As a Ruby programmer, you almost certainly make use of inheritance-based object modeling on a daily basis. In fact, extending base classes and mixing modules into your objects may be so common for you that you rarely need to think about the mechanics involved in doing so. If you are like most Ruby programmers, your readiness to apply this complex design paradigm throughout your projects is both a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, your ability to make good use of inheritance-based modeling without thinking about its complexity is a sign that it works well as an abstraction. But on the other hand, having this familiar tool constantly within reach makes it harder to recognize alternative approaches that may lead to greater simplicity in certain contexts. Because no one tool is a golden hammer, it is a good idea to understand the limitations of your preferred modeling techniques as well as their virtues.

In this article, I will guide you through three properties of inheritance-based modeling that can lead to design complications unless they are given careful consideration. These are meant to be starting points for conversation more-so than tutorials on what to do and what not to do, so please attempt some of the homework exercises I’ve included at the bottom of the article!

PROBLEM 1: There is no encapsulation along ancestry chains

Inheritance-based modeling is most commonly used for behavior sharing, but what it actually provides is implementation sharing. Among other things, this means that no matter how many ancestors an object has, all of its methods and state end up getting defined in a single namespace. If you aren’t careful, this lack of encapsulation between objects in an inheritance relationship can easily bite you.

To test your understanding of this problem, see if you can spot the bug in the following example:

require "prawn"

class StyledDocument < Prawn::Document
  def style(params)
    @font_name = params[:font]
    @font_size = params[:size]

  def styled_text(content)
    font(@font_name) do
      text(content, :size => @font_size)

StyledDocument.generate("example.pdf") do 
  text "This is the default font size and face"

  style(:font => "Courier", :size => 20)

  styled_text "This line should be in size 20 Courier"

  text "This line should be in the default font size and face"

This example runs without raising any sort of explicit error, but produces the following incorrect output:

There aren’t a whole lot of things that can go wrong in this example, and so you have probably figured out the source of the problem by now: StyledDocument and Prawn::Document each define @font_size, but they each use it for a completely different purpose. As a result, calling StyledDocument#style triggers a side effect that leads to this subtle defect.

To verify that a naming collision to blame for this problem, you can try renaming the @font_size variable in StyledDocument to something else, such as @styled_font_size. Making that tiny change will cause the example to produce the correct output, as shown below:

However, this is only a superficial fix, and does not address the root problem. The real issue is that without true subobjects with isolated state, the chance of clashing with a variable used by an ancestor increases as your ancestry chain grows. If you look at the mixins that ActiveRecord::Base depends on, you’ll find examples of a scary lack of encapsulation that will make you wonder how things don’t break more often.

To make matters worse, the lack of encapsulation between objects in an inheritance relationship also means that methods can clash in the same way that variables can. A lack of true private methods in Ruby complicates the problem even further, because there simply isn’t a way to write a method in a parent object that a child object can’t clash with or override. One of the homework questions for this article addresses this issue, but is worth thinking about for a moment before you read on.

PROBLEM 2: Interfaces tend to grow rapidly under inheritance

I am going to attempt a proof without words for this particular problem, and leave it up to you to figure out why this can be a source of maintenance headaches, but please share your thoughts in the comments:

>> (ActiveRecord::Base.instance_methods | 
=> [:logger, :configurations, :default_timezone, :schema_format,
:timestamped_migrations, :init_with, :initialize_dup, :encode_with, :==, :eql?,
:hash, :freeze, :frozen?, :<=>, :readonly?, :readonly!, :inspect, :to_yaml,
:yaml_initialize, :_attr_readonly, :_attr_readonly?, :primary_key_prefix_type,
:table_name_prefix, :table_name_prefix?, :table_name_suffix,
:table_name_suffix?, :pluralize_table_names, :pluralize_table_names?,
:store_full_sti_class, :store_full_sti_class?, :store_full_sti_class=,
:default_scopes, :default_scopes?, :_accessible_attributes,
:_accessible_attributes?, :_accessible_attributes=, :_protected_attributes,
:_protected_attributes?, :_protected_attributes=, :_active_authorizer,
:_active_authorizer?, :_active_authorizer=, :_mass_assignment_sanitizer,
:_mass_assignment_sanitizer?, :_mass_assignment_sanitizer=, :validation_context,
:validation_context=, :_validate_callbacks, :_validate_callbacks?,
:_validate_callbacks=, :_validators, :_validators?, :_validators=,
:lock_optimistically, :attribute_method_matchers, :attribute_method_matchers?,
:attribute_types_cached_by_default, :time_zone_aware_attributes,
:skip_time_zone_conversion_for_attributes?, :partial_updates, :partial_updates?,
:partial_updates=, :serialized_attributes, :serialized_attributes?,
:serialized_attributes=, :[], :[]=, :record_timestamps, :record_timestamps?,
:record_timestamps=, :_validation_callbacks, :_validation_callbacks?,
:_validation_callbacks=, :_initialize_callbacks, :_initialize_callbacks?,
:_initialize_callbacks=, :_find_callbacks, :_find_callbacks?, :_find_callbacks=,
:_touch_callbacks, :_touch_callbacks?, :_touch_callbacks=, :_save_callbacks,
:_save_callbacks?, :_save_callbacks=, :_create_callbacks, :_create_callbacks?,
:_create_callbacks=, :_update_callbacks, :_update_callbacks?,
:_update_callbacks=, :_destroy_callbacks, :_destroy_callbacks?,
:_destroy_callbacks=, :auto_explain_threshold_in_seconds,
:auto_explain_threshold_in_seconds?, :nested_attributes_options,
:nested_attributes_options?, :include_root_in_json, :include_root_in_json?,
:include_root_in_json=, :reflections, :reflections?, :reflections=,
:_commit_callbacks, :_commit_callbacks?, :_commit_callbacks=,
:_rollback_callbacks, :_rollback_callbacks?, :_rollback_callbacks=,
:connection_handler, :connection_handler?, :connection,
:clear_aggregation_cache, :transaction, :destroy, :save, :save!,
:rollback_active_record_state!, :committed!, :rolledback!, :add_to_transaction,
:with_transaction_returning_status, :remember_transaction_record_state,
:clear_transaction_record_state, :restore_transaction_record_state,
:transaction_record_state, :transaction_include_action?, :serializable_hash,
:to_xml, :from_xml, :as_json, :from_json, :read_attribute_for_serialization,
:reload, :mark_for_destruction, :marked_for_destruction?,
:changed_for_autosave?, :_destroy, :reinit_with, :clear_association_cache,
:association_cache, :association, :run_validations!, :touch, :_attribute,
:type_cast_attribute_for_write, :read_attribute_before_type_cast, :changed?,
:changed, :changes, :previous_changes, :changed_attributes, :to_key, :id, :id=,
:id?, :query_attribute, :attributes_before_type_cast, :raw_write_attribute,
:read_attribute, :method_missing, :attribute_missing, :respond_to?,
:has_attribute?, :attribute_names, :attributes, :attribute_for_inspect,
:attribute_present?, :column_for_attribute, :clone_attributes,
:clone_attribute_value, :arel_attributes_values, :attribute_method?,
:respond_to_without_attributes?, :locking_enabled?, :lock!, :with_lock, :valid?,
:perform_validations, :validates_acceptance_of, :validates_confirmation_of,
:validates_exclusion_of, :validates_format_of, :validates_inclusion_of,
:validates_length_of, :validates_size_of, :validates_numericality_of,
:validates_presence_of, :errors, :invalid?, :read_attribute_for_validation,
:validates_with, :run_callbacks, :to_model, :to_param, :to_partial_path,
:attributes=, :assign_attributes, :mass_assignment_options,
:mass_assignment_role, :sanitize_for_mass_assignment,
:mass_assignment_authorizer, :cache_key, :quoted_id,
:populate_with_current_scope_attributes, :new_record?, :destroyed?, :persisted?,
:delete, :becomes, :update_attribute, :update_column, :update_attributes,
:update_attributes!, :increment, :increment!, :decrement, :decrement!, :toggle,
:toggle!, :psych_to_yaml, :to_yaml_properties, :in?, :blank?, :present?,
:presence, :acts_like?, :try, :duplicable?, :to_json, :instance_values,
:instance_variable_names, :require_or_load, :require_dependency,
:require_association, :load_dependency, :load, :require, :unloadable, :nil?,
:===, :=~, :!~, :class, :singleton_class, :clone, :dup, :initialize_clone,
:taint, :tainted?, :untaint, :untrust, :untrusted?, :trust, :to_s, :methods,
:singleton_methods, :protected_methods, :private_methods, :public_methods,
:instance_variables, :instance_variable_get, :instance_variable_set,
:instance_variable_defined?, :instance_of?, :kind_of?, :is_a?, :tap, :send,
:public_send, :respond_to_missing?, :extend, :display, :method, :public_method,
:define_singleton_method, :object_id, :to_enum, :enum_for, :psych_y,
:class_eval, :silence_warnings, :enable_warnings, :with_warnings,
:silence_stderr, :silence_stream, :suppress, :capture, :silence, :quietly,
:equal?, :!, :!=, :instance_eval, :instance_exec, :__send__, :__id__,
:initialize, :to_ary, :_run_validate_callbacks, :_run_validation_callbacks,
:_run_initialize_callbacks, :_run_find_callbacks, :_run_touch_callbacks,
:_run_save_callbacks, :_run_create_callbacks, :_run_update_callbacks,
:_run_destroy_callbacks, :_run_commit_callbacks, :_run_rollback_callbacks,
:serializable_add_includes, :associated_records_to_validate_or_save,
:nested_records_changed_for_autosave?, :validate_single_association,
:validate_collection_association, :association_valid?,
:before_save_collection_association, :save_collection_association,
:save_has_one_association, :save_belongs_to_association,
:assign_to_or_mark_for_destruction, :has_destroy_flag?, :reject_new_record?,
:call_reject_if, :raise_nested_attributes_record_not_found, :unassignable_keys,
:association_instance_get, :association_instance_set, :create_or_update,
:create, :update, :notify_observers, :should_record_timestamps?,
:timestamp_attributes_for_update_in_model, :all_timestamp_attributes_in_model,
:timestamp_attributes_for_update, :timestamp_attributes_for_create,
:all_timestamp_attributes, :current_time_from_proper_timezone,
:clear_timestamp_attributes, :write_attribute, :field_changed?,
:clone_with_time_zone_conversion_attribute?, :attribute_changed?,
:attribute_change, :attribute_was, :attribute_will_change!, :reset_attribute!,
:attribute?, :attribute_before_type_cast, :attribute=,
:convert_number_column_value, :attribute, :match_attribute_method?,
:missing_attribute, :increment_lock, :_merge_attributes, :halted_callback_hook,
:assign_multiparameter_attributes, :instantiate_time_object,
:execute_callstack_for_multiparameter_attributes, :read_value_from_parameter,
:read_time_parameter_value, :read_date_parameter_value,
:read_other_parameter_value, :extract_max_param_for_multiparameter_attributes,
:extract_callstack_for_multiparameter_attributes, :type_cast_attribute_value,
:find_parameter_position, :quote_value, :ensure_proper_type,
:destroy_associations, :default_src_encoding, :irb_binding, :Digest,
:initialize_copy, :remove_instance_variable, :sprintf, :format, :Integer,
:Float, :String, :Array, :warn, :raise, :fail, :global_variables, :__method__,
:__callee__, :eval, :local_variables, :iterator?, :block_given?, :catch, :throw,
:loop, :caller, :trace_var, :untrace_var, :at_exit, :syscall, :open, :printf,
:print, :putc, :puts, :gets, :readline, :select, :readlines, :`, :p, :test,
:srand, :rand, :trap, :exec, :fork, :exit!, :system, :spawn, :sleep, :exit,
:abort, :require_relative, :autoload, :autoload?, :proc, :lambda, :binding,
:set_trace_func, :Rational, :Complex, :gem, :gem_original_require, :BigDecimal,
:y, :Pathname, :j, :jj, :JSON, :singleton_method_added,
:singleton_method_removed, :singleton_method_undefined]

There is a specific issue I have with interface explosion, and it isn’t so much to do with code organization as it is with state management. Can you guess what my concern is?

PROBLEM 3: Balancing reuse and customization can be tricky

Some ancestors provide methods that are designed to be replaced by their descendants. When executed well, this pattern provides a convenient balance between code reuse and customization. However, because it is impossible to account for all possible customizations that descendants of a base object will want to make, this approach has its limitations.

This design problem is best explained by example, and you can find a great one in Ruby itself. Start by considering the following trivial code, paying particular attention to its output:

class Person
  def initialize(name, email)
    @name  = name
    @email = email

person ="Gregory Brown", "")

p person    #=~
#<Person:0x0000010108bbf8 @name="Gregory Brown", 
#                         @email="">

puts person #=~

Under the hood, p calls person.inspect, and puts calls person.to_s. What you see above is output from the default implementation of each of those methods. Arguably, Object#inspect provides useful debugging output, but Object#to_s is more of a template method that needs to be overridden in order to be useful. The following code shows how easy to customize things by simply adding your own to_s definition:

class Person
  def initialize(name, email)
    @name  = name
    @email = email

  def to_s
    "#{@name} <#{@email}>"

person ="Gregory Brown", "")

puts person #=~ Gregory Brown <>  

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this code: this is exactly what a template-method based extension mechanism should look like. However, due to the weird way that Object#inspect works in Ruby 1.9, defining your own to_s implementation has some unpleasant side effects that are likely to surprise you:

p person #=~ Gregory Brown <>  

If you look at the definition of Object#inspect, you’ll find that this behavior is by design. In a nutshell, the method is set up to provide its default output if to_s has not been overridden, but simply delegate to to_s if it has been. This is problematic, because to_s is meant to be used for humanized output such as what you saw in the previous example, not debugging output.

The unfortunate consequence of this problem is that if you define to_s in your objects, you must also define a meaningful inspect, and if you want to reproduce the same behavior as Object#inspect, you need to implement it yourself. While this is mostly a problem of brittle code and it is not specifically related to inheritance, the problem is compounded by inheritance-based modeling. For example, suppose the Person class was defined as shown above, and you decided to subclass it:

class Employee < Person 
  def initialize(name, email, role)
    super(name, email)
    @role = role

If Person does define its own inspect method, Employee will inherit the same problem. On the other hand, if Person does implement inspect, it needs to take care to implement it in a way that’s suitably general to account for what its descendants might find useful. This invites the same design challenges that caused this problem in the first place, which means that Employee may end up cleaning up after its parent object in a similar way. Unfortunately, brittleness tends to cascade downwards throughout ancestry chains.

Homework exercises

This article is on the short-side, and it also leaves out a lot of the story from each of these points. I did this intentionally to encourage you to participate in an active discussion on this topic. To get the most out of this article, please complete at least one of the following homework exercises:

1) Show a realistic example of an accidental method naming collision, in a similar spirit to the state-based example shown in Problem #1. For bonus points, choose an example that involves private methods.

2) Post a comment in response to the “interface explosion” example shown in Problem #2. You can either try to guess what my main concern about it is, or share your own concerns. If instead you feel that there is nothing wrong with this kind of design, explain why you think that.

3) Come up with another downside of inheritance-based modeling, and provide an example of it. If you have trouble coming up with your own, you may want to look into issues that can arise from overriding methods, or perhaps explore what happens when you mix traditional inheritance-based modeling with method_missing.

4) Share an example of a library or project which is difficult to work with because of the way it uses inheritance-based modeling, or describe problems you’ve run into with your own projects due to inheritance.

5) Share the conventions and guidelines you follow to avoid the problems described in this article, as well as other problems you’ve encountered with inheritance-based modeling.

Looking forward to seeing your responses! Don’t worry about getting the right answers, discussion threads here on Practicing Ruby are about learning, not necessarily showing off what you already know.