Ditch the Repository Pattern Already


One pattern that still seems particularly common among .Net developers is the Repository pattern. I began using this pattern with NHibernate around 2006 and only abandoned its use a few years ago.

I had read several articles over the years advocating abandoning the Repository pattern in favor of other suggested approaches which served as a pebble in my shoe for a few years, but there were a few design principles whose application seemed to keep motivating me to use the pattern.  It wasn’t until a change of tooling and a shift in thinking about how these principles should be applied that I finally felt comfortable ditching the use of repositories, so I thought I’d recount my journey to provide some food for thought for those who still feel compelled to use the pattern.

Mental Obstacle 1: Testing Isolation

What I remember being the biggest barrier to moving away from the use of repositories was writing tests for components which interacted with the database.  About a year or so before I actually abandoned use of the pattern, I remember trying to stub out a class derived from Entity Framework’s DbContext after reading an anti-repository blog post.  I don’t remember the details now, but I remember it being painful and even exploring use of a 3rd-party library designed to help write tests for components dependent upon Entity Framework.  I gave up after a while, concluding it just wasn’t worth the effort.  It wasn’t as if my previous approach was pain-free, as at that point I was accustomed to stubbing out particularly complex repository method calls, but as with many things we often don’t notice friction to which we’ve become accustomed for one reason or another.  I had assumed that doing all that work to stub out my repositories was what I should be doing.

Another principle that I picked up from somewhere (maybe the big xUnit Test Patterns book? … I don’t remember) that seemed to keep me bound to my repositories was that you shouldn’t write tests that depend upon dependencies you don’t own.  I believed at the time that I should be writing tests for Application Layer services (which later morphed into discrete dispatched command handlers) and the idea of stubbing out either NHIbernate or Entity Framework violated my sensibilities.

Mental Obstacle 2: The Dependency Inversion Principle Adherence

The Dependency Inversion Principle seems to be a source of confusion for many which stems in part from the similarity of wording with the practice of Dependency Injection as well as from the fact that the pattern’s formal definition reflects the platform from whence the principle was conceived (i.e. C++).  One might say that the abstract definition of the Dependency Inversion Principle was too dependent upon the details of its origin (ba dum tss).  I’ve written about the principle a few times (perhaps my most succinct being this Stack Overflow answer), but put simply, the Dependency Inversion Principle has at its primary goal the decoupling of the portions of your application which define policy from the portions which define implementation.  That is to say, this principle seeks to keep the portions of your application which govern what your application does (e.g. workflow, business logic, etc.) from being tightly coupled to the portions of your application which govern the low level details of how it gets done (e.g. persistence to an Sql Server database, use of Redis for caching, etc.).

A good example of a violation of this principle, which I recall from my NHibernate days, was that once upon a time NHibernate was tightly coupled to log4net.  This was later corrected, but at one time the NHibernate assembly had a hard dependency on log4net.  You could use a different logging library for your own code if you wanted, and you could use binding redirects to use a different version of log4net if you wanted, but at one time if you had a dependency on NHibernate then you had to deploy the log4net library.  I think this went unnoticed by many due to the fact that most developers who used NHibernate also used log4net.

When I first learned about the principle, I immediately recognized that it seemed to have limited advertized value for most business applications in light of what Udi Dahan labeled The Fallacy Of ReUse.  That is to say, properly understood, the Dependency Inversion Principle has as its primary goal the reuse of components and keeping those components decoupled from dependencies which would keep them from being easily reused with other implementation components, but your application and business logic isn’t something that is likely to ever be reused in a different context.  The take away from that is basically that the advertized value of adhering to the Dependency Inversion Principle is really more applicable to libraries like NHibernate, Automapper, etc. and not so much to that workflow your team built for Acme Inc.’s distribution system.  Nevertheless, the Dependency Inversion Principle had a practical value of implementing an architecture style Jeffrey Palermo labeled the Onion Architecture. Specifically, in contrast to traditional 3-layered architecture models where UI, Business, and Data Access layers precluded using something like Data Access Logic Components to encapsulate an ORM to map data directly to entities within the Business Layer, inverting the dependencies between the Business Layer and the Data Access layer provided the ability for the application to interact with the database while also seemingly abstracting away the details of the data access technology used.

While I always saw the fallacy in strictly trying to apply the Dependency Inversion Principle to invert the implementation details of how I got my data from my application layer so that I’d someday be able to use the application in a completely different context, it seemed the academically astute and in vogue way of doing Domain-driven Design at the time, seemed consistent with the GoF’s advice to program to an interface rather than an implementation, and provided an easier way to write isolation tests than trying to partially stub out ORM types.

The Catalyst

For the longest time, I resisted using Entity Framework.  I had become fairly proficient at using NHibernate, the early versions of Entity Framework were years behind in features and maturity, it didn’t support Domain-driven Design well, and there was a fairly steep learning curve with little payoff. A combination of things happened, however, that began to make it harder to ignore. First, a lot of the NHibernate supporters (like many within the Alt.Net crowd) moved on to other platforms like Ruby and Node. Second, despite it lacking many features, .Net developers began flocking to the framework in droves due to it’s backing and promotion by Microsoft. So, eventually I found it impossible to avoid which led to me trying to apply the same patterns I’d used before with this newer-to-me framework.

To be honest, once I adapted my repository implementation to Entity Framework everything mostly just worked, especially for the really simple stuff. Eventually, though, I began to see little ways I had to modify my abstraction to accommodate differences in how Entity Framework did things from how NHibernate did things.  What I discovered was that, while my repositories allowed my application code to be physically decoupled from the ORM, the way I was using the repositories was in small ways semantically coupled to the framework.  I wish I had kept some sort of record every time I ran into something, as the only real thing I can recall now were motivations with certain design approaches to expose the SaveChanges method for Unit of Work implementations. I don’t want to make more of the semantic coupling argument against repositories than it’s worth, but observing little places where my abstractions were leaking, combined with the pebble in my shoe from developers who I felt were far better than me which were saying I shouldn’t use them lead me to begin rethinking things.

More Effective Testing Strategies

It was actually a few years before I stopped using repositories that I stopped stubbing out repositories.  Around 2010, I learned that you can use Test-Driven Development to achieve 100% test coverage for the code for which you’re responsible, but when you plug your code in for the first time with that team that wasn’t designing to the same specification and not writing any tests at all that things may not work.  It was then that I got turned on to Acceptance Test Driven Development.  What I found was that writing high-level subcutaneous tests (i.e. skipping the UI layer, but otherwise end-to-end) was overall easier, was possible to align with acceptance criteria contained within a user story, provided more assurance that everything worked as a whole, and was easier to get teams on board with.  Later on, I surmised that I really shouldn’t have been writing isolation tests for components which, for the most part, are just specialized facades anyway.  All an isolation test for a facade really says is “did I delegate this operation correctly” and if you’re not careful you can end up just writing a whole bunch of tests that basically just validate whether you correctly configured your mocking library.

So, by the time I started rethinking my use of repositories, I had long since stopped using them for test isolation.

Taking the Plunge

It was actually about a year after I had become convinced that repositories were unnecessary, useless abstractions that I started working with a new codebase I had the opportunity to steer.  Once I eliminated them from the equation, everything got so much simpler.   Having been repository-free for about two years now, I think I’d have a hard time joining a team that had an affinity for them.

Conclusion

If you’re still using repositories and you don’t have some other hangup you still need to get over like writing unit tests for your controllers or application services then give the repository-free lifestyle a try.  I bet you’ll love it.

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