The Ada Resource Association
Multiple Inheritance in Ada 95
By S. Tucker Taft

Editor's note: Ada 2005 provides an additional way to do multiple inheritance in Ada. Read about them in Section 2.4 of the Rationale for Ada 2005.

Using Ada 95

This article discusses the creation of multiple inheritance type (semi-)lattices using the Ada 95 object-oriented programming features. It is in part directed at programmers familiar with other object-oriented programming languages that build in syntax for a particular multiple-inheritance mechanism, rather than simply providing features needed to support it.

In this discussion, we will in general use Ada 95 terminology, where every object has a single "type," and multiple similar types (typically in some kind of hierarchy or oligarchy) form a "class" of types. If we want to use the term "class" as it is used in C++ or Eiffel, we will always say "C++ class" or "Eiffel class."

In some languages, such as Eiffel, multiple inheritance serves many purposes. For example, there is no equivalent in Eiffel to the "include" statement of C/C++ or the "with/use" clauses of Ada. Therefore, to gain direct visibility to the declarations of some other module, one must inherit from that module (Eiffel class). In C/C++, one can simply "include" file containing a set of type and object definitions.

In Ada, one first identifies the external modules of interest via "with" clauses, and then chooses selectively whether to make only the name of the module (package) visible, or its contents (via a "use" clause). In both Eiffel and C++, one can choose to inherit from some other type, without making that visible to clients of the new type. Effectively, the linguistic multiple inheritance mechanism is being used to express not an "is a refinement of" relationship, but rather an "is implemented using" relationship.

Finally, there are the situations where a single type visibly inherits from two or more other types. In these cases, this is rarely a symmetric situation. Rather, one of the ancestor types is the "primary" ancestor, while the others are typically "mix-ins" designed to augment behavior of the primary ancestor.

Ada 95 supports multiple-inheritance module inclusion (via multiple "with"/"use" clauses), multiple-inheritance "is-implemented-using" via private extensions and record composition, and multiple-inheritance mix-ins via the use of generics, formal packages, and access discriminants.

The Ada 95 mechanisms are designed to eliminate "distributed" overhead, so that there is no added expense for the general user of the language because of the presence of the mechanisms supporting multiple inheritance.

There are basically three distinct situations associated with multi-inheritance mixins:

  • Case 1:
    The case where the mix-in provides components and operations, and any overriding of these operations needs only to look at the components of the mix-in itself.
  • Case 2:
    The case where the mix-in provides components and operations, and some of the overriding of these operations needs access to the whole object, rather than just the components of the mix-in.
  • Case 3:
    Like (2), and in addition, any object with the mix-in must be able to be linked onto a list (or into some similar heterogeneous data structure) of other objects with the same mix-in.

Case 1 is handled completely in Ada 95 by a record or private extension, with the type being mixed in (in a possibly extended form) as a component of the record extension.

Case 2 is handled with a generic, that takes any type in a given class (formal derived type), adds components (via extension) and operations, and then re-exports the extended type. The new operations have access to the whole object, not just to the components being added.

Case 3 is handled with an access discriminant, that provides access to the enclosing object for the operations of the mix-in, while still allowing links through the mix-in. Generics can also be used to simplify the definition.


Case 1

One has an abstract type "Set_of_Strings" and one wants to implement it by reusing an existing (concrete) type "Hash_Table":

Here is the abstract type:

  type Set_Of_Strings is tagged limited private;
  type Element_Index is new Natural;  -- Index within set.

  No_Element : constant Element_Index := 0;

  Invalid_Index : exception;

  procedure Enter(
    -- Enter an element into the set, return the index
     Set : in out Set_Of_Strings; 
     S : String; 
    Index : out Element_Index) is abstract;

  procedure Remove(
    -- Remove an element from the set; ignore if not there
     Set : in out Set_Of_Strings; 
     S : String) is abstract; 

  procedure Combine(
    -- Combine Additional_Set into Union_Set
     Union_Set : in out Set_Of_Strings;
     Additional_Set : Set_Of_Strings) is abstract;

  procedure Intersect(
    -- Remove all elements of Removal_Set from Intersection_Set
     Intersection_Set : in out Set_Of_Strings;
     Removal_Set : Set_Of_Strings) is abstract;

  function Size(Set : Set_Of_Strings) return Element_Index
    is abstract;
    -- Return a count of the number of elements in the set

  function Index(
    -- Return the index of a given element;
    -- return No_Element if not there.
        Set : Set_Of_Strings; 
        S : String) return Element_Index is abstract;

  function Element(Index : Element_Index) return String
    is abstract;
    -- Return element at given index position
    -- raise Invalid_Index if no element there.
  type Set_Of_Strings is tagged limited ...

Here is an implementation of this abstract type that inherits its interface from Set_Of_Strings, and its implementation from Hash_Table:

  type Hashed_Set(Table_Size : Positive) is 
    new Set_Of_Strings with private;

  -- Now we give the specs of the operations being implemented
  procedure Enter(
    -- Enter an element into the set, return the index
     Set : in out Hashed_Set;
     S : String; 
     Index : out Element_Index);

  procedure Remove(
    -- Remove an element from the set; ignore if not there
     Set : in out Hashed_Set;
     S : String);
  . . . etc.

  type Hashed_Set(Table_Size : Positive) is 
    new Set_Of_Strings with record
      Table : Hash_Table(1..Table_Size);
    end record;

In the body of this package, we would provide the bodies for each of the operations, in terms of the operations available from Hash_Table. Chances are they don't match exactly, so a little bit of "glue" code will be necessary in any case.

Case 2

One has a type Basic_Window that responds to various events and calls. One wants to embellish the Basic_Window in various ways with various mix-ins.
  type Basic_Window is tagged limited private;
  procedure Display(W : Basic_Window);
  procedure Mouse_Click(W : in out Basic_Window; Where : 
  . . .
Now one can define any number of mix-in generics, like the following:
   type Some_Window is new Window with private;
     -- take in any descendant of Window
 package Label_Mixin is
   type Window_With_Label is new Some_Window with private;
     -- Jazz it up somehow.

   -- Overridden operations:
   procedure Display(W : Window_With_Label);

   -- New operations:
   procedure Set_Label(W : in out Window_With_Label; S : String);
     -- Set the label
   function Label(W : Window_With_Label) return String;
     -- Fetch the label
  type Window_With_Label is 
    new Some_Window with record
      Label : String_Quark := Null_Quark;  
        -- An XWindows-Like unique ID for a string
    end record;
In the generic body, we implement the Overridden and New operations as appropriate, using any inherited operations, if necessary. For example, this might be an implementation of the overridden Display:
procedure Display(W : Window_With_Label) is
    -- First display the window normally,
    -- by passing the buck to the parent type.

  if W.Label /= Null_Quark then
    -- Now display the label if it is not null
       Display_On_Screen(XCoord(W), YCoord(W)-5, Value(W.Label));
         -- Use two inherited functions on Basic_Window
         -- to get the coordinates where to display the label.
   end if;
end Display;
Presuming we have several such generic packages defined, we can now create the desired window by mixing in repeatedly. First we declare the tailored window as a private extension of Basic_Window, and then we define it via a sequence of instantiations:
  type My_Window is Basic_Window with private;
  . . .
  package Add_Label is new Label_Mixin(Basic_Window);
  package Add_Border is 
    new Border_Mixin(Add_Label.Window_With_Label);
  package Add_Menu_Bar is 
    new Menu_Bar_Mixin(Add_Border.Window_With_Border);

  type My_Window is 
    new Add_Menu_Bar.Window_With_Menu_Bar with null record;
      -- Final window is a null extension of Window_With_Menu_Bar.
      -- We could instead make a record extension and
      -- add components for My_Window over and above those
      -- needed by the mix-ins.

Case 3

In this case, let us presume we have two independent hierarchies, one for Windows, which represent areas on the screen, and one for Monitors, which wait for an object to change, and then do something in reaction to it. An object that supports Monitors keeps a linked list of Monitors, and calls their Update operation whenever the object is changed. For example:
  type Monitor;
  type Monitor_Ptr is access Monitor'Class;

  type Monitored_Object is tagged limited 
    -- Monitored objects are derived from this root type
      First : Monitor_Ptr;  -- List of monitors
      -- More components to be added by extension
    end record;

  type Monitored_Object_Ptr is access Monitored_Object'Class;

  type Monitor is tagged limited 
      Next : Monitor_Ptr;
      Obj : Monitored_Object_Ptr;
      -- More components to be added by extension
    end record;
  procedure Update(M : in out Monitor) is abstract;
    -- Dispatching operation, called when monitored object
    -- is changed.
Now suppose we want to create a Window that can act as a Monitor as well as a Window. First we define a mix-in that is a monitor, and override its Update op:
  type Monitor_Mixin(Win : access Basic_Window'Class) is 
    new Monitor with null record;
  procedure Update(M : in out Monitor_Mixin);
The body for this Update could be:
  procedure Update(M : in out Monitor_Mixin) is
    -- On an Update, simply re-Display the window
      Display(M.Win);  -- This is a dispatching call
  end Update;
Now we can "mix" this Monitor_Mixin into any window type, as follows:
  type Window_That_Monitors is 
    new My_Window with record
      Mon : Monitor_Mixin(Window_That_Monitors'access);
    end record;

We could define a tailored Monitor mix-in that did something besides just call the Display operation of the associated Window. But in many cases, this simple one will do the job.


As these examples illustrate, Ada 95 provides support for the construction of essentially arbitrary multiple inheritance type lattices, without having to commit itself to a single linguistic mechanism for multiple inheritance, and without burdening simple single-inheritance problems with the complexity and implementation burden of linguistic multiple inheritance.

S. Tucker Taft was the lead of the Ada 9X Mapping/Revision team, which designed Ada 95. Contact him at