What exceptions are and what they can teach us

The decision by Go to not provide exceptions has given rise to a renaissance of sorts to eliminate exceptions and go back to error codes. There are various reasons given, such as efficiency, simplicity and the fact that exceptions “suck”.

Let’s examine what exceptions really are through a simple example. Say we need to write code to download some XML, parse and validate it and then extract some piece of information. There are several different ways in which this can fail: network may be down, the server won’t respond, the XML is malformed and so on. Suppose then that we encounter an error. The call stack probably looks like this:

Func1 is the function that drives this functionality and Func7 is where the problem happens. In this particular case we don’t care about partial results. If we can’t do all steps, we just give up. The error propagation starts by Func7 returning an error code to Func6. Func6 detects this and returns an error to Func5. This keeps happening until Func1 gets the error and reports failure to its caller.

Should Func7 throw an exception, functions 6-2 would not need to do anything. The compiler takes care of everything, Func1 catches the exception and reports the error.

This very simple example tells us what exceptions really are: a reliable way of moving up the call stack multiple frames at a time.

It also tells us what their main feature is: they provide a way to centralise error handling in one place.

It should be noted that exceptions do not force centralised error handling. Any Function between 1 and 7 can catch any exception if that is deemed the best thing to do. The developer only needs to write code in those locations. In contrast to error codes require extra code at every single intermediate step. This might not seem so much in this particular case, after all there are only 6 functions to change. Unfortunately in reality things look like this:

That is, functions usually call several other functions to get their job done. This means that if the average call stack depth is N, the developer needs to write O(2^N) error handling stubs. They also need to be tested, which means writing tons of mock classes. If any single one of these checks is wrong or missing, the system has a latent bug.

Even worse, most error code handlers look roughly like this:

ec = do_something();
if(ec) {
  do_some_cleanup();
  return ec;
}

What this code actually does is replicate the behaviour of exceptions. The only difference is that the developer needs to write this anew every single time, which opens the door for bugs.

Design lesson to be learned

Usually when you design an API, there are two choices: either it can be very simple or feature rich. The latter usually takes more time for the API developer to get right but saves effort for its users. In the case of exceptions, it requires work in the compiler, linker and runtime. Depending on circumstances, either one of these may be a valid choice.

When choosing between these two it is often beneficial to step back and look at it from a wider perspective. If the simpler choice was taken, what would happen? If it seems that in most cases (say >80%) people would only use the simple approach to mimic the behaviour of the feature rich one, it is a pretty strong hint that you should provide the feature rich one (or maybe even both).

This problem can go the other way, too. If the framework only provides a very feature rich and complex api, which people then use to simulate the simpler approach. The price of good design is eternal vigilance.