Static or Singleton

Let’s face it: there are times in object-oriented programming when we need to share something somewhat globally. When I say that, many purists will scream, “But global variables are evil and should never be used!” Hence, I used the word “somewhat” – attributes (variables) and behaviors (methods) can be class members, allowing them to be used wherever their class is in scope. Things like constants and stateless utility methods are perfect candidates to be class members; Java’s Math class is a perfect example. Many engineers use the word “static” interchangeably with “class member” because languages like Java and C# use the static keyword to denote class members.

Class Membership Limitations

While going “static” is great for one-off constants and stateless methods, it is a poor solution for managing global state. Class methods require class variables to manage state. Class variables are mutable (unlike constants which are immutable) and require extra precautions for handling. And as class variables, the state is divorced from many benefits offered by the object-oriented marriage between attributes and behaviors. A much better solution for global state is the singleton pattern.

The Singleton Pattern

The singleton pattern is one of the best known, and most controversial, design patterns in object-oriented programming. A singleton class is restricted to constructing only one instance of an object so that one instance may be shared somewhat globally. Love it or hate it, the singleton pattern is quite useful when applied appropriately – factories, state machines, and even test automation often employ singletons.

For reference, below is a thread-safe singleton class written in Java, courtesy of Wikipedia. The single instance may be accessed anywhere by simply calling Singleton.getInstance(). Any attributes or behaviors are added as instance members (without “static”).

public final class Singleton {
    private static volatile Singleton instance = null;

    private Singleton() {}

    public static Singleton getInstance() {
        if (instance == null) {
            synchronized(Singleton.class) {
                if (instance == null) {
                    instance = new Singleton();
                }
            }
        }
        return instance;
    }
}

Singleton Benefits

The singleton pattern is a much better solution for managing global state for several reasons.

True Object Orientation Singleton objects may be treated as any other object (like POJOs). Classes themselves are not plain-old objects, thus limiting their usability.
Inheritance Singleton classes may employ inheritance to add or modify attributes and behaviors. Class members cannot be manipulated through inheritance.
Lazy Initialization Singleton classes can easily use lazy initialization to avoid constructing the instance until it is first used. Lazy initialization for class variables is possible but often more difficult. Many times, class variables are simply initialized when declared, which would unnecessarily bloat memory if the variables are never used.
Object Pooling The singleton pattern is essentially a special case of the object pool pattern, in which the pool size is one. Thus, a singleton class could easily be updated to handle a pool of objects instead of just a single one.
Cleaner Implementation Singleton state is nicely encapsulated. Singleton classes provide a sensible central place for shared stuff. Other classes don’t have the “static” clutter. Object references need not be passed around.

Anecdotally, engineers who use design patterns (like singleton) have a better grasp on good object-oriented principles, and they tend to make better, more thoughtful software design decisions. Adding static members to a class tends to be a hasty decision made for expediency – it will work, but it may not be the best practice.

TL;DR

  • Use class members for one-off constants and stateless methods.
  • Use singletons for managing global, mutable state.

One thought on “Static or Singleton

  1. Pingback: Cucumber-JVM Global Hook Workarounds – Automation Panda

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