Javaism, Exceptions, and Logging: Part 2
July 09, 2012

Considering the reactions to the previous post in this series, my intent was obviously misunderstood. Please allow me to clarify that I was not attacking Java or Python: Java is popular and has proven to be productive, both as a language and as an ecosystem; the stylistic and semantic choices it makes are none of my concerns (although I'm not a big fan). And as for Python, I was saying that it copied Java's implementation in some modules (and I think I've shown the correlation pretty well). I said that it's silly, because Python is not subject to the same limitations of Java, which dictate how the Java implementation works. I'm not going to open the discussion over whether OOP is good or bad, or mix-ins vs. interfaces, etc. -- I'm simply saying that "Java concepts" (which I called Javaisms) seem to enter Python for no good reason, meaning, in Python we have better ways to do it. I hope the scope of my discussion is clear now.

When Life Throws Lemons At You

In this installment, I'm going to discuss how to properly work with exceptions, based on my experience with large-scale Python projects. In fact, this series was born after I got frustrated with the code quality of a certain library that my team develops. Instead of discussing specific code snippets here, I want to share a some representative examples that I (as a user of that library) encountered:

This kind of stuff happens to me every time I get to an unexplored corner of the code, and I've already devised a method for debugging such cases: I comment-out all exception handling code along the way, until I find the actual error. In fact, this is essentially the treatment that I'm about to suggest here. The first rule of exception handling is: Don't handle exceptions, just let them pass through.

Don't Catch Broadly

Always catch only the most-derived/most-specific exception. I believe this rule is very obvious in theory, but harder to follow in practice: the number of exceptions might be large and their handling similar; you have to import specific exceptions from libraries, which tightly-couples your code with implementation details; some libraries don't use a common exception base class for all of their exceptions, which leads to many isolated except-clauses.

All in all, you might have attenuating circumstances, but try to stick to this rule as much as possible. On the other hand, never use a bare except:! Such an except-clause will catch all exceptions, including SystemExit and KeyboardInterrupt, so unless you plan to loose the ability to Ctrl-C a running program, or even prevent it from terminating gracefully, take the extra step and use except Exception.

Don't be Overprotective

A tendency I find in many programmers is being overprotective towards their users, to the point where it seems like paternalism. It's as if they try to "hide away" all the complexities of life and present the user with an easy-to-swallow explanation. I should say that this phenomena virtually doesn't exist in open-source code, so you might have never seen it, but in closed-source projects I find it all over the place. In fact, fellow programmers have told me that's exactly what they're doing -- protecting their users.

Well, as the saying goes, we're all consenting adults here. You should expect your users, as programmers, to have sufficient background; don't treat them like babies, and don't try to protect them by throwing a "user-friendlier" FileNotFoundError in place of the "raw" IOError. Besides, keep in mind that the underlying exception usually holds all the needed information in a very readable manner, e.g.,

Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
IOError: [Errno 2] No such file or directory: '/dev/nonexistent'

and anyone with some common sense would be able to cope with it. Unless you can add meaningful information to the error, just let whatever came at you propagate up cleanly -- we'll take it like men (or women!).

A Note On Real Users

A question then arises: what about non-programmer end-users? What if my product's a GUI/CLI and a nasty stack trace suddenly shows up?

Well, first of all, this rule only deals with libraries and other products whose end users are programmers. But on second thought, would it matter whether an IOError or a FileNotFoundError reaches the surface? The human user cares mostly for a descriptive and easy to understand error message; the traceback or exception's type are mostly of interest to programmers. But then again, when it comes to non-programmers, I don't want to get into generalizations. They might as well not be consenting adults...

Don't Wrap Exceptions

Prior to Python 3, raising an exception during the handling of one, meant the original traceback was lost. This has been finally solved, but Python 2.x still accounts for the majority of the code-base. Once you loose the traceback, debugging the problem is much harder as you can't use a debugger (pdb) or even tell where the exception came from... And when it happens off-site, on a customer's production server, you're screwed.

I believe exception wrapping in Python is a legacy of Java that crept into Python (a Javaism). It resonates as the Java mind-set, where you'd like a library to be contractually obliged to throwing only certain exceptions. For instance, a queue library might raise exceptions such as QueueFull and QueueEmpty, both of which derive from QueueError. Later, we add support for dumping a queue to a file, where an IOError might happen; because we're already "obligated" to throwing only QueueErrors, they might wrap the underlying IOError by a QueueError. Don't do that.

It is reasonable that FooLibrary would only throw exceptions that derive from FooError, but only when these exceptions originate in FooLibrary. An underlying IOError has nothing to do with your library, it could happen any time and for various reasons. The same goes for an HTTP library that might get an ECONNRESET while talking over a socket -- the underlying socket.error is clearly not an HTTPError (or any of its descendants), and should not be wrapped by one. Besides, there are so many things that could go wrong, especially in a dynamic language like Python, that it's impossible to wrap everything.

It only makes sense to wrap an underlying exception where you can provide additional information on the cause of it, or where you want to change the semantics of it. A classical such case is connect_with_retries(), where you might want to allow several attempts before giving up. Here, you'd probably want to "accumulate" the intermediate exceptions and raise a ConnectionError("%d connection attempts failed", accum_exceptions).

Bottom line: wrap only where you add information to the underlying exception; there has to be a good reason for wrapping.

Don't Handle Exceptions

Let me rephrase that: exceptions should be handled only

In other words: handle exceptions only where you're actually handling them. If you're not sure, leave it that way -- you can always add except-clauses later.

It might seem trivial, but you'd be surprised how many times I find code that handles exceptions for no good reason. For example, people think that by swallowing all sorts of exceptions and returning None, they make their code "more robust"; that's lying to yourself. You take a problem and make it worse, as it's very likely you'd lose the original details and hide real issues.

I've encountered countless cases of code that follows a pattern such as except Exception: log.error(...), which hides bugs like a misspelled variable (NameError). Logging is not handling the exception (more on this in part 3). In the end, nobody ever reads the log, or even takes the time to properly configure it, so you ship a "very robust" product that has half the functionality you think it has.

Closing Words

The lesson to be learnt here is: think before you act. Don't act dogmatically, don't follow Java paradigms for no reason, and try to keep your footprint as low as possible when it comes to error handling. As the saying goes, shit happens; calling it in other names does not make it any better. Files disappear, permissions get screwed, devices disconnect, sockets die, everybody lies. That's life.

Going back to the three bullets I opened this post with, you can see how by being overprotective and by excessively wrapping exceptions, an AttributeError became a DeviceError, which then became None. And you can see now why the first thing I do is remove all exception-handling code along the way: most of the times it just masks the real error, making it harder to diagnose, while adding little or no added value at all. You don't make your code more robust by sweeping problems under the carpet: good code crashes, allowing tests to uncover more bugs, increasing robustness.

On the Granularity of Exception Classes

Some people are rather laconic and use a single exception for everything. I've seen people who were so lazy that they used raise Exception("foo") directly, instead of deriving an exception class of their own... People, it only takes one line to derive an exception class, there's no excuse for being that lazy!

On the other hand, some people are way too verbose, defining specific exceptions for every minor detail. They end up with dozens of exception classes for each module, many of which are logically overlapping. This makes the implementation cumbersome, and, in fact, might not be useful at all for your users: they usually won't care for such granularity, and you risk contaminating your interface with implementation details.

The rule to follow here is: the granularity at which exceptions are defined should match the granularity at which exception handling is done; define separate exceptions (only) where it makes sense to handle one differently than the other.

For example, it makes sense to handle a ConnectionError differently from an InvalidCredentials error, but there's usually little sense in making the distinction between "connection failed because server is not listening" to "connection failed because server crashed after accepting us". But in any case, be sure to include all the available information in the error message, as it's important for logging/diagnostic purposes.