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Case Study: Superior Domain Modeling in F#

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Domain modeling in F# is significantly easier and safer than with the traditional .NET languages. This is because of the increased safety of pattern matching and the expressiveness of discriminated unions. These concepts are not in C# or VB.NET, and therefore bring a new tool to the table.

To illustrate this, I found some old code I’d written to interact with a legacy system. The system uses many single enums on a record to keep track of statuses. When one changes, it can cause others to change as well.

Here is a typical function that combines two enums to recalculate a third.

public static PositionType GetPositionType (MovementType movementType, ApplyToParty applyToParty)
    if ((movementType == MovementType.Deliver && applyToParty == ApplyToParty.Principal)
        || (movementType == MovementType.Return && applyToParty == ApplyToParty.Counterparty))
        return PositionType.Held;
    if ((movementType == MovementType.Return && applyToParty == ApplyToParty.Principal)
        || (movementType == MovementType.Deliver && applyToParty == ApplyToParty.Counterparty))
        return PositionType.Posted;

    return PositionType.Undefined;

With some regularity, new records are added to these types of enums, causing a dangerous search and update across the system fixing all the if/else or switch/case statements.

Right off the bat, pattern matching is a huge win here, taking a hard to comprehend function and making the domain concepts clear.

let GetPositionType = function
    | Deliver, Principal | Return, Counterparty -> Held
    | Return, Principal | Deliver, Counterparty -> Posted
    | MovementType.Undefined, _ | _, ApplyToParty.Undefined -> PositionType.Undefined

If we add a new status to any of these, we will get a compiler warning in every place letting us know. If that alone was the win, we’d be still be ahead by a lot. The domain is so clear here, I can print this code out and hand it to my BA to ensure the logic is correct.

Next though, this got me thinking. Why does this set of three enums have to be calculated? Why are they even separate? Ah, of course, right now they are stored in the database and ORM objects, each with a separate field and set of enum ids. Changing that would be costly.

What I want is a domain layer a level higher than the typical database ORM classes, something to convert my ORM classes into that will be able to do work in a safer way.

Rather than three enums that are supposed to change in lock step (but might get out of date), I really want a concept of the three combined and “frozen” together.

type Direction = 
    | Held_Deliver_Principal
    | Held_Return_Counterparty
    | Posted_Return_Principal
    | Posted_Deliver_Counterparty
let GetDirection = function
   | Deliver, Principal  -> Held_Deliver_Principal
   | Return, Counterparty -> Held_Return_Counterparty
   | Return, Principal -> Posted_Return_Principal
   | Deliver, Counterparty -> Posted_Deliver_Counterparty

Now I have a combined Direction that merges the three concepts into one. It is impossible with this new merged type to have an invalid state across the three. Getting any of the types back out to convert into the ORM classes or do some work is as simple as another match:

let GetMovementTypeToSaveInORM = function
   | Held_Deliver_Principal | Posted_Deliver_Counterparty -> Deliver
   | Posted_Return_Principal | Held_Return_Counterparty -> Return

let GetSendFn = function
   | Held_Deliver_Principal | Posted_Return_Principal -> SendMessageToPrincipal
   | Held_Return_Counterparty | Posted_Deliver_Counterparty -> SendMessageToCounterparty

While it is possible to make an equivalent C# enum and combine these in a similar way, it is inherently unsafe (nothing to guarantee you covered every case) and therefore appropriately uncommon. The typical answer for safe polymorphic dispatch in C# is to use an interface and classes. Unfortunately, something still has to dispatch on that enum id, either inside a class or at the time of class instantiation. That is a vector for errors.

Because F# interops so well with C#, it is possible to build in a domain layer in F# immediately that calls down to your C# ORM classes. Converting from a set of dangerous C# enums into a constrained and safe F# discriminated union is easy and will simplify your domain to its essence.

For reasons like this, when I have to build something with a rich domain, I reach for F#.

steve shogren

software developer, manager, author, speaker

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