Monday, April 22, 2013

Referencing the internal members of an aggregate.

There is a lot of confusion around the Aggregate pattern [DDD] and especially around the question: whether or not it's OK for an external object to reference an internal member of an aggregate.

First of all, let's see what the DDD book has to say about it:

"Choose one Entity to be the root of each Aggregate, and control all access to the objects inside the boundary through the root. Allow external objects to hold references to the root only. Transient references to internal members can be passed out for use within a single operation only. Because the root controls access, it can not be blindsided by changes to the internals."

This is a little bit confusing. On the one hand, the root controls all access to the internal members and it can not be blindsided by changes to the internals, but on the other hand, transient references to internal members may be passed out. This means that an external object can mess around with the state of the internals and thus, blindside the AR...
Sounds like a paradox, or is it?

Consider the following example: suppose we have a Travel Agency web site in which users can make flights reservations. A reasonable invariant would be: total reserved sits for a flight can not exceed the total number of sits on the plain. This rule is a true invariant since breaking it will cause a total chaos on the day of the flight. Imagine 60 people claiming their sits on a plain with 50 sits only...

To enforce this invariant we will probably have the following objects in one aggregate:

Here Flight is the AR

Our mission is to make sure that the state in the DB NEVER(!) violates this invariant.
There are several techniques to achieve that.

Tell, don't ask.

The first technique is to let the AR encapsulate all the internal members and every changes to their states will be done through it. In our example, Flight (which is the AR) will encapsulate Reservations. Flight will expose methods like ReserveSits, UpdateReservation, CancelReservation and thus will be able to enforce the invariant. This technique might work, but only if all the internal members of the aggregate are fully encapsulated. Unfortunately it breaks the rule of: Transient references to internal members can be passed out for use within a single operation only

It used to be my favorite technique but it's quite a pain in the ***. What if the aggregate consists of a dipper graph of objects? Eventually you will end up with an AR that has an endless list of methods which all their purpose is to encapsulate every action on the internal members.

Brute force validation.

We need a different technique, a one that will allow external objects to hold transient references to internal members and at the same time will not blindside the AR. The one i prefer is what I call a "brute force validation" (BFV). With this technique you ask the AR to check all its invariants before each time you are about change its state in the DB. You will probably have a method in the AR called CheckInvariants or something like that.

There are a few issues to consider with BFV. First of all, you MUST not forget to call CheckInvariants before each time you are saving the AR to the DB. This means you need to find all the places in code in which you are saving the AR and to invoke this method there. Ouch...
And what if some developer will add a new place in code that saves the AR to the DB? If this developer will forget to call the CheckInvariants method - your DB will be corrupted...

Fortunately, the Repository pattern is coming to the rescue. According to this pattern, each aggregate should have its own repository (usually with the name of the AR as a prefix e.g. FlightRepository). Each AR repository should have a method that saves the AR in the DB along with all its internals and only them. According to this pattern, the AR repository should be the only place to save the AR to the DB. This sounds like a good place to call the CheckInvariants method - inside the repository itself, right before the saving action.

But there is another issue: what happens if an external object modifies one of the internals and then tries to save this internal directly to the DB? This will bypass the CheckInvariants method which is located only at the AR. Actually, if you are following the Repository pattern correctly, you don't have to worry about it - repositories should only expose methods that save ARs and not regular entities. Therefore this scenario is not possible.

One last issue to consider. Imagine the following scenario: some AR holds a reference to an internal member of another AR. In our example, let say that another AR, the class User, is holding a list of all the user's Reservations. Those Reservations are also internal members of some Flights. 

Is this possible?

What if some User object modifies a Reservation and then this User object is sent to UserRepository to be saved? According to the Repository pattern this is all perfectly legal - a User is an AR and hence should have a repository to save it.
But still, we do have a problem here, the modification to the Reservation object may violate some of the invariants of a Flight and this Flight won't even know about it. Do not worry, if you're following the Aggregate pattern correctly, this scenario is also not possible. It's true, at some point, a User object may hold a reference to some Reservation of some Flight, but this reference is Transient, meaning, the Reservation is not a member of User. Therefore, even if some User object will modify a Reservation and then this User object will be saved to the DB, the Reservation will not be saved along with it.

An entity can be a member of only one AR


Brute force validation allows you to expose the AR's internal members (if needed) and yet, to be confident that even if some of the invariants are violated - these violations will be discovered before saving the AR to the DB.

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