.accept(wv);
    }
    pv.total();
    wv.total();
  }
} ///:~ 

Note that the shape of main( ) has changed again. Now there’s only a single Trash bin. The two Visitor objects are accepted into every element in the sequence, and they perform their operations. The visitors keep their own internal data to tally the total weights and prices.

Finally, there’s no run-time type identification other than the inevitable cast to Trash when pulling things out of the sequence. This, too, could be eliminated with the implementation of parameterized types in Java.

One way you can distinguish this solution from the double dispatching solution described previously is to note that, in the double dispatching solution, only one of the overloaded methods, add( ), was overridden when each subclass was created, while here each one of the overloaded visit( ) methods is overridden in every subclass of Visitor.

More coupling?

There’s a lot more code here, and there’s definite coupling between the Trash hierarchy and the Visitor hierarchy. However, there’s also high cohesion within the respective sets of classes: they each do only one thing ( Trash describes Trash, while Visitor describes actions performed on Trash), which is an indicator of a good design. Of course, in this case it works well only if you’re adding new Visitors, but it gets in the way when you add new types of Trash.

Low coupling between classes and high cohesion within a class is definitely an important design goal. Applied mindlessly, though, it can prevent you from achieving a more elegant design. It seems that some classes inevitably have a certain intimacy with each other. These often occur in pairs that could perhaps be called couplets, for example, collections and iterators ( Enumerations). The Trash-Visitor pair above appears to be another such couplet.

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