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Creating safe and composable 'mixins' with traits.js

In this article I will introduce traits.js, a small library to define, compose and instantiate traits. Traits are reusable sets of properties and form an alternative to multiple inheritance or mixins.

Traits for Javascript

A common pattern in Javascript is to add ("mixin") the properties of one object to another object. traits.js provides a few simple functions for performing this pattern safely as it will detect and report conflicts (name clashes) created during a composition. Also, a trait can specify that it can only be added to an object that defines certain required properties, and will fail to compose if these requirements are not satisfied.

There exist many libraries that add trait support to Javascript in one way or another. What makes traits.js different?

  • It is minimal. traits.js introduces just a handful of methods to create, combine and instantiate traits. Moreover, it doesn't try to introduce the concept of a "class" in Javascript. traits.js reuses Javascript functions for the roles traditionally attributed to classes. A class is just a function that returns new trait instances.
  • It reuses and extends the property descriptor format, introduced in ECMAScript 5th edition for describing objects using Object.create, as the format for representing traits. This has two implications: first, it means traits.js traits can be used as an argument to ES5 built-ins such as Object.create. Second, it means traits.js's own functions, described later, can operate on standard ES5 object descriptions, as composed from the return value of built-ins such as Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor.
  • It embraces a functional programming style: the core of traits.js consists of a handful of "trait combinator" functions, which take traits as their argument and return new traits. These combinators are pure functions: they have no side-effects and do not modify their argument values, instead producing fresh traits upon each invocation. You can compose these functions freely without fear of unanticipated side-effects.

Getting started

traits.js is available as a node package called "traits" via npm. A simple npm install traits should make it available in node.js. Then load it up as follows:

var Trait = require('traits').Trait;

This creates a local copy of the library's single exported variable, Trait. Evaluating Trait in the shell reveals the library's entire API:

{ [Function: Trait]
  required
: { toString: [Function] }
, compose: [Function: compose]
, resolve: [Function: resolve]
, override: [Function: override]
, create: [Function: create]
, eqv: [Function: eqv]
, object: [Function: object]
}

Trait creation

As you can see from the above printout, Trait is a function. Calling it creates new traits. Here's a simple trait that abstracts equality (I will be using a slightly adapted version of the running example from the original traits paper):

var TEquality = Trait({
   equals
: Trait.required,
  differs
: function(x) { return !this.equals(x); }
});

By convention, we usually prefix traits with a capital T to distinguish them from regular Javascript constructor functions. Traits may require and provide a set of properties. Provided properties are simply those properties that will be mixed into an object using the trait. Required properties are those that a trait expects to be provided by its "client" (the object that uses it). In traits.js, required properties are defined by binding the property name to the singleton value Trait.required.

TEquality provides a differs property to and requires an equals property from its client. Note that differs is implemented in terms of equals, and that it assumes that this has an implementation for it. This should all be fairly familiar to any object-oriented programmer. To relate traits to more traditional OOP concepts, it is not far wrong to think of a trait as an abstract class, and to think of its required properties as "abstract" properties, to be provided by a "subclass".

Composing traits

The workhorse of the traits.js library is a function called Trait.compose. This function takes any number of traits as an argument and returns a single, fresh, "composite" trait that contains all of the properties of its arguments. Consider the following trait:

var TMagnitude = Trait.compose(TEquality, Trait({
  smaller
: Trait.required,
  greater
: function(x) { return !this.smaller(x) && this.differs(x) },
  between
: function(min, max) {
   
return min.smaller(this) && this.smaller(max);
 
}
}));

Give TMagnitude a concrete implementation for smaller and it will provide an implementation for the methods greater and between. Actually, TMagnitude is defined as a composite trait: it combines the properties of TEquality with those of an anonymous nested trait. This means that TMagnitude actually has two required properties: smaller and equals, and that it has three provided properties: greater, between and differs:

Composition of TMagnitude

Let's compose TEquality and TMagnitude further into a TCircle trait that captures generic circle behavior:

function TCircle(center, radius) {
 
return Trait.compose(
   
TMagnitude,
   
TEquality,
   
Trait({
       center
: center,
       radius
: radius,
         area
: function() { return Math.PI * this.radius * this.radius; },
       equals
: function(c) { return c.center === this.center &&
                                    r
.radius === this.radius },
      smaller
: function(c) { return this.radius < c.radius }
 
}));
}

There are a couple of things going on here:

  • TCircle is not defined as a singleton bound to a var but rather as a function. TCircle is in fact a trait generator: call it and you will get a new trait. By turning TCircle into a function, it can be parameterised with state, in this case the center and radius of the circle. The general rule is simple: if your trait is stateless, define it as a singleton object. If your trait is stateful, define it as a function.
  • Like TMagnitude, TCircle is a composite trait, composed from the two traits we defined earlier, and a nested anonymous trait that adds the circle-specific behaviour. By composing TEquality and TMagnitude, circle objects created by this trait will be comparable using methods like differs and greater.
  • TCircle provides an implementation for the methods required by TMagnitude and TEquality, such that TCircle will only provide and not require any properties.
  • Even though TMagnitude also uses TEquality, the duplicated use of TEquality in TCircle does not cause any problems: traits.js detects that the same trait is being composed and ignores the duplicated composition.

The following picture illustrates the composition of TCircle:

Composition of TCircle

Although this simple example doesn't do justice to it, here's the hidden power of Trait.compose: the ordering of its arguments does not matter. No matter in what order the argument traits are specified, Trait.compose will return an equivalent trait in all cases. For the mathematically inclined: Trait.compose is a commutative operator, like addition, e.g. a + b = b + a. Similarly, when using multiple nested calls to Trait.compose, it doesn't matter how the calls are nested. For the mathematically inclined: Trait.compose is an associative operator, like addition, e.g. (a + b) + c = a + (b + c).

These properties sound like "nice to have" from a mathematical point of view, but they are actually crucial from a software engineering point of view: thanks to this commutativity and associativity, we as programmers don't need to understand in what order a trait was composed from its subparts, even in the case of a very complicated trait that involves a deep "hierarchy" of subtraits, possibly spread out over different files. It makes trait composition much more declarative than multiple inheritance, which requires you to do a mental graph traversal to figure out the relative interdependencies and priorities between the different superclass methods. Trait composition, at each level, "merges" the component parts into a single, larger, composite trait. All of the methods of all subparts have equal priority. But hold on, what if multiple traits define a property with the same name?

Conflicts!

Assume we want to make our circles a bit more colorful and decide to mixin a color trait:

function TColor(rgb) {
 
return Trait.compose(TEquality, Trait({
   
get rgb() { return rgb; },
    equals
: function(col) { return col.rgb.equals(this.rgb); }
 
}));
}

TColor, like TCircle, is a "stateful" trait (i.e. it is defined as a function that can take parameters to capture state). We can imagine a color trait providing much more functionality to manipulate the RGB color, but for the sake of brevity the color trait provides just a simple accessor for the RGB value. TColor also reuses TEquality and defines equals in terms of equal RGB color values. Now, the definition of TCircle is modified to additionally reuse TColor:

function TCircle(center, radius, rgb) {
 
return Trait.compose(
   
TMagnitude,
   
TEquality,
   
TColor(rgb),
   
Trait({
       center
: center,
       radius
: radius,
         area
: function() { return Math.PI * this.radius * this.radius; },
       equals
: function(c) { return c.center === this.center &&
                                    r
.radius === this.radius },
      smaller
: function(c) { return this.radius < c.radius }
 
}));
}

Both TColor and TCircle provide an equals method. Which one will get invoked on an instance of TCircle? The answer is: neither one. When Trait.compose detects that two or more of its argument traits define a property with the same name, it records this "conflict" by defining a special "conflicting property" in the resulting trait. No exception is thrown at this stage (that will only happen if a trait containing a conflict is instantiated, as explained later). The resulting trait will contain a "conflicting property" but may still be composed further with other traits, as shown below:

Conflicts in composition of TCircle

Three ways to resolve a conflict

Once we have detected a conflict, we will probably want to refactor the code to resolve it. The philosophy of traits is that it is the job of the composer to resolve conflicts. There are three ways in which the composer can do so:

  1. by renaming the conflicting property name in one of the conflicting traits.
  2. by excluding the property name altogether from one of the conflicting traits.
  3. by explicitly overriding the properties of one trait with those of another trait.

The first two alternatives can be accomplished using the function Trait.resolve. Here's how one can resolve the conflict through renaming:

function TCircle(center, radius, rgb) {
 
return Trait.compose(
   
TMagnitude,
   
TEquality,
   
Trait.resolve({ equals: 'equalColors' }, TColor(rgb)),
   
Trait({
       center
: center,
       radius
: radius,
         area
: function() { return Math.PI * this.radius * this.radius; },
       equals
: function(c) { return c.center === this.center &&
                                    r
.radius === this.radius },
      smaller
: function(c) { return this.radius < c.radius }
 
}));
}

The call Trait.resolve({ a: 'b' }, t) returns a trait that is equivalent to t but with t.a bound to t.b instead. In the above example, we've renamed the equals method provided by TColor to equalColors. This renamed trait is then composed with the other traits, producing a conflict-free TCircle trait, as shown below:

Renaming

The second alternative is to exclude a conflicting property, like so:

function TCircle(center, radius, rgb) {
 
return Trait.compose(
   
TMagnitude,
   
TEquality,
   
Trait.resolve({ equals: undefined }, TColor(rgb)),
   
Trait({
       center
: center,
       radius
: radius,
         area
: function() { return Math.PI * this.radius * this.radius; },
       equals
: function(c) { return c.center === this.center &&
                                    r
.radius === this.radius },
      smaller
: function(c) { return this.radius < c.radius }
 
}));
}

The call Trait.resolve({ a: undefined }, t) will return a trait equivalent to t with a turned into a required property:

Excluding

The third alternative is for the composer to explicitly specify that one of the traits overrides the properties of another trait:

function TCircle(center, radius, rgb) {
 
return Trait.compose(
   
TMagnitude,
   
TEquality,
   
Trait.override(
     
Trait({
         center
: center,
         radius
: radius,
           area
: function() { return Math.PI * this.radius * this.radius; },
         equals
: function(c) { return c.center === this.center &&
                                      r
.radius === this.radius },
        smaller
: function(c) { return this.radius < c.radius }
     
}),
     
TColor(rgb)));
}

The anonymous trait and TColor are now composed using Trait.override instead of Trait.compose. Because of this, the equals method of the anonymous trait will take precedence over the equals method of TColor:

Overriding

Note that the order of arguments to Trait.override matters (left-to-right priority), which is why the two traits have been reordered compared to the previous examples. This also exposes a significant drawback of Trait.override compared to Trait.compose: it's not commutative, so you'll have to pay closer attention to the ordering of things! Trait.override is very similar to "standard" inheritance (with the subclass's methods implicitly overriding the superclass's methods).

Trait instantiation

Traits can be instantiated into objects using the function Trait.create:

function Circle(center, radius, rgb) {
 
return Trait.create(Object.prototype,
                     
TCircle(center, radius, rgb));
}

The first argument to Trait.create is the prototype of the trait instance. Trait.create is modelled after the new ES5 built-in Object.create, which also takes the object's prototype as its first argument. In fact, it's possible to use Object.create to instantiate traits as well:

function Circle(center, radius, rgb) {
 
return Object.create(Object.prototype,
                       
TCircle(center, radius, rgb));
}

Instantiating traits

Now we can start creating and using circle objects:

var c1 = Circle(new Point(0,0), 1, new Color(255,0,0));
var c2 = Circle(new Point(0,0), 2, new Color(255,0,0));
c1
.smaller(c2) // true
c1
.differs(c2) // true

Object.create is provided as a built-in in an ES5 engine. On ES3 engines, traits.js defines it. Next, let's look at how instantiating traits using Trait.create and Object.create differ.

Using Trait.create

When instantiating a trait, Trait.create performs two "conformance checks":

  • If the trait still contains required properties, and those properties are not provided by the specified prototype, Trait.create throws. This situation is analogous to trying to instantiate an abstract class.
  • If the trait still contains conflicting properties, Trait.create also throws.

In addition, traits.js ensures that the new trait instance has high integrity:

  • The this of all trait methods is bound to the new instance. This means you can safely select methods from a trait instance and pass them around as functions, without fear of accidentally binding this to the global object.
  • In an ES5 engine, the instance is created as a frozen object: clients cannot add, delete or assign to the instance's properties.

Using Object.create

Since Object.create is an ES5 built-in that knows nothing about traits, it will not perform the above trait conformance checks and will not fail on incomplete or inconsistent traits. Instead, required and conflicting properties are treated as follows:

  • Required properties will be bound to undefined, and will be non-enumerable (i.e. they won't show up in for-in loops on the trait instance). This makes them virtually invisible. Clients can still assign a value to these properties later.
  • Conflicting properties have a getter and a setter that throws when accessed. Hence, the moment a program touches a conflicting property, it will fail, revealing the unresolved conflict.

Object.create does not bind this and does not generate frozen instances. Hence, the new trait instance can still be modified by clients.

It's up to you as a programmer to decide which instantiation method, Trait.create or Object.create is more appropriate: Trait.create fails on incomplete or inconsistent traits and generates frozen objects, Object.create may generate incomplete or inconsistent objects, but as long as a program never actually touches a conflicting property, it will work fine (which fits with the dynamically typed nature of Javascript).

Conclusion

In the introduction I mentioned that traits.js is minimal. All in all, you only need to know four functions to work with the library:

  • Use Trait({...}) to construct a new trait.
  • Use Trait.compose to compose smaller traits into larger ones.
  • Use Trait.resolve to create a trait with renamed or excluded properties, in order to avoid conflicts and disambiguate property names.
  • Use Trait.create(prototype, trait) to instantiate a trait into a new object. If you require the trait instance to remain extensible, use Object.create instead.

That's it. There isn't much more to it. The complete API and another tutorial can be found on the traits.js home page. If you want to peek under the hood of the library and know more about the format in which traits are represented, this page provides all the details.


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