Handling (async) exceptions in haskell: the right way

November 16, 2014
Yuras Shumovich

(Originally posted here)

(I realize that I’m not authoritative enough to claim that it is the right way. But we don’t have any authoritative claim anyway, so I’m free to make an attempt.)

We’ll mostly discuss exception handling in cleanup actions. You should already understand basics of exception handling: synchronous exception, asynchronous exceptions, interruptible actions, masking asynchronous exceptions. You probably should already understand why exception handling is important.

Exception safety

The goal of exception handling is to provide some guarantees that, in case of failure, the user of your code can rely on. The code is exception-safe if it provides reasonable guarantees.

What guarantees are reasonable, actually depends on particular case. Informally, it should be possible at least to continue executing unrelated tasks. For example, if database driver in your web application failed at some point, you still should be able to respond with error page; but if the driver failed to free memory, then it is probably unreasonable, because you’ll run out of memory at some point. We’ll say that the code is exception-safe if it provides such reasonable guarantees.

There is a continuum of reasonable guarantees, but it is convenient to say about levels of exception safety. It is common to use four levels:

Optimal level of safety

It is not possible to achieve no-throw or even strong exception safety in all cases, but basic level is the must-have except probably some special cases.

For reusable components you should try to achieve the highest possible level. For example, if you can’t revert all side effects, then you should revert as much as it is possible with reasonable efforts. Usually a number of trade offs are involved, so you should decide what level of safety to provide in each case separately.

General approach

Most of errors in exception handling come not from failure to handle exceptional situation, but from failure to recognize it’s possibility. The average developer tries to handle exceptions he is aware of, or even when they occur in production. Obviously it is not possible to provide any guarantees with such the approach. Instead we should assume that any component, we are using, can fail. Then we ask ourselves, what exception safety guarantees it provides, and decide how to handle this case.

It is almost impossible to achieve even basic safety level if you are using at least one component with lower level, so all reusable components should provide at least basic guarantees.

See also here for more details on exception safety analysis without async exceptions (C++)

Asynchronous exceptions

Async exceptions, unlike synchronous, can be raised at any moment. That makes reasoning about them really hard. But for purposes of exception handling it is mostly irrelevant because in most cases they are masked, so they behave like synchronous exceptions. Obviously they add complexity to exception handling though.

The source of the complexity is the next: there are components, that have different exception-safety guarantees for sync and async exceptions. Please stop here, take a cup of beer and think about it, because it is the most important thing you should know about async exception. That is the only source of complexity.

So in the worse case async exceptions double complexity of exception handling, because for each component you need to think about two levels of complexity. I personally find that it is pretty reasonable price. Though in reality the additional complexity is small in most cases because: - most components have the same safety level both for sync and async exceptions - it is usually possible to rely only on intersection of sync and async safety guarantees - as the last resort, you can disable async exceptions using uninterruptibleMask


OK, in theory async exceptions are not so hard. But people find it hard regardless any theoretical arguments. Probably the theory is wrong?

As part of standardization process, David Abrahams produced an exception-safe reference implementation of (part of) C++ standard library, STL. To test exception safety, he instrumented the code to make it possible to throw exception at almost any possible point of failure (see here, section 7). Do you see the point already? He introduced async exception in order to test handling of sync exceptions!

Handling exceptions in presence of asynchronous exceptions looks hard because they uncover most of errors in exception handling. There is nothing complex in async exceptions per se, but exception handling is complex itself, and async exceptions just force us to fix bugs. And that is excellent, isn’t it?

Haskell has embedded tool to test exception handling, we call it “asynchronous exceptions”. That potentially makes haskell the best language ever. Lets learn how to use the tool instead of ignoring it.


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