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9.8 Implementing Object-Oriented Designs in Nonobject-Oriented Languages

The final topic of interest in the area of physical design is how to go about implementing an object-oriented design in a nonobject-oriented language. This topic was of much greater interest in the late 1980s, when C++ was a moving target. At that time, many C programmers decided that they wanted to take advantage of object-oriented design but did not trust C++ for implementation. Many of them turned to object-oriented programming in C. Today C++ is fairly well defined with an ANSI committee adding on some final features. With this infrastructure in place, this topic becomes less interesting, although I have found a large number of developers who learn a lot about object-oriented programming by examining the implementation of its constructs using nonobject-oriented structures. I will summarize these details by examining each of the object-oriented constructs and how one might implement them in a nonobject-oriented language.

Overloaded Functions.

Most nonobject-oriented languages do not support the idea of two functions having the same name as long as their argument types differ (Prolog is one exception). The basic approach to handling this problem is to concatenate the name of the data type to the function name. This is how object-oriented languages implement overloaded functions. Either they mangle the name at compile time (e.g., C++), or they hash the name of the argument with the name of the function in order to find the address of the overloaded function (e.g., SmallTalk).


A standard method of implementing the notion of class in a nonobject-oriented language is to encapsulate a data structure with its associated functions. This can be done by using a function module (if your language supports modules, e.g., Ada83, Modula-2) or in a file (e.g., C).

Data Hiding.

There is no way to establish data hiding in languages that do not support it except by convention, that is, programmers promise not to access particular data members of a record and/or functions associated with that data. There is an exception in the C programming language. The C language allows its users to define pointers to a data structure without ever defining the data structure itself. However, there are major restrictions on the use of that pointer. The user of the pointer cannot perform any pointer arithmetic or any dereference operation. The only thing he or she can do with the pointer is to pass it to functions. In this way, developers can define a structure (record) called Dog and place it in a file along with all of the functions that work with Dogs. One of these functions is a get_Dog() operation, which returns a pointer to a Dog. This file is compiled separately and given as object code to users of Dogs. Users of Dogs define a pointer to a Dog but are not allowed access to the internal details. They call get_Dog() to get one of these objects and proceed to pass it along to any function defined on Dog. They get to use Dog objects but never get to see any implementation details of the Dog.


Inheritance is a difficult construct to fake. The implementation "trick" is exactly that used for implementing multiple inheritance in a single-inheritance language. The subclass (data structure) contains the superclass as its first data member. The user must then create a delegation function on the containing class for each function associated with the contained superclass. Like our multiple inheritance solution, this introduces accidental complexity in that we cannot just add a method to a superclass and have all of the subclasses inherit it. We must examine every class (data structure) that contains a modified class to determine if the modified class is really contained or if it is faking inheritance. If it is faking inheritance, then a delegation function must be added to the containing class. Many of the benefits of inheritance are lost in its implementation in a nonobject-oriented language.


Polymorphism is clearly the most difficult to implement in a nonobject-oriented language, with all solutions creating maintenance problems larger than the one we originally tried to avoid梕xplicit case analysis. The traditional approach to getting around polymorphism is to use pointers to functions (in languages that support them, e.g., C) to do something that used to be called generic programming. The idea is to bind the actual address to the function call at runtime by changing the value of a function pointer. Alternatives include performing the binding of a function call by forcing the user to call some function, perhaps named bind, which takes two string arguments: the type of the object making the call and the name of the function call. These two strings are hashed together to form an index, which, when used on a global hash table, returns the appropriate address of the desired function. For example, bind(''Dog'', ''wag_tail'') would hash to 142 (using some hash function which I neglect to provide). When index 142 is retrieved from a global hash table, the address of Dog's wag_tail() function is returned and executed. This is similar to SmallTalk's implementation of polymorphism.

An alternative is to build, and unfortunately maintain, jump tables for every class that wants a polymorphic function(s). When an object is built, it gets a hidden pointer to the appropriate jump table. Users then execute the appropriate function by providing its index in the jump table. Since the user does not know at whose jump table a given object is pointing, the binding is considered dynamic. This is similar to the method C++ employs for implementing polymorphism.

It is important to note that in both cases, the bookkeeping normally done by a programming language is required by the programmer. This often produces more maintenance problems than the original explicit case analysis that the programmer set out to avoid.

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