So, an object is a collection of data with associated behaviors. How do we differentiate between types of objects? Apples and oranges are both objects, but it is a common adage that they cannot be compared. Apples and oranges aren't modeled very often in computer programming, but let's pretend we're doing an inventory application for a fruit farm. To facilitate the example, we can assume that apples go in barrels and oranges go in baskets.
Now, we have four kinds of objects: apples, oranges, baskets, and barrels. In object-oriented modeling, the term used for a kind of object is class. So, in technical terms, we now have four classes of objects.
It's important to understand the difference between an object and a class. Classes describe objects. They are like blueprints for creating an object. You might have three oranges sitting on the table in front of you. Each orange is a distinct object, but all three have the attributes and behaviors associated with one class: the general class of oranges.
The relationship between the four classes of objects in our inventory system can be described using a Unified Modeling Language (invariably referred to as UML, because three-letter acronyms never go out of style) class diagram. Here is our first class diagram:
This diagram shows that an Orange is somehow associated with a Basket and that an Apple is also somehow associated with a Barrel. Association is the most basic way for two classes to be related.
UML is very popular among managers, and occasionally disparaged by programmers. The syntax of a UML diagram is generally pretty obvious; you don't have to read a tutorial to (mostly) understand what is going on when you see one. UML is also fairly easy to draw, and quite intuitive. After all, many people, when describing classes and their relationships, will naturally draw boxes with lines between them. Having a standard based on these intuitive diagrams makes it easy for programmers to communicate with designers, managers, and each other.
However, some programmers think UML is a waste of time. Citing iterative development, they will argue that formal specifications done up in fancy UML diagrams are going to be redundant before they're implemented, and that maintaining these formal diagrams will only waste time and not benefit anyone.
Depending on the corporate structure involved, this may or may not be true. However, every programming team consisting of more than one person will occasionally have to sit down and hash out the details of the subsystem it is currently working on. UML is extremely useful in these brainstorming sessions for quick and easy communication. Even those organizations that scoff at formal class diagrams tend to use some informal version of UML in their design meetings or team discussions.
Furthermore, the most important person you will ever have to communicate with is yourself. We all think we can remember the design decisions we've made, but there will always be the Why did I do that? moments hiding in our future. If we keep the scraps of papers we did our initial diagramming on when we started a design, we'll eventually find them a useful reference.
This chapter, however, is not meant to be a tutorial on UML. There are many of those available on the internet, as well as numerous books on the topic. UML covers far more than class and object diagrams; it also has a syntax for use cases, deployment, state changes, and activities. We'll be dealing with some common class diagram syntax in this discussion of object-oriented design. You can pick up the structure by example, and you'll subconsciously choose the UML-inspired syntax in your own team or personal design sessions.
Our initial diagram, while correct, does not remind us that apples go in barrels or how many barrels a single apple can go in. It only tells us that apples are somehow associated with barrels. The association between classes is often obvious and needs no further explanation, but we have the option to add further clarification as needed.
The beauty of UML is that most things are optional. We only need to specify as much information in a diagram as makes sense for the current situation. In a quick whiteboard session, we might just quickly draw lines between boxes. In a formal document, we might go into more detail. In the case of apples and barrels, we can be fairly confident that the association is many apples go in one barrel, but just to make sure nobody confuses it with one apple spoils one barrel, we can enhance the diagram as shown:
This diagram tells us that oranges go in baskets, with a little arrow showing what goes in what. It also tells us the number of that object that can be used in the association on both sides of the relationship. One Basket can hold many (represented by a *) Orange objects. Any one Orange can go in exactly one Basket. This number is referred to as the multiplicity of the object. You may also hear it described as the cardinality. These are actually slightly distinct terms. Cardinality refers to the actual number of items in the set, whereas multiplicity specifies how small or how large the set could be.
I sometimes forget which end of the relationship line is supposed to have which multiplicity number. The multiplicity nearest to a class is the number of objects of that class that can be associated with any one object at the other end of the association. For the apple goes in barrel association, reading from left to right, many instances of the Apple class (that is many Apple objects) can go in any one Barrel. Reading from right to left, exactly one Barrel can be associated with any one Apple.