Singletons are Glorified Globals

You’re working on a snippet of code, and out of the blue, you happen to need a class of which you should only have one instance of, and which needs to be referenced by other classes.

Sounds like a job for a singleton! Or is it?

You want to use a singleton to store state

Realistically speaking, if you’re using a singleton solely to store state, you are doing it wrong. What you’ve made isn’t a singleton — what you’ve made is a bunch of glorified globals. Using singletons to store state seems appealing at first, because you want to avoid using a global and every programmer knows that globals are evil. But using a singleton in this case is just abstracting the globals one layer back so that you can feel happy about your code not having globals.

Furthermore, having globals will make your code unpredictable and bug-prone. This becomes exponentially worse as the number of dependencies in your singleton increases. If you are using a singleton because you need its global properties, it’s because you are not taking advantage of dependency injection (DI) / inversion of control (IoC). You should be passing the state around with IoC, not by creating a giant global and passing around the global fields.

Singletons make your code painfully difficult to test and debug

Singletons can’t be easily tested when they are integrated with other classes. For every class that uses a singleton, you will have to manually mock the singleton and have it return the desired test values. On top of this, singletons are notoriously difficult to debug when multi-threading is involved. Because your singleton is a major dependence for several classes, not only is your code tightly coupled, but you will also suffer from hard-to-find multi-threading bugs due to the uncertain nature of globals.

You want to use a singleton to avoid repeating an expensive IO action

Occasionally, you may be tempted to use a singleton to perform an expensive IO action exactly once, and then store the results. An incredibly common example of this is using a singleton for a database connection. But doing so in addition to having multi-threading will cause massive headaches unless your connection is guaranteed to be thread-safe.

In general, database concurrency will not be easy to implement if you are using a singleton for the connection. What you really want is a database connection pool. By caching the connection, you avoid having to repeatedly close and open new connections, which is expensive. As an added bonus, if you use a connection pool, you simply won’t need to use a singleton.

You want to pass data around, but you don’t need to modify the data

You just need a data transfer object. No need for a singleton here. And worse, giving your singleton access to methods that can modify the data makes your singleton a god object. It knows how to do everything, knows all of the implementation details, and is likely coupled to basically everything, violating almost every software development principle.

Worse yet, using a singleton to provide context is a fatal mistake. If a singleton provides context to all the other classes, then that means every class that interacts with the singleton theoretically has access to all the states/contexts in your program.

You are using a singleton to create a logger

Actually, this is really one of the few acceptable use for a singleton. Why? Because a logger does not pass around data to other classes, provides no context, and there is generally minimal coupling between the logger and the classes that require the logger. All the logger needs to know is that given some log request or string, it should output the log as a file or to the console.

As you can see, a logger will provide nothing to classes that require it — there is nothing to grab from the logger. Therefore, it’s impossible to use the logger as a glorified global container. And best of all, loggers are incredibly easy to test due to how simple they are. These properties make loggers an excellent choice for a singleton.

In the future, you’ll probably find a scenario where you’re considering using a singleton for any of the reasons above. But hopefully, you’ll now realize that singletons are not the answer — inversion of control is.

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