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Terms and Concepts

A class is a description of a set of objects that share the same attributes, operations, relationships, and semantics. Graphically, a class is rendered as a rectangle.


Every class must have a name that distinguishes it from other classes. A name is a textual string. That name alone is known as a simple name; a qualified name is the class name prefixed by the name of the package in which that class lives. A class may be drawn showing only its name, as Figure 4-2 shows.


Figure 4-2 Simple and Qualified Names


An attribute is a named property of a class that describes a range of values that instances of the property may hold. A class may have any number of attributes or no attributes at all. An attribute represents some property of the thing you are modeling that is shared by all objects of that class. For example, every wall has a height, width, and thickness; you might model your customers in such a way that each has a name, address, phone number, and date of birth. An attribute is therefore an abstraction of the kind of data or state an object of the class might encompass. At a given moment, an object of a class will have specific values for every one of its class's attributes. Graphically, attributes are listed in a compartment just below the class name. Attributes may be drawn showing only their names, as shown in Figure 4-3.


Figure 4-3 Attributes

You can further specify an attribute by stating its class and possibly a default initial value, as shown Figure 4-4.


Figure 4-4 Attributes and Their Class


An operation is the implementation of a service that can be requested from any object of the class to affect behavior. In other words, an operation is an abstraction of something you can do to an object that is shared by all objects of that class. A class may have any number of operations or no operations at all. For example, in a windowing library such as the one found in Java's awt package, all objects of the class Rectangle can be moved, resized, or queried for their properties. Often (but not always), invoking an operation on an object changes the object's data or state. Graphically, operations are listed in a compartment just below the class attributes. Operations may be drawn showing only their names, as in Figure 4-5.


Figure 4-5 Operations

You can specify an operation by stating its signature, which includes the name, type, and default value of all parameters and (in the case of functions) a return type, as shown in Figure 4-6.


Figure 4-6 Operations and Their Signatures

Organizing Attributes and Operations

When drawing a class, you don't have to show every attribute and every operation at once. In fact, in most cases, you can't (there are too many of them to put in one figure) and you probably shouldn't (only a subset of these attributes and operations are likely to be relevant to a specific view). For these reasons, you can elide a class, meaning that you can choose to show only some or none of a class's attributes and operations. You can indicate that there are more attributes or properties than shown by ending each list with an ellipsis ("..."). You can also suppress the compartment entirely, in which case you can't tell if there are any attributes or operations or how many there are.

To better organize long lists of attributes and operations, you can also prefix each group with a descriptive category by using stereotypes, as shown in Figure 4-7.


Figure 4-7 Stereotypes for Class Features


A responsibility is a contract or an obligation of a class. When you create a class, you are making a statement that all objects of that class have the same kind of state and the same kind of behavior. At a more abstract level, these corresponding attributes and operations are just the features by which the class's responsibilities are carried out. A Wall class is responsible for knowing about height, width, and thickness; a FraudAgent class, as you might find in a credit card application, is responsible for processing orders and determining if they are legitimate, suspect, or fraudulent; a TemperatureSensor class is responsible for measuring temperature and raising an alarm if the temperature reaches a certain point.

When you model classes, a good starting point is to specify the responsibilities of the things in your vocabulary. Techniques like CRC cards and use case-based analysis are especially helpful here. A class may have any number of responsibilities, although, in practice, every well-structured class has at least one responsibility and at most just a handful. As you refine your models, you will translate these responsibilities into a set of attributes and operations that best fulfill the class's responsibilities.

Graphically, responsibilities can be drawn in a separate compartment at the bottom of the class icon, as shown in Figure 4-8.


Figure 4-8 Responsibilities

Other Characteristics

Attributes, operations, and responsibilities are the most common features you'll need when you create abstractions. In fact, for most models you build, the basic form of these three features will be all you need to convey the most important semantics of your classes. Sometimes, however, you'll need to visualize or specify other characteristics, such as the visibility of individual attributes and operations; language-specific features of an operation, such as whether it is polymorphic or constant; or even the exceptions that objects of the class might produce or handle. These and many other features can be expressed in the UML, but they are treated as advanced concepts.

When you build models, you will soon discover that almost every abstraction you create is some kind of class. Sometimes you will want to separate the implementation of a class from its specification, and this can be expressed in the UML by using interfaces.

When you start designing the implementation of a class, you need to model its internal structure as a set of connected parts. You can expand a top-level class through several layers of internal structure to get the eventual design.

When you start building more complex models, you will also find yourself encountering the same kinds of entities over and over again, such as classes that represent concurrent processes and threads, or classifiers that represent physical things, such as applets, Java Beans, files, Web pages, and hardware. Because these kinds of entities are so common and because they represent important architectural abstractions, the UML provides active classes (representing processes and threads) and classifiers, such as artifacts (representing physical software components) and nodes (representing hardware devices).

Finally, classes rarely stand alone. Rather, when you build models, you will typically focus on groups of classes that interact with one another. In the UML, these societies of classes form collaborations and are usually visualized in class diagrams.

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