Learning Rust: Look Ma, No Exceptions!

Introduction

Rust is a systems programming language (think C-like) that makes it easier to perform memory-safe operations than languages like C or C++. It accomplishes this by making it harder to do memory-unsafe operations–and catching these sorts of issues at compile-time instead of runtime.

In order to accomplish this, Rust imposes some constraints on the engineer through the borrow checker and immutable-by-default types. I’m not going to write about those things here as they have been covered in depth by others.

My focus for this post (and other posts in this potential series) is to focus on other language features and idioms that may be unfamiliar to managed-language developers.

In my first post in this series, I talked about the fact that Rust does not have the concept of null.

No Exceptions!

Rust does not have the concept of exceptions or the associated concept of try-catch blocks. This is because once you get code to compile in Rust you can be sure there are no errors anywhere… just kidding. 😃

Instead, in Rust we use an enum type called std::result::Result<T, E> . The T in the generic signature is the return result. The E represents the type of the Error should one occur. The two variants of ResultOk(value) and Err(error)–are always in scope, similarly to the Some(value) and None variants of theOption type.

A Naive Example

Consider the following made-up function:

fn find_data(i: u32) -> Result<u32, String> {
    match i {
        1 => Err("1 is not a valid value".to_string()),
        _ => Ok(i*2)
    }
}

This function accepts an integer and doubles it. For whatever reason, 1 is not considered to be a valid value, so an error message is returned instead. Notice that Ok and Err are used to wrap the return and error values.

Now let’s look at how we would use the Result type in a another function:

    let result = find_data(5);
    match result {
        Ok(value) => {
            println!("The result was {}", value);
        },
        Err(message) => {
            println!("{}", message);
        }
    }

The type of result is std::result::Result<i32, String>. We then treat it like any other enum, matching on the variants and doing the correct processing.

Adding Complexity

Things start to get a little complicated if we have a series of potential errors. Consider retrieving some data from a database. We could fail to connect to the database, construct our query correctly, or map the raw data to our intended representation.

fn get_employee_by_id(id: i32) -> Result<Employee, DataRetrivalError> {
    let connection = Database::create_connection();
    match connection {
        Ok(conn) => {
            
            let raw_data = conn.execute("EmployeeByIdQuery", id);
            
            match raw_data {
                Ok(data) => {
                    Employee = Employee::from_raw_data(data)                    
                }
                Err(error) => {
                    Err(DataRetrievalError::QueryFailed)
                }
            }
            
        },
        Err(error) => {
            Err(DataRetrivalError::ConnectionFailed)
        }
    }
}

Yuck! This is pretty ugly. We could improve readability by removing the nesting:

fn get_employee_by_id(id: i32) -> Result<Employee, DataRetrivalError> {
    let connection_result = Database::create_connection();
    
    if connection_result.is_err() {
        return connection_result;
    }
    
    let connection = connection_result.unwrap();
    
    let raw_data = connection.execute("EmployeeByIdQuery", id);

    if (raw_data.is_err()) {
        return raw_data;
    }
    
    let data = raw_data.unwrap();
    
    Employee::from_raw_data(data)

}

This is better, but still pretty ugly. Fortunately, Rust offers some syntactic sugar to clean this up a lot in the form of the ? operator. The ? early return the result if it’s an error and unwrap it if it’s not. Here is the function rewritten to use the ? operator.

fn get_employee_by_id(id: i32) -> Result<Employee, DataRetrivalError> {
    let connection = Database::create_connection()?;
    let data = connection.execute("EmployeeByIdQuery", id)?;
    Employee::from_raw_data(data)
}

Much nicer!

If the error returned from an inner function does not match the error type expected by the outer function, the compiler will look for a From implementation and do the type-coercion for you.

Comparing to Exception-based Languages

Rust’s error handling strategy does a great job of communicating possible failure modes since the error states of part of the signature of any function you call. This is a clear advantage over exception-based languages in which you (usually) have to read the documentation to know what exceptions can possibly occur.

On the other hand, it’s fairly common in exception-based languages to have some root handler for unhandled exceptions that provides standard processing for most errors.

In Rust, adding error handling can force you to edit much more code than in exception-based languages. Consider the following set of functions:

fn top_levl() -> i32 {
    mid_level1() + mid_level2()
}

fn mid_level1() -> i32 {
    low_level1 + low_level2()
}

fn mid_level2() -> i32 {
    low_level1() * low_level2()
}

fn low_level1() -> i32 {
    5
}

fn low_level2() -> i32 {
    10
}

The top_level function depends on the two mid_level functions which in turn depend on the two low_level functions. Consider what happens to our program if low_level2 is modified to potentially return an error:

fn top_levl() -> Result<i32, String> { // had to change this signature
    mid_level1() + mid_level2()
}

fn mid_level1() -> Result<i32, String> { // had to change this signature
    low_level1 + low_level2()
}

fn mid_level2() -> Result<i32, String> {
    low_level1() * low_level2()
}

fn low_level1() -> i32 {
    5
}

fn low_level2() -> Result<i32, String> {
    Ok(10)
}

This sort of signature change will often bubble through the entire call stack, resulting in a much larger code-change than you would find in exception-based languages. This can be a good thing because it clearly communicates the fact that a low level function now returns an error. On the other hand, if there really is no error handling strategy except returning an InternalServerError at an API endpoint, then requiring that every calling function change its signature to bubble the error is a fairly heavy tax to pay (these signature changes can also have their own similar side-effects in other call-paths).

I’m not making the argument that Rust error handling is therefore bad. I’m just pointing out that this error design has its own challenges.

Error Design Strategies

While mechanism by which errors are generated and handled in Rust is fairly simple to understand, the principles you should use in desigining your errors is not so straightforward.

There are essentially three dominant strategies available for designing your error handling strategy for your library or application:

Strategy Description Pros Cons
Error Per Crate Define one error enum per crate. Contains all variants relevant to all functions in the crate.
  • There is only one error enum to manage.
  • Very little error conversion code (From implementations) will be required.
  • The crate-level enum will have many variants.
  • Individual functions will only potentially return a subset of the crate-level errors but this subset will not be obvious to callers.
Error Per Module Define one error per module. Contains all variants relevant to functions in that module.
  • Much smaller footprint than error per crate.
  • Errors are contextually more relevant than crate-level error variants.
  • This strategy still has the same drawbacks as the Error per crate strategy.
  • Depending on how deep the module structure is, you could end up with a proliferation of error types.
Error Per Function Define one error per function. Only contains variants relevant to that function.
  • Each function defines its own error variants so its obvious what the caller may need to handle.
  • Proliferation of error types throughout the system which makes the crate or module more difficult to understand.

Hybrid Strategy

I don’t think I have the right answer yet, but this hybrid strategy is the one I’ve settled on in my personal development. It basically creates an error hierarchy for the create that gets more specific as you approach a given function.

  1. Define an error enum per function.
  2. Define an error per module, the variants of which “source” the errors per function.
  3. Define an error per crate, the variants of which “source” the errors per module.

pub enum ConfigFileErrors {
    FileNotFound { path: String },
}

fn load_config_file(path: String) -> Result<ConfigFile, ConfigFileErrors> {
    // snipped
}

pub enum ParsingError {
    InvalidFormat
}

fn parse_config(config: ConfigFile) -> Result<ConfigurationItems, ParsingError> {
    // snipped
}

pub enum ValidationError {
    RequiredDataMissing { message: String }
}

fn validate_config(input: ConfigurationItems) -> Result<ConfigurationItems, ValidationError> {
    // snipped
}

pub enum ConfigErrors {
    File { source: ConfigFileErrors },
    Parsing { source: ParsingError },
    Validation { source: ValidationError }
}

fn get_config() -> Result<ConfigurationItems, ConfigErrors> {
    let file = load_config_file("path/to/config".to_string())?;
    let parsed = parse_config(file)?;
    validate_config(parsed)
}

This approach has many of the pros and cons of the other approaches so it’s not a panacea.

Pros:

  • Each function clearly communicates how it can fail and is not polluted by the failure modes of other functions.
  • No information is lost as you bubble up the call-stack as each low-level error is packaged in a containing error.
  • The caller gets to match at the top-level error and decide for themselves if they wish to take finer-grained control of inner errors.

Cons:

  • Proliferation of error types.
  • New failure modes potentially impact the top-level crate design (e.g., adding a failure mode becomes a breaking change requiring a major revision if you are practicing Semantic Versioning.
  • It’s not obvious how to deal with error variants that may be shared across multiple functions (e.g., parsing errors).

4 thoughts on “Learning Rust: Look Ma, No Exceptions!

  1. I had a great reading thank!! It was awesome

    Rust provides some the helper functions Ok and Err to facilitate return Results.

    Actually they are enum variant contructor, the same a tuple Structs, if you have a enum variant that is a struct variant, their construction would be the same syntax as normal structs.

    About error, I like to do Errors per Type if their type need to have a Error, otherwise I do per module, but only if the module is small enought, so Yeah, I like to hybrid error implementation

  2. Three quick comments, Chris:

    1) Great summary of your thinking, this is worth exploring and getting right, as you well understand.

    2) The “improved readabilty by removing nesting” code is more fragile than the nested match version, because the match will require the code to be exhaustive (enforced by the compiler). It’s worth calling this out because this makes the original code more robust in the face of refactors.

    3) The deeply nested hierarchy is an interesting problem. Changing a function from an infallible signature to a fallible one is a change in type. I believe it is an anti-pattern to try to hide this. The “tax” one pays for switching in this way is the same as changing a type from an i32 to a String. I don’t think anyone would advocate loose typing in enterprise-class applications to make refactors cheaper– I think refactoring -> i32 vs. -> Result<i32> is just as fundamental.

    I will write up a bit of sample code and will share it with you based on the deeply nested problem.

    Thanks, interesting post!

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