Sunday, March 16, 2008

Don't override Equals

A colleague had a problem the other day which turned out to be due to an overridden Equals operator. In this case it was a straightforward bug in the implementation, but after he saw my horror struck face I had to introduce him to the whole 'don't override Equals' philosophy[1]. On the pretext that you've not come across it, here's the argument in full:

  • You have two objects that came from different places, and need to know if they represent essentially the same data.
  • You can't override Equals unless you also override GetHashCode. If two objects are equal, they must have the same hashcode, or collections are screwed.
  • GetHashCode must return the same value for an instance throughout it's lifetime, or Hashtable's are screwed
  • Your object isn't readonly, so you need an immutable field in the instance to base the hashcode on.
  • But if you modify one instance's data to equal another, that field can't change, so the hashcodes are still different.
  • You're screwed
And that's without getting into the problems associated with a correct implementation of Equals in the first place (getting the reflexive, symmetric and transitive bit right). Generally speaking some kind of IsEquivilent method is a whole heap less trouble, but it depends what you're up to. You might think about loading your objects through some kind of registry, so references to the 'same' data actually end up pointing to the same instance. Then everything just works...

More reading:

UPDATE 10/04/08: Some clarifications: I'm talking about not overriding Equals/GetHashCode for reference types here. It's not such a problem for value types [as IDisposable points out in the comments]. And I've futher clarified some of my assertions about GetHashTable in the comments.

[1] PS: Like all advice, this has exceptions. But the chances are they don't apply in your case. No, really.

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