A bit of protocol

Protocols and mixins

I recently had to implement something in clojure I’ve done many times in ruby, which involved using protocols. I thought it would be a nice example of comparing class re-opening in ruby and protocol extension in clojure.

The problem

I use cassandra, and in many places, cassandra needs to work with UUID types a lot. When exposing results over JSON, this is often a problem since standard serializers don’t support these types.

What we want to do in ruby and clojure is simple:

require 'simple_uuid'
require 'json'

# This fails
{:uuid => SimpleUUID::UUID.new }.to_json

This code fails because the json module looks for a to_json method in each object. Failing to do so, it calls Object#to_s.to_json. Now this would work fine if to_s gave a good textual representation of a UUID, but it returns the byte array for that UUID.

(ns foo
 (:use clojure.data.json)
 (:import java.util.UUID))

; This fails
(println (json-str {:uuid (UUID/randomUUID)}))

In clojure we are informed that java.util.UUID doesn’t respond to write-json

## Fixing the problem in ruby

How to fix this in ruby is no problem, and widely known, since the simple_uuid gem provides a to_guid method which returns the textual representation, it’s as easy as:

require 'simple_uuid'
require 'json'

module SimpleUUID
  class UUID
    def to_json *args

puts({:uuid => SimpleUUID::UUID.new}.to_json)

This was simple enough, reopening the module then class is allowed - and to some extent, encouraged - in ruby. We just added a to_json method which is what the JSON module looks for when walking through objects.

Fixing the problem in clojure

clojure has the ability to provide so-called protocols, similar to java interfaces. Protocols are defined with defprotocol and implemented anywhere. Here is the appropriate bit from clojure.data.json


(defprotocol Write-JSON
  (write-json [object out escape-unicode?]
              "Print object to PrintWriter out as JSON"))

This defines that write-json will be dispatched based on class to an appropriate writer. The clojure page on protocols1 has all the detailed information, but I’ll focus on the extend part here, which allows to extend a type with new protocol implementations. extend expects a type then pairs of protocol names to maps, the map containing function name to implementation mappings.

Protocol functions always have the object they need to operate on as their first argument, here the function takes two additional arguments

Following that logic, the implementation can now be written like this:

(ns somewhere
  (:import java.util.UUID)
  (:use clojure.data.json))

(defn write-json-uuid [obj out escape-unicode?]
  (binding [*out* out]
    (pr (.toString obj))))

(extend UUID Write-JSON
  {:write-json write-json-uuid})

(println (json-str {:uuid (UUID/randomUUID)}))

Writing the protocol extension

The actual function write-json-uuid is quite simple, I initially wrote it as:

(defn write-json-uuid [obj out escape-unicode?]
  (.print out (pr-str (.toString obj))))

But it seems a bit overkill to go to the trouble of writing to a string, then pushing that string out to the writer object.

Dynamic bindings

A small digression is needed here, clojure has dynamic symbols, defined like so: (def ^{:dynamic true} *my-dyn-symbol*) The enclosing stars are a convention but widely used.

Dynamic symbols can be manipulated with binding, which operates like let but the bindings will follow the rest of the execution enclosed, not just the function’s context.

Clojure uses the *out* symbol everywhere to denote the current output stream, many functions operate on it, pr is among them.

By binding *out* to the stream that was given as argument to write-json, pr can simply be called on the function.

Closing words

The most common dispatching idiom in clojure is defmethod=/=defmulti, but protocols also provide a very fast and useful way to implement polymorphism in clojure. It’s also nice to note that the implementation wasn’t longer in clojure than ruby.

  1. http://clojure.org/protocols [return]