A simple, Julian approach to inheritance of structure and methods
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November 2018

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A simple, Julian approach to inheritance of structure and methods.


Julia is not an object-oriented language in the traditional sense in that there is no inheritance of structure. If multiple types need to share structure, you have several options:

  1. Write out the common fields manually.
  2. Write a macro that emits the common fields. This is better than the manual approach since it creates a single point of modification.
  3. Use composition instead of inheritance: create a new type that holds the common fields and include an instance of this in each of the structs that needs the common fields.
  4. Use an existing package that provides the required features.

All of these have downsides:

  • As suggested above, writing out the duplicate fields manually creates maintenance challenges since you no longer have a single point of modification.
  • Using a macro to emit the common fields solves this problem, but there's still no convient way to identify the relatedness of the structs that contain these common fields.
  • Composition -- the typically recommended julian approach -- generally involves creating functions to delegate from the outer type to the inner type. This can become tedious if you have multiple levels of nesting. Of course you can write forwarding macros to handle this, but this also becomes repetitive.
  • Neither of the packages I reviewed -- OOPMacro.jl and ConcreteAbstractions.jl -- combine the power and simplicity I was after, and neither has been updated in years.

Classes.jl provides one macro, @class, which is a simple wrapper around existing Julia syntax. Classes.jl exploits the type Julia system to provide inheritance of methods while enabling shared structure without duplicative code.

The @class macro

A "class" is a concrete type with a defined relationship to a hierarchy of automatically generated abstract types. The @class macro saves the field definitions for each class so that subclasses receive all their parent's fields in addition to those defined locally. Inner constructors are passed through unchanged. @class supports parametric classes (similar to parametric structs) and also super class constructor inheritance when the subclass does not have additional fields.

Classes.jl constructs a "shadow" abstract type hierarchy to represent the relationships among the defined classes. For each class Foo, the abstract type AbstractFoo is defined, where AbstractFoo is a subtype of the abstract type associated with the superclass of Foo.

Given these two class definitions (note that Class is defined in Classes.jl):

using Classes

@class Foo begin       # or, equivalently, @class Foo <: Class begin ... end

@class mutable Bar <: Foo begin

The following julia code is emitted for this example:

abstract type AbstractFoo <: AbstractClass end

struct Foo{} <: AbstractFoo

    function Foo(x::Int)

    function Foo(self::T, x::Int) where T <: AbstractFoo
        setfield!(self, :x, x)

abstract type AbstractBar <: AbstractFoo end

mutable struct Bar{} <: AbstractBar

    function Bar(x::Int, bar::Int)
        new(x, bar)

    function Bar(self::T, x::Int, bar::Int) where T <: AbstractBar
        setfield!(self, :x, x)
        setfield!(self, :bar, bar)

Note that the second emitted constructor is parameterized such that it can be called on the class's subclasses to set fields defined by the class. Of course, this is callable only on a mutable struct.

In addition, introspection functions are emitted that relate these:

Classes.superclass(::Type{Bar}) = Foo

Classes.issubclass(::Type{Bar}, ::Type{Foo}) = true
# And so on, up the type hierarchy

Adding the mutable keyword after @class results in a mutable struct, but this feature is not inherited by subclasses; it must be specified (if desired) for each subclass. Classes.jl offers no special handling of mutability: it is the user's responsibility to ensure that combinations of mutable and immutable classes and related methods make sense.

Defining methods to operate on a class hierarchy

To define a function that operates on a class and its subclasses, specify the associated abstract type rather than the class name in the method signature.

For example, give the class Bar, you can write a function that applies to Bar and its subclasses by specifying the type AbstractBar:

my_method(obj::AbstractBar, other, stuff) = do_something(obj, other, args)

Super constructor inheritance

When a subclass does not have any additional fields you can call its super constructors:

## super constructor inheritance
@class Animal begin
    Animal(x, y) = new(x)

function Animal(x, y, z)
    return Animal(x+y+z)

@class Dog <: Animal begin

Dog(1,2) # 1
Dog(1,2,3) # 6

See the online documentation for further details.