Business Logic for Scala/Play apps

As I’d mentioned previously, I’m a fairly seasoned Java developer who is making a foray into Scala and its ecosystem (including the Play framework, as well as Akka).

One thing that’s struck me about Play is that there doesn’t seem to be a prescribed pattern for how to handle business logic. This is in contrast to a typical Java EE application (or Spring-based Java web application). With the latter, you’d typically find applications divided into the following:

  • MVC Layer (or Presentation Layer) – This layer would typically contain:
    • UI Models: POJOs designed to transfer values from the controllers to the UI templates
    • Views: files containing markup mixed with UI models, to present data to the user. These would typically by JSPs, or files of some other tempting language such as Thymeleaf, Handlebars, Velocity, etc. They might also be JSON or XML responses in the case of single-page applications
    • Controllers: Classes designed to map requests to business logic classes, and transforming the results into UI Models.
  • Business Layer – This layer would typically contain:
    • Managers and/or Facades: somewhat coarse-grained classes that encapsulate business logic for a given domain; for example, UserFacade, AccountFacade, etc. These classes are typically stateless singletons.
    • Potentially Business Models: POJOs that describe entities from the business’ standpoint.
  • Data Access Layer – This layer would typically contain:
    • DAOs (Data Access Objects): Fine-grained, singleton classes that encapsulate the logic needed to for CRUD operations on database entities
    • Database Entities: POJOs that map to database tables (or Mongo collections, etc, depending on the data source).
By contrast, Play applications seem to typically have only the MVC Layer. Occasionally I’ll see examples with a utils/ folder, but I’ve yet to see any examples with what I would consider an entirely separate business layer or data access layer.
Clearly I could Business and Data Access Layers for my Play application if I wanted to. But part of learning a new framework is not just learning the mechanics, but also the spirit of the framework. So here are a few thoughts I’ve had on the subject:

Rely on Models’ Companion Objects

Scala has the concept of companion objects. A companion object is essentially a singleton instance of a class. For example, I might have a model called User, which looks something like this:
case class User(id: Long, firstName: String, lastName: String email: String)
I would typically create, in the same User.scala file, a companion object like so:
object User {
  def findByEmail(email: String): User = {
    // query the database and return a User

As shown above, it’s common for companion objects to contain CRUD operations. So one thought is that we can combine business logic and data access methods in a model’s companion object, treating the companion object as a sort of hybrid manager/DAO.

There are of course a few downsides to this approach. First is that of separation of concerns. If we’re imbuing companion objects with the ability to perform CRUD operations and business logic, then we’ll wind up with large, hard to read companion objects that have multiple responsibilities.

The other downside is that business operations within a companion object would be too fine-grained. Often, business logic spans multiple entities. Trying to choose which entity’s companion object should contain a specific business rule can become cumbersome. For example, say I want to update a phone number. Surely, that functionality belongs in a PhoneNumber object. But… what if my business stipulates that a phone number can only contain an area code that corresponds to its owner’s mailing address? Suddenly, my PhoneNumber object must communicate with a User and MailingAddress object.

Use Middleware for Business Logic

As a Java engineer, I’m using to my business logic being encapsulated within stateless Spring beans. These beans exist in the Spring container (i.e. application context). They are injected into, for example, controllers, who in turn invoke methods on the bean to cause some business operation to concern.

Play ships with Akka our of the box. So I wonder… would a framework like Akka suffice? Presumably I can create an actor hierarchy for each business operation, thus keeping the operations centralized and well-defined. I’m just delving into Akka, so I’m not sure how viable of a solution that would be. My sense is that, at best, I’d be misusing Akka somewhat with this approach. Moreover, I suspect I’m trying to shoehorn a Spring-application paradigm into a Play application.

Let Aggregate Roots Define Business Logic

I’ve coincidentally been reading a lot Martin Fowler‘s blog posts. One idea of his that seems to be picking up traction is that anemic entities–those who are little more than getters and setters–are an anti-pattern. Couple this with the concept of aggregates and aggregate roots presented in Eric Evans’ Domain Driven Design, and I think I might be on the best solution.

The basic premise is that, unlike the layered architecture I described above, with Manager/Facade classes, the domain entities themselves should perform their own business logic. Furthermore, entities should be arranged into aggregates. An aggregate is essentially a group of domain entities that logically form one unit. Furthermore, one of these entities should be the root, to which all other entities are attached. Modifications should only be done through that root.

In my example above about Users, PhoneNumbers and MailingAddresses, those entities would be arranged as an aggregate. User would be the root entity; after all, PhoneNumbers and MailingAddresses don’t simply exist on their own, but rather are associated with a person (or organization). To modify a User’s phone number, I would go through the User rather than directly modifying the PhoneNumber. For example, something like this:

var user: User = Users.findById(123)
user.phoneNumber = “415-555-1212”

rather than this:

var pn: PhoneNumber = PhoneNumbers.findById(789)
ph.value = “415-555-1212

Using the former approach, my User instance can ensure data integrity; e.g. ensuring that the provided area code is valid.

This, then, may be the best option:

  1. Companion objects handle CRUD data access operations
  2. Entities themselves–organized into aggregates–handle their own business rules
  3. No separate business logic stereotype is called out