Sunday, 29 April 2007

Singleton Classes in Ruby

After my last post on my other blog where I'd described trying to get my head around Ruby inheritance and instance variables I got this comment:

To start with it confused me. (The '#' on the last line was missing too which didn't help.) As I'm still a real noob when it comes to Ruby I still have trouble coming to terms with the compact syntax which others use; however I'm in this to learn so I had a fiddle and here is the fruit of my labours.

It turns out (after a fair bit of googling/yahooing - spread the love man) that this is an example of a Ruby Singleton Class. I'll explain below but should first note that this is very much lifted from Ola Bini's post on the topic. I take it slower with some more code and hopefully some Java angles. Just to be clear, this is not original work but represents my thought processes in understanding Ola's illustration.

Ready? Lets go.

1. Ruby has no concept of things being final; unlike in Java. If I want to add a method or attribute to the String class, I just do it (you can even do this to Java classes when using JRuby, but let's not complicate things):

Note: You can see that Netbeans had seen that I've added a method to my String class and offers it as an option in the code completion dialogue. I'll continue to use the info Netbeans gives me as it maps onto how I think about Java.

When I run it I get this:

Cool. I've added a new method to the String class (a "Class Method" no less) and it's available from all my instances of the String class from now on. Ruby sees this as a good thing because you, the developer are free to place code where it makes sense to you and your object model - i.e. if I want my String to be able to say "hello" then this should go on the String class) But this isn't what we need to think about; more of a dipping of our toe in the water. Lets move on...

2. In Ruby, everything is an object, and all objects have a class which they are an instance of. You can get at these classes by calling the method class on any object you like. When you start coding the methods of your class will only be the ones available by defaut to that object's class. We can see these in Netbeans if we press CTRL-SPACE to get code completion:

Then we just saw we can add to this list by redefining the class itself in the standard way. There is however another way. Ruby also allows you to add new methods to any object. How? This is the first (and more intuitive to Java folks) way:

Which gives us this when we run it:

Super. As I'd expect. But there is another way and now we are heading into the land of Singleton classes. We can get an object's class by using "class". We can use "<<" to push this onto the class definition extension which follows. E.g.:

Again we can see that in the line of test code, Nebeans has picked this up and offers "bar" as an optional method on our foo object. We won't run it as I'm sure you can guess what it does. We have added a method to a foo object.

All still aboard? Lets complicate things further. We've added a method to foo which is a n instance of String. Is this method available to other Strings? Code completion will tell us:

Hmmm. Not on the list. If we look at the Navigator pane it's telling us the same thing:

And there's the clue; foo is now listed as a class with our bar method defined on it. What? Remember we said everything in Ruby is an object? Well, it turns out that even classes are objects. Confused? Free yourself from your Java chains! It means we can frig around with them just like anything else we can get our grubby mits on but we need to be aware of what Ruby does for us when we do.

What is happening is that when we define a new method on a specific object an new, anonymous class is inserted between that object and the real class (in this case "String") which defines it. (Remember, Ruby only has single inheritance so this is pretty easy to picture in your head.) When we call a method on foo, the interpreter first looks inside the anonymous class for a definition (if there is one) and then on to the real class.

Now for the final push. You'll have probably guessed that our anonymous class is actually what is called a Singleton class. Seems fair, but why the "Singleton"? As we've seen, all objects can have a Singleton class, even if the original user didn't intend it. You want it, you can add it. Fine. Now know that classes are objects themselves. Following me? I'll say it slowly as it took me a while too; C-l-a-s-s-e-s a-r-e o-b-j-e-c-t-s.

Lets take an example, the class String is actually an instance of the class Class,as are all classes. There is nothing special about these instances. Their names are capitalised simply because they are constants. Now, because every class is an instance of Class, what are called Class Methods in Ruby or Static Methods in Java are actually just a special case of Singleton Methods; ones which are defined on the instance of the class in question. Lets add a Singleton Method to the String class. As I'm coming to learn with Ruby, there's more than one way to do it, but there is a preferred way. First, the non preferred way:

And now the preferred way:

The first way is pretty simple. It's dead like the first example, way up the top of this page but the new hello method is private (It turns out that "private" in Ruby isn't what "private" is in Java but that's another post...) ; a Singleton Method. So why is the second way preferred? It's because it makes explicit the Singleton Class, both to you the developer and also to Ruby.

First, you the developer: In Ruby you need to think about how the code reads to you as a human being, not as a compiler as Java has taught you. This way shows us that the Singleton class is defined inside the class definition, and hello is defined on it. Just read it and you'll see.

Second, Ruby: Look at the Navigator for this way and compare it with the navigator for the first way. There is an extra "self" class in between the String and our function. This is the embodyment of the Singleton class.

We should explain this "self" a little more. Used on it's own in our code, "self" lets us get access to the class instance we are using it on like the first class in the code below. When used in a similar way to the preferred way it now gets us the Singleton class instance. We can see this in the second class. Again, look at the Navigator pane where it is made clear:

We can see that the syntax to get access to the Singleton class is the same we used to get access to We also can see that the navigator shows the clear difference between the two String classes - the latter has a Singleton class.

What about the differences between what these methods return? The former (the so called "regular self") returns the class instance: "String". The latter returns the Singleton class for the String.

So finally, lets return to the comment which started all this in the first place:

Clearly, we are defining a class ("C") and then adding a Singleton method and what I can only assume is called a Singleton attribute called "method". We then create a sub class of this ("D") and the last line of the code demonstrates that this sub class has access to the Singleton class instance. If we look at the Navigator, we can see all this laid out nicely for us as a hierarchy.

So why is this important? Well, as the comment stated, this is a nice and simple way to inherit class instance variables but more importantly this idiom is used in meta-programming, a mainstay or the Ruby world. For more detail on this I'd better leave it to Ola and his blog.


russ said...

Nice post!

Unless I'm missing something, the key to understanding the chunk of code in question is that singleton classes can have *both* methods and instance variables.

The singleton class for a class like Array gets inserted between the Array class and it's parent, the Class class.

The singleton class for a class of my own, say C, gets inserted between the C class and the Object class.

Singleton classes can have both methods and instance variables just like any old class. The attr_accessor :some_instance_variable sets up a getter method and a setter method for some_instance_variable.

Let's change the code chunk:

class C
class << self
attr_accessor :some_instance_variable

C.some_instance_variable = "bladiblah"
puts C.some_instance_variable #=> "blahdiblah"

The attr_accessor just creates a getter and setter for the instance variable so, this is the same thing as the following:

class C
class << self

def some_instance_variable

def some_instance_variable= (new_iVar)
@some_instance_variable = new_iVar

C.some_instance_variable = "bladiblah"
puts C.some_instance_variable # =>"blahdiblah"

So, this is all pretty standard. The fascinating thing is that you can do it with those weird creatures--singleton classes.

Now, let's add a sub-class and try the same thing:

class D < C
D.some_instance_variable = "bladiblah"
puts D.some_instance_variable # =>"blahdiblah"

Why does *this* work? Because when the code is executed the compiler looks at the D class and doesn't find the setter method, some_instance_variable=, then it goes up one level and looks at its parent, the C class, and finds no setter method. Then it goes up another level and looks at the C singleton class. There it does find the setter method. Same thing happens with the getter method.

Roger Pack said...

Note that to retrieve a singleton_class you can run: (class << hello; self; end)

paul reynolds said...

check out for a table on method locations depending on whether they are instance, class or singleton methods.