Polymorphic Associations Library

This module (isis-module-poly) provides a set of helpers to support the definition of polymorphic associations; that is: relationships from one persistent entity to another by means of a (Java) interface.

Note that an library has has been superceded by a design pattern that does not require any supporting classes. Rather than emit events on the event bus, the design pattern suggests defining an SPI interface to be implemented.

Modules that use the SPI pattern (as opposed to this module) include Alias subdomain and Classification subdomain.


Persistable polymorphic associations are important because they allow decoupling between classes using the dependency inversion principle; module dependencies can therefore by kept acyclic. This is key to long-term maintainability of the codebase (avoiding the big ball of mud anti-pattern).

While JDO/DataNucleus has several built-in strategies to support polymorphic associations, none allow both a persisted reference to be arbitrarily extensible as well as supporting foreign keys (for RDBMS-enforced referential integrity). The purpose of this module is therefore to provide helper classes that use a different approach, namely the "table of two halves" pattern.

Table of Two Halves Pattern

The "table of two halves" pattern models the relationship tuple itself as a class hierarchy. The supertype table holds a generic polymorphic reference to the target object (leveraging Apache Isis' Bookmark Service) while the subtype table holds a foreign key is held within the subtype.

It is quite possible to implement the "table of two halves" pattern without using the helpers provided by this module; indeed arguably there’s more value in the demo application that accompanies this module (discussed below) than in the helpers themselves. Still, the helpers do provide useful structure to help implement the pattern.

Demo Application

This module has a comprehensive demo fixtures that demonstrates four different polymorphic associations:

  • 1-to-1 and n-to-1: a CommunicationChannel may be owned by a CommunicationChannelOwner.

  • 1-to-n: a Case may contain multiple `CaseContent`s

  • 1-to-1: a Case may have a primary CaseContent.

The CommunicationChannel and Case are regular entities, while CommunicationChannelOwner and CaseContent are (Java) interfaces.

The demo app also has two entities, FixedAsset and Party, that both implement each of these interfaces. Each FixedAsset may "own" a single CommunicationChannel, while a Party may "own" multiple CommunicationChannel`s. Meanwhile both `FixedAsset and Party can be added as the "contents" of multiple `Case`s, and either can be used as a `Case’s "primary content".

Communication Channel

The following UML diagram shows the "logical" polymorphic association between CommunicationChannel and its owning CommunicationChannelOwner:

comm channel uml

This is realized using the following entities:

comm channel link uml

Here the CommunicationChannelOwnerLink is a persistent entity that has subtypes for each of the implementations of the CommunicationChannelOwner interface, namely CommunicationChannelOwnerLinkForFixedAsset and CommunicationChannelOwnerLinkForParty. This inheritance hierarchy can be persisted using any of the [standard strategies](http://www.datanucleus.org/products/datanucleus/jdo/orm/inheritance.html) supported by JDO/DataNucleus.

In the demo application the NEW_TABLE strategy is used, giving rise to these tables:

comm channel rdbms

Case Contents

The following UML diagram shows the (two) "logical" polymorphic assocations between Case and its `CaseContent`s:

case content uml

Note how Case actually has two polymorphic associations: a 1:n to its "contents", and a 1:1 to its "primary content".

This is realized using the following entities:

case content link uml

Here the CaseContentLink is a persistent entity that (as for communication channels) has subtypes for each of the implementations of the CaseContent interface. But because Case actually has two associations to CaseContent, there is also a further CasePrimaryContentLink persistent entity, again with subtypes.

In the demo application the NEW_TABLE strategy is used for both, giving rise to these tables for the "case content" association:

case content contents rdbms

and also to these for the "primary content" association:

case content primary rdbms


The module’s functionality can be explored by running the quickstart with example usage using the org.incode.domainapp.example.app.modules.ExampleDomLibPolyAppManifest.

The home page when the app is run shows 3 parties, 3 fixed assets which between them have 9 communication channels. There are also 3 cases and the parties and fixed assets are variously contained within:

020 dashboard

If we navigate to the Party entity, we can see that it shows a collection of `CommunicationChannel`s that the party owns, and also a collection of the `Case`s within which the party is contained:

030 party

The FixedAsset entity is similar in that it also has a collection of Case`s. However, in our demo app we have a business rule that the fixed asset can own only a single `CommunicationChannel.

040 fixed asset

On the Party entity we can add (and remove) `CommunicationChannel`s:

050 party add comm channel

In this demo app, because communication channels are not shared by entities, this will actually create and persist the corresponding CommunicationChannel.

We can also add (or remove) from `Case`s:

060 party add to case

Here the rule is slightly different: the Case already exists and so the party is merely associated with an existing case.

From the Case entity’s perspective, we can see its contents and also its primary content:

070 case

As might be expected, we have an action to set (or clear) the primary content:

080 case set primary contents


The key design idea is to leverage Isis' event bus service to determine which concrete subtype should be created and persisted to hold the association.

  • when the association needs to be created, an event is posted to the event bus

  • the subscriber updates the event with the details of the subtype to be persisted

  • if no subscriber updates the event, then the association cannot be created and an exception is thrown.

The helper classes provided by this module factor out some of the boilerplate relating to this design, however there is (necessarily) quite a lot of domain-specific code. What’s important is understanding the design and how to replicate it.

The recipe for the pattern is:

Table 1. Recipe
# Step Example


Create an interface for the target of the association

  • CommunicationChannelOwner

  • CaseContent


Create a persistent entity corresponding to the association

  • CommunicationChannelOwnerLink

    for the CommunicationChannel/"owner" association

  • CaseContentLink

    for Case/"contents" association

  • CasePrimaryContentLink

    for Case/"primary content" association


Create an "instantiate event". We suggest using a nested static class of the link entity:

  • CommunicationChannelOwnerLink.InstantiateEvent

  • CaseContentLink.InstantiateEvent

  • CasePrimaryContentLink.InstantiateEvent


Create a corresponding repository service for that link persistent entity:

  • CommunicationChannelOwnerLinks

  • CaseContentLinks

  • CasePrimaryContentLinks


Create a subtype for each implementation of the target interface:

  • CommunicationChannelOwnerLinkForFixedAsset and CommunicationChannelOwnerLinkForParty

  • CaseContentLinkForFixedAsset and CaseContentLinkForParty

  • CasePrimaryContentLinkForFixedAsset and CasePrimaryContentLinkForParty


Create a subscriber to the event for each implementation of the target interface. We suggest using a nested static class of the subtype.

  • CommunicationChannelOwnerLinkForFixedAsset. InstantiateSubscriber and CommunicationChannelOwnerLinkForParty. InstantiateSubscriber

  • CaseContentLinkForFixedAsset. InstantiateSubscriber and CaseContentLinkForParty. InstantiateSubscriber

  • CasePrimaryContentLinkForFixedAsset. InstantiateSubscriber and CasePrimaryContentLinkForParty. InstantiateSubscriber

API and Usage

The module itself consist of the following classes:

  • PolymorphicAssociationLink - an abstract class from which to derive the *Link entity

  • PolymorphicAssociationLink.InstantiateEvent - a superclass for the "instantiate event"

  • PolymorphicAssociationLink.Factory - a utility class that broadcasts the event and persists the link using the requested subtype

Let’s look at each in more detail, relating back to the "communication channel owner" association in the demo app.

A link is in essence a tuple between two entities. One of these links is direct "subject"; the other is the polymorphic reference. The PolymorphicAssociationLink class is intended to be used base class for all *Link entities (step 2 in the pattern recipe), and defines this structure:

public abstract class PolymorphicAssociationLink<
                            S, P, L extends PolymorphicAssociationLink<S, P, L>>
        implements Comparable<L> {

    protected PolymorphicAssociationLink(final String titlePattern) { ... }

    public abstract S getSubject();
    public abstract void setSubject(S subject);

    public abstract String getPolymorphicObjectType();
    public abstract void setPolymorphicObjectType(final String polymorphicObjectType);

    public abstract String getPolymorphicIdentifier();
    public abstract void setPolymorphicIdentifier(final String polymorphicIdentifier);

    public P getPolymorphicReference() { ... }
    public void setPolymorphicReference(final P polymorphicReference) { ... }

    public int compareTo(final PolymorphicAssociationLink other) { ... }

The subclass is required to implement the subject, polymorphicObjectType and the polymorphicIdentifier properties; these should delegate to the "concrete" properties.

For example, the CommunicationChannelOwnerLink looks like:

public abstract class CommunicationChannelOwnerLink
        extends PolymorphicAssociationLink<
                    CommunicationChannel, CommunicationChannelOwner,
                    CommunicationChannelOwnerLink> {

    public CommunicationChannelOwnerLink() {
        super("{polymorphicReference} owns {subject}");

    public CommunicationChannel getSubject() {
        return getCommunicationChannel();
    public void setSubject(final CommunicationChannel subject) {

    public String getPolymorphicObjectType() {
        return getOwnerObjectType();
    public void setPolymorphicObjectType(final String polymorphicObjectType) {

    public String getPolymorphicIdentifier() {
        return getOwnerIdentifier();
    public void setPolymorphicIdentifier(final String polymorphicIdentifier) {

    @lombok.Getter @lombok.Setter
    private CommunicationChannel communicationChannel;      (1)

    @lombok.Getter @lombok.Setter
    private String ownerObjectType;                         (1)

    @lombok.Getter @lombok.Setter
    private String ownerIdentifier;                         (1)
1 JDO persisted properties

Thus, the abstract properties defined by PolymorphicAssociationLink just delegate to corresponding persisted (JDO annotated) properties in CommunicationChannelOwnerLink.

Also note the pattern passed to the constructor; this is used to generate a title.

The PolymorphicAssociationLink.InstantiateEvent is the base class to derive an instantiate event type for each polymorphic association (step 3 in the pattern recipe). Having derived event classes means that the event subscribers need only receive the exact events that they care about.

The InstantiateEvent has the following structure:

public abstract static class InstantiateEvent<
                                S, P, L extends PolymorphicAssociationLink<S, P, L>>
        extends java.util.EventObject {

    protected InstantiateEvent(
            final Class<L> linkType,
            final Object source,
            final S subject,
            final P polymorphicReference) { ... }

    public S getSubject() { ... }
    public P getPolymorphicReference() { ... }

    public Class<? extends L> getSubtype() { ... }
    public void setSubtype(final Class<? extends L> subtype) { ... }

Any subclass is required to take the last three parameters in its constructor; the event is instantiated reflectively by PolymorphicAssociationLink.Factory.

For example, the CommunicationChannelOwnerLink.InstantiateEvent is simply:

public static class InstantiateEvent
        extends PolymorphicAssociationLink.InstantiateEvent<
                    CommunicationChannel, CommunicationChannelOwner,
                    CommunicationChannelOwnerLink> {

    public InstantiateEvent(
            final Object source,
            final CommunicationChannel subject,
            final CommunicationChannelOwner owner) {
        super(CommunicationChannelOwnerLink.class, source, subject, owner);

The final class PolymorphicAssociationLink.Factory is responsible for broadcasting the event and then persisting the appropriate subtype for the link. It has the following structure:

public static class Factory<S,P,L extends PolymorphicAssociationLink<S,P,L>,
                            E extends InstantiateEvent<S,P,L>> {

    public Factory(
            final Object eventSource,
            final Class<S> subjectType,
            final Class<P> polymorphicReferenceType,
            final Class<L> linkType, final Class<E> eventType) { ... }

    public void createLink(final S subject, final P polymorphicReference) { ... }


Unlike the other two classes, the factory is not subclassed. Instead, it should be instantiated as appropriate. Typically this will be in a repository service for the *Link entity (step 4 in the pattern recipe).

For example, with the communication channel example the Factory is instantiated in the CommunicationChannelOwnerLinks repository service:

public class CommunicationChannelOwnerLinks {

            CommunicationChannelOwnerLink.InstantiateEvent> linkFactory;

    public void init() {
        linkFactory = container.injectServicesInto(
                new PolymorphicAssociationLink.Factory<>(


    public void createLink(
            final CommunicationChannel communicationChannel,
            final CommunicationChannelOwner owner) {
        linkFactory.createLink(communicationChannel, owner);

Note that it is necessary to inject services into the factory (container.injectServicesInto(…​)).

Completing the Pattern

The helper classes provided by this module are actually only used by the "subject" domain entity (or the containing package for said entity); steps 1 through 4 in the pattern recipe. But what about the implementation for an entity (such as FixedAsset) that wishes to be used in such a polymorphic association, ie the final steps 5 and 6?

Step 5 of the pattern requires a subtype of the *Link entity specific to the subtype to be reference. For example, for FixedAsset this looks like:

public class CommunicationChannelOwnerLinkForFixedAsset
        extends CommunicationChannelOwnerLink {

    public void setPolymorphicReference(final CommunicationChannelOwner polyReference) {
        setFixedAsset((FixedAsset) polyReference);

    // JDO persisted property
    private FixedAsset fixedAsset;


where the inherited setPolymorphicReference(…​) method is overridden to also populate the JDO persisted property (fixedAsset in this case).

And, finally, step 6 defines a subscriber on the instantiate event. We recommend this is a nested static class of the *Link subtype, and so:

public class CommunicationChannelOwnerLinkForFixedAsset
                        extends CommunicationChannelOwnerLink {

    @DomainService(nature = NatureOfService.DOMAIN)
    public static class InstantiationSubscriber extends AbstractSubscriber {

        public void on(final CommunicationChannelOwnerLink.InstantiateEvent ev) {
            if(ev.getPolymorphicReference() instanceof FixedAsset) {

The thing to note is that although there are quite a few steps (1 through 4, in fact) to make an association polymorphic, the steps to then reuse that polymorphic association (steps 5 and 6) are really rather trivial.

Some quick asides

The demo application has a couple of other interesting implementation details - not to do with polymorphic associations - but noteworthy nonetheless.

Use of event bus for cascade delete

With the Case class there is a "case contents" and a "primary case content"; the idea being that the primary content should be one in the "contents" collection.

If the case content object that happens to be primary is dissociated from the case, then a CaseContentContributions.RemoveFromCaseDomainEvent domain event is broadcast. A subscriber listens on this to delete the primary case link:

public class CasePrimaryContentSubscriber extends AbstractSubscriber {

    public void on(final CaseContentContributions.RemoveFromCaseDomainEvent ev) {
        switch (ev.getEventPhase()) {
            case EXECUTING:
                final CasePrimaryContentLink link =
                                                ev.getCase(), ev.getContent());
                if(link != null) {

Contributed properties for collections of an interface type

It (currently) isn’t possible to define (fully abstract) properties on interfaces, meaning that by default a collection of objects implementing an interface (eg `Case’s "caseContents" collection) would normally only show the icon of the object; not particularly satisfactory.

However, Isis does support the notion of contributed properties to interfaces. The demo application uses this trick for the "caseContents" in the CaseContentContributions domain service:

public class CaseContentContributions {

    @Action( semantics = SemanticsOf.SAFE )
    @ActionLayout( contributed = Contributed.AS_ASSOCIATION )
    @PropertyLayout( hidden = Where.OBJECT_FORMS )
    public String title(final CaseContent caseContent) {
        return container.titleOf(caseContent);

Moreover, this trick contributes to all implementations (FixedAsset and Party).

There is however a small gotcha, in that we only want this contributed property to be viewed on tables. The @Property(hidden=Where.OBJECT_FORMS) ensures that it is not shown anywhere else.

How to configure/use


Update your classpath by adding this dependency in your dom project’s pom.xml:


Check for later releases by searching Maven Central Repo.

For instructions on how to use the latest -SNAPSHOT, see the contributors guide.


In the AppManifest, update its getModules() method, eg:

public List<Class<?>> getModules() {
    return Arrays.asList(

Known issues

None known at this time.


Maven can report modules dependencies using:

mvn dependency:list -o -pl modules/lib/poly/impl -D excludeTransitive=true

which, excluding Apache Isis itself, returns no direct compile/runtime dependencies.