Closures - Private Variables and Methods in JavaScript

Some languages such as Java allow us to declare methods and variables in a class as private, restraining anything outside the class itself to access them.

This is very important to achieve encapsulation and conform to the best practices of object oriented programing. Making a variable private also allows the function to have total control over how it is manipulated.

JavaScript, however, does not allow you to specify whether variables and methods of an object should be private or public in their declaration, but it does give us a way to implement them as such.

Give a look at the following code:

var myBankAccount = (function(){
  var balance = 0;

  return{
    getBalance: function(){
                  return balance
                }
  }
})()

Here we are declaring a variable, myBankAccount, and assigning something to it. In the other sign of the assignment we are then declaring a function, but notice that this function declaration is within brackets and at the end, in the last line, there is a (). This means that we are invoking this function that we just declared. So, myBankAccount is not being assigned the function, but because the function is being called myBankAccount is being assigned the return value of the function.

The return value of that function is an object with one property, getBalance. But this object is very interesting because unlike anything outside the function it has access to the balance variable, which only exists inside the function. Even though the function has returned already, because the returned object still references variables of the the function, these variables become long lived and will not be destroyed. We can get the balance by executing myBankAccount.getBalance().

This way we have actually created an object with a private property. This is called a closure.

Let’s make it more interesting and add a couple more things.

var bankAccount = function(initialBalance){
  // Let's initialise the balance with the value passed as an argument
  // to the function.

  var balance = initialBalance;

  return {
    getBalance: function(){
      return balance
    },
    deposit: function(amount){
      // Let's add the amount to what we already have in the
      //  balance.
      balance += amount;
      // Return the new balance
      return balance;
    },
    withdraw: function(amount){
      // Check if we have enought money to withdraw all that.
      if(amount <= balance){
        balance -= amount;
        return true;
      }
      else{
        return false;
      }
    }
  }
}

var marceloAccount = bankAccount(100);

marceloAccount.deposit(10) // 110
marceloAccount. withdraw(80) // true
marceloAccount. withdraw(80) // false

Here we did a couple of things differently. Now we are not declaring an anonymous function and calling it straight away, we are assigning the function to a variable and only then we invoke the function variable to create an instance of the bank account, which we assign to karlAccount. bankAccount returns an object with three properties: getBalance, which gives us the current balance; deposit, which adds to our balance; and withdraw, which takes money from the balance.

That’s where closures really shine. Here we were able to use a private function, takeFromBalance, to implement our specific rules to the way in which our private variable should be changed. In this case we are not allowing it to be negative.

Closures are an excellent way to keep things tidy and working properly. With closures we can build code that is more secure and more robust as we are controlling how things are being changed. We can also build things that are easier to test and debug, as we know exactly what has access to what, as well as easier to reuse.

Written on October 1, 2015