February 26, 2016

Rusty Results

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been building a CCNx forwarder with Rust in my free time. What started as a small endeavor turned out to be a meaningful learning exercise. Programming in Rust forces you to change the way you think about code structure and data ownership – for the better. Its syntax leads to concise and expressive code that, for the most part, is quite easy to reason about. I am by no means fluent in the language, but I do believe that I have enough experience to discuss some of its features. In particular, I’d like to talk about Results and their relation to error handling techniques.

Technically, Results are of the type Result<T, E>, where T is the type of the result that some value is expected to contain (or wrap) under normal circumstances and E is the type of error that the value holds if something went wrong. To be more specific, the Rust documentation website defines a Result as follows.

enum Result<T, E> {

To see how this is useful, consider the following code.

Even without knowing Rust, the code should be easy to follow. We have a function called quotient that takes two integers and attempts to find their quotient. Before doing so, it does some checks. First, if the divisor is 0, then it returns a NumericError::DivideByZero error. Second, if the remainder is non-zero, it returns a NumericError::NotEvenlyDivisible. Otherwise, the function happily returns the evenly divisible quotient result. In all cases, a Result wraps the output of the function. As defined above and in the code, this Result either carries an integer (i32) or a NumericError.

The main function invokes the quotient function three separate times with a different set of parameters. We use pattern matching to check the result of the function to determine how to proceed. If the result is “okay”, i.e., Ok(q), then we print the integer quotient q. Otherwise, an error e occurred, i.e., Err(e), and we print that instead.

Of course, this is a trivial example of how one might use Results. Despite its simplicity, consider the immediate benefits:

  • Conditionals that check for different types of errors do not clutter the code. Rust pattern matching encourages concise code for handling wrapped results.
  • The programmer is forced to either manually unwrap the result of the function (via the unwrap() function) or systematically handle and respond to each possible error. Handling an error can either swallow it or propagate it upwards in yet another Result.

To appreciate these benefits, let’s turn to error handling in C. In general, errors are expressed through the output of a function. The actual values to be returned from a function are passed as “in and out” parameters, i.e., pointers to values that are dereferenced and modified within the function. More often than not, errors returned from functions are encoded as integers (0 is ubiquitous for OK and a non-zero value is code for some error). These types of functions are especially prevalant in cases where multiple return types are needed.

The code below mimics the Rust program above with an “in and out” parameter to store the quotient result.

The problem with this code is not the function signature itself. Rather, to me, the deeper issue is how the function is invoked and its result is consumed. If you examine the code in the main function above, you’ll see that I used a series of cascading conditionals to check for all result types. Functionally, this is equivalent to the Rust match expression, but it’s an eyesore.

However, consider this slightly changed version of the Rust code.

In this version, the match expression explicltly checks against a type of NumericError to allow for more decisive handling. Fortunately, this fails to compile because the pattern matching is non-exhaustive (I omitted the NotEvenlyDivisible case). The compiler will ensure that we’ve at least written some code to handle each error condition. The same is not true in C. If I omitted one of the conditional checks then the code would still happily compile. Sad, but true.

To make the situation a little better, it would be nice if we could have the readability of Rust’s pattern matching even if we cannot get the same compile-time pattern completeness checks. To that end, I put together a little set of preprocessor macros that implement Rust-like Results. For me, they permit expressive code that is much easier to read than the cascading conditional counterpart. Maybe others will find it useful too.

You can see them being used in the program below.