Article OOP Business Applications: Entity, Boundary, Interactor

Other posts in this series:

Continuing the series, I will talk about Entity, Boundary and Interactor (EBI) an architectural design pattern. I first heard about it in a keynote video of Uncle Bob on Ruby Midwest called "The lost years of architecture". This is also described as Hexagonal architecture or "Ports and Adapters" by Alistair Cockburn.

In this pattern any client of the system talks to the model using a model request object and receives data from the model in form of model responses objects. Additionally when your model talks to any kind of persistence or subsystem it should go through an adapter that is replaceable. For a model architecture designed this way, you can replace any part of the UI oder lower layers by writing new adapters and plug them in.

To iterate the terminology:

Entities are objects that represent the system data of the application. They don't contain much logic except rules that are set in stone and are never going to change (based on physic or mathematical laws or something).

Interactors are use-case objects, they contain the business logic that is valid in the current use-case and works with entities to fulfil their task.

The boundary is responsible for translating model request/response into a format that the UI or actor can understand. They also mediate between model and lower levels, for example to manage database transactions.

Lets start with an example in PHP code. We will keep using a common example throughout all blog posts, the usual Bank Account/Money Transfer. The use case is the money transfer from one bank account (source) to another one (destination).

We start by implementing the entity BankAccount:

class BankAccount 
    private $balance;

    public function __construct()
        $this->balance = new Money(0);

    public function withdraw(Money $money)
        $this->balance = $this->balance->subtract($money);

    public function deposit(Money $money)
        $this->balance = $this->balance->add($money);

It is straightforward to implement the withdraw and deposit functionality. The Money object implementation is omitted here.

The Interactor handles the use-case of transferring money from the source to the destination account:

class MoneyTransferRequest
    public $sourceId;
    public $destinationId;
    public $amount;
class MoneyTransferResponse

class MoneyTransfer
    private $accountDao; // ctor omitted

    public function transferMoney(MoneyTransferRequest $transfer)
        $source      = $this->accountDao->find($transfer->sourceId);
        $destination = $this->accountDao->find($transfer->destinationId);
        $money       = new Money($transfer->amount);


        return new MoneyTransferResponse();

The MoneyTransferRequest and MoneyTransferResponse objects are dumb php objects (so called data-transfer objects, DTO).

You can see in the example that we use a Data Access object to retrieve the source and destination account entities from some storage subsystem. To follow the EBI design pattern, we have to decouple this data access object from the model, by offering a port (Interface):

interface AccountDaoInterface
    public function find($accountId);

This way our business logic is storage independent.

An example for a boundary would be the requirement for a transaction in the bank account sample. We need to wrap the whole MoneyTransfer use-case in a transaction. Lets say the invocation of our Use-Case is controlled through some kind of application boundary object:

class BankApplicationBoundary
    private $applicationFactory;

    public function transferMoney(MoneyTransferRequest $request)
        $connection = $this->applicationFactory->createConnection();

        try {
            $useCase = new MoneyTransfer($factory->createAccountDao());
            $result = $useCase->transferMoney($request);

            return $result;
        } catch(\Exception $e) {
            throw $e;

This is a very elaborate way to describe that calling the transfer money use-case is wrapped in a Transaction, another port for the storage system to manage transactions in this case. The code here is very explicit about the actual task. In a real application you would probably find a more generic approach to getting this job done.

Thinking about the boundaries I came up with a library several month ago called Context, which I deprecated already (Reason below). It allows you to wrap calls to the model by some sort of proxy that transforms the request and response and also handles transactions and such. Loosely spoken this was actually some kind of AOP library, using the limited ways that PHP provides to implement AOP (magic __call proxies).

With context you would do something like:

$context = $this->getContext();

// 1. direct invocation
$myService = new MyService();
$context->execute(array('service' => $myService, 'method' => 'doSomething', 'arguments' => $args));

// 2. proxy wrapping
$myService = $context->wrap(new MyService());

The second way is obviously way more readable, but its also rather magic.

I deprecated this library because in the end it wasn't really helpful that much. Implementing an application specific proxy for services is done in almost no time and then it solves all your specific needs. My main problem with the library is that it tries to magically take away the need to design the boundary of your application yourself - in a way that is not really coherent to other developers.

In my own current greenfield applications I quickly went away from using it, since a custom application proxy as shown in this Gist is really much simpler to implement and use.

As I am currently exclusively developing Symfony2/Silex applications, applying EBI to Symfony2 framework based applications is very important to me. The biggest difficulty here is the Form layer, especially the request data-mapping and validation concerns, which are normally part of the model. There are two approaches I came up with to solve this:

  • Build Forms for arrays or DTOs and send them through to the boundary to the model. You have to validate the data again on the model, which is annoying, but in this case the clean way. This is not so easy to do with complex forms though as you need to map the request objects to your entities.
  • Create a Model Request that wraps and hides the form behind a simple data mapping API. This way you can make it look as if you would map a DTO onto an object, but in this case you are using the Form API as the mapper.
class MyService
    public function edit(EditRequest $request)
        $entity = $this->dao->find($request->id);
        $this->dataMapper->transform($request, $data);

The problem with this approach is, that you cant really unit-test these methods anymore, because the complexity of the form layer mapping cannot be mocked with this API. Instead your tests always need the full form layer (with validation, depending services etc.) to allow for real-world testing. Additionally you have to make the DataMapper throw an exception that you can catch in the controller, rendering the appropriate response. Using exceptions for controlling executions paths is not a very good practice though.

Another thing that actually helped was the SensioFrameworkExtraBundle and ParamConverters. In my project I now have the framework building the Model Request objects by convention from the HTTP Request, so that I only need to pass them on and can skip the actual mapping of HTTP Request to Model Request.

This design pattern very closely resembles what Fowler calls Service Layer pattern in PoEAA. EBI is going a bit more into detail by naming individual parts of the pattern more explicit. Without more restrictions however using this pattern will drive you towards many of the problems described in my previous post.

Clean separation from frameworks is achieved, depending on the actual usage however only at a significant cost. Never forget stepping back and thinking about further abstractions, otherwise applying EBI is leading to lots of code being manually written.

This already shows one particular annoyance are the data-transfer objects. You need to invest quite some work to get a mapping working from entities to transfer objects and back. In the process you will loose the convenience of "Open Entity Manager in the View", where you can lazy load any data you want to access in the view. This is quite a painful step, because you are loosing lots of flexibility. Much more annoying is the need to update entities from data-transfer objects, requiring sophisticated code for merging of partial object graphs.

What this design pattern improves is the testability of code and also the execution of tests is MUCH better, when you don't have to go through the whole application stack to test something.

Implementing behavior into the use-cases also avoids lots of lasagna code compared to a messy domain driven design. You get a very good overview of what is actually happening just by looking at the Model Request and Interactor classes. However depending on the use-case the classes can get very big and might need lots of collaborators, which make the problem complex again.

It is important to note that aggregating the domain logic in the use-cases actually means going to some sort of transaction script processing, away from domain driven design. I am pretty sure that this is not necessarily the intention of this design pattern from a POV of Uncle Bob. However depending on the sophistication of the applications domain logic, transaction script is actually a very good pattern for simple to medium complex use-cases and I like to have this as a general rule for developers ("Put behavior on the use-case").

In conclusion I can partially recommend using the EBI pattern. You have to be careful to find abstraction layers that keep your code DRY and SOLID however, something which does not come naturally with this pattern. If you are not careful you end up with all the "messy points" that I mentioned in my previous blog post.

You should be especially careful to avoid lots of DTO <-> Entity Mapping code by using some code-generation for example to do parts of this job for you. The worst outcome with this pattern is, when you manually code layers for HTTP Request/Form => DTO => Entity mapping and the other way around.

Published: 2012-08-13 Tags: #ApplicationDesign