Internal And External Collaborators

The Single Responsibility Principal (SRP) states that every object should have a single responsibility, and that all its services should be aligned with that responsibility. By separating object responsibilities we are able to achieve a clear Separation of Concerns. Objects need to collaborate with each other in order to perform a behaviour. I find I use two distinct styles of collaboration with other objects which I have called internal and external collaborators.

The principals of object collaboration are nothing new, but I have found that defining these roles has helped me to better understand how to design and test the behaviour of objects.

External Collaborators

External collaborators are objects that provide a service or resource to an object but are not directly controlled by the object. They are passed to an object by dependency injection or through a service locator. An object makes calls to its external collaborators to perform actions or retrieve data. When testing an object, any external collaborators are stubbed-out. We can then write tests that perform an action, then determine if the right calls were made to the external object.

Examples of external collaborator objects include: services, repositories, presenters, framework classes, email senders, loggers and file system wrappers.

We are interested in testing how we interact with the external collaborator and not how it affects the behaviour of our object. For example, if we are testing a controller that retrieves a list of customers from a repository, we want to know that we have asked the repository for a list of customers, but we are not concerned that the repository returns the correct customers (this is a test for the repository itself). Of course, we might need some particular customer objects returned by the stub for the purpose of testing the behaviour of the controller. These customer objects then become internal collaborators, which we’ll come to next.

External collaborators can be registered with an IoC container to manage the creation and lifecycle of the object, and to provide an instance to dependent objects.

Internal Collaborators

Internal collaborators have a smaller scope than external collaborators. They are used in the context of the local object to provide functions or hold state. An object and its internal collaborators work together closely and should be treated as a single unit of behaviour.

Examples of internal collaborators include: DTOs, domain entities, view-models, utilities, system types and extension methods.

When testing an object with internal collaborators, we are interested in the effect on behaviour, not the interaction with the object. Therefore we shouldn’t stub-out internal collaborators. We don’t care how we interact with them, just that the correct behaviour occurs.

These objects are not affected by external influences, such as a database, email server, or file system. They are also not volatile or susceptible to environmental changes, such as a web request context. Therefore, they should not require any special context setup before testing.

We don’t get passed an instance of a internal collaborator through dependency injection, instead they may be passed to us by an external collaborator (e.g. a repository returning an entity), or we create an instance within our own object when we need it (such as a DTO).

By understanding the roles and responsibilities of collaboration between objects, our design becomes clearer and tests are more focused and easier to maintain.



1 Response to “Internal And External Collaborators”

  1. 1 Mike Wagg September 7, 2009 at 10:55 am

    Nice post!

    I think once you can think about your ojects in this way it becomes a lot easier to know how to test them properly and thus create a better design.

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