In the section on the Observer pattern, we were introduced to a way of channeling multiple event sources through a single object. This is also known as Publish/Subscribe or Event Aggregation. It’s common for developers to think of Mediators when faced with this problem, so let’s explore how they differ.
The dictionary refers to a mediator as a neutral party that assists in negotiations and conflict resolution. In our world, a mediator is a behavioral design pattern that allows us to expose a unified interface through which the different parts of a system may communicate.
If it appears a system has too many direct relationships between components, it may be time to have a central point of control that components communicate through instead. The Mediator promotes loose coupling by ensuring that instead of components referring to each other explicitly, their interaction is handled through this central point. This can help us decouple systems and improve the potential for component reusability.
A real-world analogy could be a typical airport traffic control system. A tower (Mediator) handles what planes can take off and land because all communications (notifications being listened out for or broadcast) are done from the planes to the control tower, rather than from plane-to-plane. A centralized controller is key to the success of this system and that’s really the role a Mediator plays in software design.
Another analogy would be DOM event bubbling and event delegation. If all subscriptions in a system are made against the document rather than individual nodes, the document effectively serves as a Mediator. Instead of binding to the events of the individual nodes, a higher level object is given the responsibility of notifying subscribers about interaction events.
When it comes to the Mediator and Event Aggregator patterns, there are some times where it may look like the patterns are interchangeable due to implementation similarities. However, the semantics and intent of these patterns are very different.
And even if the implementations both use some of the same core constructs, I believe there is a distinct difference between them. I also believe they should not be interchanged or confused in communication because of the differences.
A Simple Mediator
A Mediator is an object that coordinates interactions (logic and behavior) between multiple objects. It makes decisions on when to call which objects, based on the actions (or inaction) of other objects and input.
You can write a mediator using a single line of code:
// getEmployeeDetail provides a view that users interact with
var employeeDetail = this.getEmployeeDetail();
// when the employee detail is complete, the mediator (the ‘orgchart’ object)
// decides what should happen next
// set up additional objects that have additional events, which are used
// by the mediator to do additional things
var managerSelector = this.selectManager(employee);
This example shows a very basic implementation of a mediator object with some utility methods that can trigger and subscribe to events.
I’ve often referred to this type of object as a “workflow” object in the past, but the truth is that it is a mediator. It is an object that handles the workflow between many other objects, aggregating the responsibility of that workflow knowledge into a single object. The result is workflow that is easier to understand and maintain.
Similarities And Differences
There are, without a doubt, similarities between the event aggregator and mediator examples that I’ve shown here. The similarities boil down to two primary items: events and third-party objects. These differences are superficial at best, though. When we dig into the intent of the pattern and see that the implementations can be dramatically different, the nature of the patterns become more apparent.
The difference, then, is why these two patterns are both using events. The event aggregator, as a pattern, is designed to deal with events. The mediator, though, only uses them because it’s convenient.
Both the event aggregator and mediator, by design, use a third-party object to facilitate things. The event aggregator itself is a third-party to the event publisher and the event subscriber. It acts as a central hub for events to pass through. The mediator is also a third party to other objects, though. So where is the difference? Why don’t we call an event aggregator a mediator? The answer largely comes down to where the application logic and workflow is coded.
In the case of an event aggregator, the third party object is there only to facilitate the pass-through of events from an unknown number of sources to an unknown number of handlers. All workflow and business logic that needs to be kicked off is put directly into the object that triggers the events and the objects that handle the events.
In the case of the mediator, though, the business logic and workflow is aggregated into the mediator itself. The mediator decides when an object should have its methods called and attributes updated based on factors that the mediator knows about. It encapsulates the workflow and process, coordinating multiple objects to produce the desired system behaviour. The individual objects involved in this workflow each know how to perform their own task. But it’s the mediator that tells the objects when to perform the tasks by making decisions at a higher level than the individual objects.
An event aggregator facilitates a “fire and forget” model of communication. The object triggering the event doesn’t care if there are any subscribers. It just fires the event and moves on. A mediator, though, might use events to make decisions, but it is definitely not “fire and forget”. A mediator pays attention to a known set of input or activities so that it can facilitate and coordinate additional behavior with a known set of actors (objects).
Relationships: When To Use Which
Understanding the similarities and differences between an event aggregator and mediator is important for semantic reasons. It’s equally as important to understand when to use which pattern, though. The basic semantics and intent of the patterns does inform the question of when, but actual experience in using the patterns will help you understand the more subtle points and nuanced decisions that have to be made.
Event Aggregator Use
In general, an event aggregator is used when you either have too many objects to listen to directly, or you have objects that are entirely unrelated.
jQuery’s on method as an event aggregator is a great example of too many objects to listen to. If you have 10, 20 or 200 DOM elements that can trigger a “click” event, it might be a bad idea to set up a listener on all of them individually. This could quickly deteriorate performance of the application and user experience. Instead, using jQuery’s on method allows us to aggregate all of the events and reduce the overhead of 10, 20, or 200 event handlers down to 1.
Indirect relationships are also a great time to use event aggregators. In modern applications, it is very common to have multiple view objects that need to communicate, but have no direct relationship. For example, a menu system might have a view that handles the menu item clicks. But we don’t want the menu to be directly tied to the content views that show all of the details and information when a menu item is clicked. Having the content and menu coupled together would make the code very difficult to maintain, in the long run. Instead, we can use an event aggregator to trigger “menu:click:foo” events, and have a “foo” object handle the click event to show its content on the screen.
A mediator is best applied when two or more objects have an indirect working relationship, and business logic or workflow needs to dictate the interactions and coordination of these objects.
A wizard interface is a good example of this, as shown with the “orgChart” example, above. There are multiple views that facilitate the entire workflow of the wizard. Rather than tightly coupling the view together by having them reference each other directly, we can decouple them and more explicitly model the workflow between them by introducing a mediator.
The mediator extracts the workflow from the implementation details and creates a more natural abstraction at a higher level, showing us at a much faster glance what that workflow is. We no longer have to dig into the details of each view in the workflow, to see what the workflow actually is.
Event Aggregator (Pub/Sub) And Mediator Together
The crux of the difference between an event aggregator and a mediator, and why these pattern names should not be interchanged with each other, is illustrated best by showing how they can be used together. The menu example for an event aggregator is the perfect place to introduce a mediator as well.
Clicking a menu item may trigger a series of changes throughout an application. Some of these changes will be independent of others, and using an event aggregator for this makes sense. Some of these changes may be internally related to each other, though, and may use a mediator to enact those changes.
A mediator, then, could be set up to listen to the event aggregator. It could run its logic and process to facilitate and coordinate many objects that are related to each other, but unrelated to the original event source.
// coordinate all of the objects into a meaningful workflow.
In this example, when the MenuItem with the right model is clicked, the “menu:click:foo” event will be triggered. An instance of the “MyWorkflow” object, assuming one is already instantiated, will handle this specific event and will coordinate all of the objects that it knows about, to create the desired user experience and workflow.
An event aggregator and a mediator have been combined to create a much more meaningful experience in both the code and the application itself. We now have a clean separation between the menu and the workflow through an event aggregator and we are still keeping the workflow itself clean and maintainable through the use of a mediator.
Advantages & Disadvantages
The largest benefit of the Mediator pattern is that it reduces the communication channels needed between objects or components in a system from many to many to just many to one. Adding new publishers and subscribers is relatively easy due to the level of decoupling present.
Perhaps the biggest downside of using the pattern is that it can introduce a single point of failure. Placing a Mediator between modules can also cause a performance hit as they are always communicating indirectly. Because of the nature of loose coupling, it’s difficult to establish how a system might react by only looking at the broadcasts.
That said, it’s useful to remind ourselves that decoupled systems have a number of other benefits – if our modules communicated with each other directly, changes to modules (e.g another module throwing an exception) could easily have a domino effect on the rest of our application. This problem is less of a concern with decoupled systems.
At the end of the day, tight coupling causes all kinds of headaches and this is just another alternative solution, but one which can work very well if implemented correctly.
Mediator Vs. Facade
We will be covering the Facade pattern shortly, but for reference purposes some developers may also wonder whether there are similarities between the Mediator and Facade patterns. They do both abstract the functionality of existing modules, but there are some subtle differences.
The Mediator centralizes communication between modules where it’s explicitly referenced by these modules. In a sense this is multidirectional. The Facade however just defines a simpler interface to a module or system but doesn’t add any additional functionality. Other modules in the system aren’t directly aware of the concept of a facade and could be considered unidirectional.