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2016-01-04

Managing the private data of ES6 classes

This blog post explains four approaches for managing private data for ES6 classes:

  1. Keeping private data in the environment of a class constructor
  2. Marking private properties via a naming convention (e.g. a prefixed underscore)
  3. Keeping private data in WeakMaps
  4. Using symbols as keys for private properties

Approaches #1 and #2 were already common in ES5, for constructors. Approaches #3 and #4 are new in ES6. Let’s implement the same example four times, via each of the approaches.

Keeping private data in the environment of a class constructor

Our running example is a class Countdown that invokes a callback action once a counter (whose initial value is counter) reaches zero. The two parameters action and counter should be stored as private data.

In the first implementation, we store action and counter in the environment of the class constructor. An environment is the internal data structure, in which a JavaScript engine stores the parameters and local variables that come into existence whenever a new scope is entered (e.g. via a function call or a constructor call). This is the code:

    class Countdown {
        constructor(counter, action) {
            Object.assign(this, {
                dec() {
                    if (counter < 1) return;
                    counter--;
                    if (counter === 0) {
                        action();
                    }
                }
            });
        }
    }

Using Countdown looks like this:

    > let c = new Countdown(2, () => console.log('DONE'));
    > c.dec();
    > c.dec();
    DONE

Pro:

  • The private data is completely safe
  • The names of private properties won’t clash with the names of other private properties (of superclasses or subclasses).

Cons:

  • The code becomes less elegant, because you need to add all methods to the instance, inside the constructor (at least those methods that need access to the private data).
  • Due to the instance methods, the code wastes memory. If the methods were prototype methods, they would be shared.

More information on this technique: Sect. “Private Data in the Environment of a Constructor (Crockford Privacy Pattern)” in “Speaking JavaScript”.

Marking private properties via a naming convention

The following code keeps private data in properties whose names a marked via a prefixed underscore:

    class Countdown {
        constructor(counter, action) {
            this._counter = counter;
            this._action = action;
        }
        dec() {
            if (this._counter < 1) return;
            this._counter--;
            if (this._counter === 0) {
                this._action();
            }
        }
    }

Pros:

  • Code looks nice.
  • We can use prototype methods.

Cons:

  • Not safe, only a guideline for client code.
  • The names of private properties can clash.

Keeping private data in WeakMaps

There is a neat technique involving WeakMaps that combines the advantage of the first approach (safety) with the advantage of the second approach (being able to use prototype methods). This technique is demonstrated in the following code: we use the WeakMaps _counter and _action to store private data.

    let _counter = new WeakMap();
    let _action = new WeakMap();
    class Countdown {
        constructor(counter, action) {
            _counter.set(this, counter);
            _action.set(this, action);
        }
        dec() {
            let counter = _counter.get(this);
            if (counter < 1) return;
            counter--;
            _counter.set(this, counter);
            if (counter === 0) {
                _action.get(this)();
            }
        }
    }

Each of the two WeakMaps _counter and _action maps objects to their private data. Due to how WeakMaps work that won’t prevent objects from being garbage-collected. As long as you keep the WeakMaps hidden from the outside world, the private data is safe. If you want to be even safer, you can store WeakMap.prototype.get and WeakMap.prototype.set in temporary variables and invoke those (instead of the methods, dynamically). Then our code wouldn’t be affected if malicious code replaced those methods with ones that snoop on our private data. However, we are only protected against code that runs after our code. There is nothing we can do if it runs before ours.

Pros:

  • We can use prototype methods.
  • Safer than a naming convention for property keys.
  • The names of private properties can’t clash.

Con:

  • Code is not as elegant as a naming convention.

Using symbols as keys for private properties

Another storage location for private data are properties whose keys are symbols:

    const _counter = Symbol('counter');
    const _action = Symbol('action');
    
    class Countdown {
        constructor(counter, action) {
            this[_counter] = counter;
            this[_action] = action;
        }
        dec() {
            if (this[_counter] < 1) return;
            this[_counter]--;
            if (this[_counter] === 0) {
                this[_action]();
            }
        }
    }

Each symbol is unique, which is why a symbol-valued property key will never clash with any other property key. Additionally, symbols are somewhat hidden from the outside world, but not completely:

    let c = new Countdown(2, () => console.log('DONE'));
    
    console.log(Object.keys(c));
        // []
    console.log(Reflect.ownKeys(c));
        // [ Symbol(counter), Symbol(action) ]

Pros:

  • We can use prototype methods.
  • The names of private properties can’t clash.

Cons:

  • Code is not as elegant as a naming convention.
  • Not safe: you can list all property keys (including symbols!) of an object via Reflect.ownKeys().

Further reading

  • Sect. “Keeping Data Private” in “Speaking JavaScript” (covers ES5 techniques)
  • Chap. “Classes” in “Exploring ES6”
  • Chap. “Symbols” in “Exploring ES6”

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