Finalized Exceptions

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Using finalized exceptions

or How to get rid of all those if statements

by DiegoNehab


Abstract

This little LTN describes a simple exception scheme that greatly simplifies error checking in Lua programs. All the needed functionality ships standard with Lua, but is hidden between the assert and pcall functions. To make it more evident, we stick to a convenient standard (you probably already use anyways) for Lua function return values, and define two very simple helper functions (either in C or in Lua itself).

Introduction

Most Lua functions return nil in case of error, followed by a message describing the error. If you don't use this convention, you probably have good reasons. Hopefully, after reading on, you will realize your reasons are not good enough.

If you are like me, you hate error checking. Most nice little code snippets that look beautiful when you first write them lose some of their charm when you add all that error checking code. Yet, error checking is as important as the rest of the code. How sad.

Even if you stick to a return convention, any complex task which involving several function calls makes error checking both boring and error-prone (do you see the error below?)


function task(arg1, arg2, ...)
    local ret1, err = task1(arg1)
    if not ret1 then 
        cleanup1()
        return nil, err 
    end
    local ret2, err = task2(arg2)
    if not ret then 
        cleanup2()
        return nil, err 
    end
    ...
end

The standard assert function provides an interesting alternative. To use it, simply nest every function call to be error checked with a call to assert. The assert function checks the value of its first argument. If it is nil, assert throws the second argument as an error message. Otherwise, assert lets all arguments through as if had not been there. The idea greatly simplifies error checking:

function task(arg1, arg2, ...)
    local ret1 = assert(task1(arg1))
    local ret2 = assert(task2(arg2))
    ...
end

If any task fails, the execution is aborted by assert and the error message is displayed to the user as the cause of the problem. If no error happens, the task completes as before. There isn't a single if statement and this is great. However, there are some problems with the idea.

First, the topmost task function doesn't respect the protocol followed by the lower-level tasks: It raises an error instead of returning nil followed by the error messages. Here is where the standard pcall comes in handy.

function xtask(arg1, arg2, ...)
    local ret1 = assert(task1(arg1))
    local ret2 = assert(task2(arg2))
    ...
end

function task(arg1, arg2, ...)
    local ok, ret_or_err = pcall(xtask, arg1, arg2, ...)
    if ok then return ret_or_err
    else return nil, ret_or_err end
end

Our new task function is well behaved. Pcall catches any error raised by the calls to assert and returns it after the status code. That way, errors don't get propagated to the user of the high level task function.

These are the main ideas for our exception scheme, but there are still a few glitches to fix:

Fortunately, all these problems are very easy to solve and that's what we do in the following sections.

Introducing the protect factory

We used the pcall function to shield the user from errors that could be raised by the underlying implementation. Instead of directly using pcall (and thus duplicating code) every time we prefer a factory that does the same job:

local function pack(ok, ...)
    return ok, arg
end

function protect(f)
    return function(...)
        local ok, ret = pack(pcall(f, unpack(arg)))
        if ok then return unpack(ret)
        else return nil, ret[1] end
    end
end

The protect factory receives a function that might raise exceptions and returns a function that respects our return value convention. Now we can rewrite the top-level task function in a much cleaner way:

task = protect(function(arg1, arg2, ...)
    local ret1 = assert(task1(arg1))
    local ret2 = assert(task2(arg2))
    ...
end)

The Lua implementation of the protect factory suffers with the creation of tables to hold multiple arguments and return values. It is possible (and easy) to implement the same function in C, without any table creation.

static int safecall(lua_State *L) {
    lua_pushvalue(L, lua_upvalueindex(1));
    lua_insert(L, 1);
    if (lua_pcall(L, lua_gettop(L) - 1, LUA_MULTRET, 0) != 0) {
        lua_pushnil(L);
        lua_insert(L, 1);
        return 2;
    } else return lua_gettop(L);
}

static int protect(lua_State *L) {
    lua_pushcclosure(L, safecall, 1);
    return 1;
}

As of Lua 5.1 the temporary table can be avoided in pure Lua code, too:

do
    local function fix_return_values(ok, ...)
        if ok then
            return ...
        else
            return nil, (...)
        end
    end

    function protect(f)
        return function(...)
            return fix_return_values(pcall(f, ...))
        end
    end
end

The newtry factory

Let's solve the two remaining issues with a single shot and use a concrete example to illustrate the proposed solution. Suppose you want to write a function to download an HTTP document. You have to connect, send the request and read the reply. Each of these tasks can fail, but if something goes wrong after you connected, you have to close the connection before returning the error message.

get = protect(function(host, path)
    local c
    -- create a try function with a finalizer to close the socket
    local try = newtry(function() 
        if c then c:close() end 
    end)
    -- connect and send request
    c = try(connect(host, 80))
    try(c:send("GET " .. path .. " HTTP/1.0\r\n\r\n"))
    -- get headers
    local h = {}
    while 1 do
        l = try(c:receive())
        if l == "" then break end
        table.insert(h, l)
    end
    -- get body
    local b = try(c:receive("*a"))
    c:close()
    return b, h
end)

The newtry factory returns a function that works just like assert. The differences are that the try function doesn't mess with the error message and it calls an optional finalizer before raising the error. In our example, the finalizer simply closes the socket.

Even with a simple example like this, we see that the finalized exceptions simplified our life. Let's see what we gain in general, not just in this example:

Try writing the same function without the tricks we used above and you will see that the code gets ugly. Longer sequences of operations with error checking would get even uglier. So let's implement the newtry function in Lua:

function newtry(f)
    return function(...) 
        if not arg[1] then 
            if f then f() end 
            error(arg[2], 0)  
        else 
            return unpack(arg) 
        end
    end
end

Again, the implementation suffers from the creation of tables at each function call, so we prefer the C version:

static int finalize(lua_State *L) {
    if (!lua_toboolean(L, 1)) {
        lua_pushvalue(L, lua_upvalueindex(1));
        lua_pcall(L, 0, 0, 0);
        lua_settop(L, 2);
        lua_error(L);
        return 0;
    } else return lua_gettop(L);
}

static int do_nothing(lua_State *L) {
    (void) L;
    return 0;
}

static int newtry(lua_State *L) {
    lua_settop(L, 1);
    if (lua_isnil(L, 1)) 
        lua_pushcfunction(L, do_nothing);
    lua_pushcclosure(L, finalize, 1);
    return 1;
}

Again, starting with Lua 5.1 an efficient implementation without temporary tables is possible in plain Lua code:

function newtry(f)
    return function(ok, ...)
        if ok then
            return ok, ...
        else
            if f then f() end
            error((...), 0)
        end
    end
end

Final considerations

The protect and newtry functions saved a lot of work in the implementation of LuaSocket[1]. The size of some modules was cut in half by the these ideas. It's true the scheme is not as generic as the exception mechanism of programming languages like C++ or Java, but the power/simplicity ratio is favorable and I hope it serves you as well as it served LuaSocket.


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Last edited October 7, 2013 1:42 am GMT (diff)