Dependency Injection: Huh?

Chances are, at some point in your learning, you’ve come across the term, “dependency injection.” If you’re still relatively early in your learning, you likely formed a confused expression and skipped over that part. Still, this is an important aspect of writing maintainable (and testable) code. In this article, I’ll explain it in as simple a way as I’m capable of.

An Example

Let’s jump into a fairly generic piece of code, and discuss its short-comings.

At first glance, this code might seem fairly harmless. But consider the fact that, already, we’ve hardcoded a dependency: the database connection. What if we want to introduce a different persistence layer? Or, think about it this way: why should the Photo object be communicating with outside sources? Doesn't that violate the concept of separation of concerns? It certainly does. This object shouldn't be concerned with anything that isn't directly related to a Photo.

The basic idea is that your classes should be responsible for one thing only. With that in mind, it shouldn’t be responsible for connecting to databases and other things of that nature.

Think of objects in the same way that you think of your pet. The dog doesn’t decide when he goes outside for a walk or to play at the park. You do! It’s not his place to make these decisions.

Let’s regain control of the class, and, instead, pass in the database connection. There are two ways to accomplish this: constructor and setter injection, respectively. Here’s examples of both:

Constructor Injection

Above, we’re injecting all required dependencies, when the class’s constructor method runs, rather than hardcoding them directly into the class.

Setter Injection

With this simple change, the class is no longer dependent upon any specific connection. The outside system retains complete control, as should be the case. While it may not be immediately visible, this technique also makes the class considerably easier to test, as we can now mock the database, when calling the setDB method.

Even better, if we later decide to use a different form of persistence, thanks to dependency injection, it’s a cinch.

“Dependency Injection is where components are given their dependencies through their constructors, methods, or directly into fields.”

The Rub

There’s one problem with using setter injection in this way: it makes the class considerably more difficult to work with. The user now must be fully aware of the class’s dependencies, and must remember to set them, accordingly. Consider, down the line, when our fictional class requires a couple more dependencies. Well, following the rules of the dependency injection pattern, we’d have to do:

Yikes; the class may be more modular, but we’ve also piled on confusion and complexity. Before, the user could simply create a new instance of Photo, but, now, he has to remember to set all of these dependencies. What a pain!

The Solution

The solution to this dilemma is to create a container class that will handle the brunt of the work for us. If you’ve ever come across the term, “Inversion of Control (IoC),” now you know what they’re referring to.

Definition: In software engineering, Inversion of Control (IoC) is an object-oriented programming practice where the object coupling is bound at run time by an assembler object and is typically not known at compile time using static analysis.

This class will store a registry of all the dependencies for our project. Each key will have an associated lambda function that instantiates the associated class.

There are a couple ways to tackle this. We could be explicit, and store methods, such as newPhoto:

Now, $photo will be equal to a new instance of the Photo class, with all of the required dependencies set. This way, the user doesn't have to remember to set these dependencies manually; he simply calls the newPhoto method.

The second option, rather than creating a new method for each class instantiation, is to write a generic registry container, like so:

Don’t let this code scare you; it’s really very simple. When the user calls the IoC::register method, they're adding an id, such as photo, and its associated resolver, which is just a lambda that creates the instance and sets any necessary dependencies on the class.

Now, we can register and resolve dependencies through the IoC class, like this:

So, we can observe that, with this pattern, we’re not manually instantiating the class. Instead, we register it with the IoC container, and then request a specific instance. This reduces the complexity that we introduced, when we stripped the hardcoded dependencies out of the class.

Virtually the same number of characters, but, now, the class is significantly more flexible and testable. In real-world usage, you’d likely want to extend this class to allow for the creation of singletons as well.

Embracing Magic Methods

If we want to reduce the length of the IoC class even further, we can take advantage of magic methods - namely __set() and __get(), which will be triggered if the user calls a method that does not exist in the class.

Popularized by Fabien Potencier, this is a super-minimal implementation — but it’ll work. Whether or not __get() or set() runs will be dependent upon whether the user is setting a value or not.

Basic usage would be:

Thanks for reading!


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