Sunday, March 29, 2015

Checked errors in F#

In the land of C#, exceptions are king. By definition exceptions help us deal with "unexpected or exceptional situations that arise while a program is running". In that regard, we're often optimistic, overoptimistic. Most code bases treat errors as exceptional while they're often commonplace. We are so confident about the likelyhood of things going wrong, we don't even feel the need to communicate to consumers what might go wrong. If a consumer of a method wants to know what exceptions might be thrown, he needs to resort to reading the documentation (or source) and hope it's up-to-date.

Java on the other hand has a concept of unchecked and checked exceptions. Unchecked exceptions are exceptions that are caused by a programming mistake and should be left unhandled (null reference, division by zero, argument out of range etc); while checked exceptions are exceptions that your program might be able to recover from. They become part of the method signature and the Java compiler forces consumers to handle them explicitly.

While checked exceptions might bloat the method's contract and enlarge the API surface area, they might have every right to. Dealing with errors is an important part of programming. Having discoverable errors which require thoughtful care, should improve overall quality. Having said that, it also requires careful consideration from the designer to decide what's truly exceptional.

Coming up with something that can compete with the mechanics of checked exceptions in C# seems to be impossible. We could return a result with an error from a method, but the compiler doesn't force you to do anything with that result.

F# on the other hand doesn't allow for the result of an expression to be thrown away. That is, unless you explicitly ignore it, or bind it and leave it unused.

Let's look at an example. We start by defining two discriminated unions. The first type defines a generic result; it can either be success or failure. The second type defines all the errors that can be returned after deleting a file.

Then we write a function that deletes a file, but instead of throwing exceptions when an error occurs, it returns a specific error. When no errors occur, success is returned.

When I now use this function, the compiler will tell me that it has a return value which needs to ignored or binded.

While ignoring a result stands out, an unused binding is easier to go unnoticed. I wish the F# compiler had a flag to detect unused bindings.

Assuming I don't ingore the result, I can use pattern matching to address each error specifically.

By not including a wildcard pattern, extending the contract by adding errors will introduce a breaking change. We'll have to consider what to do with newly added errors.

For example, if I add the error PathTooLong, the compiler shows me this warning.

In summary, it might be more safe to be a bit less optimistic when it comes to errors. Instead of throwing exceptions, making errors part of the public interface, communicating errors explicitly, and handing responsibility on what to do with the error to the caller, might lead to more robust systems. While this can be achieved with C#, the mechanics are error-prone. Expressions and pattern matching make that F# allows for stronger, yet still not ideal, mechanics.  


  1. Your retry function looks a bit meh; here's an untested attempt to improve it (no there is no pre tag allowed comments, so formatting might be off):

    let retryWhileError what retries =
    Seq.init retries (fun _ -> what)
    |> seq.takeWhile
    (fun r -> match r with | Succes _-> false | _ -> true )
    |> seq.last

    1. Thanks Tom, that's a nice extraction / different way of writing it.

  2. Good post!

    > "I wish the F# compiler had a flag to detect unused bindings"

    Do mean like --warnon:1182 (, or something more?

    1. Cool, that's exactly what I was looking for. Thanks Scott! Let me try this.