Programming without objects

17.09.2014 Permalink

Recently I gave an itemis internal talk about basic functional programming (FP) concepts. Towards the end I made a claim that objects and their blueprints (a.k.a. classes) have severe downsides and that it is much better to "leave data alone", which is exactly how Clojure and Haskell treat this subject.

I fully acknowledge that such a statement is disturbing to hear, especially if your professional thinking was shaped by OOP paradigm1 for 20 years or more. I know this well, because that was exactly my situation two years ago.

So let's take a closer look at the OO class as provided by Java, Scala or C# and think a little bit about its features, strengths and weaknesses. Subsequently, I'll explain how to do better without classes and objects.

The OO class

An OO class bundles data and implementation related to this data. A good OO class hides any details about implementation and data, if they're not supposed to be part of the API. According to widespread belief, the good OO class reduces complexity because any client using instances of it (a.k.a the objects) will not and cannot deal with those implementation details.

So, we can see three striking aspects here: API as formed by the public members, data declaration and method implementation. But there is much more to it:

That's a lot of stuff, and I probably did not list everything that classes provide. The first thing we can state is that a class is not "simple" in the sense that it does only one thing. In fact, it does a lot of things. But so what? After all, the concept is so old and so widely known that we may accept it anyway.

Besides the class being a complex thing there are other disadvantages that most OO programmers are somehow aware of but tend to accept like laws of nature2.

Next I'll discuss a few of these weaknesses in detail:


Let's look at intensional equality as provided by object identity. Apparently this is not what we want at all times, otherwise we wouldn't see this pattern called ValueObject 3. A type like Javas String is a well-known example of a successful ValueObject implementation. The price for this freedom of choice is a rule that the == operator is almost useless and we must use equals because only its implementation can decide what kind of equality relation is in effect. The numerous tutorials and blog posts how to correctly implement equals and hashCode are witness that this topic is not easy to get right. In addition we must be very careful when using a potentially mutable object as a key in a map or item in a set. If it's not a value a lookup might fail miserably (and unexpectedly).


The conflation of mutable data and object identity is also a problem in another regard: concurrency. Those objects not acting as values must be protected from race conditions and stale memory, either by thread confinement or by synchronization which is hard to do right in order to avoid dead locks or live locks.


Let's turn to the implicit first argument, in Java and C# it's referred to by the keyword this. It allows us to invoke methods on an object Sam by stating Sam.doThis() or Sam.doThat() which sounds similar to natural language. So, we can consider this as syntactic sugar to ease understanding in cases where a "subject verb" formulation makes sense4. But wait, what happens if we're not able to use a method implemented in a class? More recent languages offer extension methods (in Scala realizable using implicit) to help make our notation more consistent. Thus, in order to put the first argument in front of the method name to improve readability we're required to master an additional concept.


Objects support polymorphism, which was the really exotic feature back then when I learned OOP. Actually, the OO "polymorphic method invocation" is a special case of a function invocation dispatch, namely a dispatch over the type of the implicit first argument. So this fancy p-thing turns out to be a somewhat arbitrary limitation of a very powerful concept.


Implementation inheritance creates a "is-a" relation between types (giving birth to terms like "superclass" and "subclass"), shares API, and hard-wires this with reuse of data declarations and method implementations. But what can you do if you want one without the other? Well, if you don't want to reuse but only define type relations and share API you can employ interfaces, which is simple and effective. Now the other way around: what can you do to reuse implementations without tying a class by extends to an existing class? The options I know are:

Implementation inheritance is a very good example for adding much conceptual complexity without giving us the full power of the ideas it builds upon. In fact, the debate about the potential harm that it brings (and how other approaches might remedy this) is nearly as old as the idea itself.

Encapsulation of data

"Information hiding" makes objects opaque, that's its purpose. It seems useful if objects contain private mutable data necessary to implement stateful behaviour. However, with respect to concurrency and more algebraic data transformation this encapsulation hurts. It hurts because we don't know what's underneath an objects API and the last thing we want to have is mutable state that we're not aware of. It hurts that if we want to work with its data we have to ask for every single bit of it.

The common solution to the latter problem is to use reflection, and that's exactly what all advanced frameworks do to uniformly implement their behaviour on top of user-defined classes that contain data.

On the other hand, we all have learned that reflection is dangerous, it circumvents the type system, which may lead to all kinds of errors showing up only at runtime. So most programmers resort to work with objects in a very tedious way, creating many times more code compared to what they would have written in a different language.

Judging the OO class

So far, we have seen that OO classes are not ideal. They mix up a lot of features while often providing only a narrow subset of what a more general concept is able to do for us. Resulting programs are not only hard to do right, in terms of lines of code they tend to require a multiple compared to programs written in modern FP languages. Since system size is a significant cost driver in maintenance, OOP economically seems to me as a mistake when you have other techniques at your disposal.

When it was introduced more than 20 years ago the OO class brought encapsulation and polymorphism into the game which was beneficial. Thus, OOP was clearly better than procedural programming. But a lot of time has passed since then and we learned much about all the little and not-so-little flaws. It's time to move on...

A better way

Now, that I have discredited the OO class as offered to you by Java, C# or other mainstream OOP languages I feel the duty to show you an alternative as it is available in Clojure and Haskell. It's based on the following fundamentals:

Data is immutable, and any complex data structure (regardless of being more like a map or a list) behaves like a value: you can't change it. But you can get new values that share a lot of data with what previously existed. The key to make this approach feasible are so-called "persistent data structures". They combine immutability with efficiency.

Data is commonly structured using very few types of collections: in Clojure these are vectors, maps and sets, in Haskell you have lists, maps, sets and tuples. To combine a type with a map-like behaviour Clojure gives us the record. Haskell offers record syntax which is preferable over tuples to model more complex domain data. Resulting "instances" of records are immutable and their fields are public.

Functions are not part of records, although the Haskell compiler as well as the Clojure defrecord macro derive some related default implementations for formatting, parsing, ordering and comparing record values. In both languages we can nicely access pieces of these values and cheaply derive new values from existing ones. No one needs to implement constructors, getters, setters, toString, equals or hashCode.

Defining data structures

Here's an example of some records defined in Haskell:

module Accounting where
data Address = Address { street :: String
                       , city :: String
                       , zipcode :: String} 
             deriving (Show, Read, Eq, Ord)

data Person = Person { name :: String
                     , address :: Address}
            deriving (Show, Read, Eq, Ord)

data Account = Account { owner :: Person
                       , entries :: [Int]}
             deriving (Show, Read, Eq, Ord)

And here's what it looks like in (untyped) Clojure5:

(ns accounting)
(defrecord Address [street zipcode city])

(defrecord Person [name address])

(defrecord Account [owner entries])      

Let's see what we now have got:

The last item can hardly be overrated: since we use only few common collection types we can immediatly apply a vast set of data transformation functions like map, filter, reduce/foldl and friends. It needs some practice, but it'll take you to a whole new level of expressing data transformation logic.

But where should we implement individual domain logic?

Adding domain functionality

If we only want to implement functions that act on some type of data we can pass a value as (for example) first argument to those. To denote the relation between the record and the functions we implement these in the same Clojure namespace or Haskell module that the record definition lives in.

Let's add a Haskell function that calculates the balance for an account (please note that the Account entries are a list of integers):

balance :: Account -> Int
balance (Account _ es) = foldl (+) 0 es

Now the Clojure equivalent:

(defn balance
  [{es :entries}]
  (reduce + es))

If we now want to call these functions in an OO like "subject verb" manner we would take Clojure's thread-first macro ->. To get the balance of an account a we can use the expression (-> a balance). Or, given that p is a Person, the expression (-> p :address :city) allows us to retrieve the value of the city field.

In Haskell we need an additional function definition to introduce an operator that allows us to flip the order:

(-:) :: a -> (a -> b) -> b
x -: f = f x

Now we can calculate the balance for an account a using a-:balance, or access the city field with an expression p-:address-:city.

Please note, that the mechanisms allowing us to flip the function-argument-order are totally unrelated to records or any other kind of data structure.

Ok, that was easy. For implementing domain logic we now have

From an OO perspective this looks like static functions on data, something described by the term Anemic Domain Model. I can almost hear that inside any long-term OO practitioners head it starts to scream: "But this is wrong! You must combine data and functions, you must encapsulate this in an entity class!"

After doing this for more than 20 years, I just ask "Why? What's the benefit? And how is this idea actually applied in thousands of systems? Does it serve us well?" My answer today is a clear "No, it doesn't". Actually keeping these things separate is simpler and makes the pieces more composable. Admittedly, to make it significantly better than procedural programming we have to add a few language features you have been missing in OO for so long. To see this read on, now the fun begins:


Both languages allow bundling of function signatures to connect an abstraction with an API. Clojure calls these "protocols", Haskell calls these "type classes", both share noticable similarities with Java interfaces. But in contrast to Java, we can declare that types participate in these abstractions, regardless of whether the protocol/type class existed before the record/type declaration or not.

To illustrate this with our neat example, we introduce an abstraction that promises to give us somehow the total sum of some numeric data. Let's start with the Clojure protocol:

(defprotocol Sum
  (totals [x]))

The corresponding type class in Haskell looks like that:

class Sum a where
  totals :: a -> Int

This lets us introduce polymorphic functions for types without touching the types, thus essentially solving the expression problem, because it let's us apply existing functions that only rely on protocols/type classes to new types.

In Clojure we can extend the protocol to an existing type like so:

(extend-protocol Sum
  (totals [acc] (balance acc)))

And in Haskell we make an instance:

instance Sum Account where
  totals = balance

It should be easy to spot the similarity. In both cases we implement the missing functionality based on the concrete, existing type. We're now able to apply totals on any Account instance because Account now supports the contract. What would you do for a similar effect in OO land?6

With this, the story of function implementation reuse becomes very different: protocols/type classes are a means to hide differences between concrete types. This allows us to create a large number of functions that rely solely on abstractions, not concrete types. Instead of each object carrying the methods of its class (and superclasses) around, we have independent functions over small abstractions. Each type of record can decide where it participates in, no matter what existed first. This drastically reduces the overall number of function implementations and thus the size of the resulting system.

Perhaps you now have a first idea of the power of the approach to polymorphism in Clojure and Haskell, but wait, polymorphism is still only a special case of dispatching function invocations.

Other ways for dispatching

Let's first look from a conceptual perspective what dispatching is all about: you apply a function to some arguments and some mechanism decides which implementation is actually used. So the easiest way to build a runtime dispatcher in an imperative language is a switch statement. What's the problem with this approach? It's tedious to write and it conflates branching logic with the actual implementation of the case specific logic.

To come up with a better solution, Haskell and Clojure take very different approaches, but both excel what any OO programmer is commonly used to.

Haskell applies "Pattern Matching" to argument values, which essentially combines deconstruction of data structures, binding of symbols to values, and -- here comes the dispatch -- branching according to matched patterns in the data structure. It's already powerful and it can be extended by using "guards" which represent additional conditions. I won't go into the details here, but if you're interested I recommend this chapter from "Learn You a Haskell for Great Good".

Clojure "Multimethods" are completely different. Essentially they consist of two parts. One is a dispatch function, and the other part is a bunch of functions to be chosen from according to the dispatch value that the dispatch function returns for an invocation. The dispatch function can contain any calculation, and in addition it is possible to define hierarchies of dispatch values, similar to what can be done with type based multiple inheritance in OO languages like C++. Again very powerful, and if you're interested in the details here's an online excerpt of "Clojure in Action".

By now, I hope you are able to see that Clojure and Haskell open the door to a different but more powerful way to design systems. The interesting features of the OO class like dispatching and ease of implementation reuse through inheritance fade in the light of more general concepts of todays FP languages.

To complete the picture here's my discussion of some left-over minor features that OO classes provide, namely type parameters, encapsulation and intensional equality.

Type parameters

In case of Haskell, type parameters are available for types (used in so-called "type constructors") and type classes. If you know Java Generics then the term "type variable" is a good match for "type parameter". These can be combined with constraints to restrict the set of admissable types. So, with Haskell you don't loose anything.

Clojure is basically untyped, therefore the whole concept doesn't apply. This gives more freedom, but also more responsibility. However, Typed Clojure adds compile-time static type checking, if type annotations were provided. For functions, Typed Clojure offers type parameters. But, AFAIK, and by the time of this writing, Typed Clojure doesn't offer type parameters for records.


The OO practitioner will have noticed that the very important OO idea of visibility of members seems to be completely missing in Clojure and Haskell. Which is true regarding data.

Restriction of visibility in OO can have two reasons:

As available in todays mainstream OO languages, I don't see that the first reason is sufficiently covered by technical visibility, because the notion of "foreign" can not be adequately encoded. In fact, an idea like PublishedInterface makes only sense because visibility does not express our intent. Instead of a technical restriction, sheer documentation seems to be a better way to express how reliable a piece of a data structure is.

Regarding the second reason, immutable data and referential transparency is certainly helpful. A system where most of the functions don't rely on mutable state is less prone to failure caused by erroneous modification of some state. Of course, it is still possible to bring data into an inconsistent state and pass this to functions which signal an exception. But the same is possible for mutable objects, the only difference being that a setter signals an exception a bit earlier. Eventually validation must detect this at the earliest possible point in time to give feedback to the user or a external system. This is true regardless of the paradigm.

Regarding visibility of functions, Haskell as well as Clojure give us a means to make a subset of them available in other modules / namespaces and to protect all others from public usage. Due to its type system Haskell can additionally protect data structures from being used in foreign modules.

Intensional Equality

In a language that consistently uses value semantics there is only extensional equality and the test for equality works everywhere with = or ==. If we need identity in our data then we can resort to the same mechanism that we use for records in a relational database. Either define an id function that makes use of some of the fields or add a surrogate key. Anyway, in a system with minimal mutable state the appetite for object identity diminishes rapidly.

Are there any downsides?

Of course, apart from being different and requiring us to learn some stuff, programming without objects -- especially without mutable state -- sometimes calls for ideas and concepts that we would never see in OOP7. For example, there is the concept of a zipper to manipulate tree-like data which is dispensable in OO because we can just hold onto a node in a tree in order to modify it efficiently in place. Or, you can't create cyclic dependencies in data structures. In my experience, you seldom encounter these restrictions, and either detect that your idea was crap anyway, or that there is an unexpected but elegant solution available.

A system without side-effects is a useless thing. So real-life functional languages offer ways to enable them. By being either forced by the compiler to wrap side-effects (as in Haskell) or by being punished by obstrusive API calls (as in Clojure) we put side-effects at specific places and handle them with great care. This affects the structure of the system. But it is a good thing, because having referential transparency in large parts of a code base is a breeze when it comes to testing, parallelization or simply understanding what code does.

You may argue that imperative programming leads to more efficient programs compared to functional programming. You're right. Manual memory management is also likely to be more efficient than relying on a garbage collector. If done correctly. Is there anyone on the JVM missing manual memory management? No? So, there is certainly a price. But modern multi-core hardware as available in enterprise computing is not as expensive as precious programmer time.


This was really a long journey. I started by breaking down and analyzing the features that the good old OO class offers. I continued with showing how you can do the same and more using a modern FP language. I know, it looks strange and I promise it feels strange... but only in the beginning. In the end you're much better off learning how to use the power of a modern language like Clojure or Haskell.

1. Here, I refer to OO concepts as available today in the mainstream. Initially, objects were planned to be more like autonomous cells that exchange messages, very similar to what the Actor model provides. So in a sense, what we think of today as OOP is not what its inventors thought it should be.

2. Which is of course only true, if OOP languages are all you know. Read about the Blub Paradox to get an idea why it is so hard to pick up totally different approaches to programming.

3. Regarding equality of data the term "ValueObject" is IMO an outright misnomer. A Value supports extensional equality whereas an Object has identity and therefore supports intensional equality. The term "Value" alone would have been better.

4. This "subject verb" order isn't appropriate in every situation, as Steve Yegge enjoyably points out in his famous blog post Execution in the Kingdom of Nouns.

5. If you are concerned about missing type annotations in Clojure records: There exists an optional type system called Typed Clojure that allows to add compile-time static type checking. Alternatively you can use libraries like Domaintypes or Prismatic Schema to add type-like notation and get corresponding runtime validation.

6. What can we do in OO to add methods contained in a new interface to an existing type without touching the types implementation? Use the Adapter pattern, if you're lucky to influence how instances are created, and if you're able to retain a reasonable equality relation between wrapped and unwrapped instances. Good luck!

7. No, I don't refer to Monads. Java 8 introduced Optional which is only a flavor of the Haskell Maybe Monad. So there is evidence that the idea is useful in OOP.