Shahzad Bhatti Welcome to my ramblings and rants!

December 13, 2009

Dynamic Inheritance and Composition

Filed under: Languages — admin @ 3:55 pm

Static Inheritance

Inheritance is a core feature of object oriented languages that has been used to simulate real world by modeling closely related objects and to build reusable code. The inheritance relationship is defined statically in class specifications and it comes in various flavors such as:

Single Inheritance

It allows a class to be extended by just one other class.

Multiple Inheritance

It allows a class to be derived from multiple classes and historically has been difficult to maintain and has been source of diamond inheritance in C++, though other languages use order such as Method Resolution Order (MRO) in Python to avoid those issues.


The interfaces are used in C# and Java to define methods without implementation and a class can implement multiple interfaces without the downsides of multiple inheritance.


The mixins are available in Ruby and D, that use mixins for code reuse. The mixins are similar to interfaces with implementations except they aggregate methods and attributes at runtime.


The traits are available in Squeak and Scala and are conceptually similar to Mixins except traits do not allow attributes.

Dynamic Inheritance

As opposed to static inheritance, dynamic inheritance can be added at runtime using Object Extension Pattern, which I first learned in Erich Gamma, et al’s Gof patterns. In late 90s, I used Voyager ORB for building distributed systems, which used this pattern. Following example shows how this pattern can be used:

Let’s define a marker interface Extension in Java such as:

 1 package ext;
 3 public interface Extension {
 5 }

Then create a factory class such as

 1 package ext;
 3 public class ExtensionsFactory {
 4     public void register(final Class subject, final Extension ... exts) {/* ... */}
 5     public <T> T get(final Object subject, final Class<T> extClass) { /* ... */ return …;}
 6 }

The subject is object that needs to extend extensions, e.g. let’s assume you have a User class and you need to add hobbies, you can do it as follows:

 1 package domain;
 3 public class User {
 4     //...
 5 }

And you then define Hobbies as follows:

 1 package domain;
 3 public class Hobbies implements ext.Extension {
 4     public Hobbies(User user) {
 5         // ...
 6     }
 7 }

At runtime, you can register Hobbies to User and use it as follows

  1 package test;
  3 public class Main {
  4     public static void main(String[] args) {
  5         ExtensionsFactory f = new ExtensionsFactory();
  7         f.register(User.class, Hobbies.class);
  9         //
 10         User user = new User();
 11         Hobbies hobbies = f.get(user, Hobbies.class);
 12     }
 14 }

The dynamic inheritance allows you to follow open-closed principle by extending classes without modifying existing classes and allows you to choose features that you need at runtime. Of course, dynamic languages such as Ruby make this a lot easier as you can extend classes or objects with modules at runtime, e.g.

  1 ### defining Hobbies extension
  2 module Hobbies
  3   def hobbies
  4   end
  5 end
  7 ### defining User class
  8 class User
  9 end
 11 user =
 13 puts user.singleton_methods   #["hobbies"]
 15 ## or
 16 ### binding Hobbies with User at runtime
 17 class << User
 18   include Hobbies
 19 end
 20 puts User.singleton_methods   # ["hobbies"]

In real life, the inheritance relationship can be difficult to get right and often you have to use Liskov Substitution Principle to ensure base class can be replaced by derived class in all uses of the base class. However, dynamic inheritance acts more like Composition feature so above technique can also be used to implement dynamic composition. The dynamic inheritance or composition allows you to mix and match features you need at runtime and build extendable systems. This technique has been success key of evolution of Eclipse IDE. Also, this technique goes nicely with the Adaptive Object Modeling technique I described in my last post to build easily extendable systems.

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