Andrew Wilkinson

Random Ramblings on Programming

Exceptional Catches

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Throw InRecently I was taking part in a review of some Python code. One aspect of the code really stuck out to me. It’s not a structural issue, but a minor change in programming style that can greatly improve the maintainability of the code.

The code in general was quite good, but a code snippet similar to that given below jumped right to the top of my list of things to be fixed. Why is this so bad? Let us first consider what exceptions are and why you might use them in Python.

try:
    // code
except Exception, e:
    // error handling code

Exceptions are a way of breaking out the normal program flow when an ‘exceptional’ condition arises. Typically this is used when errors occur, but exceptions can also be used as an easy way to break out of normal flow during normal but unusual conditions. In a limited set of situations it can make program flow clearer.

What does this code do though? It catches all exceptions, runs the error handling code and continues like nothing has happened. In all probability it’s only one or two errors that are expected and should be handled. Any other errors should be passed on a cause the program to actually crash so it can be debugged properly.

Let’s consider the following code:

analysis_type = 1
try:
    do_analysis(analysis_typ)
except Exception, e:
    cleanup()

This code has a bug, the missing e in the do_analysis call. This will raise a NameError that will be immediately captured and hidden. Other, more complicated errors could also occur and be hidden in the same way. This sort of masking will make tracking down problems like this very difficult.

To improve this code we need to consider what errors we expect the do_analysis function to raise and what we want to handle. In the ideal case it would raise an AnalysisError and then we would catch that.

analysis_type = 1
try:
    do_analysis(analysis_typ)
except AnalysisError, e:
    cleanup()

In the improved code the NameError will pass through and be picked up immediately. It is likely that the cleanup function needs to be run whether or not an error has occurred. To do that we can move the call into a finally block.

analysis_type = 1
try:
    do_analysis(analysis_typ)
except AnalysisError, e:
    // display error message
finally:
    cleanup()

This allows us to handle a very specific error and ensure that we clean up whatever error happens. Sometimes cleaning up whatever the exception (or in the event of no exception) is required, and in this case the finally block, which is always run, is the right place for this code.

Let’s now consider a different piece of code.

try:
    do_analysis(analysis_types[index])
except KeyError:
    // display error message

We’re looking up the parameter to do_analysis in a dictionary and catching the case where index doesn’t exist. This code is also capturing too much. Not because the exception is too general, but because there is too much code in the try block.

The issue with this code is what happens if do_analysis raises a KeyError? To capture the exceptions that we’re expecting we need to only wrap the dictionary lookup in and not catch anything from the analysis call.

try:
    analysis_type = analysis_types[index]
except KeyError:
    // display error message
finally:
    do_analysis(analysis_type)

So, if I’m reviewing your code don’t be afraid to write a few extra lines in order to catch the smallest, but correct, set of exceptions.


Photo of Throw In by Nick Treby.

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Written by Andrew Wilkinson

November 2, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Posted in python

Tagged with ,

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