Form::Sensible::Delegation - Understanding Form::Sensible's Delegation model


Delegation is used heavily in Form::Sensible both for easy integration of Form::Sensible into your applications, but also to customize the behavior of Form::Sensible components. If you have not encountered delegation in object oriented programming, it's a good idea to read the paragraphs below to become familiar with the concepts. If you have encountered delegation before, and it is a familiar concept for you it is still worth reading the "Delegation in Form::Sensible" section to better understand how delegation works in Form::Sensible.


What is Delegation?

When doing object-oriented programming, we tend to use a very 'push' oriented model. That is to say that we create an object and we push data into it in the form of attributes, then we prod it to perform certain actions. This works well for has-a type object relationships, where one object essentially owns another. As our object-oriented programming tasks become more complex, we often want to customize behavior of an existing class. We can do this in a number of ways, the most common being subclassing. Delegation is another mechanism for accomplishing this customization.

Basically, delegation is a way for one object to let another object have control over specific bits of its own functionality. It is most useful when one object knows how to perform a certain task, but certain parameters of that task may best be provided from outside the object. When used this way, delegation provides a mechanism for a more 'pull' type interaction between components, allowing the object to ask something else for additional information when it needs it.

Why use it?

There are other mechanisms to accomplish what delegation provides, abstract base classes are one method, Moose's roles's are another. Delegation is best suited when you have a good idea of where customization of behavior is likely to be needed. It is also useful when a has-a or is-a type relationship does not make sense.

This may best be explained using an example. In HTML, a select field type provides a way for a user to select one item out of a group of options. In many applications, code will exist to determine the correct items to display and then push them into a template that creates a dropdown select box. However, this requires a fair amount of glue code to be created to first locate and pull in the data, then format it and push it into the Select field's set of options. Not only that, you have to be sure to call or include that glue code any time the field in question is to be displayed. Depending on how often the form is used, this can mean a lot to remember and to maintain.

It makes a lot of sense for the select box to be able to obtain the options it needs for itself, thus dropping the requirement of pushing the data into the field wherever it is used. If you are using a form module to generate your form, you might think about subclassing the Select field class, or perhaps applying a Moose role that replaces static options with a mechanism to pull the options directly from your database, for example. If you do this, however, you are now creating a new (view-type) object which is directly tied to your model. You also now have an additional class (or role) to maintain. A better option here would be to have your select box object simply ask another object for the options it should use when it needs them.

If the select box class is designed so that it knows that it should ask another object for the options to choose from, the rest of its features can be implemented completely and it can be used as is in your application, without the need for subclassing.

Form::Sensible::Field::Select is implemented in exactly this way. You can provide an options_delegate which is an object of type Form::Sensible::DelegateConnection. This links the Select field to a source of options. Once this is done, no further information is required for the select box to get the options to display when it needs them.

An added bonus to this is that if the form is not displayed, the field never requests its options from the delegate. In this scenario, If your options come out of your DB, you just saved yourself a database hit.

Delegation in Form::Sensible

In Form::Sensible, delegation is accomplished via the Form::Sensible::DelegateConnection class. An object of Form::Sensible::DelegateConnection type provides essentially a connection between one object and another. Note that a DelegateConnection is a single connection to a delegate, in other words a single function or method call. In some languages it is convention that one object will only have a single delegate object for all behavior. We considered this approach but found it to be too restrictive. Instead, in Form::Sensible, delegation is action-based. This means each action to be delegated can be connected to a different object. Each connection can be to the same object if you so desire, but if it makes sense for you to delegate actions to different objects, that is entirely possible.

When you encounter a delegate connection in Form::Sensible it will usually take the form of an attribute on a class. For example, the Select field type contains an options_delegate attribute. You should set this attribute to an object of the DelegateConnection class. The easiest way to do this is to use the FSConnector utility function:

    $selectfieldobject->options_delegate( FSConnector( $delegate_object, 'get_options_from_db') );

The FSConnector function will create a DelegateConnection object that will call $delegate_object->get_options_from_db($selectfieldobject) when the options_delegate is used. Care should be taken here, as a reference to $selectfieldobject will become part of a closure, and thus will not be released by Perl until the DelegateConnection is destroyed.) Note that every delegate action has its own calling semantics, so it's important to look at the documentation for the object that is doing the delegating to ensure that you understand how it will be called. One thing all delegate actions have in common is that the object that has the delegate attribute will be passed as the first argument. This allows the same delegate to be used by multiple objects.

There is another feature of DelegateConnection objects in Form::Sensible that makes them extremely powerful. In most delegation schemes, the delegate object, IE the target of the DelegateConnection must be written to accept the method calls and arguments the calling object is sending. In Form::Sensible the DelegateConnection object actually uses a subroutine reference to accomplish its job.

In most cases, this subroutine reference is a simple 'straight through' link between the calling object and the delegate's method. However, it is entirely possible, and often preferable, to provide your own subroutine reference instead. This allows you to translate calling parameters and possibly adjust return values to match what the caller expects. To create a DelegateConnection that works this way, you would do something like this:

    my $datasource = $existing_data_source_object;
    ## this DelegateConnection figures out the caller's category
    ## then uses it to get the data it wants
    ## and translates the returned array of results into a 
    ## hash reference by name

    my $connection = FSConnector( sub { 
                        my $caller = shift;
                        my @data = $datasource->get_data_with_category( $caller->category_name );
                        return [ map { $_->name => $_ } @data ];

The power here lies in the fact that using this method you can connect your existing objects directly to your delegate objects without modification. It's easy to see how this flexibility can dramatically reduce the amount of custom code and subclasses required to accomplish your task.

Using A DelegateConnection

When you are creating an object that will use a delegate, you will usually have an attribute to hold the delegate connection. Remember this is done on a per-action basis, so you may have multiple attributes. When you are ready to call your delegate action, you can do so as follows:

    $self->delegate_action->call($self, $other, $arguments);

However, since the only thing you will likely ever do to a DelegateConnection object is call it, a shorter (and preferred) syntax is available:

    $self->delegate_action->($self, $other, $arguments);

This does the same as the delegate_action->call() syntax, though it's a bit more concise. It also looks just different enough to help remind you that this is a call to a delegate rather than just an normal method call.


Delegation in Form::Sensible is extremely powerful and is an integral part of how many of Form::Sensible's components operate. It is vital to the effective use of Form::Sensible to understand the delegation mechanism used. I hope that this document has helped to demystify delegation. If you have ideas for how to make this information more clear, please get in touch!


Jay Kuri,


Ionzero LLC.


Copyright (c) 2010 the aforementioned authors. All rights reserved. This program is free software; you can redistribute it and/or modify it under the same terms as Perl itself.