Whitewashing is the blog of Benjamin Eberlei and covers topics in software development. Benjamin works for Qafoo and you can book him for consulting and trainings.

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Traits are Static Access

In a Twitter discussion yesterday I formulated my negative opinion about traits and Matthew asked me to clarify it:

http://www.whitewashing.de/_static/traits_are_static_access.png

I used to look forward to traits as a feature in PHP 5.4, but after discussions with Kore I came to the conclusion that traits are nothing else than static access in disguise. They actually lead to the exact same code smells. Familiar with the outcome of too much static use, we should reject traits as just another way of statically coupling your code to other classes.

Let’s step back and take a look at the code smells that Static code produces:

  • Tight coupling, no way to exchange at runtime
  • Not mockable
  • Static code cannot be overwritten through inheritance
  • Global state (increases likelihood of unwanted side effects)

This blog post shows that Traits actually have the first three problems themselves and exhibit the same code smells. But they even have some additional problems on their own:

  • Not testable in isolation
  • Theoretically stateless, but not enforced in PHP
  • Very high impact on the code base (Code-Rank)

Take the following code, which tries to implement reusable controller code through traits:

<?php
class MyController
{
    use Redirector;

    protected $container;

    public function __construct($container)
    {
        $this->container = $container;
    }

    public function someAction()
    {
        return $this->redirect("route_xyz", array());
    }
}

trait Redirector
{
    public function redirect($routeName, $parameters)
    {
        return new RedirectResponse(
            $this->generateUrl($routeName, $parameters)
        );
    }

    public function generateUrl($routeName, $parameters)
    {
        return $this->container->get('router')->generateUrl(
            $routeName,
            $parameters
        );
    }
}

Lets spot the problems:

  1. Redirector is tightly coupled to MyController. There is no way to change this during runtime, by using a different type of redirector, it has to be exactly the trait used at compile time. This is exactly what static access enforces as well.

  2. The trait accesses $this->container without defining it and couples itself against the implementing classes. We can actually refactor this to include an abstract method getContainer() in the trait. But if we have multiple traits now, all having a getContainer() method then we run into method class problems that cannot be solved. We could pass the container as an argument to the method, but that actually defeats the purpose of the abstraction here.

    Traits using state of their “parents” usually create bidirectional coupling between classes, something which should be avoided for good software design.

  3. No way to overwrite subset of functionality. If I want to use only one method of a trait and a second one slighty different, then I cannot overwrite this function of Redirector for example in MyController.

  4. I cannot mock the traits functionality, therefore I cannot test MyController as a unit only in combination with a trait.

  5. I cannot test the trait as a unit, I always have to create a class that uses the trait to be able to write a test for it. This prevents me from testing traits in isolation.

  6. Once you start using Redirector in many controllers, its impact on your code base (see Code Rank) increases a lot. Traits are concrete implementations and therefore violate the Dependency Inversion SOLID principle: Changes in the trait require adoptions in all the implementing classes.

    With aggregation you could depend on an abstraction Redirector or turn it into an abstraction in the moment that you need different functionality.

The discovery of this properties of traits me to the conclusion that traits are just static access in disguise.

To see this argument a bit more drastically, you can “rewrite” a PHP 5.4 trait into “pseudo” static code:

<?php
class MyController
{
    public $container;

    public function __construct($container)
    {
        $this->container = $container;
    }

    public function someAction()
    {
        return Redirector::redirect("route_xyz", array());
    }
}

class Redirector
{
    public function redirect($routeName, $parameters)
    {
        return new RedirectResponse(
            self::generateUrl($routeName, $parameters)
        );
    }

    public function generateUrl($routeName, $parameters)
    {
        return $this->container->get('router')->generateUrl(
            $routeName,
            $parameters
        );
    }
}

Calling dynamic methods statically actually works right now (and access to $this of the parent class will luckily be removed in PHP 5.5). Let’s reformulate it into something that is actually using static methods and will work on 5.5, requires changes to the visibility of properties though:

<?php
class MyController
{
    public $container;

    public function __construct($container)
    {
        $this->container = $container;
    }

    public function someAction()
    {
        return Redirector::redirect($this, "route_xyz", array());
    }
}

class Redirector
{
    public static function redirect($thiz, $routeName, $parameters)
    {
        return new RedirectResponse(
            self::generateUrl($thiz, $routeName, $parameters)
        );
    }

    public static function generateUrl($thiz, $routeName, $parameters)
    {
        return $thiz->container->get('router')->generateUrl(
            $routeName,
            $parameters
        );
    }
}

Can you see the familiarity? If Traits can be rewritten as calls to static methods, how can they be any better than static methods? They exhibit the exact same problems and produce the same code smells.

Conclusion: Traits should be avoided at all costs, just like static methods.

Rule of Thumb: If you want to use a trait, try to think how to solve the problem with aggregation.

If you want to read more about problems with traits, Anthony wrote about them quite a while ago.

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