Changing Layers

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This is a story about making a change and how layering played in. The code started with an outer layer which depended on an inner layer. Our change started with a prototype that only modified the outer layer. This did not sit well with my coworker, Daryl, who wanted me to change only the inner layer. During the code review, we realized we could combine the two layers and clean up the application.

The both out and inner layers are responsible for accessing specialized settings. These settings are special because of how heavily they are read and are readonly while the application is running. The settings are often treated like a key/value and there will only every be a handful of them for any instance of the application.

The settings data includes a Key and Value and looks like this:

class Settings {
    string Key { get; set; }
    string Value { get; set; }
    string Version { get; set; }
    string Type { get; set; }

The inner layer’s interface provides access to all settings:

interface ISettingsProvider {
    IEnumerable<Settings> GetAllSettings();

Whereas the outer layer’s interface supports a key value lookup on the Settings.Value based on the Settings.Key:

interface ISettingsValueProvider {
    bool TryGetSetting(
        string key,
        out string settingsValue

In the original version the inner layer’s implementation would parse configuration files and then return all of the settings. The outer layer would call the inner layer to get all the settings and then cache the results for the key/value lookup. Since there would only be a handful of settings and they are so heavily read this works great. Very few parts of the application call the inner layer, but many code paths indirectly use the values provided by the outer layer.

We wanted to allow the settings to be looked up from a environment variables. Using a single configuration file would not work for some of the more dynamic workloads we want to support. Instead we wanted to set the environment variables with specific values when the application is launched. With this feature we could easily switch values by relaunching the application.


To investigate using environment variables instead of the configuration file I made a small prototype demonstrating how they would be used by the application. I included a new implementation of the outer layer’s interface which read the values from environment variables. I then updated the factory responsible for creating the outer layer’s implementation to create my new class when using environment variables was enabled.

I liked this implementation a lot; it was extremely clean and did exactly what I wanted. The new implementation perfectly fit the interface for the outer layer. Since TryGetSetting is a key/value lookup it cleanly maps to the name/value pairs of environment variables.

While this was good for a prototype, it was not enough to ship. Daryl, did not like how I skipped the inner layer. After all, the outer layer calls the inner layer to get all the settings. My work was half done and if I changed the inner layer instead I would not have needed to change anything else.

After we talked, I realized Daryl was right. Though I liked how clean my solution was, it was not complete and it was changing the wrong layer. We threw out the prototype and started the real solution.


With the final pull request I started by implementing both interfaces separately. The direct key/value lookup with the outer layer was great and it was easy to implement the inner layer to get all possible values.

I noticed both implementations were very similar and decided to combine them:

class EnvironmentVariableSettingsProvider : ISettingsProvider, ISettingsValueProvider {

    bool TryGetSetting(
        string key,
        out string settingsValue
    ) {
        settingsValue = Get( key );
        return settingsValue != null;

    IEnumerable<Settings> GetAllSettings() {
        foreach( string key in GetAllKeys() ) {
            if( !key.StartsWith( "SettingsPrefix" ) ) {

            yield return new Settings {
                Key = key,
                Value = Get( key ),
                Version = GetVersion( key ),
                Type = GetType( key )


Daryl liked this. The original interfaces were very fine grained and dealt with the exact same data. The responsibility for looking up a single setting or all settings was split. The separate interfaces made sense when it was first implemented. Seeing them combined helped us realize it would be simpler if they were one interface:

interface ISettingsProvider {
    IEnumerable<Settings> GetAllSettings();

    bool TryGetSetting(
        string key,
        out string settingsValue

Violating the Single Responsibility Principle?

Does this violate the Single Responsibility Principle? Maybe.

The previous responsibilities for each class/interface were extremely narrow: get a setting or get all settings. Combining the interfaces means the two responsibilities are merged into a single class. Together in one class, the methods are a more cohesive package.

The new design encapsulates how a single data source is used in one class. In the previous version this was split between the layers. Now details for using a configuration file or environment variables are isolated in our ISettingsProvider implementations. Although this is a larger responsibility than before, I think it is a reasonable way to break up the code.

I have drunk the SOLID Kool-Aid. For years I have tried to think hard about when to apply each of the rules. While writing this post I found the article “I don’t love the single responsibility principle”. Like the hacker news comments I don’t agree with all the ideas here, especially about the future being irrelevant. However, I completely agree with his alternate class sizing principle:

The purpose of classes is to organize code as to minimize complexity. Therefore, classes should be:

  1. small enough to lower coupling, but
  2. large enough to maximize cohesion.

By default, choose to group by functionality.

Marco Cecconi

This explanation makes perfect sense. Looking at the problem in terms of cohesion and coupling got me thinking. There is a delicate balancing act between massive classes doing too much and tiny classes with one narrow reason to change.

The Balancing Act

I spent the last 4 months as an Exterminator dealing with large classes which do way too much. Thousands of lines and too many responsibilities to count. These classes need to be broken up. The classes were heavily coupled and less cohesive due to the many things they did.

Another common pattern is small classes which delegate most of their work to other classes. They always have one tiny responsibility and their one reason to change has never happened. For really small classes like these I often don’t see the value they provide. The coupling between these micro classes was very low, but they are not cohesive enough to tie the system together.

I prefer chunkier cohesive classes. This means a class’ one reason to change will be a little bigger so I can have cleaner modules. In the example from this post, the primary reason for a ISettingsProvider to change is when accessing the underlying data source changes. Otherwise, the individual methods should be very stable.

Originally, each layer abstracted a single method. Since the two layers were intimately connected it made sense to combine them. We found this by looking closer at how they interacted and experimenting. We thought it was a good idea to combine them.

De-layering for Simplicity

How do you know you have hit the sweet spot for your layering? You don’t. Deciding when to combine/split layers is arbitrary! Need help thinking through or reviewing your layers? Try these approaches/questions:

  • Code reviews
  • Talking to others
  • Prototype a change
  • Consider the impact/effort for potential change
  • Where are defects most likely or costly
  • Liberally apply YAGNI to remove layers

I think the combined layers are easier to understand. There are fewer classes and moving parts to the system. With the extremely small interfaces you would need to bounce around a lot more to understand the code. Given my short attention span it can be really hard to trace all of the pieces.

The code was loosely coupled, but not cohesive. We tilted the balance toward combining responsibilities and classes and in this case I like the result.

If you are making a change across several layers think about which layer is the best place to make your change. Think about whether you need all those layers or if they would be better together.

Thanks again Daryl for working through this change with me. I felt like I learnt from our discussions and always enjoy when you are on my code reviews.

Thank you also to Ershad who brought up the potential Single Responsibility violation. I hope you liked my answer ;).

I would like to thank Josh Groen for helping review this post. He is really good at it and also rocks a mean standing desk. Don’t worry it, it happened in the past.

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