One design pattern that I think gets overlooked a lot and is criminimally under used is the Opaque Types pattern. It’s great for any time that it’s really important to hide the implementation details or the contents of a type. It can also make it easier to come up with an abstraction that isn’t overly complicated to implement.

Let’s look first at a basic implementation of such a type and then we’ll look at how they can actually be used in practice.


I think C is really helpful for illustrating the basics of this but you can do it in most any language.

Say we had some header file called my_lib.h with the following declarations.

struct Writer;

int write_bytes(struct Writer *writer, char *data);

When someone wants to consume this header they can use the Writer type and the write_bytes function but they can’t see any internal data on the Writer since it doesn’t expose any properties. This is important because all properties of a struct are public. And because no details are exposed, it’s really easy to change the implementation of such a type without breaking consumers (short of changing behaviors but that’s a different story). It also means that consumers can’t go digging in places you don’t want them to which can be super important.

Now that we have the basic idea, let’s look at how they can be used in the real world.


Hiding implementation details

An easy example of hiding the specific implementation details that also relates to the code above is the FILE type in C. This type holds a file handle to some open file. It’s important that the exact implementation is hidden since there’s all sorts of ways you could implement a file system and all of them would have different data requirements.

Some file systems might require an inode reference or a URL to some S3 object. By not requiring the type to expose any of that information makes it easier to swap things out.

Hiding the concrete type

Some times you don’t want the actual data type to be known purely because you don’t want people to build a dependence on things working one specific way.

For example, maybe right now the ID’s of some object in your data model are all integers using the auto-increment feature in a relational database but you know that long term you want to switch to some other database type or you want to use some other data type which is more cluster friendly such as a UUID. To make sure that consumers aren’t writing their code around the ID always being an integer.

In Go I would do that like so:

type UserID int

// and eventually...

type UserID string

Now the exact type of UserID is hidden and it’s harder to rely upon without a lot of extra work which hopefully would clue in a consumer that they’re going down the wrong path.

If you really want to bury the information even further you can wrap the values in a struct.

type UserID struct {
    value string

Hiding values

This is by far my favorite reason to use this pattern. Some times you want to hide (or make really difficult to use) the actual data represented by the type. Now you might be asking why we would ever want to take a perfectly good value and obfuscate it. The answer is security.

Say we created some user type that we want to be able to pass around our backend. We tried to be smart and made sure to omit things like the password or API tokens but there’s still a problem. There’s a bunch of fields which contain PII.

type User struct {
    ID            UserID
    Username      string
    Email         string
    CreatedOn     time.Time
    DeactivatedOn *time.Time

If someone were to innocently print out a User instance in a log message we would now be logging PII about the user which is a good way to get in a lot of trouble.

Thankfully we can make some of those fields opaque types and add utility methods to access the values when we need to.

type OpaqueString struct {
    value string

func NewOpaqueString(value string) OpaqueString {
    return OpaqueString{
        value: value,

func (opaque OpaqueString) DangerouslyGetValue() string {
    return opaque.value

func (opaque OpaqueString) String() string {
    return "**omitted**"

func (opaque OpaqueString) MarshalJSON() ([]byte, error) {
    return json.Marshal(opaque.String())

type User struct {
    ID            UserID
    Username      OpaqueString
    Email         OpaqueString
    CreatedOn     time.Time
    DeactivatedOn *time.Time

Now if someone tries to use the opaque value as a string or to serialize it as JSON the value will be hidden.

If someone really needs the value they can still get it but it’s way more obvious you’re doing something risky.


This doesn’t 100% prevent people from doing stupid things but it should cover most cases and make it really easy to catch with automated tooling or manually in a code review.

doNotDoThis := user.Email.DangerouslyGetValue()