Exceptions vs Error Codes

A question that frequently arises in software engineering is whether/when you should throw exceptions or return error codes.

There are many different opinions about this subject, and there’s a large number of C#/Java developers who throw Exceptions to indicate all kinds of errors. However, there’s also a large number of developers who believe that Exceptions should not be used as control flow and argue that exceptions act like non-local GOTO statements but even more evil because it’s difficult to know where the control goes to (some people compare exceptions to invisible gotos or gotos which lead to invisible labels).

I tend to agree with the second group: I think exceptions are for unexpected and unhandleable situations - when there’s nothing I can do with the error code, and the only expected action is to bubble-up the error in the stack and let the upper levels handle it (to display the error, maybe offer a retry mechanism). This means that for all kinds of “expected errors” I expect them to be returned by my methods, and treated (or intentionally ignored) by the caller method.

GO Language: Panic vs Errors, and Explicit Error Checking

When talking about Exceptions vs Error Codes I usually mention the GO language which has some clear guidelines about error handling.

One of their design principles is that they have “panic” for fatal unexpected situations (which is pretty much like Exceptions in Java/C#) and they also have “Errors” (any object that you return which implements Error interface) which should be used for regular expected situations. This is pretty much like the distinction which I explained above about when I like to use exceptions and when I like to use error codes.

This means that the language encourages you to explicitly check for errors where they occur, as opposed to the paradigm that expects you to throw (and catch) exceptions even for expected errors. Since the language has this clear distinction between exceptions and return errors, it has some conventions and constructs for error handling that allows developers to easily (and concisely) get and test errors.

Basically, all functions where errors are expected to happen should always return an error object, and if the function is also expected to return some other object (in case of success) then it should use multiple return values so that it can simultaneously return both the expected result objects (at the first position) and then return the possible errors (at the last position), like this:

file, err := os.Open("filename.txt")
if err != nil {
    // abort the program...
}
fmt.Print(string(file))

This multiple return values feature makes the code more concise and it’s now also available in C# 7. And by receiving the error as a regular return value our error handling becomes less verbose, more explicit, and easier to read since it uses regular if/else statements.

Another nice convention is that when returning multiple parameters the return should always be ONE OR ANOTHER, meaning that if there’s an error you can expect that the other object is null, and vice-versa. A simple convention that makes error handling even easier.

Last, another major benefit of explicitly returning error codes is that exceptions can easily be ignored while it’s much harder to ignore errors if your methods force you to receive the returned error. Returning codes obviously don’t allow us to bubble-up automatically (as exceptions do), but the idea is exactly that - you want to check (and act) on your errors right where they occur.

Returning Errors as Enums instead of Classes

As I’ve explained above, errors are about regular expected situations where the caller code should know the possible results and should decide how to handle each possible error. If what you get is a class instance (either as a thrown Exception or as a regular returned object) you really don’t know what kind of errors you might receive.

The first problem about using exceptions is that the caller code (or compiler) doesn’t know what exceptions each method may throw. Java has checked exceptions but all other languages learned that checked exceptions are evil and don’t even have that alternative. Obviously you could describe in your documentation instructions like “This CreateUser() method may throw an exception of CreateUserException”, and then the caller code would know what to expect, but what’s the point if you could just define what your method returns in the return type?

The second problem about returning classes (either as exceptions or return objects) is that developers usually design the different errors as subtypes (subtype polymorphism), and the caller code (or compiler) can’t know/test for all possible errors.

try
{
    // CreateUserCommand xmldoc will warn me that it may throw a CreateUserCommandException
    User createdUser = CreateUserCommand(newUserInfo);
}
catch (CreateUserCommandException)
{
    // How many possibilities do we have here?
    // Which subtypes should we check?
}

One alternative for this second problem is adding an enum CreateUserCommandErrorEnum inside CreateUserCommandException. Then we could use if/switch statements, and the compiler can check if we cover all possible errors. But that looks too complex (both an exception and an enum for each possible method) and without any benefit - in the end it’s all about Enums, since there are a predefined number of possible outcomes.

To sum, I prefer returning enums directly (instead of throwing exceptions or returning error classes) because:

  • The caller code is forced to receive the error, less prone to ignore the possibility of an error
  • The caller code will know in advance all possible errors
  • We can treat the possible errors with switch statements and we can easily ensure that all possible returns are handled.
  • If I add a new possible return in my method, I can even check all callers if they are covering that new value in a switch statement for example.
  • I believe that we should explicitly test for expected errors right where they occur.

Given the reasons above, for the rest of this post I’ll assume that your methods are returning errors as enum, like this one:

public enum CreateUserCommandError
{
    USERNAME_NOT_AVAILABLE,
    WEAK_PASSWORD,
}

In the next sections I’ll show a few different ways of returning multiple parameters in C#.

Using OUT parameters

Using out parameters is as simple as this:

public User CreateUserCommand(UserDTO newUserInfo, out CreateUserCommandError? error)
{
    if (somethingBad)
    {
        error = CreateUserCommandError.USERNAME_NOT_AVAILABLE;
        return null;
    }
    // ...
    error = null; // out parameters need to be assigned even if null
    return user;
}

CreateUserCommandError? error = null;
User createdUser = CreateUserCommand(newUserInfo, out error);
if (error != null)
{
    // early abort..
}
LoginUser(createdUser);

In the new C# 7 we don’t even have to define the out variables anymore, we can use implicitly typed local variable (out var):

User createdUser = CreateUserCommand(newUserInfo, out var error);

Using regular Tuples

Using Tuples is a little more verbose, but returns all parameters in a single Tuple object:

public Tuple<User, CreateUserCommandError?> CreateUserCommand(UserDTO newUserInfo)
{
    if (somethingBad)
        return new Tuple<User, CreateUserCommandError?>(null, CreateUserCommandError.USERNAME_NOT_AVAILABLE);
    // ...
    return new Tuple<User, CreateUserCommandError?>(user, null);
}

var result = CreateUserCommand(newUserInfo);
if (result.Item2 != null) // Item2 is the Error
{
    // early abort..
}
LoginUser(result.Item1); // Item1 is the User returned

Using the new ValueTuple

In the new C# 7 there’s this new ValueTuple struct, where we can give more meaningful names to the tuple members, and we can also use a simplified syntax both for creating new ValueTuple and for deconstructing the ValueTuple:

public (User createdUser, CreateUserCommandError? error) CreateUserCommand(UserDTO newUserInfo)
{
    if (somethingBad)
        return (null, CreateUserCommandError.USERNAME_NOT_AVAILABLE);
    // ...
    return (user, null);
}

var result = CreateUserCommand(newUserInfo);
// The names "error" and "createdUser" come directly from the method signature above
if (result.error != null)
{
    // early abort..
}
LoginUser(result.createdUser);

We can deconstruct the ValueTuple in a single statement which can both declare the variables and assign values to them:

var (user, error) = CreateUserCommand(newUserInfo);
// or: (var user, var error) = CreateUserCommand(newUserInfo);
// or: (User user, CreateUserCommandError? error) = CreateUserCommand(newUserInfo);

if (error != null) // Error
{
    // early abort..
}
LoginUser(user);

Using Generics

Another popular method is to Wrap your returns in a generic class which wraps both your return object and the possible error (actually it should return ONE OR ANOTHER, but not both).

public class CommandResult<TEntity, TError>
        where TEntity : class
        where TError : struct, Enum
{
    public TEntity Entity { get; set; }
    public TError? Error { get; set; }
    public bool IsSuccess => (Error == null);

    // Many developers also include a "Message" property
    // which usually can be both the success message or the error description
    // public string Message { get; set; }

    public static CommandResult<TEntity, TError> Success(TEntity entity)
    {
        return new CommandResult<TEntity, TError>() { Entity = entity };
    }

    public static CommandResult<TEntity, TError> Fail(TError errorCode)
    {
        return new CommandResult<TEntity, TError>() { Error = errorCode };
    }
}

public CommandResult<User, CreateUserCommandError> CreateUserCommand(UserDTO newUserInfo)
{
    if (somethingBad)
        return CommandResult<User, CreateUserCommandError>.Fail(CreateUserCommandError.USERNAME_NOT_AVAILABLE);
    // ...
    return CommandResult<User, CreateUserCommandError>.Success(user);
}

var result = CreateUserCommand(newUserInfo);
if (result.Error != null) // Error
{
    // early abort..
}
LoginUser(result.Entity);

Using generics is more verbose than the ValueTuple syntax but it’s much more powerful since we can enhance the class with extra information. Later I’ll show how to enhance this class with more information.

But this verbose syntax makes me a little annoyed, so let’s try to get the best of both solutions…

Combining Generics with the concise ValueTuple Syntax

There are a few tricks that we can use to make the Generics version more friendly and less verbose.

First, inside the CommandResult<> class we can create an implicit conversion operator that will convert (at the compiler level) a ValueTuple to a CommandResult<>:

public static implicit operator CommandResult<TEntity, TError>(ValueTuple<TEntity, TError?> tuple)
{
    if (tuple.Item1 != null && tuple.Item2 == null)
        return Success(tuple.Item1);
    if (tuple.Item1 == null && tuple.Item2 != null)
        return Fail(tuple.Item2.Value);
    throw new NotImplementedException("When error is returned you cannot return any other value together");
}

Then we can return our results as if they were ValueTuples:

//return CommandResult<User, CreateUserCommandError>.Fail(CreateUserCommandError.USERNAME_NOT_AVAILABLE);
return (null, CreateUserCommandError.USERNAME_NOT_AVAILABLE);

//return CommandResult<User, CreateUserCommandError>.Success(user);
return (user, null);

Inside the CommandResult<> class we can also create a deconstruct method so that CommandResult<> can be deconstructed into its two parts:

public void Deconstruct(out TEntity entity, out TError error) => (entity, error) = (this.Entity, this.Error);

This mean that we can deconstruct (declare the variables deconstruct the different parts) in a single call like this:

var (user, error) = CreateUserCommand(newUserInfo);
if (error != null) // Error
{
    // early abort..
}
LoginUser(user);

So cool and so easy, isn’t it?

Enhancing the Error enum

In all previous examples the returned error was only an enum. In the last example above (Generics with concise syntax) the enum was part of the Generic class:

public class CommandResult<TEntity, TError>
        where TEntity : class
        where TError : struct, Enum
{
    public TEntity Entity { get; set; }
    public TError? Error { get; set; }
    public ErrorResult<TError> Error { get; set; }
    public bool IsSuccess => (Error == null);
    // ...
}

But we can enhance the error object (TError?) with more information by wrapping in inside another class:

public class ErrorResult<TError>
    where TError : struct, Enum
{
    /// <summary>
    /// This MAY or may not be defined (even if an error happened!).
    /// If this is null, you should check the <see cref="ValidationErrors"/> to see why the command failed.
    /// </summary>
    public TError? ErrorCode { get; set; }
    public string ErrorMessage { get; set; }
    public IList<ValidationError> ValidationErrors;
}
public class ValidationError
{
    public string PropertyName { get; set; }
    public string ErrorMessage { get; set; }
}

public class CommandResult<TEntity, TError>
        where TEntity : class
        where TError : struct, Enum
{
    public TEntity Entity { get; set; }
    public ErrorResult<TError> Error { get; set; } // THIS!
    public bool IsSuccess => (Error == null);
    // ...
}

This design gives us a few advantages over a simple enum:

  • We can add a descriptive string ErrorMessage
  • We can add a list of ValidationErrors which can be helpful to display in the UI
  • We don’t need to define enums for all possible situations - the caller code can just assume that if CommandResult.Error is non-null then some error happened, and it can use the ErrorMessage and/or ValidationErrors. It only needs to test the TError? ErrorResult.ErrorCode if it needs to handle specific cases - else it can just have this “general” error handling.
  • ValidationErrors could be filled automatically. In my next post, I’ll show how this can be done using MediatR pipeline (behaviors) to check for validation errors using FluentValidation and automatically fill CommandResult.ValidationErrors, without even hitting our Command Handlers.

Well, at the beginning of this post I wrote that I would return simple enums, and in the end I’m returning classes. But basically, this is just a thin wrapper to enhance the enum with additional features - but it doesn’t invalidate the downsides that I’ve mentioned earlier (about type polymorphism uncertainty, and about how throwing exceptions is bad when you need to handle the outcomes).

Last, this wrapper around ErrorCode enum shouldn’t stop us from doing direct comparisons. We can still compare the error with the enum values as long as we overload the equality operators like this:

public static bool operator ==(ErrorResult<TError> left, TError right)
{
    return left.ErrorCode != null && left.ErrorCode.Value.Equals(right)
}

var (user, error) = CreateUserCommand(newUserInfo);
if (error == CreateUserCommandError.USERNAME_NOT_AVAILABLE) { ... }
else if (error == CreateUserCommandError.WEAK_PASSWORD) { ... }
else if (error == null)
{
   // ...
}

You can find full source code here.