Thursday, 3 November 2016

PHP: different ways of defining one-off objects

This one came from a Stack Overflow question I watched be raised, commented-on and summarily closed again because there are rules to follow, and by golly the community moderators on S/O looove following rules.

Anyway, the question got asked, but never answered.

'ere 'tis:

In PHP 7, what's the use of stdClass with the availability of anonymous classes?

As of PHP 7 we have access to anonymous classes. This means we could ditch stdClass when we need generic object as a return value... But which one would be cleaner?
  • What other differences are between those two guys?
  • Is there any performance drawback on creating an anonymous class? i.e. as each one has a different "class name", is there any additional impact?
  • Do both work "the same way" from the developer point of view, or are they actually two different beasts in some cases?
$std_obj = new stdClass(); //get_class($std_obj) == 'stdClass'
$anonymous = new class {}; //get_class($std_obj) == 'class@anonymous\0file.php0x758958a3s'

Good question. Well the bit about performance ain't, cos at this stage of one's exploration into these things - asking initial questions - one clearly doesn't have a performance issue to solve, so just don't worry about it.

OK, so I like messing around with this sort of thing, and I still need to learn a lot about PHP so I decided to refresh my memory of the various approaches here.

Firstly, the "anonymous classes" thing is a new feature in PHP 7, and allows one to model objects via a literal expression, much like how one can define a function via an expression (making a closure) rather than a statement. Here's an example:

$object = new class('Kate', 'Sheppard') {

    private $firstName;
    private $lastName;
    public function __construct($firstName, $lastName){
        $this->firstName = $firstName;
        $this->lastName = $lastName;
    public function getFullName(){
        return "{$this->firstName} {$this->lastName}";

See how go new class, and then proceed to define the class right there in the following block. Note this doesn't create a class... person1 does not contain a class; it creates an object. As evidenced by my subsequent usage of it:

echo $person1->getFullName();


Kate Sheppard

TBH, I dunno about the merits of this. In PHP one can already declare classes in the same file as other code, and more than one class in the same file. I guess it's handy for when one needs to define a one-off modelled object within another function or something? I dunno.

The other version mentioned was via stdclass, but let's not go there yet.

Now bear in mind the OP was asking about creating empty objects. One can do that with an anonymous class by just not giving the class definition any body:

$empty = new class(){};

Dumping that out gives:

object(class@anonymous)#1 (0) {

And with stdclass:

$empty = new stdClass();

Dumping that out gives:

object(stdClass)#1 (0) {

Not much to it. But I dunno if the intent in PHP is to use stdClass directly. The docs just say:

Created by typecasting to object.

It doesn't say "instantiate one of these to create an empty object". And that's where it'd say it, if that was the intent.

What it does allude to is this:

$empty = (object) [];

Dumping that out gives:

object(stdClass)#1 (0) {

(so same as with stdClass). To me the intended usage of stdClass is just one of inference. An array cast to an object needs to be of some type, so there's stdClass to accommodate that.

Also: how often does one want an empty object, and that's it? At least with casting an array to an object one can give it some properties off the bat:

$person = (object) [
    'firstName' => 'Kate,
    'lastName' => 'Sheppard'

One can add properties to the object afterwards with a new stdClass(), but that seems clunky.

Thinking about it, using new stdClass() seems about as right a way to do things as using array() to declare an array, as opposed to using a literal []. Bleah. Just use the literal.

But this all got me thinking though. Empty objects be damned. How can I implement the same as that anonymous class using these other syntaxes.

I managed to write some really crap code implementing analogues using stdclass and an object literal.

First the object literal, as it's not too awful:

$person2 = (object) [
    'firstName' => null,
    'lastName' => null,
    '__construct' => function ($firstName, $lastName) use (&$person2) {
        $person2->firstName = $firstName;
        $person2->lastName = $lastName;
    'getFullName' => function () use (&$person2) {
        return "{$person2->firstName} {$person2->lastName}";

It's not sooooo bad. Until one ones to try to use it. Check this out:

$person2->__construct('Emmeline', 'Pankhurst');
echo $person2->getFullName() . PHP_EOL;

This just gives:

PHP Fatal error:  Uncaught Error: Call to undefined method stdClass::__construct() in literalVsObjectCast.php:37
Stack trace:
#0 {main}
  thrown in literalVsObjectCast.php on line 37

Yikes. This turns out to be some weirdo order of operation things, and I can't quite remember what the story is, but it's down to how and what the function call is bound to the function, and the -> operator taking precedence over the () operator. Or something.

It's easily enough solved:

($person2->__construct)('Emmeline', 'Pankhurst');
echo ($person2->getFullName)() . PHP_EOL;

See how I've used parentheses there so the method calls are on the reference to the object/method. This works:

Emmeline Pankhurst

But it's unorthodox code, so I'll be avoiding that. Oh yeah, also notice the weirdness I had to do with the reference with the closure there. Plus having to reference the object's properties by this "external" reference. Still: good to be able to do it though.

We can go from "unorthodox" to "shit" now. There's the equiv using stdclass:

$person3 = new stdclass();
$person3->firstName = null;
$person3->initial = null;
$person3->lastName = null;
$person3->__construct = function ($firstName, $initial, $lastName) use (&$person3) {
    $person3->firstName = $firstName;
    $person3->initial = $initial;
    $person3->lastName = $lastName;
$person3->getFullName = function () use (&$person3) {
    return "{$person3->firstName} {$person3->initial}  {$person3->lastName}";

And again to run it, we need to use those extra parentheses:

($person3->__construct)('Susan', 'B', 'Anthony');
echo ($person3->getFullName)() . PHP_EOL;

Susan B Anthony

It's all a bit grim for words: the literal version was a bit awkward, but this as all the awkwardness as well as a lot of clutter (and, yes, this version also supports a middle initial, but that's not really the bulk of the bloat).

Another thing with these latter two versions is that - until the class literal version - firstName and lastName are public. I guess it's no big thing for throwaway objects, but it seems a bit "leaky" to me.

One of these JavaScript tricks we learn when trying to fit the oval peg into the round hole that is "doing OO in JS", is the Module Pattern: using an IIFE to emulate an object with private data. PHP 7 also added IIFEs, it already has closure, so we can do this in PHP too:

$person4 = (function($firstName, $lastName){
    return (object)[
        'getFullName' => function() use ($firstName, $lastName){
            return "$firstName $lastName";
})('Vida', 'Goldstein');

And running it:

echo ($person4->getFullName)() . PHP_EOL;


Vida Goldstein

Now I reckon that's the tidiest syntax of all! Even beating the anonymous class version. But one is still stuck with those extra parentheses on the function call though. Pity.

In conclusion, I reckon this:

  • if you want an empty object... use (object)[]. Don't use a mechanism - anonymous classes - specifically intended to derive fully modelled objects, just to create empty objects.
  • If you want a throw-away object with a few public properties in it it: still use (object) []. It's tidier and less typing.
  • If you need some methods in there as well... go for the anonymous class literal; its usage syntax is more orthodox than using the IIFE.
  • But do remember PHP7 has IIFEs! They come in handy for things other than emulating JS design patterns.
  • I don't reckon one ought to directly use stdClass. It's clunky, leads to bloated code, and the docs kinda position it as a necessary implementation, not something that one's supposed to actively use.
  • But... generally speaking use a proper named class. These anonymous classes are not a replacement for them; they're for throw-away objects. You'll seldom need those.
  • Don't start an exercise worrying about performance. Write good clean code, using TDD, and worry about performance if it comes up. And differences like this are never gonna be where to make savings anyhow.

Thoughts? Obviously I'm just a relative n00b at PHP so I might be missing some important thing that seasoned PHPers all "get" but I've not come across yet. Lemme know.