Iterator Design Pattern

Graphical Representation:


- Provide a way to access the elements of an aggregate object sequentially without exposing its underlying representation.

- The C++ and Java standard library abstraction that makes it possible to decouple collection classes and algorithms.

- Promote to "full object status" the traversal of a collection.

- Polymorphic traversal


Need to "abstract" the traversal of wildly different data structures so that algorithms can be defined that are capable of interfacing with each transparently.


"An aggregate object such as a list should give you a way to access its elements without exposing its internal structure. Moreover, you might want to traverse the list in different ways, depending on what you need to accomplish. But you probably don't want to bloat the List interface with operations for different traversals, even if you could anticipate the ones you'll require. You might also need to have more than one traversal pending on the same list." And, providing a uniform interface for traversing many types of aggregate objects (i.e. polymorphic iteration) might be valuable.

The Iterator pattern lets you do all this. The key idea is to take the responsibility for access and traversal out of the aggregate object and put it into an Iterator object that defines a standard traversal protocol.

The Iterator abstraction is fundamental to an emerging technology called "generic programming". This strategy seeks to explicitly separate the notion of "algorithm" from that of "data structure". The motivation is to: promote component-based development, boost productivity, and reduce configuration management.

As an example, if you wanted to support four data structures (array, binary tree, linked list, and hash table) and three algorithms (sort, find, and merge), a traditional approach would require four times three permutations to develop and maintain. Whereas, a generic programming approach would only require four plus three configuration items.


The Client uses the Collection class' public interface directly. But access to the Collection's elements is encapsulated behind the additional level of abstraction called Iterator. Each Collection derived class knows which Iterator derived class to create and return. After that, the Client relies on the interface defined in the Iterator base class.

Check list

1. Add a create_iterator() method to the "collection" class, and grant the "iterator" class privileged access.

2. Design an "iterator" class that can encapsulate traversal of the "collection" class.

3. Clients ask the collection object to create an iterator object.

4. Clients use the first(), is_done(), next(), and current_item() protocol to access the elements of the collection class.

Rules of thumb

- The abstract syntax tree of Interpreter is a Composite (therefore Iterator and Visitor are also applicable).

- Iterator can traverse a Composite. Visitor can apply an operation over a Composite.

- Polymorphic Iterators rely on Factory Methods to instantiate the appropriate Iterator subclass.

Memento is often used in conjunction with Iterator. An Iterator can use a Memento to capture the state of an iteration. The Iterator stores the Memento internally.