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Writing Type-Safe Collections in C#
Pages: 1, 2

System.Collections.DictionaryBase

While CollectionBase allows us to implement strongly-typed collections of objects, another class called DictionaryBase provides the abstract base class for creating strongly-typed collections of (key, value) pairs. Just as CollectionBase encapsulates an ArrayList, DictionaryBase encapsulates a Hashtable and provides access to it via a protected property called InnerHashtable. DictionaryBase also contains a protected property called Dictionary, which is nothing but DictionaryBase itself returned as an IDictionary (notice that DictionaryBase implements IDictionary). The semantics of defining explicit interface member implementations are the same as in the previous case, which means that even though certain methods like Add and Remove are defined in DictionaryBase, they can only be accessed via an instance of IDictionary.



The following is a type-safe hashtable that stores int/Customer pairs as opposed to object/object pairs stored in a Hashtable. All calls to CustomerTable are delegated to the Dictionary object--they could be delegated to the InnerHashtable object as well.


// CustomerTable.cs
public class CustomerTable : System.Collections.DictionaryBase
{
  public Customer this[int customerID]
  {
    get { return ((Customer)(Dictionary[customerID])); }
    set { Dictionary[customerID] = value; }
  }

  public void Add(int customerID, Customer customer)
  {
    Dictionary.Add(customerID, customer);
  }

  public void Remove(int customerID)
  {
    Dictionary.Remove(customerID);
  }

  public bool Contains(int customerID)
  {
    return Dictionary.Contains(customerID);
  }

  // Add other type-safe methods here
  // ...
  // ...
}

CollectionBase and DictionaryBase solve the problem more elegantly than the first approach. They take most of the work out of implementing a type-safe collection. However, they suffer from some drawbacks that we did not see in the first approach:

  • Since CustomerList is not of type ArrayList, we cannot pass a CustomerList wherever an ArrayList is expected. We could provide a method that returns the InnerList object, but that would violate the rules of encapsulation.
  • If we want type-safe versions of more specialized collections like Stack and Queue, we're out of luck using this approach.

Third Approach: Containing Existing Collection Classes

Even though the above approach works well for most collection classes, it does not address creation of type-safe Stack and Queue classes. To implement these, we could either use the inheritance method we saw in the first approach, or we could use the containment/delegation method (similar to the second approach, except that this time we do it independent of CollectionBase). The following class creates a type-safe Stack of Customer objects using containment and delegation.


// CustomerStack.cs
public class CustomerStack
{
  Stack stack;

  public CustomerStack()
  {
    stack = new Stack();
  }

  public void Push(Customer customer)
  {
    stack.Push(customer);
  }

  public Customer Pop()
  {
    return ((Customer)(stack.Pop()));
  }

  public bool Contains(Customer customer)
  {
    return stack.Contains(customer);
  }

  public int Count
  {
    get { return stack.Count; }
  }

  public IEnumerator GetEnumerator()
  {
    return stack.GetEnumerator();
  }

  // Add other type-safe methods here
  // ...
  // ...
}

This approach gives us more flexibility in implementing our collections. For example, we could use the same class to implement multiple collections. Also, containment protects us from any future changes to the collections classes. The downside of this approach is the same as we saw with the second approach--since CustomerStack is not of type Stack, it cannot be passed wherever a Stack is expected.

In the above code, we could make CustomerStack implement the ICollection interface, but in that case, we must be prepared to provide implementations for all of the methods and properties of ICollection. By not implementing ICollection, we just chose a little freedom for ourselves so that we could provide only the minimum functionality required for our stack implementation, while still leveraging the contained Stack object by delegating all calls to it.

Conclusion

Even though all of the above approaches achieve compile-time type safety, none of them is particularly elegant or efficient, for the following reasons:

  • All of them require us to write every type of collection for every type of object we wish to store. This sacrifices polymorphism and results in code duplication. The size of an application that wishes to achieve such precise type safety can increase rapidly, and fixing bugs in the duplicated sections can be quite a task.
  • Since collection classes in C# are designed with reference types in mind, using them with value types leads to unnecessary boxing and unboxing, which degrades performance. All three approaches discussed in this article make use of the built-in collection classes, so they all suffer from the same performance problem.

The problems faced by the Collections Framework are precisely the problems that generic types try to solve, but until we see support for generics in C#, we will have to either implement our own type-safe collections, or succumb to writing type-unsafe code that rears its ugly head during a demo.

Amit Goel has been developing object-oriented applications for several years. You can learn more about him at www.amitgoel.com.


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