Singleton is Bad Example

2012-09-20 16:59

Design patterns are often criticized, typically in the context of object-oriented programming. I buy into many such critiques, mostly because I value simplicity as one of the most important qualities of good code. Patterns – especially when overused – often stand in the way to achieve it,

Not all critique aimed towards design patterns is well founded and targeted, though. More specifically, the example I’ve seen brought up quite often is the Singleton pattern, and I don’t think it’s a good one in this context. Actually, for making a case for design patterns being (sometimes) harmful, the singleton is probably one of the worst picks.
Realizing this is important, because whatever point you’re trying to convey will be significantly watered down if you use an inadequate example. It’s just too easy to make up counterarguments or excuses, concentrating on specific flaws of your sloppy choice, rather than addressing more general issues you wanted to put some light on. A bad example can simply be a red herring, drawing attention from the topic you wanted it to stand for.

What’s so bad about singleton pattern, though?

It’s not representative

Especially in their classic incarnation formulated in famous work of Gang of Four, design patterns are mostly about increasing robustness and flexibility of software design by introducing additional layers of indirection between existing concepts. For instance, you can consider the Factory pattern as proxy that separates the process of creating an object from specific type (class) of that object.

This goes along the same lines as separation between interface and implementation, a fundamental concept behind the whole object-oriented paradigm. The purpose is to decrease coupling, i.e. dependencies between different parts of the code, and it’s noble goal in its own regard.

Unfortunately, the Singleton pattern doesn’t really aid us in this pursuit. Quite the opposite: it talks about having at most one single instance of some class, which will easily make it a choke point for many otherwise independent parts of program logic. It happens especially often with top-level objects, representing whole subsystems; thanks to making them into singletons, they end up being used almost everywhere.

It has lots of its own problems

We also shouldn’t forget what singletons really are – that is, global variables. (You can have singletons with more limited scope, of course, but OO languages typically support them as language feature that doesn’t require dedicated design pattern). The pattern attempts to abstract them away but they tend to leak out rather eagerly, causing numerous problems.
Indeed, there are all sorts of nastiness related to global variables, with these two being – in my opinion – the most important ones:

  • They play badly when concurrency is involved. Global state is the prime cause of difficulties in concurrent programming, which is why one of the possible solutions is just doing away with state altogether (see functional programming). Regardless whether you are willing to go to such extremes, it’s indisputable that global variables in concurrent setting are liability to be minimized, if not straight out eliminated.
  • They complicate automated testing. Modules that use global variables cannot really be unit tested, because they have (implicit) interdependencies with other parts of the code that use them. More importantly, it can be hard to replace global singletons with their mocked (“fake”) versions for the purpose of testing.

It is worth noting that these problems are somewhat language-specific. In several programming languages, you can relatively easily create “global” variables which are only apparent; in reality, they proxy to thread-local and/or mockable objects, addressing both concerns outlined above.
However, in such languages the Singleton pattern is often obsolete as explicit technique, because they readily provide it as part of the language. For example, Python module objects are already singletons: their singularity is guaranteed by interpreter itself.

Try something else

So, if you are to discuss the merits of software design patterns: pros and (specifically) cons, make sure you don’t base your whole argumentation on the example of Singleton. Accuracy, integrity and honesty would require choosing a target which is more representative and has no severe, unrelated issues.

Something like, say, Iterator. Or Factory. Or Composite.
Or pretty much anything else.

3 comments for post “Singleton is Bad Example”.
  1. zwierzak:
    September 20th, 2012 o 20:26

    Widzę, że używasz Chorme i masz problemy z kopiowaniem linków z wikipedii (2 linki na końcu nie mają http://)

  2. Kamil:
    September 21st, 2012 o 11:19

    zwierzak: te linki pod firefox działają, pod explorerem też – o co Ci chodzi?

  3. zwierzak:
    September 24th, 2012 o 14:13

    Działają bo zostały poprawione.

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