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ColdFusion: Article

What's an Object? An Introduction to OOP

An introduction to object-oriented programming for ColdFusion developers

On New Year's Eve, 2004 I declared 2005 to be the "year of object-oriented programming for ColdFusion developers," and since the year is approaching its final quarter it's a good time to focus our attention on OOP in ColdFusion and see how we're doing.

Based on talking with developers both in person and virtually, reading blogs, and looking at some of the newer ColdFusion code that people have been sending my way over the last few months, I'm really excited about the increase in interest and use of OOP in ColdFusion. The ability to even do object-oriented programming in ColdFusion is a relatively new addition to the technology, so it's not surprising that it's taken a bit of time to catch on. From what I'm seeing these days the tide is definitely turning, so this is great to see.

What I also see occurring, however, is an increasing gap between the ColdFusion developers who are embracing OOP wholeheartedly and those who want to dive into OOP but don't quite know how to go about doing so, or have gotten started but get frustrated or discouraged and go back to their old ways of doing things. This is lamentable but understandable. Coming from the procedural mindset that many ColdFusion developers have, making the move to OOP is not something that will happen instantly, and in many cases developers are under deadlines and just can't afford to ditch their tried-and-true methods for OOP if they don't yet have a comfort level with it.

With that in mind, this article is designed to give ColdFusion developers an extremely gentle introduction to some OOP fundamentals. In working with other developers I've found that these concepts have helped many of them make the transition from ColdFusion 5-style procedural coding into OOP in CFMX 6.1 and 7. This is a transition that in my opinion ColdFusion developers can't afford not to make. Object-oriented programming has been around since the 1960s, all modern languages support OOP to varying degrees, and the ubiquity of OOP is not accidental; it really is a better way to build applications. I hope by the end of this article you'll agree with me and start to see the OO light.

ColdFusion's OO Conundrum
If you're reading this chances are I don't need to convince you of the tremendous strengths of ColdFusion: ease of use, huge feature set, rapid development, integration with Java.... These are all great things, and ColdFusion 7 made things even better with the addition of the cfdocument tag, Flash forms and XForms, event gateways, and a great deal of other new features that help us build better applications more quickly and easily.

With all that having been said, and I don't want to scare anyone, I truly believe that if ColdFusion - and by extension ColdFusion developers - is going to survive over the long haul, we absolutely must get with the times and start down the path of truly understanding OOP and using it as the default way we do ColdFusion development. Every other major Web application development platform is fully OO or rapidly getting there, so the days for excuses are over. OOP has become king of the software development world for a reason, and I promise that once you truly understand it you'll wonder how you ever got along without it. It's quite simply a better way to solve real-world problems through programming.

First and perhaps foremost, I think it's quite unfortunate that most of the ColdFusion literature dives right into CFML syntax and spends a great deal of time illustrating how to build entirely page-based, procedural applications, only discussing ColdFusion Components (CFCs) and OOP as an afterthought. Since OOP wasn't really even possible prior to the introduction of CFCs in CFMX, and even then a lot of the huge quirks weren't worked out until CFMX 6.1, I suppose this situation shouldn't be surprising.

However let's consider where we are today. CFMX 6.1 is now the "old" version and we have a fantastic new release with ColdFusion 7, so it's high time that we start using the tools available to us to their full potential. I only hope that the ColdFusion literature begins to reflect this mode of thinking as well, and I think that will happen given the huge upswing in interest in OOP I've seen over the last few months.

As a bit of an aside, I'm going to forgo the "Is ColdFusion/Are CFCs fully OO?" argument because I think it's largely irrelevant to the discussion at hand. While it is true that CFCs lack certain characteristics of objects in fully-OO languages such as Java, that's certainly not a reason to not use them to do OOP in ColdFusion. First we all need to understand what OO is and start using CFCs to do OO programming in ColdFusion, then we can talk about how CFCs differ from something like a Java object and address any limitations, tricks, and traps related to these issues.

If you pick up any good Java book (I'll have a few good recommendations at the end of this article) it will start with a discussion of objects and basic OOP concepts before you even see much Java code. Better still, there are a couple of good language-agnostic OO books that can provide a solid grounding in OO concepts before you even start writing any code. With OOP it's extremely important that you have a firm foundation in the fundamental concepts before you jump right into development, especially if you have a completely procedural programming background.

At the outset, thinking in objects is in my estimation far more important than understanding how to implement these concepts in code. In the first Java class I took at Sun Microsystems we didn't write a single line of code, we just spent an entire week talking about objects and approaching problem solving in an object-oriented fashion. This was all rather abstract and didn't involve a single line of Java code, but it's still the best Java class I ever took.

While ColdFusion's audience is admittedly a bit bifurcated when compared to Java's, I still believe it's of the utmost importance both for us as developers and for the reputation of ColdFusion as a technology that we make OOP the de facto way we develop applications in ColdFusion. One of ColdFusion's biggest strengths is that it's easy to learn and allows even non-programmers to get results very quickly. This is also one of its biggest weaknesses. The challenge, then, is to somehow keep the ease of use/rapid development reputation while strengthening the notion that CF is an extremely capable development platform that can be used to build enterprise-level applications using the same methodologies as the two giants of the Web application development world, namely Java and .NET. I don't have a solution for this conundrum yet, but I do believe that making OOP an inextricable part of CF development is a big step in the right direction.

As I climb off my soapbox, try to put your mind in a place that might be new to some of you. Imagine if you will a world where there is no procedural programming. In this world all software is built with objects, and a software application is nothing more than objects communicating with one another. (I'll focus more on the distinctions between procedural programming and OOP in a future article.) At the heart of this style of development of course is the concept of what an object is, so let's address that question before we go any deeper.

What's an Object?
I'm glad you asked that question! I've talked with a lot of ColdFusion developers who are intrigued by the idea of objects and OOP, but they just don't even know where to begin. To quote Maria von Trapp, "Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start." The beginning of object-oriented programming is of course the concept of the object. To be completely truthful there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation between the concept of a class and the concept of an object. For the moment let's simply focus on explaining what an object is, not only because they don't call it "Class-Oriented Programming," but because I think you'll find it easier to understand the concept of a class if you first understand what an object is.

More Stories By Matthew Woodward

Matt Woodward is Principal Information Technology Specialist with the Office of the Sergeant at Arms at the United States Senate. He was until recently a Web application developer for i2 Technologies in Dallas, Texas. A Macromedia Certified ColdFusion Developer and a member of Team Macromedia, he has been using ColdFusion since 1996. In addition to his ColdFusion work, Matt also develops in Java and PHP.

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