Friday, April 04, 2008

Monkey Patching

Monkey patching seems to be all the debate rage currently in the dynamic language blogosphere. The one that caught my attention was Gilad Bracha's in particular. I don't disagree with him at all. I know it's strange reading that from a Smalltalker. But, I view monkey patching like inheritance. It's a great device to have in your programmer back pocket, but can be dangerous. Use with caution and look at your options. Don't use it without thinking of the implications it can cause. The reason its dangerous is because it's a global change that widens the protocol of the affected object or worse changes the contract for an already existing method.

The main reason monkey patching is so dangerous is the global change it makes and the increased probability of having a collision if another project names a method the same. Or worse, another project overrides the default behavior and replaces it with their own. Both can cause subtle bugs that can be hard to catch and find. It's the global nature of it that can bite. It's convenient, but you should think twice before doing it. It's limits your project's options.

Groovy has a novel approach to monkey patching in that it allows them to be scoped for the duration of a block called categories. This reduces the risk of a global change and the addition is only in affect for the duration of the block. Now, it can cause issues if something gets called outside of the block by accident, which is why I wish it had different ways of scoping (class, package, etc). But, with AspectJ these problems can be reduced. Categories reduce a lot of the risk of monkey patching in that collisions are highly unlikely and the protocol is only widened for that invocation. It also ensures that unknown project dependencies will not creep in. I worry less about monkey patching in this instance because if you get burned, it will be your project not everyone else. I think categories are the way to go (if they added class scoped categories, I would be in heaven).

I don't hate monkey patching. Far from it. It is handy to override method implementations during debugging. I can change pre-existing methods if they have bugs in them even before the next release is out. I don't have to wait on the vendor. These are great pluses. I'm just advocating thought before you monkey patch in your own projects. Much like before you swing the inheritance hammer, you should do the same with monkey patches.

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