Role Interface

22 December 2006

A role interface is defined by looking at a specific interaction between suppliers and consumers. A supplier component will usually implement several role interfaces, one for each of these patterns of interaction. This contrasts to a HeaderInterface, where the supplier will only have a single interface.

Let's look at this with an example. Consider a program for PERT style project planning. In this scheme we break down a project into a set of activities. We then arrange these activities into a network (strictly a directed acyclic graph) to show the dependencies between the tasks. So if 'have breakfast' is a task, then 'make coffee' and 'mix cereal' might be predecessor activities. This means I cannot begin to have my breakfast until all the predecessors have completed.

Each activity has a duration, how long we expect it to take. With that duration, together with the relationships in the network, we can figure out other information. We can calculate the earliest start of an activity as the latest earliest finish of its predecessors. We calculate the earliest finish of an activity as its earliest start plus its duration. Similarly we can work out the latest finish and latest start. The code would look something like this.

  private int duration;

  public MfDate earliestStart() {
    MfDate result = MfDate.PAST;
    for (?TYPE? p : predecessors())
      if (p.earliestFinish().after(result))
        result = p.earliestFinish();
    return result;

  public MfDate earliestFinish() {
    return earliestStart().addDays(duration);

   public MfDate latestFinish() {
    MfDate result = MfDate.FUTURE;
    for (?TYPE? s : successors())
      if (s.latestStart().before(result))
        result = s.latestStart();
    return result;

  public MfDate latestStart() {
    return latestFinish().minusDays(duration);

You'll notice a hole in that code above - the ?TYPE?s. If we ask an activity for its predecessors and successors, what type of objects should we expect back? (To be precise we expect to return a collection, so the real question is what should the type of the elements of the returned collection be?)

If you use a header interface, the returned interface would be an activity and would mirror the public methods of our activity class to create an InterfaceImplementationPair.

public interface Activity ...
  MfDate earliestStart();
  MfDate earliestFinish();
  MfDate latestFinish();
  MfDate latestStart();

class ActivityImpl...
  List<Activity> predecessors() ...
  List<Activity> successors() ...

With a role interface, however, we look at how the collaborating objects are actually used. In this case a successor is only used for its latestStart and a predecessor is only used for its earliestFinish. So as a result we create two interfaces which only have the methods we actually use.

public interface Successor {
  MfDate latestStart();
public interface Predecessor {
  MfDate earliestFinish();

class Activity
  List<Predecessor> predecessors() ...
  List<Successor> successors() ...

We can think of a successor as a role that a collaborating object plays with respect to this object. This approach of thinking about objects and the roles that they play in collaborating with others has a long history in the object-oriented world.

The strength of a role interface is that it clearly communicates the actual collaboration between an activity and its successors. Often a class doesn't use all the methods of a class, so it's good to show which ones are actually needed. This can be particularly useful if you need to substitute it later on. A header interface forces you to implement every method, even if you're not going to need them; but with a role interface you only need to implement exactly what's needed.

The disadvantage of a role interface is that it's more effort to come up with, since you need to look at each collaboration to form the role interface. With a header interface all you have to do is duplicate the public methods, no thought needed. There is also a sense of dependence on your consumers. I say a "sense" because there isn't a formal dependency, but it's still enough to make many people uncomfortable. They prefer header interfaces because they believe that you shouldn't care who uses your service, or how. You publish an interface and they can use it if they find it useful.

On the whole I much prefer role interfaces, so I suggest pushing towards them as much as you can. There is work involved in doing it, but my belief has always been that you should only use interfaces when you really need substitutability, and if you do need interfaces you should think hard about what the consumer of that interface needs.

There is an interesting twist if you think of this in a remoting context using something like web services. If we were to ask a remote service for details on predecessors, what should we expect back? Some might argue that for it to be a role interface, it should only return a document with earliest finish data. I would disagree - I think it's perfectly valid for it to return a document with more data than I asked for. The point is that any type checking involved should only check that the earliest finish data is present. If extra data can be ignored, then it's no crime to supply it; just as a class may implement multiple interfaces. This thinking matches the philosophy of Consumer Driven Contracts, which is one of the reasons I find consumer driven contracts so compelling.

As I've indicated, this notion has been around for a long time. Trygve Reenskaug wrote a methodology book based around analyzing roles and synthesizing them into classes. Robert Martin talks about this topic as the Interface Segregation Principle: role interfaces follow that principle but header interfaces do not.