Functional error handling in Scala

Note: This is a reprint of my “Functional Error Handling” tutorial from my “Hello, Scala” website.

Because functional programming is like algebra, there are no null values or exceptions. But of course you can still have exceptions when you try to access servers that are down or files that are missing, so what can you do? This lesson demonstrates the techniques of functional error handling in Scala.

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I already demonstrated one of the techniques to handle errors in Scala: The trio of classes named Option, Some, and None. Instead of writing a method like toInt to throw an exception or return a null value, you declare that the method returns an Option, in this case an Option[Int]:

def toInt(s: String): Option[Int] = {
    try {
    } catch {
        case e: Exception => None

Later in your code you handle the result from toInt using match and for expressions:

toInt(x) match {
    case Some(i) => println(i)
    case None => println("That didn't work.")

val y = for {
    a <- toInt(stringA)
    b <- toInt(stringB)
    c <- toInt(stringC)
} yield a + b + c

I discussed these approaches in the “No Null Values” lesson, so I won’t repeat that discussion here.

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Another trio of classes named Try, Success, and Failure work just like Option, Some, and None, but with two nice features:

  • Try makes it very simple to catch exceptions
  • Failure contains the exception message

Here’s the toInt method re-written to use these classes. First, you have to import the classes into the current scope:

import scala.util.{Try,Success,Failure}

After that, this is what toInt looks like:

def toInt(s: String): Try[Int] = Try {

As you can see, that’s quite a bit shorter than the Option/Some/None approach. The REPL demonstrates how this works. First, the success case:

scala> val a = toInt("1")
a: scala.util.Try[Int] = Success(1)

Second, this is what it looks like when Integer.parseInt throws an exception:

scala> val b = toInt("boo")
b: scala.util.Try[Int] = Failure(java.lang.NumberFormatException: For input string: "boo")

As that output shows, the Failure that’s returned by toInt contains the reason for the failure, i.e., the exception message.

There are quite a few ways to work with the results of a Try — including the ability to “recover” from the failure — but common approaches still involve using match and for expressions:

toInt(x) match {
    case Success(i) => println(i)
    case Failure(s) => println(s"Failed. Reason: $s")

val y = for {
    a <- toInt(stringA)
    b <- toInt(stringB)
    c <- toInt(stringC)
} yield a + b + c

Note that when using a for-expression and everything works, it returns the value wrapped in a Success:

scala.util.Try[Int] = Success(6)

Conversely, if it fails, it returns a Failure:

scala.util.Try[Int] = Failure(java.lang.NumberFormatException: For input string: "a")
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Even more ...

There are other combinations of classes from third party libraries that you can also use to catch and handle exceptions, but Option/Some/None and Try/Success/Failure are my two favorites. You can use whatever you like, but I generally use Try/Success/Failure when dealing with code that can throw exceptions — because I almost always want the exception message — and I use Option/Some/None in other places, such as to avoid using null values.

For many more details on functional programming and functional error handling, see my book, Functional Programming, Simplified.

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