Object Creation: Builder vs. Constructor vs. Setter

When we create new objects, we are basically confronted with the need to provide at least one construction pattern.

Of course depending on the language we have more or less three ways to go that are commonly available.

Traditionally in OO it was mandatory to write setters and getters. In C++ or Java they really have names like getXyz or setXyz, but in Ruby or C# or Scala they can be written in such a way that they behave as if the attribute were public and could be assigned and read, by just magically calling the setters and getters internally. Actually Java does that internally for public attributes or more generally for attribute assignment and Hibernate can be configured to go via the getters and setters or via the internal attribute-assignment-getters and setters. This can be useful, to apply some DB-specific conversion in the getters and setters and to bypass it for the DB-access.

Why do we at all use these getters and setters? They were introduced to have flexibility to change the internal implementation without changing the API, because getters and setters can actually become more complex. This can be useful for DB-specific conversions in Hibernate, but apart from that in 25 years of OO-ish development this flexibility has hardly been used. Most of the time the set of attributes changes and the set of setters and getters changes simultanously. So one might ask the question, why we go by default the extra mile of adding getters and setters, when we could just make the attributes public and save some time. I am not asking, because that would decrease the life expectancy. But moving on demand from plain accessible attributes to getters and setters would be just a refactoring like changing the sets of attributes.

Now which of these are preferred and why?

First of all, we do need to read all attributes in some way, otherwise they are just a waste of space. Just forget for the moment programming low level APIs where bits have to be counted and dummy attributes have to be added to move the useful ones to the right position. But very often it turns out that we do not need to change them during the life time of the object. Now Ruby has a nice feature of setting everything up and then calling freeze, which makes the object, but not its sub-objects, immutable. I think it would be worth considering to add something like this to Scala and Java, for example. Clojure has something like this, actually, but with a slightly different flavor.

There is some advantage in knowing that the state of objects does not change. It is easier to reason about code. It helps really for creating thread safety and reentrance. And it even helps when passing around an object reference of an object, that still „lives“ somewhere else, for example when a sub-object comes out of a getter. In functional programming this is mandatory for all internal APIs, in other areas it is just something to make life easier, where the mutation is not actually needed.

So, there the setter go away, where not needed and we end up construction with a constructor that contains all attributes or variants with reasonable default values. This makes sense, when the attributes are few and there is no no risk of mixing them up. The builder pattern helps by naming the attributes in languages, that do not allow named parameters for the constructor out of the box. So it is useful in Java, but obsolete in many other languages. If attributes are final or constant or whatever it is called, the need for setters and getters is technically even less, because nothing can go wrong, the attribute can only be read. But in Java it is best practice to write getters and we should comply.

Now the issue arises that there is only a private or public multi-argument constructor and a lot of getters or whatever is used for reading the attribute in the specific language. And then a framework needs to create objects from XML, JSON or whatever automatically. And these frameworks tend to need at least a no-argument-constructor, often a public no-argument-constructor, that should be only for framework use. And the attributes have to be made non-final. If the framework is smart, it bypasses getters and setters and the no-arg-constructor is already enough.

Some frameworks actually require the setters. There we go to the old school world. We can impose a convention that the setters and the no-arg-constructor are there ONLY for the purposes of the framework and should not be used otherwise. Maybe that is a good approach, it is somewhat cleaner. But the box is opened and mistakes with such a convention will happen, so the question arises, why we need to deal with each attribute at last seven times: The attribute itself, its getter, its setter, the multiarg-constructor, the attribute of the builder, the with-method of the builder and the build-method.

Some things are easier, when moving to a new language and dumping all the garbage-traditions in that step.

But good developers can write good software in any reasonably good language that reasonably suits the purpose.

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