Welcome!

Java IoT Authors: Todd Matters, Elizabeth White, Pat Romanski, Yeshim Deniz, Liz McMillan

Related Topics: Java IoT

Java IoT: Article

Deriving the Visitor Pattern: A Review and Discussion

Why is the visitor pattern the way it is?

Like most other self-respecting developers I had also read the GoF book, including the section on the visitor pattern. However, when a colleague came over to me with a question, I could not initially justify the complexity of the example code I saw in the book. What follows is a discussion of why the visitor pattern is the way it is.

Brief Review of the Pattern
The definitive description of the pattern is in the GoF book Design Patterns, Chapter 5 (pp 331-344)(see References section). The Wikipedia has a concise and good description, which formed the basis for my brief review here. The visitor pattern is classified as a Behavioral pattern, so the thing to notice is the way in which the classes and objects interact and distribute responsibility. A typical application of this pattern occurs in the following scenario: we have a number of elements in an object structure (common structures include trees & lists) and we want to perform a bunch of disparate operations (e.g. printing or cloning each element) on the elements of the structure.

The visitor pattern is a way of separating the operation from the object structure and a way of collecting together the different implementations of an operation for different kinds of elements in the object structure. A Visitor class is created which knows how to perform a particular operation on the different kinds of elements in the object structure. Each type of element in the structure defines an accept() method that can accept any kind of Visitor. The visitor is passed to each element in the structure in turn, by calling its accept() method and the Visitor then performs the operation on the visited element. One important consequence of this separation of object structure and operation is that we can later add a new operation (a new kind of Visitor) without having to modify the element classes of the object structure.

Each type of Visitor defines several visit()methods, one for each kind of element. The basic insight is that the precise set of instructions to execute (i.e. the method or function to call) depends on the run-time types of both the Visitor & the visited element. Java only lets us call different methods based on the run-time type of one object (via virtual functions), so the pattern advocates a clever solution: The second dependency on the type of element visited is first resolved by polymorphically calling the accept() method of the visited element. accept() then resolves the first dependency by turning around and polymorphically calling the visit()method for its class.

An Example
Before this description gets too confusing, let us study the pattern in the context of a concrete problem: Let us say we need to traverse a list collecting node-specific information. The list has two kinds of nodes, say, Red and Black, which needed to be processed differently. It seems like an ideal application for the visitor pattern. Listing 1 shows the code. (All code samples in this article use a J2SE 5.0 compatible compiler.)

To me and my colleague, this initially seemed like an overly complex solution for a simple problem. NodeVisitor.doVisit() calls into the Node's accept methods, which simply delegates back into NodeVisitor. Furthermore, the accept() methods of RedNode and BlackNode are almost identical. Finally, notice that if we now add a GreenNode class, we need to add a new visitGreen() method to the NodeVisitor class and re-compile it (not to speak of the almost redundant implementation of accept() in the GreenNode class). Ugh! This does not seem kosher by any OO standard.

The Need for the accept() Methods
Novice armchair Java developers might ask why we can't do something simpler, like Listing 2, for example, without touching the Node interface, or the classes RedNode and BlackNode which implement it.

Listing 2 has two significant differences from the previous. First, there is no redundant method (namely accept()) for each node type to implement. Second, we use function name overloading for the visit() implementations, thus enabling the "clever" foreach loop, which iterates over each node and calls the appropriate overloaded version of visit() depending on the type of the current element. With this, we hope to contain all the visiting logic within NodeVisitor.

Alas, real developers have a more difficult job than arm-chair developers! If you are using a language like Java or C++, an overloaded function name like visit() has to get resolved at compile time. Thus line 6.iii will not compile because none of the visit() methods provided in NodeVisitor know how to accept a generic "Node" as argument.

For line 6.iii to work the way we want it to, the decision on what operation needs to be performed has to be delayed until we can determine at runtime the type of the node n being examined in the current iteration of the for-each loop.

Traditional OO languages (Java, C++ etc) provide us with one standard tool for delaying function resolution until run-time: virtual functions. Thus, in Listing 1, 6.iii is modified to a virtual function call n.accept(nv). So the actual function that gets called is decided at run-time. The version called then delegates work by invoking the right version of NodeVisitor.visit().

So Why Not Just Use Plain Vanilla Inheritance?
The explanation I just gave is good, but not good enough. I can almost hear you ask: why doesn't accept() do the work itself? Why does it have to delegate back to NodeVisitor? There are three reasons:

1.  Accumulating state: If you read the problem I presented closely, you will notice that I specified a need to collect node-specific information. Since the doVisit passes the same NodeVisitor instance to each accept(), the visitor can be used to accumulate state across the different Node objects. For example, say you have an Employee HR application where the Red nodes represent employees, the Black nodes represent managers, visitRed() calculates the pay raises for programmers, and visitBlack the pay raises for managers. The NodeVisitor nv could print a report of the total increase in salary expense at the end of the for loop.

2.  Supporting more than one visitor (the need for double dispatch): Say the next version of your Employee HR application needs to add a new HRPolicyVisitor that checks for compliance with some HR policy and the implementation is different for managers and programmers.

To accommodate both the types of Visitors, we introduce an additional layer of indirection - an abstract EmployeeNodeVisitor interface with virtual visitXXX() functions for each type of element to visit, namely visitProgrammer() & visitManager(). The old PayRaiseVisitor and the new HRPolicyVisitor both implement EmployeeNodeVisitor. The decision on which version of visit() gets called now gets determined by a two-step process. The first step is as before. The node type of the visited element n in the foreach loop determines which version of the virtual function accept() gets called. In the second step, the type of the EmployeeVisitor passed in to accept() determines the (virtual function) version of visitXXX() called. The source files that come with this article show the skeleton of this implementation. Figure 1 illustrates the sequence of calls from both doPayHike(), which uses a PayRaiseVisitor to raise the pay of each employee, and doEnforcePolicy() which uses a HRPolicyVisitor to check HR policy compliance.

More Stories By Nishanth Sastry

Nishanth Sastry is a software developer at IBM working on the WebSphere Portal & Workplace family of products. He has a Masters degree in Computer Science from the University of Texas at Austin. He enjoys well-written code & fall in New England, among other things. He lives in Concord, Mass.

Comments (2) View Comments

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


Most Recent Comments
Rishi Sharma 12/27/05 06:01:14 AM EST

good article. Well laid with sequence diagram and code.

Bruce Wallace 10/23/05 06:31:14 PM EDT

In your Oct, 2005 JDJ article "Deriving the Visitor Pattern",
the author correctly describes the need for double dispatch
and hence the traditional approach of using an "accept"
method. However, in my article from 2001, I showed how
accept methods can be done away with via a couple of lines of
reflection code. See the article listed below for the technique
that can make the Visitor pattern more widely applicable since
the visited objects need not cooperate by defining an accept
method ahead of time.

[1] http://www.polyglotinc.com/articles.html
[2] http://www.ftponline.com/Archives/premier/mgznarch/javapro/2001/03mar01/...

@ThingsExpo Stories
New competitors, disruptive technologies, and growing expectations are pushing every business to both adopt and deliver new digital services. This ‘Digital Transformation’ demands rapid delivery and continuous iteration of new competitive services via multiple channels, which in turn demands new service delivery techniques – including DevOps. In this power panel at @DevOpsSummit 20th Cloud Expo, moderated by DevOps Conference Co-Chair Andi Mann, panelists examined how DevOps helps to meet the de...
With major technology companies and startups seriously embracing Cloud strategies, now is the perfect time to attend 21st Cloud Expo October 31 - November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center, CA, and June 12-14, 2018, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY, and learn what is going on, contribute to the discussions, and ensure that your enterprise is on the right path to Digital Transformation.
No hype cycles or predictions of zillions of things here. IoT is big. You get it. You know your business and have great ideas for a business transformation strategy. What comes next? Time to make it happen. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Jay Mason, Associate Partner at M&S Consulting, presented a step-by-step plan to develop your technology implementation strategy. He discussed the evaluation of communication standards and IoT messaging protocols, data analytics considerations, edge-to-cloud tec...
"When we talk about cloud without compromise what we're talking about is that when people think about 'I need the flexibility of the cloud' - it's the ability to create applications and run them in a cloud environment that's far more flexible,” explained Matthew Finnie, CTO of Interoute, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 20th Cloud Expo, held June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY.
When growing capacity and power in the data center, the architectural trade-offs between server scale-up vs. scale-out continue to be debated. Both approaches are valid: scale-out adds multiple, smaller servers running in a distributed computing model, while scale-up adds fewer, more powerful servers that are capable of running larger workloads. It’s worth noting that there are additional, unique advantages that scale-up architectures offer. One big advantage is large memory and compute capacity...
Amazon started as an online bookseller 20 years ago. Since then, it has evolved into a technology juggernaut that has disrupted multiple markets and industries and touches many aspects of our lives. It is a relentless technology and business model innovator driving disruption throughout numerous ecosystems. Amazon’s AWS revenues alone are approaching $16B a year making it one of the largest IT companies in the world. With dominant offerings in Cloud, IoT, eCommerce, Big Data, AI, Digital Assista...
Artificial intelligence, machine learning, neural networks. We’re in the midst of a wave of excitement around AI such as hasn’t been seen for a few decades. But those previous periods of inflated expectations led to troughs of disappointment. Will this time be different? Most likely. Applications of AI such as predictive analytics are already decreasing costs and improving reliability of industrial machinery. Furthermore, the funding and research going into AI now comes from a wide range of com...
Internet of @ThingsExpo, taking place October 31 - November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, is co-located with 21st Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the most profound change in personal and enterprise IT since the creation of the Worldwide Web more than 20 years ago. All major researchers estimate there will be tens of billions devic...
We build IoT infrastructure products - when you have to integrate different devices, different systems and cloud you have to build an application to do that but we eliminate the need to build an application. Our products can integrate any device, any system, any cloud regardless of protocol," explained Peter Jung, Chief Product Officer at Pulzze Systems, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA
SYS-CON Events announced today that Ayehu will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on October 31 - November 2, 2017 at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara California. Ayehu provides IT Process Automation & Orchestration solutions for IT and Security professionals to identify and resolve critical incidents and enable rapid containment, eradication, and recovery from cyber security breaches. Ayehu provides customers greater control over IT infras...
SYS-CON Events announced today that MobiDev, a client-oriented software development company, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place October 31-November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. MobiDev is a software company that develops and delivers turn-key mobile apps, websites, web services, and complex software systems for startups and enterprises. Since 2009 it has grown from a small group of passionate engineers and business...
SYS-CON Events announced today that GrapeUp, the leading provider of rapid product development at the speed of business, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place October 31-November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Grape Up is a software company, specialized in cloud native application development and professional services related to Cloud Foundry PaaS. With five expert teams that operate in various sectors of the market acr...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Enzu will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st Int\ernational Cloud Expo®, which will take place October 31-November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Enzu’s mission is to be the leading provider of enterprise cloud solutions worldwide. Enzu enables online businesses to use its IT infrastructure to their competitive advantage. By offering a suite of proven hosting and management services, Enzu wants companies to focus on the core of their ...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Cloud Academy named "Bronze Sponsor" of 21st International Cloud Expo which will take place October 31 - November 2, 2017 at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Cloud Academy is the industry’s most innovative, vendor-neutral cloud technology training platform. Cloud Academy provides continuous learning solutions for individuals and enterprise teams for Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform, and the most popular cloud com...
SYS-CON Events announced today that IBM has been named “Diamond Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 21st Cloud Expo, which will take place on October 31 through November 2nd 2017 at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, California.
In his session at Cloud Expo, Alan Winters, an entertainment executive/TV producer turned serial entrepreneur, presented a success story of an entrepreneur who has both suffered through and benefited from offshore development across multiple businesses: The smart choice, or how to select the right offshore development partner Warning signs, or how to minimize chances of making the wrong choice Collaboration, or how to establish the most effective work processes Budget control, or how to ma...
SYS-CON Events announced today that CA Technologies has been named "Platinum Sponsor" of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place October 31-November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. CA Technologies helps customers succeed in a future where every business - from apparel to energy - is being rewritten by software. From planning to development to management to security, CA creates software that fuels transformation for companies in the applic...
Multiple data types are pouring into IoT deployments. Data is coming in small packages as well as enormous files and data streams of many sizes. Widespread use of mobile devices adds to the total. In this power panel at @ThingsExpo, moderated by Conference Chair Roger Strukhoff, panelists looked at the tools and environments that are being put to use in IoT deployments, as well as the team skills a modern enterprise IT shop needs to keep things running, get a handle on all this data, and deliver...
In his session at @ThingsExpo, Eric Lachapelle, CEO of the Professional Evaluation and Certification Board (PECB), provided an overview of various initiatives to certify the security of connected devices and future trends in ensuring public trust of IoT. Eric Lachapelle is the Chief Executive Officer of the Professional Evaluation and Certification Board (PECB), an international certification body. His role is to help companies and individuals to achieve professional, accredited and worldwide re...
IoT solutions exploit operational data generated by Internet-connected smart “things” for the purpose of gaining operational insight and producing “better outcomes” (for example, create new business models, eliminate unscheduled maintenance, etc.). The explosive proliferation of IoT solutions will result in an exponential growth in the volume of IoT data, precipitating significant Information Governance issues: who owns the IoT data, what are the rights/duties of IoT solutions adopters towards t...