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1. Overview

Inheritance and composition — along with abstraction, encapsulation, and polymorphism — are cornerstones of object-oriented programming (OOP).

In this tutorial, we’ll cover the basics of inheritance and composition, and we’ll focus strongly on spotting the differences between the two types of relationships.

2. Inheritance’s Basics

Inheritance is a powerful yet overused and misused mechanism.

Simply put, with inheritance, a base class (a.k.a. base type) defines the state and behavior common for a given type and lets the subclasses (a.k.a. subtypes) provide specialized versions of that state and behavior.

To have a clear idea on how to work with inheritance, let’s create a naive example: a base class Person that defines the common fields and methods for a person, while the subclasses Waitress and Actress provide additional, fine-grained method implementations.

Here’s the Person class:

public class Person {
    private final String name;

    // other fields, standard constructors, getters
}

And these are the subclasses:

public class Waitress extends Person {

    public String serveStarter(String starter) {
        return "Serving a " + starter;
    }
    
    // additional methods/constructors
}
public class Actress extends Person {
    
    public String readScript(String movie) {
        return "Reading the script of " + movie;
    } 
    
    // additional methods/constructors
}

In addition, let’s create a unit test to verify that instances of the Waitress and Actress classes are also instances of Person, thus showing that the “is-a” condition is met at the type level:

@Test
public void givenWaitressInstance_whenCheckedType_thenIsInstanceOfPerson() {
    assertThat(new Waitress("Mary", "[email protected]", 22))
      .isInstanceOf(Person.class);
}
    
@Test
public void givenActressInstance_whenCheckedType_thenIsInstanceOfPerson() {
    assertThat(new Actress("Susan", "[email protected]", 30))
      .isInstanceOf(Person.class);
}

It’s important to stress here the semantic facet of inheritance. Aside from reusing the implementation of the Person class, we’ve created a well-defined “is-a” relationship between the base type Person and the subtypes Waitress and Actress. Waitresses and actresses are, effectively, persons.

This may cause us to ask: in which use cases is inheritance the right approach to take?

If subtypes fulfill the “is-a” condition and mainly provide additive functionality further down the classes hierarchy, then inheritance is the way to go.

Of course, method overriding is allowed as long as the overridden methods preserve the base type/subtype substitutability promoted by the Liskov Substitution Principle.

Additionally, we should keep in mind that the subtypes inherit the base type’s API, which is some cases may be overkill or merely undesirable.

Otherwise, we should use composition instead.

3. Inheritance in Design Patterns

While the consensus is that we should favor composition over inheritance whenever possible, there are a few typical use cases where inheritance has its place.

3.1. The Layer Supertype Pattern

In this case, we use inheritance to move common code to a base class (the supertype), on a per-layer basis.

Here’s a basic implementation of this pattern in the domain layer:

public class Entity {
    
    protected long id;
    
    // setters
}
public class User extends Entity {
    
    // additional fields and methods   
}

We can apply the same approach to the other layers in the system, such as the service and persistence layers.

3.2. The Template Method Pattern

In the template method pattern, we can use a base class to define the invariant parts of an algorithm, and then implement the variant parts in the subclasses:

public abstract class ComputerBuilder {
    
    public final Computer buildComputer() {
        addProcessor();
        addMemory();
    }
    
    public abstract void addProcessor();
    
    public abstract void addMemory();
}
public class StandardComputerBuilder extends ComputerBuilder {

    @Override
    public void addProcessor() {
        // method implementation
    }
    
    @Override
    public void addMemory() {
        // method implementation
    }
}

4. Composition’s Basics

The composition is another mechanism provided by OOP for reusing implementation.

In a nutshell, composition allows us to model objects that are made up of other objects, thus defining a “has-a” relationship between them.

Furthermore, the composition is the strongest form of association, which means that the object(s) that compose or are contained by one object are destroyed too when that object is destroyed.

To better understand how composition works, let’s suppose that we need to work with objects that represent computers.

A computer is composed of different parts, including the microprocessor, the memory, a sound card and so forth, so we can model both the computer and each of its parts as individual classes.

Here’s how a simple implementation of the Computer class might look:

public class Computer {

    private Processor processor;
    private Memory memory;
    private SoundCard soundCard;

    // standard getters/setters/constructors
    
    public Optional<SoundCard> getSoundCard() {
        return Optional.ofNullable(soundCard);
    }
}

The following classes model a microprocessor, the memory, and a sound card (interfaces are omitted for brevity’s sake):

public class StandardProcessor implements Processor {

    private String model;
    
    // standard getters/setters
}
public class StandardMemory implements Memory {
    
    private String brand;
    private String size;
    
    // standard constructors, getters, toString
}
public class StandardSoundCard implements SoundCard {
    
    private String brand;

    // standard constructors, getters, toString
}

It’s easy to understand the motivations behind pushing composition over inheritance. In every scenario where it’s possible to establish a semantically correct “has-a” relationship between a given class and others, the composition is the right choice to make.

In the above example, Computer meets the “has-a” condition with the classes that model its parts.

It’s also worth noting that in this case, the containing Computer object has ownership of the contained objects if and only if the objects can’t be reused within another Computer object. If they can, we’d be using aggregation, rather than composition, where ownership isn’t implied.

5. Composition without Abstraction

Alternatively, we could’ve defined the composition relationship by hard-coding the dependencies of the Computer class, instead of declaring them in the constructor:

public class Computer {

    private StandardProcessor processor
      = new StandardProcessor("Intel I3");
    private StandardMemory memory
      = new StandardMemory("Kingston", "1TB");
    
    // additional fields / methods
}

Of course, this would be a rigid, tightly-coupled design, as we’d be making Computer strongly dependent on specific implementations of Processor and Memory.

We wouldn’t be taking advantage of the level of abstraction provided by interfaces and dependency injection.

With the initial design based on interfaces, we get a loosely-coupled design, which is also easier to test.

6. Conclusion

In this article, we learned the fundamentals of inheritance and composition in Java, and we explored in depth the differences between the two types of relationships (“is-a” vs. “has-a”).

As always, all the code samples shown in this tutorial are available over on GitHub.

I just announced the new Spring 5 modules in REST With Spring:

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