Design Patterns Uncovered: The Adapter Pattern

Continuing our series of articles, taking each design pattern one by one, we move onto the Adapter pattern. This pattern is used a lot in Eclipse, allowing plug-ins to be loosely coupled, yet still be integrated into the Eclipse runtime.

Adapters in the Real World

A real world analogy always helps with the understanding of a design pattern. The best example for the adapter pattern is based around AC power adapters. Say you’re visiting Europe from the US, with your laptop, which expects a US power supply. To get your laptop plugged in, you’re going to need to get a power adapter that accepts your US plug and allows it to plug in to the European power outlet. The AC adapter knows how to deal with both sides, acting as a middleman – this is the adapter pattern.

Design Patterns Refcard
For a great overview of the most popular design patterns, DZone’s Design Patterns Refcard is the best place to start.

The Adapter Pattern

The Adapter is known as a structural pattern, as it’s used to identifying a simple way to realize relationships between entities. The definition of Adapter provided in the original Gang of Four book on Design Patterns states:

Convert the interface of a class into another interface clients expect. Adapter lets classes work together that couldn’t otherwise because of incompatible interfaces.

Let’s take a look at the classic diagram definition of  the adapter pattern:

Adapter Pattern

The Target interface defines the domain specific interface that the Client used, so the client collaborates with objects that implement the Target interface. On the other side of things, the Adaptee is the existing interface that needs adapting in order for our client to interact with it. The Adapter adapts the Adaptee to the Target interface – in other words, it translates the request from the client to the adaptee.

Let’s take a look at the interactions in a sequence diagram:

Adapter Sequence Diagram

In this example, as far as the Client is concerned it’s just calling the request method of the Target interface, which the Adapter has implemented. In the background however, the Adapter knows that to return the right result, it needs to call a different method, specificAdapteeRequest, on the Adaptee.

Note: the pattern described here is the object adapter. There is a class adapter pattern, but you need multiple inheritance to use it. Seeing as Java doesn’t support multiple inheritance, I’m going to leave this out.

Where Would I Use This Pattern?

The main use of this pattern is when a class that you need to use doesn’t meet the requirements of an interface. As mentioned before, adapters are common across Eclipse plug-ins. For a particular object to contribute to the Properties view, adapters are used display the objects data. The view itself doesn’t need to know anything about the object the it is displaying properties for.

So How Does It Work In Java?

The following example shows a simple implementation of the pattern. Consider that we have a third party library that provides sorting functionality through it’s NumberSorter class. This is our Adaptee.

 * This is our adaptee, a third party implementation of a
 * number sorter that deals with Lists, not arrays.
public class NumberSorter
   public List<Integer> sort(List<Integer> numbers)
      //sort and return
      return new ArrayList<Integer>();


Our Client deals with primitive arrays rather than Lists. For the sake of this example, lets say we can’t change the client to use Lists.

int[] numbers = new int[]{34, 2, 4, 12, 1};

Sorter sorter = new SortListAdapter();

We’ve provided a Sorter interface that expects the client input. This is our target.

//this is our Target interface
public interface Sorter
   public int[] sort(int[] numbers);
Finally, the SortListAdapter implements our target interface and deals with our adaptee, NumberSorter
public class SortListAdapter implements Sorter

   public int[] sort(int[] numbers)
      //convert the array to a List
      List<Integer> numberList = new ArrayList<Integer>();

      //call the adapter
      NumberSorter sorter = new NumberSorter();
      numberList = sorter.sort(numberList);

      //convert the list back to an array and return 

      return sortedNumbers;


While this example may be overkill, it illustrates how the adapter pattern can work.

Watch Out for the Downsides

Some say that the Adapter pattern is just a fix for a badly designed system, which didn’t consider all possibilties. While this is a fair point, it is an important part of a pluggable architecture.  It can also add a level of complexity to your code, making debugging more difficult.

Find Out More

The classic Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object Oriented Software
For more practical Java examples: Head First Design Patterns.

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