Scalable Observer Pattern

When developers talk about publish-subscribe design patterns I immediately think of the newspaper analogy. As described in Head First Design Patterns:

  1. A newspaper goes into business and begins publishing newspapers.
  2. You subscribe to a particular publisher, and every time there’s a new edition it gets delivered to you. As long as you remain a subscriber you get new newspapers.
  3. You unsubscribe when you don’t want papers anymore, and they stop being delivered.
  4. While the publisher remains in business, people, hotels, airlines, and other businesses constantly subscribe and unsubscribe to the newspaper.

As a software design pattern, this is known as the Observer Pattern. In this pattern the publisher is called the Subject and the subscribers the Observers.

Comparison of Observer and Pub-Sub patterns

The Observer Pattern has some limitations such as scalability and hard-coupling. Unlike the physical world of newspapers it is possible to build an improved subscription service that does scale and is loosely-coupled. This improved pattern is called the Publish-Subscribe Pattern (or “pub-sub”).

Now you’re wondering, why name the pattern “publish-subscribe” when it does not behave like a newspaper pattern?? This has caused a lot of consternation in my discussions with other system architects. Unless one is aware of the naming convention used for these patterns; then it has happened that one person is talking about pub-sub and the other thinks they’re talking about newspapers.

It would be have been more intuitive to have called pub-sub something like the Scalable Observer Pattern.

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