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Best Practices in Error Handling

According to the Murphy’s law – “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. And if Mr. Murphy were also a software engineer, he would certainly add “and anything that cannot go wrong will go wrong as well”. Wise man that Murphy, but what does it mean for us, the programmers out there in the trenches?

Error handling and reporting is a programming nightmare. It’s an extra work, it pollutes happy path of your code with whole bunch of weird if statements and forces you to return sets of mysterious error codes from functions. God, I hate error reporting (more than I hate New Jersey).

It might not seem very important, but it’s crucial to set some error handling strategy and stick with it through the whole project. The error reporting code will be literally everywhere. If you choose poor strategy in the beginning, all of your code will be condemned to be ugly and inconsistent even before you start writing it.

There are multiple problems, that you need to address in error reporting. The most important thing is to deliver an useful report to the user. The error message should say what happened and why it happened. A stack trace can help you find exactly what happened, but it generally won’t make the user very happy. My personal favorite format of reporting errors in terminal apps looks like this:

<program_name>: <what_happened>: <why_it_happened>

It’s inspired by GNU coreutils error reporting format. In the first section is always program name, so the user knows who is the message coming from. Second section says what happened or what did the error prevent to happen (e.g. “Cannot load configuration” or “Unable to establish remote connection”). Finally the last section informs user of what was the cause of his inconvenience, for instance “File ‘configuration.txt’ not found” or “Couldn’t resolve remote address”.

This way gives the user complete insight in what happened, yet it won’t scare him off with too much of programming detail. In fact, revealing too much about your errors (stack traces, memory dumps etc.) might be potential security risk.

Another criteria for evaluating error reporting strategy is how does it blend with the code. Generally, there are two approaches – centralized and decentralized error handling.

Centralized

Centralized way involves some sort of central database or storage of errors (usually a module or a header file) where are all the error messages stored. In code you pass an error code to some function and it does all the work for you.

A big plus of this approach is that you have everything in one place. If you want to change something in error reporting you know exactly where to go. On the contrary, everything in your software will depend on this one component. When you decide to reuse some code, you’ll need to take the error handling code with it. Also, as your program will grow number of errors will grow as well, which can result in a huge pile of code in one place that will be very vulnerable to errors (since everyone will want to edit it to add his own errors).

Decentralized

Decentralized approach to error reporting puts errors in places where they can happen. They’re part of interface of the respective modules. In C every module (sometimes even every function) would have it’s own set of error codes. In C++ a class would have a set of exceptions associated with it.

In my opinion, it’s a little harder to maintain and to keep consistent than the centralized way, but if you have the discipline to stick with it, it results in elegant and independent code. Somebody could say, that there will be a lot of duplicates of (let’s say) 5 most common errors, like IO failures and memory errors. Well, this is a problem of decentralized error reporting. You can minimize this by keeping your errors in context with the abstraction of the interface they fit in. For instance – class Socket will throw exceptions like ConnectionError or RecievingError not MallocError, FileError or even UnknownError. Malloc failure is the reason, which resulted in a problem with reading data, so from the point of Socket class it’s a reading error.

These are the two basic ways of error handling. I will write separate posts about a few concrete common strategies, that I know and find useful or at least good to know (exceptions, error codes etc.).