nepp

Simple framework for protected (not private) object members implementing the Nepp pattern

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Nepp

With this library I introduce a new design pattern for ECMAScript5 including NodeJS: Nepp, non enumerable protected properties.

This design pattern helps encapsulating by hiding protected properties from enumeration.

This library assists using the pattern.

Background

This chapter gives some background about concurrent patterns and solutions for private and protected properties and their implementation difficulties.

Private vs Protected

First of all, private and protected properties are terms of encapsulation in object-oriented programming. Private properties are accessible from the class they belong, only, whereas protected properties may also be accessed by any descendants. Therefore private properties are hidden even from inherited classes, but protected ones are hidden from public access, only.

In ECMAScript there are no private or protected properties. Encapsulation as in object-oriented programming languages is not part of its design. The visibility of a variable - and therefore the access to it - is determined by its scope. In order to hide a variable, you have to define it in a restricted scope. This is usually be done using closures.

Solutions for Privacy in ECMAScript

There are many solutions for creating true private objects in ECMAScript. The most famous around is crockford's pattern, which had been published in 2001 already. Crockford distinguishes between private, priviledged and public members, whereas priviledged members are accessible from the public scope and have full access to private members. Since priviledged methods have to be defined in the constructor (not in the object's prototype), each instance creates a copy of a the same method. This is a major performance loss.

There are solutions for this problem around. They allow prototype methods and private access using nice closure magic and global access methods, e.g. Daan Kets private.js library.

Disadvantages

But all of those solutions have a big downside: Real private members that are hidden completely using closures change the style of ECMAScript dramatically in a bad way. As Addy Osmani pointed out in his Book "Learning JavaScript Design Patterns" (chapter Module Pattern), there are many disadvantages coming with private members in EMCAScript:

The disadvantages of the Module pattern are that as we access both public and private members differently, when we wish to change visibility, we actually have to make changes to each place the member was used.

We also can't access private members in methods that are added to the object at a later point. That said, in many cases the Module pattern is still quite useful and when used correctly, certainly has the potential to improve the structure of our application.

Other disadvantages include the inability to create automated unit tests for private members and additional complexity when bugs require hot fixes. It's simply not possible to patch privates. Instead, one must override all public methods which interact with the buggy privates. Developers can't easily extend privates either, so it's worth remembering privates are not as flexible as they may initially appear.

As "Monkey patching in javascript is called writing code." ([Paul Hummer on Twitter 2011][paulhummer]), private properties should be avoided. ECMAScript is about high flexibility after all.

Protected Properties

As discussed before public members have important advantages against private ones concerning unit testability, monkey patching and flexibility in general. Marking public members as protected with an underscore prefix is a simple and very common way. Developers who see this sign will avoid accessing those properties directly, because a good developer knows the reason why they got marked this way and that internal properties may be removed any time in later versions of the library…

Disadvantages

The disadvantages of this idea is polluting the API with many properties (the protected ones) that must not be accessed from outside. Therefore enumerating the properties also shows the protected ones. You might think, that this is just a cosmetic problem, but in combination with getters an setters, the problem can get serious as the following example reveals.

var Point2D = function(x, y) {
    this._point = [0, 0];
    this.x = x; // calls the setter
    this.y = y; // calls the setter

    // internally x and y are stored in _point now, whereas _point[0] == x
    // and _point[1] == y.
    // See setter definition below.
}

// Getter and setter for x:
Object.defineProperty(Point2D.prototype, 'x', {
    get: function getMyProtectedProp() {
        return this._point[0];
    },
    set: function setX(x) {
        if (typeof(x) != 'number') 
            throw new Error('x has to be a Number');
        this.point[0] = x;
    },
    enumerable: true,
    configurable: true
});

// Getter and setter for y:
Object.defineProperty(Point2D.prototype, 'y', {
    get: function getMyProtectedProp() {
        return this._point[1];
    },
    set: function setX(y) {
        if (typeof(y) != 'number') 
            throw new Error('y has to be a Number');
        this.point[1] = y;
    },
    enumerable: true,
    configurable: true
});


var point = new Point2D(10, 20);

// lets move the point to 0,0 using for-in
for (var coord in point)
    point.coord = 0;

// !!!
// And now our point object is broken!
// Because point._point === 0
// !!!

Why is it broken? Because the for-in-loop iterates over point.x, point.y and point._point - so the protected array _point will be set to 0 and is no array anymore. Later calls of the setter x and y will not be able to repair this. The object stays broken and point.x as well as point.y will return undefined for ever.

This happened, because the internal property _point was exposed completely. Had it been hidden in enumerations, the for-in-loop would iterate over point.x and point.y only as expected and the point object would still work.

This is where the Nepp pattern comes into action.

Describing the Nepp Pattern

The Nepp pattern supports the idea of exposing all properties in a way that they can be accessed easily - in order to be able to patch something -, but hides those properties in enumerations.

This is possible in ECMAScript 5 due to the Object.defineProperty function.

A Simple Example

The following NodeJS example shows this pattern in action.

var A = function() {

    // A protected property:
    Object.defineProperty(this, '_myProtectedProp', {
        value: 100, 
        enumerable: false, // hide it in enumerations
        configurable: true // make it patchable
    });

    this.myPublicProperty = 200;
};

// A protected method (closure for hiding the temp var "o"):
(function() {
    var o = {};
    o.value = function() { console.log(this._myProtectedProp); };
    o.enumerable = false;
    o.configurable = true;
    Object.defineProperty(
        A.prototype, '_myProtectedMethod', o
    );
})();

// A getter and setter for a protected property
Object.defineProperty(A.prototype, 'myProtectedProp', {
    get: function getMyProtectedProp() {
        return this._myProtectedProp;
    },
    set: function setMyProtectedProp(v) {
        doSomeValidationChecksOnV(v);
        this._myProtectedProp = v;
    },
    enumerable: true,
    configurable: true
});

// Now we have controlled access to _myProtectedProp and direct access to
// myPublicProperty

var a = new A();

for (i in a) { console.log(i) }

The output is:

myPublicProp
myProtectedProp

Note, that neither _myProtectedProp nor _myProtectedProp are printed.

It's not comfortable to use this pattern as in the shown example, because the noise of the code increases dramatically. Therefore wrapping away the rather noisy Object.defineProperty calls should be done to keep the readability as high as possible. The nepp library performs this.

Key Features of the Nepp Library

This library reduces the code noise dramatically by encapsulating the calls of Object.defineProperty. The definition of protected properties are "as usual", i.e. simple assignment to a property starting with an underscore. After the definition of those properties (which are enumerable due to the fact that they are defined the "normal way"), a call of nepp(this) in the constructor is enough to hide all protected properties belonging to this.

The same technique can be done with prototype methods. Just define the method as usual and call nepp(MyObject.prototype) to nepp the prototype of MyObject.

As an additional convenience, the nepp.createGS method allows a less noisy way to define getters and setters.

If, however, you want to nepp just one property of an object, you may call nepp.property(this, '_prop') and this._prop will be hidden in enumerations.

API of this Library

nepp(o, [prefix=_])

By calling the library as a function the object o is nepped, i.e. all properties of that object starting with prefix will be hidden in enumerations.

prefix defaults to _, if not specified.

nepp.property(o, name)

Nepps o[name].

Sometimes it's useful to nepp just one property. For instance, if you have already nepped the whole object but then add a new protected property to the object. Nepping this single property is in this case more efficient than nepping the whole object, because the properties that are already hidden in enumeration would be redecleared otherwise.

nepp.createGS(o, name, [getter], [setter])

Registers a getter and/or a setter with the name name to the object o.

You may omit either getter or setter but not both.

Examples Following the Pattern Using this Library

Using this library the example above is reduced to the following code:

var nepp = require('nepp');

var A = function() {
    // A protected property:
    this._myProtectedProp = 100;

    this.myPublicProperty = 200;

    // nepp the object
    nepp(this);
};

// A protected method
A.prototype._myProtectedProp = function() {
    console.log(this._myProtectedProp);
};

// A getter and setter for a protected property
nepp.createGS(A.prototype, 'myProtectedProp',
    function getMyProtectedProp() {
        return this._myProtectedProp;
    },
    function setMyProtectedProp(v) {
        doSomeValidationChecksOnV(v);
        this._myProtectedProp = v;
    }
);

// Nepp the prototype as well
nepp(A.prototype);


// Now we have controlled access to _myProtectedProp and direct access to
// myPublicProperty

var a = new A();

for (i in a) { console.log(i) }

As you can see the readability has been improved a lot. The protected properties can be defined "as normal". After they have been defined, call nepp(…) to nepp the object, i.e. hide it's protected properties.

In addition nepp.createGS improved the readability on getter/setter definitions.

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