The pattern club
- By Dwight Deugo
There comes a time when people working in the area of software development,
design and architecture feel they understand the principles, facts, fundamental
concepts, techniques, structures and other elements related to building software
I often hear comments such as ''... is gaining more widespread acceptance and
recognition as a useful abstraction and technology'' and ''we are uninterested in
papers that describe yet another __ system.'' The question to answer now is what
it is important for us to do next as a community.
To answer that question, we must first consider why we do not want to hear
about another __ system. I won't answer for the various workshop and program
committees, but I can propose an answer we often hear from others. Because there
are so many __ systems and frameworks doing so many of the same things, what is
the point of discussing another one that will do the same things in similar
ways? However, I claim that these ''new'' systems validate, refine and demonstrate
the reuse of many of the previously proposed and discussed elements. Moreover,
they bring with them additional thoughts, understanding and clarifications. The
problem is that when we report on a ''new'' system, these insights either get lost
in the discussion of the system as a whole, or they are not reported at all.
What we need to understand is the forces and context that lead to the decisions
embedded in the designs and development of these systems, so that the
information is there in case we need to make similar decisions in the
Many people, including me, propose that because we reach periods as a
community when elements in software development are well understood and there
are several examples of each, we should continue to document these elements as
software patterns. This is not a matter of documenting the solution and problem
surrounding each element; this material is already evident in most papers and
books. We need to go deeper to understand the forces and context of the problems
that give rise to the proposed solutions. These are the undocumented and often
misunderstood features of software elements that need to be elaborated on before
they can be incorporated into a system and enter into the mainstream of software
engineering and business applications.
Because many people are still not familiar with software patterns, and those
who are often think of them as just problem-and-solution pairs, I'll provide a
quick review of the two. Software patterns have their roots in Christopher
Alexander's work in the field of building architecture. After reading his work,
it was clear to software engineers that, like building designs, there are many
recurring problems and solutions used in the design of software systems.
Unfortunately, these combinations were hard to find, except in the minds of the
most experienced developers. Moreover, knowing the problem and the solution was
not enough. Software engineers needed to know when the solutions were
appropriate for the given problems.
Alexander proposed the following definition for a pattern:
* A three-part
rule that expresses a relation between a certain context, a problem and a
* As an element in the world, each pattern is a relationship
between a certain context, a certain system of forces that occurs repeatedly in
that context, and a certain spatial configuration that allows these forces to
* As an element of language, a pattern is an instruction
that shows how the spatial configuration can be used, repeatedly, to resolve the
given system of forces, wherever the context makes it relevant.
* The pattern
is, in short, at the same time a thing, which happens in the world, and the rule
that tells us how to create that thing and when we must create it. It is both a
process and a thing, a description of a thing that is alive, and a description
of the process that will generate the thing.
Although there are many different pattern formats, the minimal format
contains the following headings or others that deal with similar subject
Name: As the saying goes in the object-oriented community, a good variable
name is worth a thousand words, and a good pattern name, although it is just a
short phrase, should contain more information than just its number of words
would suggest. Would the word ''agent'' be a good pattern name? Although it means
a lot more than the single word suggests, it has too many meanings. One should
strive for a short phrase that still says it all.
Problem: A precise statement of the problem to be solved. Think of the
perspective of a software engineer asking himself, ''How do I ... ?'' A good
problem for a pattern is one that software engineers will ask themselves
Context: A description of a situation when the pattern might apply. However,
in itself, the context does not provide the only determining factor as to
situations in which the pattern should be applied. Every pattern will have a
number of forces that needs to be balanced before applying the pattern. The
context helps one determine the impact of the forces.
Forces: A description of an item that influences the decision as to when to
apply the pattern in a context. As Jim Coplien said, ''Forces can be thought of
as items that push or pull the problem towards different solutions or that
indicate trade-offs that might be made.''
Solution: A description of the solution in the context that balances the
Other sections such as resulting context, rationale, known uses, related
patterns and implementation with sample code are usually included to help with
the pattern's description.
A good pattern provides more than just the details of these sections; it
should also be generative. Patterns are not solutions; rather, patterns generate
solutions. You take your design problem and look for a pattern to apply to
create the solution. The greater the potential for the application of a pattern,
the more generative it is. Although very specific patterns are of use, a great
pattern has many applications. For this to happen, pattern writers spend
considerable time and effort attempting to understand all aspects of their
patterns and the relationships between them.
Although they are useful for solving specific design problems, one can
enhance the generative quality of patterns by assembling related ones and then
positioning them among one another to form a pattern language that enables us to
use them to build systems. Forcing each pattern to identify its position within
the space of existing patterns is not only good practice, it is good research.
All patterns should be part of a pattern language. It is not only helpful to
you, but to all those other software engineers who will use the patterns to
develop their systems in the future.
I constantly ask myself ''Am I pushing patterns because I am a 'pattern'
person, or is there a greater benefit other than my own personal satisfaction in
getting someone else hooked on them?'' I believe it's a good question to ask,
because it requires the support of non-pattern people to introduce patterns into
an organization. Many developers will never write a single pattern, read one of
the many pattern books available or attend a Pattern Languages of Programs
conference. These people need to be convinced of the merits of patterns before
they will ever use them.
My argument to these people is based on information that I find missing from
many Java books, lectures and developers' general knowledge. First, they either
don't or can't describe the forces of a given solution to a problem in a
context. Second, they don't describe the relationships between these entities --
such as which loop construct, collection class or design is best used in a given
situation. Patterns and pattern languages are good ways to ensure that all
programming elements are discussed and related to one another.
Why not add them to a book, a course and to your discussions? Many have. If
you haven't done so already, check out http://java.sun.com/blueprints/corej2eepatterns/index.html.
Deepak Alur, John Crupi and Dan Malks have done an excellent job of writing
patterns that you can use in the context of designing J2EE applications. Do
their patterns represent the definitive set? Absolutely not. As developers gain
more experience, new patterns will be detected and others will be rewritten.
Software development is expensive and there is no benefit in having developers
learn everything from scratch all the time. Therefore, there is no better time
than now to introduce yourself and your colleagues to patterns, and to write
some new ones if you can. Join the pattern club; you will be glad you
Dwight Deugo is a professor of computer science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. Dwight has been an editor for SIGS and 101communications publications, and serves as chair of the Java Programming track at the SIGS Conference for Java Development. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.