Home > Articles > Software Development & Management

Design Patterns: Chain of Responsibility

  • Print
  • + Share This
The GoF discuss Chain of Responsibility, a pattern that avoids coupling the sender of a request to its receiver by giving more than one object a chance to handle the request, in this excerpt from Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software.
From the book

Object Behavioral: Chain of Responsibility

Intent

Avoid coupling the sender of a request to its receiver by giving more than one object a chance to handle the request. Chain the receiving objects and pass the request along the chain until an object handles it.

Motivation

Consider a context-sensitive help facility for a graphical user interface. The user can obtain help information on any part of the interface just by clicking on it. The help that’s provided depends on the part of the interface that’s selected and its context; for example, a button widget in a dialog box might have different help information than a similar button in the main window. If no specific help information exists for that part of the interface, then the help system should display a more general help message about the immediate context—the dialog box as a whole, for example.

Hence it’s natural to organize help information according to its generality—from the most specific to the most general. Furthermore, it’s clear that a help request is handled by one of several user interface objects; which one depends on the context and how specific the available help is.

The problem here is that the object that ultimately provides the help isn’t known explicitly to the object (e.g., the button) that initiates the help request. What we need is a way to decouple the button that initiates the help request from the objects that might provide help information. The Chain of Responsibility pattern defines how that happens.

The idea of this pattern is to decouple senders and receivers by giving multiple objects a chance to handle a request. The request gets passed along a chain of objects until one of them handles it.

The first object in the chain receives the request and either handles it or forwards it to the next candidate on the chain, which does likewise. The object that made the request has no explicit knowledge of who will handle it—we say the request has an implicit receiver.

Let’s assume the user clicks for help on a button widget marked “Print.” The button is contained in an instance of PrintDialog, which knows the application object it belongs to (see preceding object diagram). The following interaction diagram illustrates how the help request gets forwarded along the chain:

In this case, neither aPrintButton nor aPrintDialog handles the request; it stops at anApplication, which can handle it or ignore it. The client that issued the request has no direct reference to the object that ultimately fulfills it.

To forward the request along the chain, and to ensure receivers remain implicit, each object on the chain shares a common interface for handling requests and for accessing its successor on the chain. For example, the help system might define a HelpHandler class with a corresponding HandleHelp operation. HelpHandler can be the parent class for candidate object classes, or it can be defined as a mixin class. Then classes that want to handle help requests can make HelpHandler a parent:

The Button, Dialog, and Application classes use HelpHandler operations to handle help requests. HelpHandler’s HandleHelp operation forwards the request to the successor by default. Subclasses can override this operation to provide help under the right circumstances; otherwise they can use the default implementation to forward the request.

Applicability

Use Chain of Responsibility when

  • more than one object may handle a request, and the handler isn’t known a priori. The handler should be ascertained automatically.
  • you want to issue a request to one of several objects without specifying the receiver explicitly.
  • the set of objects that can handle a request should be specified dynamically.

Structure

A typical object structure might look like this:

Participants

  • Handler (HelpHandler)
    • defines an interface for handling requests.
    • (optional) implements the successor link.
  • ConcreteHandler (PrintButton, PrintDialog)
    • handles requests it is responsible for.
    • can access its successor.
    • if the ConcreteHandler can handle the request, it does so; otherwise it forwards the request to its successor.
  • Client
    • initiates the request to a ConcreteHandler object on the chain.

Collaborations

  • When a client issues a request, the request propagates along the chain until a ConcreteHandler object takes responsibility for handling it.

Consequences

Chain of Responsibility has the following benefits and liabilities:

  1. Reduced coupling. The pattern frees an object from knowing which other object handles a request. An object only has to know that a request will be handled “appropriately.” Both the receiver and the sender have no explicit knowledge of each other, and an object in the chain doesn’t have to know about the chain’s structure.

    As a result, Chain of Responsibility can simplify object interconnections. Instead of objects maintaining references to all candidate receivers, they keep a single reference to their successor.

  2. Added flexibility in assigning responsibilities to objects. Chain of Responsibility gives you added flexibility in distributing responsibilities among objects. You can add or change responsibilities for handling a request by adding to or otherwise changing the chain at run-time. You can combine this with subclassing to specialize handlers statically.

  3. Receipt isn’t guaranteed. Since a request has no explicit receiver, there’s no guarantee it’ll be handled—the request can fall off the end of the chain without ever being handled. A request can also go unhandled when the chain is not configured properly.

Implementation

Here are implementation issues to consider in Chain of Responsibility:

  1. Implementing the successor chain. There are two possible ways to implement the successor chain:

    • (a) Define new links (usually in the Handler, but ConcreteHandlers could define them instead).
    • (b) Use existing links.

    Our examples so far define new links, but often you can use existing object references to form the successor chain. For example, parent references in a part-whole hierarchy can define a part’s successor. A widget structure might already have such links. Composite (163) discusses parent references in more detail.

    Using existing links works well when the links support the chain you need. It saves you from defining links explicitly, and it saves space. But if the structure doesn’t reflect the chain of responsibility your application requires, then you’ll have to define redundant links.

  2. Connecting successors. If there are no preexisting references for defining a chain, then you’ll have to introduce them yourself. In that case, the Handler not only defines the interface for the requests but usually maintains the successor as well. That lets the handler provide a default implementation of HandleRequest that forwards the request to the successor (if any). If a ConcreteHandler subclass isn’t interested in the request, it doesn’t have to override the forwarding operation, since its default implementation forwards unconditionally.

    Here’s a HelpHandler base class that maintains a successor link:
    class HelpHandler {
    public:
        HelpHandler(HelpHandler* s) : _successor(s) { }
        virtual void HandleHelp();
    private:
        HelpHandler* _successor;
    };
    
    void HelpHandler::HandleHelp () {
        if (_successor) {
            _successor->HandleHelp();
        }
    }
    
  3. Representing requests. Different options are available for representing requests. In the simplest form, the request is a hard-coded operation invocation, as in the case of HandleHelp. This is convenient and safe, but you can forward only the fixed set of requests that the Handler class defines.

    An alternative is to use a single handler function that takes a request code (e.g., an integer constant or a string) as parameter. This supports an open-ended set of requests. The only requirement is that the sender and receiver agree on how the request should be encoded.

    This approach is more flexible, but it requires conditional statements for dispatching the request based on its code. Moreover, there’s no type-safe way to pass parameters, so they must be packed and unpacked manually. Obviously this is less safe than invoking an operation directly.

    To address the parameter-passing problem, we can use separate request objects that bundle request parameters. A Request class can represent requests explicitly, and new kinds of requests can be defined by subclassing. Subclasses can define different parameters. Handlers must know the kind of request (that is, which Request subclass they’re using) to access these parameters.

    To identify the request, Request can define an accessor function that returns an identifier for the class. Alternatively, the receiver can use run-time type information if the implementation languages supports it.

    Here is a sketch of a dispatch function that uses request objects to identify requests. A GetKind operation defined in the base Request class identifies the kind of request:

    void Handler::HandleRequest (Request* theRequest) {
        switch (theRequest->GetKind()) {
        case Help:
            // cast argument to appropriate type
            HandleHelp((HelpRequest*) theRequest);
            break;
    
        case Print:
            HandlePrint((PrintRequest*) theRequest);
            //  . . .
            break;
    
        default:
            //  . . .
            break;
        }
    }
    

    Subclasses can extend the dispatch by overriding HandleRequest. The subclass handles only the requests in which it’s interested; other requests are forwarded to the parent class. In this way, subclasses effectively ex-tend (rather than override) the HandleRequest operation. For example, here’s how an ExtendedHandler subclass extends Handler’s version of HandleRequest:

    class ExtendedHandler : public Handler {
    public:
        virtual void HandleRequest(Request* theRequest);
        // . . .
    };
    
    void ExtendedHandler::HandleRequest (Request* theRequest) {
        switch (theRequest->GetKind()) {
        case Preview:
            // handle the Preview request
            break;
        default:
            // let Handler handle other requests
            Handler::HandleRequest(theRequest);
        }
    }
    
  4. Automatic forwarding in Smalltalk. You can use the doesNotUnderstand mechanism in Smalltalk to forward requests. Messages that have no corresponding methods are trapped in the implementation of doesNotUnderstand, which can be overridden to forward the message to an object’s successor. Thus it isn’t necessary to implement forwarding manually; the class handles only the request in which it’s interested, and it relies on doesNotUnderstand to forward all others.

Sample Code

The following example illustrates how a chain of responsibility can handle requests for an on-line help system like the one described earlier. The help request is an explicit operation. We’ll use existing parent references in the widget hierarchy to propagate requests between widgets in the chain, and we’ll define a reference in the Handler class to propagate help requests between nonwidgets in the chain.

The HelpHandler class defines the interface for handling help requests. It maintains a help topic (which is empty by default) and keeps a reference to its successor on the chain of help handlers. The key operation is HandleHelp, which subclasses override. HasHelp is a convenience operation for checking whether there is an associated help topic.

typedef int Topic;
const Topic NO_HELP_TOPIC = -1;

class HelpHandler {
public:
    HelpHandler(HelpHandler* = 0, Topic = NO_HELP_TOPIC);
    virtual bool HasHelp();
    virtual void SetHandler(HelpHandler*, Topic);
    virtual void HandleHelp();
private:
    HelpHandler* _successor;
    Topic _topic;
};

HelpHandler::HelpHandler (
    HelpHandler* h, Topic t
) : _successor(h), _topic(t) { }

bool HelpHandler::HasHelp () {
    return _topic != NO_HELP_TOPIC;
}
void HelpHandler::HandleHelp () {
    if (_successor != 0) {
        _successor->HandleHelp();
    }
}

All widgets are subclasses of the Widget abstract class. Widget is a subclass of HelpHandler, since all user interface elements can have help associated with them. (We could have used a mixin-based implementation just as well.)

class Widget : public HelpHandler {
protected:
    Widget(Widget* parent, Topic t = NO_HELP_TOPIC);
private:
    Widget* _parent;
};

Widget::Widget (Widget* w, Topic t) : HelpHandler(w, t) {
    _parent = w;
}

In our example, a button is the first handler on the chain. The Button class is a subclass of Widget. The Button constructor takes two parameters: a reference to its enclosing widget and the help topic.

class Button : public Widget {
public:
    Button(Widget* d, Topic t = NO_HELP_TOPIC);

    virtual void HandleHelp();
    // Widget operations that Button overrides...
};

Button’s version of HandleHelp first tests to see if there is a help topic for buttons. If the developer hasn’t defined one, then the request gets forwarded to the successor using the HandleHelp operation in HelpHandler. If there is a help topic, then the button displays it, and the search ends.

Button::Button (Widget* h, Topic t) : Widgetfh, t) { }

void Button::HandleHelp () {
    if (HasHelpO) {
        // offer help on the button
    } else {
        HelpHandler::HandleHelp();
    }
}

Dialog implements a similar scheme, except that its successor is not a widget but any help handler. In our application this successor will be an instance of Application.

class Dialog : public Widget {
public:
    Dialog(HelpHandler* h, Topic t = NO_HELP_TOPIC);
    virtual void HandleHelp();

    // Widget operations that Dialog overrides...
    // . . .
};

Dialog::Dialog (HelpHandler* h, Topic t) : Widget(O) {
    SetHandler(h, t);
}

void Dialog::HandleHelp () {
    if (HasHelp()) {
        // offer help on the dialog
    } else {
        HelpHandler::HandleHelp();
    }
}

At the end of the chain is an instance of Application. The application is not a widget, so Application is subclassed directly from HelpHandler. When a help request propagates to this level, the application can supply information on the application in general, or it can offer a list of different help topics:

class Application : public HelpHandler {
public:
    Application(Topic t) : HelpHandler(0, t) { }

    virtual void HandleHelp();
    // application-specific operations...
};

void Application::HandleHelp () {
    // show a list of help topics
}

The following code creates and connects these objects. Here the dialog concerns printing, and so the objects have printing-related topics assigned.

const Topic PRINT_TOPIC - 1;
const Topic PAPER_ORIENTATION_TOPIC = 2;
const Topic APPLICATION_TOPIC = 3;

Application* application = new Application(APPLICATION_TOPIC);
Dialog* dialog = new Dialog(application, PRINT_TOPIC);
Button* button = new Button(dialog, PAPER_ORIENTATION_TOPIC);

We can invoke the help request by calling HandleHelp on any object on the chain. To start the search at the button object, just call HandleHelp on it:

button->HandleHelp();

In this case, the button will handle the request immediately. Note that any HelpHandler class could be made the successor of Dialog. Moreover, its successor could be changed dynamically. So no matter where a dialog is used, you’ll get the proper context-dependent help information for it.

Known Uses

Several class libraries use the Chain of Responsibility pattern to handle user events. They use different names for the Handler class, but the idea is the same: When the user clicks the mouse or presses a key, an event gets generated and passed along the chain. MacApp [App89] and ET++ [WGM88] call it “Event-Handler,” Symantec’s TCL library [Sym93b] calls it “Bureaucrat,” and NeXT’s AppKit [Add94] uses the name “Responder.”

The Unidraw framework for graphical editors defines Command objects that encapsulate requests to Component and Component View objects [VL90]. Commands are requests in the sense that a component or component view may interpret a command to perform an operation. This corresponds to the “requests as objects” approach described in Implementation. Components and component views may be structured hierarchically. A component or a component view may forward command interpretation to its parent, which may in turn forward it to its parent, and so on, thereby forming a chain of responsibility.

ET++ uses Chain of Responsibility to handle graphical update. A graphical object calls the InvalidateRect operation whenever it must update a part of its appearance. A graphical object can’t handle InvalidateRect by itself, because it doesn’t know enough about its context. For example, a graphical object can be enclosed in objects like Scrollers or Zoomers that transform its coordinate system. That means the object might be scrolled or zoomed so that it’s partially out of view. Therefore the default implementation of InvalidateRect forwards the request to the enclosing container object. The last object in the forwarding chain is a Window instance. By the time Window receives the request, the invalidation rectangle is guaranteed to be transformed properly. The Window handles InvalidateRect by notifying the window system interface and requesting an update.

Related Patterns

Chain of Responsibility is often applied in conjunction with Composite (163). There, a component’s parent can act as its successor.

  • + Share This
  • 🔖 Save To Your Account