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Modeling Class Library Structure

Modeling Class Library Structure

This article, the third in a series of articles introducing the concepts of object-oriented design and the Unified Modeling Language (UML), continues the study of modeling class structures using UML notation and the class diagram. My focus here is on the modeling of class hierarchies, which are common to most class library applications. I will use Visio to create the UML class hierarchical structure. I will also examine Visio's code generation to verify the class model against the .NET code necessary to create the library.

Modeling Class Inheritance
Class structures are fundamental to any object-oriented programming language. The class structure is a template for the objects that will implement the functionality of your applications. As a .NET developer, you need to become increasingly familiar with the classes available in the .NET Framework. As you gain experience developing .NET applications, you will discover the need to develop your own class libraries. Good design of object-oriented applications dictates a clear separation of functionality between the user interface, business logic, and data access logic. Well-designed applications achieve this separation of functionality through the development of class libraries that encapsulate internal processing. By developing class libraries, your applications become more manageable, scalable, and extendable.

One of the most powerful features of object-oriented programming languages is the ability to create class hierarchal structures. Using class hierarchies and inheritance allows the programmer to create base classes that encapsulate common functionality. Classes that need to incorporate the functionality simply inherit from the base class. The derived classes can then implement the base functionality as is or augment it by overriding the base class methods.

The .NET Framework contains numerous examples of inheritance. For example, when creating controls, certain functionality is required for all controls hosted on a form. A base Control class encapsulates this functionality. For example, the Control class defines the BackColor property and the BringToFront method. A ButtonBase class inherits from the Control class and encapsulates functionality required by all types of button controls. The Button, CheckBox, and RadioButton inherit from the ButtonBase class and include specific functionality required for each control.

When modeling classes using UML, an arrow points from the derived class to the base class. Figure 1 demonstrates how the button control class hierarchy is represented in a UML class diagram. It is worth noting that .NET supports only single inheritance. This means that a class can inherit directly from only one base class. A single base class can, however, be inherited by multiple derived classes.

When constructing base classes, decisions have to be made as to how the class will be utilized in the class library. Will clients need to instantiate and work with a base class directly, or will its functionality be accessible only through derived classes (an abstract base class)? Are the properties and methods exposed to classes (public scope), derived classes (protected scope), or not exposed at all (private scope)? Do we force derived classes to utilize the implementation of the properties and methods or give them the ability to alter the body of a property or method (Overridable)? Should clients of the class library be able to derive classes from library classes, or should we limit the inheritance by sealing the derived class (NotInheritable)?

As you build larger and more complex libraries that programmers throughout your organization utilize, accurately modeling the structure of your libraries becomes crucial. Additionally, programmers need documentation outlining the structure and functionality of the class library to effectively utilize and incorporate it in their programs. This is where the UML class diagram fits in. It is an excellent tool for both modeling and documenting class libraries.

Using Visio to Model Inheritance in a Class Diagram
The following activities will introduce you to the process of modeling class hierarchies using a UML class diagram and Visio.
1.   Start up Visio. From the File menu, choose New ­> Software ­> UML Model Diagram.
2.   Locate the Shapes window on the left side of the screen. This window includes a tab for the common UML diagrams. Select the UML Static Structure tab (see Figure 2).
3.   From the Shapes window click and drag the Class shape onto the design surface. Right-click the Class shape on the design surface and choose Properties. A UML Class Properties window becomes visible (see Figure 3). Change the name to "BaseClass". Add another class, named "DerivedClass", to your diagram.
4.   Right-click the BaseClass shape on the design surface and choose Properties. The three check boxes IsRoot, IsLeaf, and IsAbstract determine how the class functions in the class hierarchy. By checking the IsRoot check box, you are restricting the class from inheriting from other classes. Checking IsAbstract restricts the class from being instantiated, and forces clients to instantiate a derived class to access the functionality of the class. Checking IsLeaf indicates that the class is sealed. Sealed classes are noninheritable and help to limit the depth of an inheritance chain.
5.   Check the IsAbstract check box and select the Code Generation Options in the Categories list box located on the left side of the UML Class Properties window. Select Visual Basic in the Target Language dropdown. Select default in the Implementation dropdown. Click on the Preview code button at the bottom of the window. In the Code Preview window notice that the keyword MustInherit is contained in the class definition code. This restricts the class from being instantiated. Close the Code Preview window.
6.   In the UML Class Properties window, check the IsRoot check box. This restricts the base class from inheriting from other classes. Note: This does not correlate to a keyword for code generation and the restriction is only enforced in your Visio diagram.
7.   In the UML Class Properties window, select Attributes in the Categories list box. Click the New button to create a new attribute. Change the Type to VB::Integer and Visibility to private. Add another attribute of type VB::String and a visibility of protected. Private scope means it is accessible only from within the class. Protected scoping is accessible from derived classes. Public scoping is accessible from any class.
8.   In the UML Class Properties window, select Operations in the Categories list box. Click the New button to create a new operation. Change the ReturnType to VB::Boolean and the Visibility to protected. Mark the operation as overridable by checking the Polymorphic check box. Select the Code Generation Options in the Categories list box located on the left side of the UML Class Properties window. Select Visual Basic in the Target Language dropdown. Select default in the Implementation dropdown. Click on the Preview code button at the bottom of the window. In the Code Preview window notice that the keyword Overridable is contained in the operation's definition code. This allows inherited classes to alter the method implementation if needed. Close the Code Preview window.
9.   In the Shapes window, located on the left side of the screen, select the UML Static Structure tab (see Figure 2). Click and drag the Generalizes shape on the design surface. Attach the tail of the arrow (Generalizes shape) to the DerivedClass shape. Attach the head to the BaseClass shape (see Figure 4).
10.   Right-click the DerivedClass shape on the design surface and choose Properties. Select the Code Generation Options in the Categories list box located on the left side of the UML Class Properties window. Select Visual Basic in the Target Language dropdown. Select default in the Implementation dropdown. Click on the Preview code button at the bottom of the window. In the Code Preview window notice that the code includes an Inherits statement. Close the Code Preview window.
11.   Select Class in the Categories list box located on the left side of the UML Class Properties window. Check the IsLeaf check box. Click on the Code Generation Options and launch the Code Preview window. Notice that the keyword NotInheritable has been added to the class definition. This seals the class so that other classes cannot inherit from it. Close the Code Preview window.
12.   Select Operations in the Categories list box located on the left side of the UML Class Properties window. Click on the Methods button on the right side of the window. In the Operation name dropdown you can choose a base class operation to override. Choose BaseClass::operation1. To override the method implemented in the base class, click the Has Method check box. Click OK to close the UML Method Properties window. Preview the code for the class. A function is added to the code marked with the Overrides keyword. Close the Code Preview UML Class Properties windows.
13.   Open the UML Class Properties window for the BaseClass. Select Operations in the Categories list box located on the left side of the UML Class Properties window. Create a new operation and launch the properties for the operation. Select Method in the Categories list box. Uncheck the Has method check box to indicate the method is abstract. Click on the Code Generation Options and launch the Code Preview window. Notice that the operation is marked with the keyword MustOveride. Close the Code Preview window and the UML Class Properties window.
14.   Using the process outlined in Step 12, override the abstract operation you just created in the DerivedClass. Figure 5 shows the completed diagram.

Review
As you develop complex class structures and interactions in your class libraries, the importance of accurately modeling and documenting the class library structure becomes increasingly crucial. A CASE tool such as Visio makes this complex task more manageable. This article demonstrated the modeling of class hierarchies using UML and Visio. As you work with Visio to create your class models, take the time to explore some of the features that this article did not cover. In particular, you may want to investigate modeling shared classes, interfaces, and utility classes, all of which are common to object-oriented applications.

This concludes my series of articles on the modeling of the static (organizational) structure of an object-oriented application. Along with modeling the static structure of an application, it is equally important to model the dynamic (behavioral) aspects of your object-oriented applications. UML includes a robust set of notations and models for modeling the behavioral interactions between classes. These include the sequence diagram, collaboration diagram, and activity diagram. Look for a future series of articles that will introduce you to the issues involved in modeling the dynamic interactions that take place between the classes of an object-oriented application.

More Stories By Dan Clark

Dan is a Microsoft Certified Trainer, Microsoft Certified Solution Developer, and a Microsoft Certified Database Administrator. For the past seven years he has been developing applications and training others how to develop applications using Microsoft technologies. Dan has been developing and training Microsoft's .NET technologies since the early betas. He has recently authored the book "An Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming with Visual Basic .NET," published by Apress.

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