A Day In The Lyf

…the lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne

Throw Out Those Utility Classes

How many times have you written an xxxUtils class, where xxx is some framework supplied class that you can’t extend or subclass? I always seem to end up with several in any decent sized project, StringUtils, DateUtils, DictionaryUtils, etc. In most cases, these classes are the result of language limitations. In Ruby and Smalltalk, for example, what would be the point of a StringUtils class when you could simply add methods to the String class directly? But C# and Java make String sealed (final) so you can’t even subclass it.

Utility classes like these tend to suffer from logical cohesion. In spite of the friendly-sounding name, logical cohesion is actually a fairly weak form of cohesion; it’s just a loose jumble of functions that have something in common. It can in no way be considered object-oriented.

Our DictionaryUtils makes an interesting case study because it was small. It only did two things: compared two dictionaries key-by-key for equality (useful in testing), and converting the entries to a Ruby-esque string. That last method made me a little jealous of how convenient Hashes are in Ruby:

middlestate:~ bhbyars$ irb
>> {'a' => 1, 'b' => 2, 'c' => 3}
=> {"a"=>1, "b"=>2, "c"=>3}

For the non-Ruby readers, I just created a 3-element Hash in one line. The command-line interpreter spit out a string representation. Our DictionaryUtils.ConvertToText could manage that last bit, but I wanted to be able to create hashtables as easily in C# as I could in Ruby. Naturally, that meant a third method on DictionaryUtils. Or did it?

C# on Hash

DictionaryUtils.Create seemed bloviated and ugly as soon as I first wrote it, so I quickly scratched it out and started a new class:

public class Hash
    public static Hashtable New(params object[] keysAndValues)
        if (keysAndValues.Length % 2 != 0)
            throw new ArgumentException(“Hash.New requires an even number of parameters”);

        Hashtable hash = new Hashtable();
        for (int i = 0; i < keysAndValues.Length; i += 2)
            hash[keysAndValues[i]] = keysAndValues[i + 1];
        return hash;

This allowed me to create small loaded Hashtables in one line, which was convenient, especially for test methods (although the syntax isn’t as explicit as Ruby’s). I then decided to merge the static DictionaryUtils methods into Hash, as instance methods. First, of course, I had to make Hash an actual dictionary implementation. This was trivial:

private IDictionary proxiedHash;

public Hash(IDictionary dictionary)
    proxiedHash = dictionary;

public bool Contains(object key)
    return proxiedHash.Contains(key);

public void Add(object key, object value)
    proxiedHash.Add(key, value);

public void Clear()

// etc…

Then I changed the return value of Hash.New to a Hash instead of a Hashtable. The last line became return new Hash(hash) instead of return hash.

Next I moved the ConvertToText method, which, as an instance method, conveniently mapped to ToString.

public override  string ToString()
    SeparatedStringBuilder builder = new SeparatedStringBuilder(", ");
    ICollection keys = CollectionUtils.TryToSort(Keys);
    foreach (object key in keys)
        builder.AppendFormat("{0} => {1}", Encode(key), Encode(this[key]));
    return "{" + builder.ToString() + "}";

private object Encode(object value)
    if (value == null)
        return "<NULL>";

    IDictionary dictionary = value as IDictionary;
    if (dictionary != null)
        return new Hash(dictionary).ToString();

    if (value is string)
        return "\"" + value + "\"";

    return value;

The SeparatedStringBuilder class is a StringBuilder that adds a custom separator between each string. It’s very convenient whenever you’re a building a comma-separated list, as above. It’s proven to be handy in a variety of situations. For example, I’ve used it to build a SQL WHERE clause by making ” AND ” the separator. It’s included with the code download at the bottom of this article.

Notice, also, that we’re still using a CollectionUtils class. Ah, well. I’ve got to have something to look forward to fixing tomorrow…

The DictionaryUtils.AreEqual method conveniently maps to an instance level Equals method:

public override bool Equals(object obj)
    IDictionary other = obj as IDictionary;
    if (other == null) return false;
    Hash hash = new Hash(other);
    return hash.ToString() == ToString();

public override int GetHashCode()
    return proxiedHash.GetHashCode();

The syntax is much cleaner than the old DictionaryUtils class. It’s nicely encapsulated, fits conveniently into the framework overrides, and is object-oriented, allowing us to add other utility methods to the Hash class easily. It’s especially nice for testing, since the Equals method will work against any dictionary implementation, not just Hashes:

Assert.AreEqual(Hash.New(“address”, customer.Address), propertyBag);

The approach was simple, relying on proxying for fulfilling the IDictionary implementation (I’m probably abusing the word “proxying,” since we’re not doing anything with the interception. Really, this is nothing more than the Decorator design pattern). That was easy only because the framework actually provided an interface to subtype; the same isn’t true of String and Date. However, it isn’t true of StringBuilder either; if you look at the code, SeparatedStringBuilder looks like a StringBuilder, it talks like a StringBuilder, and it quacks like a StringBuilder, but there is no syntactic relationship between them since StringBuilder is sealed and doesn’t implement an interface. While the need for SeparatedStringBuilder may represent a special case, I think I’d prefer creating similar-looking objects rather than relying on a framework-provided xxx and a custom built xxxUtils class. Proxying, as used by Hash, generally makes such implementations trivial and clean, leaving you to spend your time developing what you really want without making the API unnecessarily ugly.

All the code needed to compile and test the Hash class can be found here.


Written by Brandon Byars

August 28, 2007 at 11:40 pm

Posted in .NET, Design

Tagged with

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