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Understanding Association, Aggregation, and Composition

, 15 Mar 2012
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In this article we will try to understand 3 important concepts association, aggregation and composition.

Table of contents

Introduction

In this article, we will try to understand three important concepts: association, aggregation, and composition.

We will also try to understand in what kind of scenarios we need them. These three concepts have really confused a lot of developers and in this article, my attempt would be to present the concepts in a simplified manner with some real world examples.

Extracting real world relationships from a requirement

The whole point of OOP is that your code replicates real world objects, thus making your code readable and maintainable. When we say real world, the real world has relationships. Let’s consider the simple requirement listed below:

  1. Manager is an employee of XYZ limited corporation.
  2. Manager uses a swipe card to enter XYZ premises.
  3. Manager has workers who work under him.
  4. Manager has the responsibility of ensuring that the project is successful.
  5. Manager's salary will be judged based on project success.

If you flesh out the above five point requirement, we can easily visualize four relationships:-

  • Inheritance
  • Aggregation
  • Association
  • Composition

Let’s understand them one by one.

Requirement 1: The IS A relationship

If you look at the first requirement (Manager is an employee of XYZ limited corporation), it’s a parent child relationship or inheritance relationship. The sentence above specifies that Manager is a type of employee, in other words we will have two classes: parent class Employee, and a child class Manager which will inherit from the Employee class.

Note: The scope of this article is only limited to aggregation, association, and composition. We will not discuss inheritance in this article as it is pretty straightforward and I am sure you can get 1000s of articles on the net which will help you in understanding it.

Requirement 2: The Using relationship: Association

Requirement 2 is an interesting requirement (Manager uses a swipe card to enter XYZ premises). In this requirement, the manager object and the swipe card object use each other but they have their own object life time. In other words, they can exist without each other. The most important point in this relationship is that there is no single owner.

The above diagram shows how the SwipeCard class uses the Manager class and the Manager class uses the SwipeCard class. You can also see how we can create objects of the Manager class and SwipeCard class independently and they can have their own object life time.

This relationship is called the “Association” relationship.

Requirement 3: The Using relationship with Parent: Aggregation

The third requirement from our list (Manager has workers who work under him) denotes the same type of relationship like association but with a difference that one of them is an owner. So as per the requirement, the Manager object will own Worker objects.

The child Worker objects can not belong to any other object. For instance, a Worker object cannot belong to a SwipeCard object.

But… the Worker object can have its own life time which is completely disconnected from the Manager object. Looking from a different perspective, it means that if the Manager object is deleted, the Worker object does not die.

This relationship is termed as an “Aggregation” relationship.

Requirements 4 and 5: The Death relationship: Composition

The last two requirements are actually logically one. If you read closely, the requirements are as follows:

  1. Manager has the responsibility of ensuring that the project is successful.
  2. Manager's salary will be judged based on project success.

Below is the conclusion from analyzing the above requirements:

  1. Manager and the project objects are dependent on each other.
  2. The lifetimes of both the objects are the same. In other words, the project will not be successful if the manager is not good, and the manager will not get good increments if the project has issues.

Below is how the class formation will look like. You can also see that when I go to create the project object, it needs the manager object.

This relationship is termed as the composition relationship. In this relationship, both objects are heavily dependent on each other. In other words, if one goes for garbage collection the other also has to be garbage collected, or putting from a different perspective, the lifetime of the objects are the same. That’s why I have put in the heading “Death” relationship.

Putting things together

Below is a visual representation of how the relationships have emerged from the requirements.

The source code

You can download the sample source code for this article.

Summarizing

To avoid confusion henceforth for these three terms, I have put forward a table below which will help us compare them from three angles: owner, lifetime, and child object.

Association Aggregation Composition
Owner No owner Single owner Single owner
Life time Have their own lifetime Have their own lifetime Owner's life time
Child object Child objects all are independent Child objects belong to a single parent Child objects belong to a single parent

Video on Association, Aggregation, and Composition

I have also added a video in case you do not want to read this long article.

<OBJECT type="application/x-shockwave-flash" codebase="http://download.macromedia.com/pub/shockwave/cabs/flash/swflash.cab#version=3,0,0,0" WIDTH="640" HEIGHT="360" data="http://www.youtube.com/v/0po_wmSEW1Q?version=3&feature=player_detailpage"></OBJECT>

Just a note: I have recorded around 500 videos, do have a look at my videos on .NET, OOP, SQL Server, WCF, Silver light , LINQ , VSTS, SharePoint, Design Patterns, UML and a lot more.

Thanks for reading my article.

License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

About the Author

Shivprasad koirala
Architect http://www.questpond.com
India India

I am a Microsoft MVP for ASP/ASP.NET and currently a CEO of a small
E-learning company in India. We are very much active in making training videos ,
writing books and corporate trainings. Do visit my site for 
.NET, C# , design pattern , WCF , Silverlight
, LINQ , ASP.NET , ADO.NET , Sharepoint , UML , SQL Server  training 
and Interview questions and answers


Comments and Discussions

 
GeneralMy vote of 5 PinmemberShrilata Ellaboina9-May-13 0:12 
GeneralMy vote of 5 PinprofessionalVani Kulkarni5-May-13 23:02 
Questionaggregation Pinmembernasirkhayam14-Mar-13 21:47 
QuestionDifference between Composition and Aggregation Pinmemberkhurramrafii18-Feb-13 5:18 
Hi all,
 
Above article is really a good at building concept using real life example. Also I've found another good article explaining difference between Composition and Aggregation;
 
Here is the link;
 
http://www.c-sharpcorner.com/UploadFile/pcurnow/compagg07272007062838AM/compagg.aspx[^]
 
Regards,
 
Khurram
GeneralMy vote of 5 PinmemberMember 46733705-Dec-12 20:36 
GeneralMy vote of 5 PinmemberMember 94783622-Oct-12 8:45 
GeneralMy vote of 5 PinmemberMember 313707812-Sep-12 19:49 
GeneralMy vote of 2 PinmemberMember 936764419-Aug-12 8:28 
Questionhow to do one to one and one to many relationships in c# Pinmemberjameschowdaree16-Aug-12 17:13 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pinmemberzabahey12-Jul-12 1:11 

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