No error left behind
Which design guidelines should software follow in order to run reliably? Which guidelines do you use in your day to day work?
Error handling is a significant complexity in real-world projects, but programming textbooks are often giving very little advice on how to think about it at the higher level. This article tries to fill that gap:
- We will define what an error is.
- We will find out that each error has a human stakeholder.
- We will discuss technical mechanisms to bring errors to human attention.
- The final section contains various examples of how to apply this.
To handle the error cases in your software, you should ask yourself who is the human stakeholder who would be able to address it, and then find a suitable mechanism to escalate the error in the direction of that stakeholder.
I’ve cross-checked this approach with multiple people from various software backgrounds, but I’m still happy to receive your feedback.
What is an error?
Definition: An error is when the program is operating outside the intended path of execution.
Running programs within the intended path of execution is a goal by definition. To track and reach this goal, we need to make it observable whether the program is running healthily:
Rule: All errors should be observable from the outside.
Observable in this context means that it’s possible to bring the error to a human’s attention (e.g. end user, system administrator, developer) in an automated fashion.
The outside is defined by the bounds of your program. The error reports need to be made accessible to the surrounding environment, so that stakeholders can access them.
The stakeholders for an error are the people involved in the software lifecycle, such as: End users, developers, system administrators, network administrators etc.
Rule: For each error, there is a corresponding stakeholder.
Is the error cause within the program itself, then the developer is the stakeholder.
Is the error cause in the user input or interaction (e.g. invalid input), then the user is the stakeholder.
Is the error cause in the execution environment, then the operator of that environment is the stakeholder (e.g. sysadmin, network admin, SRE).
Routing errors to the stakeholders
Routing error indicators to the right stakeholders is partially done in code, and partially within the deployment. Particularly, displaying errors to end users is usually done in the program code itself. On the other hand, metrics collection set ups can be monitored by developers and administrators alike.
There are two main strategies to make errors observable:
- Propagate the error upwards towards the initiator of the erroring operation.
- Propagate the error to the side (monitoring and logging).
At least one of these should be used for any error.
Propagating an error upwards
Propagating “upwards” moves the responsibility of error handling to a higher level. In general, higher level software has more context for the failing operation, so they are often in a better position to route the error in the right direction.
Propagating errors upwards can take many forms.
- Function level: Propagate to the calling procedure
- Return an error code
- Raise an exception
- Propagate a lower-level exception
- Process level: Crash the process
- Network level: Return the error in a network response
- User level: Show the error to the user
- e.g. in a UI dialog
Note: Remember to convert the error into a representation which fits the level of abstraction that the caller expects. Many languages support nesting (wrapping) errors so that the full context is retained.
Propagating an error to the side
Sometimes passing the error upwards is not an option or not sufficient, for example because you want to transparently recover or hide a subsystem failure from the user.
Propagating errors to the side can be one of the following:
- Increment a counter which can be monitored from the outside. (e.g. using Prometheus or Linux kernel stats counters)
- Write the error to an error collection service.
- For server side software: Record stack traces and notify developers about them.
- For client side software: Ask the user to send bug reports when errors are encountered.
Make sure that all of the relevant error propagation sinks are monitored by the right stakeholders during the program’s operation.
Systems like Prometheus are built with monitoring and alerting in mind. It’s often a good idea to alert on symptoms close to your business needs and then use collected metrics on other errors for further analysis1.
Warning: Textual logging is not an error handling strategy. Logs are not meant for machine consumption so it’s hard to have automated monitoring based on them.
Warning: Ignoring errors is not an error handling strategy either.
What if my case is not a fit?
If your case it not a fit, it’s possible that the condition at hand might not be an error to begin with, but is maybe only a “corner case” which may happen in normal operation (e.g. a lookup key was not found).
Consider switching the way that the condition is propagated. The following options are alternatives where otherwise errors may be used.
- Null/empty object: Returning empty lists, sets,
Optional<T>types, or other Null Objects. Note that this is not the same as
- Separate channel: Return the non-error conditions through a separate channel (e.g. don’t use an exception, but return specially-built objects for these conditions). Example: A linter tool’s output is produced as part of the expected operation and is therefore not an error within that context.
- Null: Returning
nilor similar is idiomatic in some languages too, but may lead to follow-up errors2 when the value is dereferenced.
If none of these worked for you, I’d love to hear from you so I can correct my understanding.
Sometimes the most elegant solution is to change the API to make the error impossible3. For example, replace a dynamic check with one that’s statically guaranteed by the type system, or change to idempotent operation semantics, so that multiple invocations do not conflict with each other.
These are all written from the perspective of a piece of code detecting an error.
Recovery through redundancy
A disk in a software RAID is failing.
- The system administrator, as soon as the percentage of recovered executions > threshold. They can then investigate the cause of network issues, exchange hard drives or similar.
- Recover by retrying the operation on a different disk.
- Increment an error counter indicating the failure cause. When incremented in a monitorable system, this counter can trigger an alert.
A TCP network packet is lost. (Difference: Retry has less control over the network routing)
Recovery through omission
A web server uses multiple database backends. One of the non-essential backends starts to return errors.
- The operator of the failing subsystem.
- Omit the backend’s response. (Treat it as if it didn’t exist.)
- Increment an error counter indicating the failure cause, so that the subsystem operator can be alerted.
Delegating the decision to the calling procedure
open() function is asked to open a given filename for
reading, but the file doesn’t exist.
- We don’t know who is responsible for passing the wrong filename, but somewhere in the call chain, someone is going to know where that filename comes from.
- Report the error to the caller with the documented
Mistakes in passed input values are best handled by the code which passed them, and which can judge why they happened.
Reporting upwards and sideways at the same time
A web server’s servlets are returning errors in the form of HTTP status codes.
- The requester is a stakeholder because they care about the request.
- The web server’s operator is a stakeholder because they care about keeping overall error fractions within reasonable bounds.
- Propagate status via HTTP, upwards to the caller who has more context.
- Count HTTP statuses keyed by relevant criteria (such as servlet), e.g. in Prometheus, for the web server operator.
- A good background read is the Site Reliability Engineering Book, section “Symptoms vs. Causes” [return]
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Hoare#Apologies_and_retractions [return]
- The book Philosophy of Software Design by John Ousterhout has an entire chapter on the idea of defining errors away. The author has also given a tech talk. [return]