Sunday, April 11, 2010

MVC I: Hierarchical Views

I thought I'd start this architecture blog with a post on one of the things that, traditionally, have given me the most heartburn: the implementation of view in MVC architectures.

As a refresher, MVC is by now the standard architecture for most applications, web or not. It stands for Model, View, Controller. Model is the abstract representation of the data you are handling (for instance, invoices). The view is the particular representation of the data (for instance, the invoice edit screen). The controller is what ties the two together and add user input. The controller fetches the data by instantiating the model, and passes it to the view, which can take the data and make it into a page.

The problem I have seen over and over is that MVC implementations tend to be controller-centric. The controllers compose the activities of the application. They tell the models which data to fetch, how to alter the data, and how to instantiate the session and other user parameters. They then select the view to display and invoke it, passing it the data they found along the way.

As a result of this mode of thinking, views are typically considered subservient to the controllers. Every controller has its own set of views, and when a particular view isn't working precisely for the problem at hand, the template is copied, a new folder created, and the copy manipulated.

The main problem with this approach is that this is not how graphic designers and users think. These two groups cannot see the underlying structures and think in terms of objects on pages. To them, the navigation bar at the top is a constant - an object - and seeing it change for no reason is surprising. Which in applications always means, bad.

Some view implementation try to take that into account by adding "snippets" of various kinds to the implementation. They can either be subtemplates, macros, shortcuts, include files, or something like that. But, really, what the implementation must look like is object-oriented. If the user thinks of a portion of the page as a navigation bar, then that's exactly what the code should say.

The advantage of going about things this way is that when the graphic designer thinks it would be better to have a vertical instead of a horizontal navigation bar, you change the implementation only in the file that defines the position of objects in the area of the navigation bar. This way, one change to the views (from the users' perspective) is reflected in one change in the code.

There is no penalty but planning for doing so. Modern processors are perfectly capable of doing the replacement at incredibly high speed, and the page generation can be cached for performance (even though the caching is typically unnecessary, since the fetching of data is typically a lot more expensive). The code is both easier to write and easier to maintain, and subclassing gives you a good feel of how inconsistent your application becomes.

Which is why I wonder why I yet have to encounter a popular framework that starts its business with class hierarchies for views.

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