2010/12/15 - Apache Excalibur has been retired.

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Avalon Framework - Guide - Separation of Interface and Implementation


The core concept of interface and implementation separation is built into Java itself in that it has interfaces and classes. Many toolkits have been developed along the lines of an API / implementation separation. One such toolkit is the SAX API and the multiple XML parsers that implement it. Developers are quite happy using Apache's Xerces via the SAX API and understand that SAX represents the interface and Xerces an implementation. We notice that a lot of developers are happy to use interface/impl separated tools, but not to make them. We will try to justify in this document why we think people making applications should define interface/impl boundaries early in the design cycle.


The main reason we do it is because:

  1. it forces you to decouple different modules/components/objects
  2. if specified correctly allows you to easily change the implementation of the interface/contract in the future
  3. makes it possible for a user to read documentation about the interface without having the implementation details clutter up their perception
  4. increases the possibility of reuse in a larger application

If you are building objects with the aim of reuse then [3] is important but most people don't build for reuse (and most XP advocates say you should just plan to use not reuse) and thus [1] and [2] are more important. If you feel like documenting that and expanding this then feel free to.


Let us hope this is not necessary:

package helloworld;
public interface HelloWorld {
    void sayHello(String greeting);

package helloworld.impl.default;
public class DefaultHelloWorld implements HelloWorld {
    void sayHello(String greeting) {
        System.out.println("HelloWorld Greeting: " + greeting);

package helloworld.impl.remote;
public class RemoteHelloWorld implements HelloWorld {
    private RemoteMessager mRemoteMessager;
    public RemoteHelloWorld(RemoteMessager rm) {
        RemoteMessager = rm;
    void sayHello(String greeting) {
        rm.sendMessage("HelloWorld Greeting: " + greeting);


We are referring to this pattern as interface/impl separation. Wiley's Patterns in Java book refers to it simply as 'Interface', but we feel that the word interface is overloaded enough in English and computing.

It might be true to say that this is 'API/implementation separation', but this too could be confusing as the aforementioned SAX is not quite a pure set of interfaces. It has a static factory that thunks in an implementation that all subsequent calls to the factory method will be forced to use. See Anti-Patterns below.

Better might be 'separation of implementation and the interface/contract' as that is quite correct, but a tad unwieldy.

Related Topics

Implementation Hiding

Once a tool is split into interface and impl, it is possible for a container to hide the implementation. Most containers already use dynamic proxys (available in the JDK since 1.3), but we are talking about having the classes of the implementation hidden from classes using the interface.

To do this, it is easiest to mount the impl classes in a separate classloader to the classloader that the interface-using classes are mounted in. The interfaces being mounted in a classloader that is visible to both.

This is not a new proposition. Sun defined the servlet spec, and included rules about implementation hiding for hosted servlets. Essentially, instantiated servlets are only allowed to 'see' classes from the JDK, their own WAR file and those of the Servlet API itself. Tomcat correctly hides the implementation of the Servlet API from the hosted servlets.

To actually achieve this separation, many containers (including those from the Avalon project) require that the interface and impl are in separate jars. Or to put it another way, there is no point separating your interface and impl classes if you are going to distribute them in the same jar.

Kernel, Client API, Hosted Components

This is building on the previous section, and in short is referred to as K/CAPI/HC. Basically the kernel mounts hosted components and satisfies their need for a client API. However the kernel wants to hide its implementation from the hosted components.

An EJB container is another good example of this. EntityBean, SessionBean etc. is the client API. The hosted components are the beans, and the container has a kernel. It builds a complex tree of classloaders to separate its implementation, the client API, the JDK's runtime jar (that always being in the system or primordial classloader), and the hosted components.

The central message of this is that if you have interface/impl separated your tool, and are doing tricky things with more classloaders in the implementation, please make sure you do not assume that the parent classloader of any classloader is the system classloader. If your reusable tool has been taken by another team and at some non root place in a classloader tree, then the tools will fail if you have made such assumptions.


SAX, mentioned in multiple contexts in this document, is also an example of where the design can go wrong. The Factory is static (that in itself is an anti-pattern to IoC). Despite giving the appearance of having the ability to generate a parser based on the implementation's class name, only the first caller of that method will register a parser for the whole environment to use.

Given that the SAX API is now in the JDK, the environment we allude to above is the whole JVM. This is a problem because in a very complex application with differing concurrent needs for implementation of parsers, not all can be met if the SAX API is used for making parsers.