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Design Patterns

The Flyweight Chronicles: How to Make Your Code Weightless!

Eduard Ghergu
Eduard Ghergu
Software Architect

The Flyweight Design Pattern is a structural pattern used to minimize memory usage or computational expenses by sharing as much as possible with related objects. It is beneficial when many similar objects need to be created, and the overhead of creating and maintaining each object individually is too high.

The key idea behind the Flyweight pattern is to separate an object’s intrinsic and extrinsic states. The intrinsic state is the part of the object that can be shared and is independent of the object’s context, while the extrinsic state is the part that depends on the object’s context and cannot be shared.

From the object-oriented design perspective, the intrinsic state of an object typically refers to the inherent properties, characteristics, or conditions that are an integral part of the object itself. In object-oriented programming, an object’s intrinsic state consists of the attributes or data members that define its current state.

For example, consider an object representing a car. The intrinsic state of this car object may include attributes such as its color, model, year of manufacture, and current speed. These properties directly describe the car’s essential characteristics and are part of its intrinsic state.

In contrast to the intrinsic state, there is also the concept of extrinsic state or behavior, which represents how an object interacts with its environment or responds to external stimuli. Using the car example, the extrinsic state could include actions like accelerating, braking, or turning, which are not the car’s inherent properties but behaviors influenced by external factors.

Understanding the intrinsic state of an object is crucial in designing effective object-oriented systems, as it helps define the core data that represents the object’s identity and essential features. This concept is often associated with object-oriented programming’s encapsulation and data abstraction principles.


How does the Flyweight Design Pattern work?


As we have seen, the Flyweight Design Pattern separates an object’s intrinsic and extrinsic states, sharing the intrinsic state among multiple objects to reduce memory usage and improve performance. Here is a step-by-step explanation of how the Flyweight pattern works:

1. Identification of Intrinsic and Extrinsic State:

  • Intrinsic State: This is the part of the object that can be shared among multiple instances. It is independent of the object’s context. For example, in a text editor, the intrinsic state of a character flyweight could include the character code, font, and size.
  • Extrinsic State: This is the part of the object that depends on the object’s context and cannot be shared. It is specific to each instance. In the text editor example, the extrinsic state of a character flyweight could include the position on the screen.

2. Creation of Flyweight Interface:

  • Define a Flyweight interface or abstract class that declares methods for manipulating the intrinsic and extrinsic state.

3. Creation of Concrete Flyweights:

  • Implement concrete classes that conform to the Flyweight interface. These classes represent the shared intrinsic state. In the text editor example, each concrete flyweight might represent a unique character with its intrinsic properties.

4. Creation of Flyweight Factory:

  • Implement a Flyweight Factory class responsible for creating and managing flyweights.
  • The factory maintains a pool or cache of existing flyweights, ensuring that flyweights are shared and reused when requested.

5. Client Interaction:

  • The client uses the flyweights and is responsible for maintaining the extrinsic state (context-specific information) and passing it to the flyweights when needed.
  • When the client requests a flyweight, the Flyweight Factory checks if an instance with the given intrinsic state already exists in the pool. If it does, it returns the existing instance; otherwise, it creates a new one and adds it to the pool.

6. Minimization of Memory Usage:

  • The Flyweight pattern minimizes memory usage by sharing the common intrinsic state among multiple objects. The shared flyweights are reused, reducing the need to create and maintain a separate instance for each similar object.

7. Improved Performance:

  • With the reduced memory footprint, the application’s performance is often improved, especially in scenarios where many similar objects are used.

In conclusion, the Flyweight pattern achieves efficiency by sharing common parts of objects and externalizing the variable parts. This helps reduce memory consumption and improve performance when many similar objects must be managed.


Flyweight Design Pattern


Let us consider an example using the Flyweight pattern. In this example, we will create a TextEditor that handles the formatting of characters (such as font and color) and their position. The CharacterFormatting class will represent the intrinsic state, and the CharacterFlyweight class will be the concrete flyweight.


Flyweight Design Pattern diagram


When, in the TextEditor, a character with a specified format is to be added, in the CharacterFlyweightFactory.GetCharacterFlyweight() method is first searched if the character exists in the local cache (the _characters private field). If found, it will be returned; if not, it will be added to the local cache and returned.

The source code for the presented sample is available on GitHub.


Advantages of the Flyweight Design Pattern


The Flyweight Design Pattern offers several advantages when appropriately applied in a software design, such as:

1. Memory Efficiency:

The primary advantage of the Flyweight pattern is its ability to reduce memory usage significantly. The overall memory footprint is minimized by sharing the common parts of objects (intrinsic state) among multiple instances. This is particularly valuable when dealing with a large number of similar objects.

2. Improved Performance:

Due to reduced memory consumption, applications employing the Flyweight pattern often experience improved performance. Fewer objects mean less overhead in terms of both memory allocation and garbage collection (in languages with automatic memory management).

3. Resource Conservation:

The pattern conserves system resources by minimizing the number of instances created, especially for objects with shared characteristics. This can lead to more efficient utilization of system resources and better scalability.

4. Encapsulation of Extrinsic State:

The client maintains the extrinsic state, not within the flyweight objects. This separation allows for more straightforward management of the client’s context-specific information without affecting the shared intrinsic state.

5. Simplified Client Code:

Clients interacting with flyweights only need to manage the extrinsic state, making the client code cleaner and more straightforward. The complexity of handling a shared intrinsic state is encapsulated within the flyweight and factory components.

6. Promotes Reusability:

Flyweights, representing a shared intrinsic state, are reusable across multiple contexts. This reusability contributes to a more modular and maintainable design.

7. Flexibility in Adding New Flyweights:

Adding new flyweights to the system is relatively easy. Extending the system to accommodate additional shared characteristics involves creating new concrete flyweights and modifying the factory without impacting existing code.

8. Supports Large-Scale Systems:

The Flyweight pattern is particularly beneficial in large-scale systems where many objects with shared characteristics are present. It helps manage the complexity and resource consumption in such scenarios.

9. Enhances Scalability:

The pattern makes it easier to scale systems as the number of objects increases. By reusing shared flyweights, the system can handle more instances without a proportional increase in memory usage.

10. Maintains Consistency:

A shared intrinsic state ensures consistency among instances. Changes made to the intrinsic state of one flyweight are reflected across all instances sharing that state.

It is important to note that while the Flyweight pattern provides these advantages, its applicability depends on the specific characteristics of the problem domain. It is most effective when there is a significant amount of shared state among objects and a high cost of instantiating individual objects.


Disadvantages of the Flyweight Design Pattern


While the Flyweight Design Pattern offers several advantages, it also comes with some potential disadvantages that should be considered in the context of specific design scenarios:

1. Complexity:

Introducing the Flyweight pattern can add complexity to the codebase, especially when implementing the Flyweight Factory and managing the shared and non-shared states. This complexity may not be justified for simpler systems or scenarios with low object instantiation overhead.

2. Increased Code Overhead:

The pattern might introduce additional code overhead, especially in the Flyweight Factory, which needs to manage and maintain the pool of shared flyweights. This could offset the benefits of reduced memory usage in certain situations.

3. Thread Safety Concerns:

If not implemented carefully, the Flyweight pattern may introduce thread safety concerns. If multiple threads concurrently access and modify shared flyweights, synchronization mechanisms might be needed to avoid race conditions.

4. Potential Performance Impact:

While the Flyweight pattern can improve memory usage and overall performance, there may be better choices when the trade-off between memory efficiency and additional computational overhead is favorable. Profiling and careful consideration of the specific requirements are essential.

5. Not Ideal for All Object Types:

The pattern is most effective when many objects share a significant amount of common state. In scenarios where the intrinsic state is minimal or objects have very distinct states, the benefits of the Flyweight pattern may be obscure.

6. Difficulty in Managing Extrinsic State:

Managing the extrinsic state (context-specific information) can become challenging, especially as the complexity of the client’s requirements grows. Clients must maintain and manage this state, which could lead to potential errors or misuse.

7. Limited Applicability:

The Flyweight pattern is not suitable for every design scenario. It is most beneficial when there are many similar objects, and the shared intrinsic state is a significant portion of the object’s overall state. In situations where object instantiation is not a performance bottleneck, using the pattern might be unnecessary.

8. Potential for Overuse:

There is a risk of overusing the Flyweight pattern in scenarios where it does not provide significant benefits. Using the pattern with understanding the problem domain can result in unnecessary complexity and maintenance challenges.

9. Increased Initialization Time:

The initialization of shared flyweights and the setup of the Flyweight Factory may introduce additional initialization time. This can be a potential drawback in scenarios where quick initialization is crucial.

10. Impact on Object Identity:

Since flyweights represent a shared state, their changes may affect the identity of multiple objects. This can have unintended consequences and requires careful consideration, especially when dealing with mutable shared state.

As with any design pattern, it is important to carefully evaluate the system’s requirements and consider the trade-offs before using the Flyweight pattern.


When should we use the Flyweight Design Pattern?


The Flyweight Design Pattern is most appropriate when many similar objects need to be created, and the high memory overhead of individual instances is a concern. Here are some scenarios and conditions in which the Flyweight pattern is beneficial:

1. Large Number of Objects:

When many objects share common characteristics or state, creating individual instances for each object would be impractical due to high memory consumption.

2. Memory Usage is a Concern:

When memory usage is a critical factor, and conserving memory is a priority. The Flyweight pattern helps reduce the overall memory footprint by sharing a common state among multiple instances.

3. Object Creation Overhead is Significant:

When the cost of creating and initializing individual objects is high, and the system performance would benefit from reusing shared objects. This is particularly relevant in resource-constrained environments.

4. Shared State:

When a significant portion of the object’s state can be shared among multiple instances, it makes sense to extract and share this common state to avoid redundancy.

5. Performance Improvement is Needed:

When there is a need to improve the application’s performance by reducing the overhead associated with creating and managing many objects.

6. Extrinsic State Management:

When clients can manage the extrinsic state (context-specific information) separately from the intrinsic state of the objects. The Flyweight pattern allows clients to maintain and pass the extrinsic state to flyweights.

7. Immutable State:

When the shared state is immutable (does not change after creation) or changes infrequently. This ensures that changes to the shared state do not affect the consistency of objects.

8. Maintaining a Pool of Reusable Objects:

When it is feasible and beneficial to maintain a pool or cache of reusable flyweight objects, and the overhead of managing this pool is acceptable.

9. Appropriate Threading Considerations:

When proper synchronization mechanisms are in place to ensure thread safety if multiple threads are accessing and modifying shared flyweights concurrently.

10. Variety of Contexts:

When the objects need to be used in various contexts, the shared state can be used across different instances with different extrinsic states.

11. Complex Object Initialization:

When individual objects are initialized, and sharing the common state allows for simpler and more efficient object creation.

It is important to note that the decision to use the Flyweight pattern should be based on a careful analysis of the specific requirements and constraints of the system. The pattern is not a one-size-fits-all solution and is most effective in scenarios where the trade-offs align with the application’s goals.


Real-world examples of Flyweight Design Pattern


The Flyweight Design Pattern is commonly used in real-world scenarios where many similar objects must be managed efficiently. Here are some real-world examples of the Flyweight pattern:

1. Text Editors and Word Processors:

In text editors and word processors, characters or glyphs are often represented as flyweights. The intrinsic state, such as the character code and font information, is shared among instances, while the extrinsic state, like the position on the screen, is specific to each instance.

2. Graphics and GUI Systems:

In graphical user interface (GUI) systems, graphical elements like icons, buttons, and characters can be implemented using the Flyweight pattern. Common properties such as image data or icon representations are shared among multiple instances, while the position and user-specific properties are maintained separately.

3. Game Development:

In game development, the Flyweight pattern can be applied to manage game entities, such as bullets, particles, or textures. Common properties like the image or behavior are shared among instances, while the position, velocity, and other state information are specific to each instance.

4. Financial Systems:

In financial systems, currencies, and exchange rates can be modeled using the Flyweight pattern. Typical properties of a currency, such as its symbol and name, are shared among instances, while the extrinsic state includes information about the specific financial transaction.

These examples illustrate how the Flyweight pattern can be applied in diverse domains to optimize memory usage and improve performance when dealing with many similar objects.




In conclusion, the Flyweight Design Pattern is a valuable tool in software design when there is a need to manage many similar objects efficiently. By separating intrinsic and extrinsic states and sharing common parts among instances, the pattern reduces memory overhead and improves performance. Real-world applications of the Flyweight pattern can be found in diverse domains, ranging from text editors and GUI systems to game development and financial software.

The pattern’s advantages include memory efficiency, improved performance, resource conservation, and support for large-scale systems. However, it is essential to consider potential drawbacks, such as added complexity, increased code overhead, and the need for proper thread-safety measures.

Ultimately, the decision to use the Flyweight pattern should be based on a careful analysis of the specific requirements and constraints of the system. When applied judiciously, the Flyweight pattern contributes to more efficient and scalable designs, making it a valuable asset in the toolkit of software designers and architects.

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