Structured exception handling and defensive programming are the two pillars of robust software.

Both pillars fail however when it comes to handling internal faults, those that normally originate in software defects rather than in any external factors.

In this webinar, Zoran Horvat demonstrates advanced defensive coding techniques that can bring the quality of your code to an entirely new level.

Watch the webinar and learn:

  • When throwing an exception is the right thing to do
  • Why exceptions and defensive coding cannot be applied to recover from defects
  • How to handle situations when internal software defect is causing the fault
  • How to treat fault detection as an orthogonal concern to normal operation

Advanced Defensive Programming Techniques on Vimeo.

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Video Content

  1. Bird's View of Defensive Programming (3:21)
  2. Demo (6:47)
  3. Design by Contract (16:24)
  4. Q&A (50:34)

Webinar Transcript

Tony:

Hello everyone and welcome to today's webinar on advanced defensive coding techniques. My name is Tony and I'll be your moderator now. I work as a software engineer here at PostSharp and I'm excited to be hosting this session today. I'm pleased to introduce today's speaker, Zoran Horvat. Zoran is CEO and principle consultant at Coding Helmet Consultancy, and today he's going to share about what should you know about defensive programming and how to improve internal quality of code. 

Before I hand the mike over to Zoran, I have a few housekeeping items to cover about this presentation. So first, this webinar is brought to you by PostSharp, that's why this slide is there, this is not Zoran, neither me. PostSharp is an extension that adds support for patterns to C# and Visual Basic, so if you are tired of repeating yourself in your code, you may want to check it out, as did at Microsoft Intel or Bank of America who have been using Post Sharp in their project to save development and maintenance time. Customers typically take down their code base by 15% by using our product, so feel free to go to our website, www.postsharp.net for more details, or you can get also a free trial there, and now back to our webinar. Today's webinar is being recorded and the recording will be available after this live session, and all of you who have registered to the webinar will receive an email with the link to the recording. 

And last, during the webinar we also love to hear from you, so if you have any questions for our speaker, feel free to send your questions through the question window at the bottom of your player, and all the questions will be answered in the end of the session. If we do not get to all of your questions, we will also follow up after the webinar, so all of your questions will be answered in the end. So without any further ado, I'd like to kick off things by welcoming Zoran Horvat so, Zoran, over to you.

Zoran:

Yeah. Thank you Tony. Hello everyone. As Tony has already told you, on this webinar I'm going to talk to you about certain aspects of defensive coding. You may know me from Pluralsight courses mainly, I have five courses published there, and things that you will see in this webinar might be seen generally in all five of the courses I have published this far. Those are general programming principles applied, and applied on a very specific and narrow goal of making code internally more stable. 

Now, without any delay, I will just tell you precisely what this demonstration is going to be about, because the term defensive programming is talking about a large area, and I will identify a very small subset of problems that we are going to address today. 

Bird’s View of Defensive Programming

So, historically, you may probably be aware that the whole thing about making programs stable first started with garbage in garbage out concept. Which was very good in one respect which we programmers like a lot. You don't have to code anything to put garbage out. So a lot of software was written in a way that code is not responsible for invalid, for behaving in the face of invalid input, and that worked quite well for many years only now and then producing distraction and that, it was generally very good. 

But as time progressed, as years passed, programmers were more and more interested in having stable software, so that is how defensive coding came into being for the first time. And then I'm pretty sure that you know more or less everything about defensive coding already, and you might be asking yourself, why, what am I going to tell new today. Probably nothing, but anyway, let's draw the map of defensive coding.

For one thing, you want to defend from input, from invalid input to reject invalid input right away, and to only let valid input in, or to standardize communications with outer systems, which not only means other services or, I don't know, network, things like that, or database, but also the libraries that you might include in your own process. If you don't trust other people's code, you might sanitize the output from a library. However there are more things there, and today I'm going to talk to you about things that are not, that don't have to do with outer layers of your system or your component, or whatever you are writing. I'm going to talk to you about defending from yourself. 

Many people don't really understanding that there is a concept of defending from your own code, and I will give you a hint now, and you will hear about it in around 20 minutes to think about that hint. For example, if you face non reference exception, what do you do? How do you defend from that? If it's not something that came from a third party code, from a library, or from any metric service or anything, if it originated from inside your code, how do you defend from that? And that is what we're going to be talking about today.

Demo

So I'm going to introduce a very small example, it's going to handle students and subjects there enlisted to listen and to have exams, so student is going to be identified by name, and is going to keep a list of grades from exams that student has passed, and student will expose three methods, add grade, remove last grade, and get average of grades, and now as you look at this API, this is very small API, you can already start thinking about what can go wrong with only three methods we have, and many things can go wrong already. And you will see even more things will go wrong when we introduce training, which is, for example, a university subject, and students can enlist for the training. Training will expose another three methods, you will be able to add a student to enlist for a training, and then two more complicated methods will come, that top student will have to work through the list of students and sort them by average grade. And the last methods add grades, will be the most complicated of all, it will be involved supposedly after the exam, it will receive the list of student's names and grades, it will work through the list of students and add a grade to each of them. 

And now, what can go wrong? This is usually a place where I apologize for using PowerPoint and step into Visual Studio. This is the code, I'm going to show you the code which is implementing all these six members. First let me show you the grade, grade is just an enum. It's an enumeration defining grades, and the only working code is located in the student and training classes. So I will show you first things that can go wrong in these two small, very small classes, and you can imagine how bad it could all be when applied to a large project.

Sometimes people tell me that I'm showing too simple examples and non-realistic, but you will see that only six very small functions, half of them one-liners, can cause you so much trouble that you will have to reconsider your entire coding practices, all the practices you're using every day, if you want to survive six simple functions.

So let's start. Grade average. There's the list of grades, down below I'm adding grades to the list, and this is the grades average. Every grade is first converted to double, this is my extension method, it is not important at all, what is important here is the average extension method, which comes from the link library. This method will throw an exception if the list is empty. So we already have one thing to defend from, and I'm even helping the course by introducing a new member, he has grades, which returns boolean, telling whether these grades is empty or not. It returns true if there are any grades in it.

So if you want to avoid an exception coming automatically from this property getter, you better check where this property returns true beforehand. 

Now remember, this moment, I'm telling the callers to make sure to check potential output before using the member. That is hiding half of the answer to the great question, how to defend from the inside of our repetition.

Tony:

Excuse me Zoran, I have a question here about this great average property. You say that we should check in advance whether the student has any grades or not. What if we, instead of that, return some special value from the grades average, like, not a number, or if we make the double nullable and we return null?

Zoran:

Yes. I could answer that question on several levels. On one level, you should ask yourself, what have you got by returning, for example, null or double? Did you get anything more compared to a boolean and a double? No. Nullable is still a type which has a value boolean property and a value double property, so you still have the same thing in your hands. 

On more elaborate level, if you return something that could mean one or the other thing, then you are placing a burden on the receiver of this result, to be afraid of what he might get. I think it is much better to put the thing straight before the caller. Now, if you call grades average, then make sure to not receive an exception back, So if you get to the point of calling grades average, then you should have already made sure, either by adding a grade, and therefore making sure that there is something to average, or by asking whether there are grades or no, and after you have made clear that it is safe, then you call this, and then you get an exact result. No speculation beyond this point what you have got back. I hope ...

Tony: Okay, thank you.

Zoran: ... This is enough.

Tony: Thank you.

Zoran:

Okay, so the add method. First, let me make a disclaimer here, this method is returning a flag as an indication whether the operation passed well or not, this is not how you should write code in my opinion, and I will remove these flags by the end of this demonstration. I have started the demonstration with an ancient way of defending, which was based on status codes returned for matters. So people used to return, for example, false, if operation cannot be conducted to the end, then true if it went well.

So this is the old way of dealing with unknown input, so this input was not sanitized before, and now we have to deal with it, and I have a piece of private logic here, it is very simple, I'm asking if this grade is defined in this enumeration, so don't send me a grade value of 57, because it's not an existing grade. If something like that happens, I will just return false and be done with it, right?

Why is this bad? Again, this is bad on a couple of levels. On one level, I am making troubles to the caller. The caller doesn't know what's going to happen after he calls my method, and that is a bad thing. We don't like non deterministic code. We don't want to call a function and not know what is going to happen after that. Imagine a list of five steps that you have to make one after the other. You made the first step, the second step, the third step, now fourth step is calling this function for example, and the fourth step returns false. That means that now you have to roll back the first three steps, which might be very complicated. It might include calling dozen of other methods to roll back the effects of these three steps.

So returning a flag is a bad thing to do from that aspect, but there is another aspect which is even more important. You see, if I give up at this point, it's not only that I give up. I must also recover from this situation somehow. It's not the end by returning from this method. Every ever must have a recovery. If you don't recover, you must kill the process, alright? If you want to keep going, to keep running, you have to recover from every single, every bit appears during execution. How is add grade going to recover?

Design by Contract

So this is the first concept, the first important place where I will mention design by contract. If you haven't met design by contract, it was introduced by Bertrand Meyer quite a long ago, and it's still not widely popular. I suppose it's not widely popular because it is a bit complicated, but I will try today to tell you the most important part of the theory, which will make you not really understand it to it's fullest extent, but it will make you start thinking in a different way. 

So here we have a function, add grade, which is defending from invalid input. And I say that is wrong, because this function doesn't know what it means to recover, it is easy to just give up. Now, how to recover. This function cannot recover, do you know why? Because it doesn't know who called it. And that is an extraordinary idea. I myself was defending at the called site, so inside the method that was called, for many years, until I understood that the method that was called cannot defend because it doesn't know the context in which it is executing.

Is it a web application recovering from a format error? Could mean to send HTTP status, internal server error, 500, or temporarily unavailable, or not found, whatever, so it needs to send an HTTP response back. If it is a desktop application, recovery means to pop up a message box, or if it is a unit test, it has searched false and made the test fail. So only the caller knows what it means to recover.

Okay. You keep thinking about this and I will keep talking about current code. Remove last grade is removing the grade at the last position in the list, but only if there are grades. It also returns boolean flag and that's it. And now to the more complicated class, training. It keeps a list of students, it allows us to add a student, but we can only add non-null students, you will see why. Here is the get top student, this is the method which is sorting the students by their average grade descending. But now, we have two kinds of students, those that do have grades, and those that don't.

And now you see that story about the caller and the callee. The calling class training knows exactly how to recover from the situation when the student doesn't have any grades. It is very simple at the disposition. I can pick only the students that do have grades, and sort them descending by their average grade. And then, just concatenate those that do not have any grades. Do you see? This list is going to have students all descending by their grades average, and then all those who didn't have any exams yet at the end of the list, and it's never going to fail. This function is safe, only because the student class has given me the means to test them, so that I can recover from potential. It's still not an error, it is a condition, I can recover from something that might end up in an exception, and I would have to recover it using other means if I had the exception from the grades average. Now there's no trouble at all.

So this is the great concept, giving public members to the caller to test the state, and prepare defense from any condition in advance. 

Okay, let's move forward, set grades. This is a terrible, terrible piece of code, don't write code like this ever, but I had to. I had to do this, let me show you what this function is doing. It is receiving a sequence of tuples, each tuple consisting of a string representing the name and the grade to give to a student with this name. 

Now, what can go wrong? A student might not exist in the list of students. There is a list here. So the student might not exist here, and this function should fail. I'm still returning boolean flags to indicate failure. And on a more detailed level, the student might exist, and we might try to settle the grade to that student, but add grade could fail, saying, "No, no, I don't want this grade, goodbye." So we might face a failure deep inside the loop, and that is, that scenario, which I told you already, like having five steps and one of them fails.

So look what I am doing here. I am first defending from the situation, forgive me the syntax, this is going to be much cleaner later. This is a query which has... For any tuple in the input, now all students say that their name is different, and that's meaning that there is a name which doesn't exist in the list of students, then give up and return false right away.

So I'm defending from one sort of troubles, but the other sort of troubles comes only inside a loop. Much later, when I try to add a grade to a student and this might return false. Now if one student returns false, then I must work through the list of all students who did accept their grades and roll back the change. That is that roll back which I mentioned, so you can see how terrible code is produced if I try to defend from a flag returned from deep inside a loop. So this is the roll back list, any student who accepts a grade is put into the roll back list, if any of the students later decides not to accept the grade, I must walk through all the students who were successful, and roll back changes, and then return false. So this code is terrible.

Alright. Let's start fixing it. The first thing, if you want to defend in your code using status codes, which I strongly advise not to do. If you insist on doing that, then it's better to do that right away at the beginning of each method. You see, it's better to ask all the students first whether they exist, second whether they accept grades. So I would need another public member, this is the student class here. I would ask for a can add method on the student class so that I can ask them upfront, and if I do have that method, then all this doesn't have to look like this. It becomes much simpler, you see? I can just walk through the list of students and find each of them by name, picking the first one with that name, and adding a grade to it. This time I know that the first that this creative, or the student by name, is not going to fail, and second, I know that every student will accept the grade, because I have asked both of these things up front.

Alright, now I need this can add method, so here it is. It is just repeating the logic that I already had in the add grade. You see, this is the same thing, only this is the negation. So, I could rise this theory to a higher level and say, and really introduce contracts at last, and say, student and training classes should have an agreement how they work together, and that agreement is called the contract. And a student class says, listen, don't call add grade unless you're sure that can add grade will return true. If you're not sure, ask. If you are sure, alright. And then, after having can add method, I must change add grade to actually use that method. Previous code was this, and this is a pretty much private piece of logic. 

Now can add becomes part of the documentation for the add grade method, and add grade method will check can add according to documentation. I'm not sure whether you understand this, but the idea is to ... Let me rephrase, contract will be defined in terms of public members only, and then the contract will be checked in terms of those same public members. 

Okay, now. Now we have a situation in which add grade method is checking the public contract and giving up immediately, if the contract is broken. But then, why returning false? We can push contracts to even higher level and say, contract must never be broken. Never. The other class must not call add grade if can add is returning false. It can throw an argument exception for example, and stop execution not only of this method, but of the caller as well. The caller must be sure that the object and arguments are correct before calling the method.

And so, this remove, okay. Remove is going to test public member, HasGrades, it was public from the very beginning, and now HasGrades is a contract. It says HasGrades must return true, or otherwise I will fail. So you may start thinking, but this is a bit too hard, maybe this is too much, why not keep returning boolean flags? I will show you.

Before that, let me fix these two complicated preconditions as well. The difference between these preconditions and those nice preconditions in the student class is that, again. I'm having a private logic, something I cannot write this into any documentation, because nobody has access to students, for example. So what I'm going to do will be to give access to the students, not just indiscriminate access, I will introduce a very concrete contained student method, so if you're not sure whether I contain a student or a given name, then ask, and after you asked, you will be free to call set grades and pass that name as part of that list of names, because you know that it is inside. If you are not sure, I keep right to throw, and I will stop your execution if you didn't obey my contract.

Similarly, this will have to be turned into public contract again, I will imagine some accept grade method on this class, which will receive name of the student and the grade, and it will tell you transitively whether the student with this name will accept this grade, if yes, then you are free to include that tuple in this list and call. 

So I'm finally giving up all these return flag instructions, then I am going to not return any flag from this method as well. So all the methods that are doing stuff are just returning void in my solution this time. I need this accept grade method, it is very simple, it is looking up the student, now I know that the student exists, because that is a precondition for the precondition, so to say, and I ask every student whether it can accept a grade. 

So, we have moved this solution to a higher evolutionary step, and this is typically sa far as many people would go. But now, if you were throwing argument exception, for example, or argument null exception, or index out of range, or invalid operation exception, things like that, then it is the time for you probably to think why did you do that?

So, the question is, you can think for yourself, did you ever throw argument exception? And you probably say yes, all the time. Then I ask you the second question, did you ever catch argument exception? And I don't know, I suppose that nobody has ever done that. The problem with argument exception, argument null exception, and similar exceptions, is that nobody ever catches them. People catch exception, and they do that at a very topmost level before the exception goes out of our scope and becomes an unhammer exception. We are handling exception just to protect our process from failing. We are never catching argument exception. And the reason why is that because we have no clue what to do with it. It is as simple as that. You cannot handle argument exception, because handling and recovering from that exception would mean to correct that argumented call, make a call again. But then, if I knew what's wrong with the argument I am passing, I would pass the correct argument right away, I wouldn't call the exception in the first place.

This is a mind-bending idea that might need to mingle in your head for a while before you start thinking the same way I'm thinking. I don't know how to make you believe me in a one hour session. That is my point. But anyway, we could ... Suppose that I have persuaded you to not throw concrete arguments and not to try to handle them, what is the next evolutionary step?

Tony:

Excuse me Zoran, before you go farther, I would have a question here. Wouldn't it help if you are more specific in these exceptions, because here you just say student not found, but if someone on the top level catches the exception, wouldn't it help him to know, for example, which student hasn't been found, or which student has an unacceptable grade, or which grade?

Zoran:

Mm-hmm, yes, so you are suggesting to make even more specific exceptions, like our own custom exceptions, and populate them with more specific information, right?

Tony: Exactly.

Zoran:

Okay, so again, what would we do with that? Suppose that there is a student name which exists here but doesn't exist in the student's ... Where is it, student's list. Now we would include that student name in the exception. So what would we get with doing that? The caller would have to catch specific exception, to expect that exception, and then to dig for specific information there, our student's name, and then do what? Once again, we have no clue what to do. So a student is not there. Is it going to add it? No, it doesn't have a grade for that student, so we have an impossible situation. So we are not going to recover in any ways, including more specific exception, plus, even if you do catch a more specific exception you are still going to do the same things as in this contract scenario, so we are going to understand that this student does not exist in that list, alright? But we could do that by asking whether this list contains that student for every student name. 

So all the code is still there, it's only packaged in different places. So you're not going to have any functionality more than you already have, and you are still not going to be able to recover from the error.

Tony: Okay, thank you.

Zoran:

And then, the revelation. If precondition is violated, in any place in code, do you know how that is called? How do you call remove last grade when there are no grades? What do you call that? Or what do you call adding a grade which is not part of the enumeration, which is invalid grade? You call it a bug. Precondition violation is identically equal to a bug, and if you ever thought why you cannot recover from mistakes like having a name of a student which doesn't exist in a list, or having a grade which cannot be accepted by an existing student, if you thought why you cannot recover and keep going, but you must stop execution of data operation, of course, and just stop it, there's no more execution of data operation, then the answer is because that happened because you have a bug.

And then, checking preconditions means to catch bugs in your code. There's no recovery, just stop execution, that's why people throw exceptions, they don't return status codes, there's no more execution beyond this point. And now, as good programmers, we could do a new thing, completely new thing, and say, "Alright then, checking preconditions is a separate concern. Let's create a class," we are object oriented programmers, and we resolve issues by creating new classes, alright. So here's the contract class. This class will be a library somewhere on the side, not part of real production code. And in the contract class, I want to define a utility code requires. It is even a static, static method, it will receive a predicate which must return true. I will call this predicate, if it returns false, I will throw an exception, and listen, I don't care what exception, I will just throw an exception, because this is the end of the road, I'm writing precondition violations, there is no more. No specific exceptions, they carry no information which has any meaning at a disposition.

And now, … using this, for example in the add grade, I will call requires and say this is ... I can add, I can accept, can add a call with this grade, this must be true. Done. Remove last grade would be another. An another, an another, let me find number five. Another precondition, has grades, it must be true, and that's it. 

Now look, preconditions have been turned into a declarative code. It's not imperative, and just declaring what must happen in order to start doing this. Alright? Now I suppose if this is the first time that you see preconditions, at least in this way, that this is a bit too fast for you, you will have access to code and to code snippets who would be able to repeat this whole process and see the evolution of code yourself. 

I will move faster towards the end. Now look in the training class, I have these complicated preconditions, they are complicated because they are working in a collection. They must work on all elements of the collection. So we could even, now that we have moved the contracts to a separate class and declared them an orthogonal concern, now we can add universal quantifying precondition. Alright.

So contract extensions is going to be the class that will hold that. You see, this is another extension method, this time it is an extension on a sequence of whatever, it receives predicate on that whatever, and it just calls, requires for you to … elements in the sequence, nothing more. This is just a universal quantifier for preconditions. 

I was able to define this very easily because I have moved this different concern into a separate class. So, back at the training class, let me rewrite these preconditions in terms of universal preconditions. Now this reads like names and grades, for them I require that all tuples satisfy that I contain a student with this name, this is the name of the constraint, and I request that I'm accepting a grade for this student name and this grade, this is the name of the constraint.

Do you like this code? It is 100% declarative, and one even more important thing, it is encapsulated. It is encapsulated here, not in my production code, but in some other library. And now, what can we do with the encapsulated code? We can change it without affecting the caller. That is what object oriented programming is all about. 

So, look at this. Suppose that somebody has said ... I'll return to this. Somebody said, "Listen, this is working for the  sequences, it's even working twice, I don't want this to work on every call in production, this is flow." Alright. And I'm pretty sure that this will never happen, that this precondition is false, we have really tested the code to the end. Alright. We want universal and existential quantifiers to be switched off in production. 

Do you know how you switch off this code in production? One way is to add conditional compilation, that is a feature of .NET. You can specify that this piece of code is going to be included in the assembly, but then when just in time compilation is performed, calls to this function will be removed if this symbol, debug, is not defined. 

So let me show you what happens if I end testing and decide to go to production. So this is debug configuration, now I turn to release, and this goes great. Compiler removes both calls at just in time compilation. So you can keep quantifiers alive in debug and turn them off in production, making code safe during testing and making it fast during execution. That is one thing you can do when you treat a contract as a separate concern.

Or, even more, you could, this is the, requires you change the method, you could do something like this. This is the old fashioned conditional compilation. You can say that in debug mode, I want to assert, I want to kill the process. Now, why would I kill the process? Why not keep throwing plain exception? Because, exceptions can be caught. Sometimes people inadvertently catch exceptions and do nothing with them. They catch exceptions because they fear that those exceptions would propagate up and make damage. Alright, that fear is not well placed, you should not catch an exception unless you know perfectly well what to do with it, but people still used to not handle exceptions, but just cover them up. And if you throw a precondition violation exception like this, then even in the testing code, it might happen that somebody has hidden the fact that exception has been thrown. And then, you have a bug, and your code has raised a flag saying, "This is a bug, you have a bug, fix it," but somebody has hidden that flag from you. And then you deliver buggy software to production.

So in order to avoid that, you may choose to assert in debug mode. Assertion, if predicate is false, assertion will kill the process. There's no way for you to hide that, to catch assertion, it will propagate to the operating system. And it is very often a good idea to assert on precondition violations during debugging, because then everybody on the team will know that there is a bug, and they will have to address it. And again, if you go to build configuration, when you finish testing and go to release, then you switch off assertion, and even without that, I was using this assertion from debug name space, so this wouldn‘t affect the release build anyway, so you get back to throwing an exception, because, well, it's not nice to assert in production, you don't like big red screen, windows and message boxes on the screen, alright. 

So then you throw, even if that means that some exceptions would be silently ignored, just for the sake of end users, keep throwing the exception rather asserting. And another thing, the last thing in this demonstration, there's even more interesting idea. What exception should we throw? Not plain exception, plain exception really says nothing. Maybe we could throw some exception like contract exception, you see, and it says precondition violation, this precondition, alright, but what is the contract exception? 

I could, I could define contract exception as a private class inside my contract class, for example. So that nobody can see it, only I can see it. So when it comes to doing something, for example, I know this add grade might fall, I could wrap it in a try catch, but catch what? Contract exception? No. There's no such thing, it is a private class, I cannot write a synthetically correct catch block which includes contract exception. I cannot handle contract exception, the only way to handle it is to handle the base exception, which is a bad practice, and I suppose nobody of you is doing that, you should only catch general exception on the very last level in your component, just to stop exceptions from propagating outside of your component, so you would generally capture general exception and say, if you are writing a service, you would return either 500 in internet, or whatever code, or temporarily unavailable, or I don't know, not found, things like that. 

If you are writing a desktop application, you would return some object which indicates to the user interface that it should pop up a message box and excuse to the user, so that is the place where you catch general exceptions. The very limits of your system, not inside. On the inside, I would suggest you to throw private exception class so that nobody can really catch it. And again, the reason is because any precondition violation equals to a bug, and you cannot recover from a bug. You cannot fix an argument and try again. If you knew what's wrong with the argument, you wouldn't cause the exception, so that is the simplest way to look at precondition violations.

Alright, this was the demonstration, I hope that you liked it. Now you can ask questions, I have left a bit more time for your questions, because I expect to have at least a couple of them, and I would like actually to hear you, and to try to respond to your questions now. 

Q&A

Q: Would the debug assert be removed from release build even without the debug compile directive?

A: It is not an easy decision to remove parts of the logic that is checking the conditions. If you are absolutely certain that you have checked everything in testing, you can remove all precondition checks from your application and make it absolutely fast, as fast as possible. If you are not sure, then you leave preconditions in production, but that is one of the concepts. Also, there is that gray area in between. You might add a lot of heavy checks that are good for debugging, like just imagine a sorting algorithm, an algorithm which sorts the array. Can you imagine how many checks you could perform during the execution of that algorithm? Including the final check that the array is really sorted at the end.

All that would make the sorting algorithm tremendously slow. And then you just remove all of that with a compiler directive from production code. You don't have to check the debug symbol. You could introduce your own symbols, like heavy precondition, or things like that, and switch that off not only in release build, but in the build which is going to be on staging or in production. Then, for example in .NET core, you can use environment and check what environment it is, and then to have heavy checks in development, less checks in staging, no checks or almost no checks in production, so that is the point.

It is very important to understand the concept of preconditions as a separate concern which is not turned into 100% configuration question. It is not a question of your code, it is not part of your code anymore. You could see that I was changing the way preconditions are compiled without making a single change in production code, that is the most important part.

Q: Why not use Microsoft code contracts? How does this presentation apply to PostSharp? 

A: Zoran:

Microsoft code contract is a grade library, which unfortunately having hard time right now. Recently it was turned into a community project and I don't see much activity on there. For those who do not know, code contracts library is defining preconditions, post conditions, and variants, even precondition inheritance, you can define preconditions on an interface, not on a class, and the compiler ... Not the compiler, the code contracts library would jump after building the byte code and rewrite your byte code so that all classes that implement certain interface with contract, the contract code will be injected into them after compilation, so it is tremendous idea. 

Unfortunately it never got popularity, and it had a grain of poison from the day one. That byte code rewriting is a heavy hammer. You don't want your production code to be rewritten by any tool. If you imagine deploying such code to production, and knowing that some tool has changed it after you, then you have probably decided not to do that, and code contracts library, I like it very much, it is great idea, unfortunately it is not popular today. And it's not going in any direction towards success right now.

PostSharp is including the tools for code contracts, right now the tool does not support all these concepts that I have shown, however it is hitting the central point by turning contracts into a separate concern. In PostSharp, contracts are implemented as aspect, so again, it is outside of your production code. It is a very important idea to not keep contracts as part of your code.

Tony:

PostSharp allows you to add patterns to C# without changing your language, and it comes with some ready made contracts library, which covers part of what you have seen in this presentation. But you are also free to create your own contract aspects, so if you don't like how we have prepared this, you can still use PostSharp and make your own pattern implementation. 

Q: Is there any situation in which non private custom exceptions should be used? 

A: Yes, of course. Exceptions are what their name says. Just imagine, I don't know, metric exceptions for example. Metric exceptions are giving you the way to handle an external situation, something that did not originate and end inside of your inner code, but it came from the outside, the network failed. You could write a library which terminates execution by throwing an exception, alright, that is perfectly valid solution. However, you must make a clear distinction between situations which are suspicious in terms of looking like a bug, from situations where something has prevented you from completing the operation and nobody could see that in advance. 

It is easy to see that, for example, a user is blocked and you cannot move money to that user, so it is trivial to see that. If somebody, even after that, calls you and asks, "Now give money to this user," and you see that the user is blocked, there's no point in throwing an exception. Because that caller might handle exception and keep going, thinking that the money is there, and it's not, it cannot be. So that is a bug, that is not an exceptional situation, it's a clear bug and you must stop execution right now. There's one saying, popular saying, which says, "Dead process makes less damage than the crippled one." If you catch a bug and let your process keep going, it is a crippled process, something has happened and you have no clue what, and then if you let it keep working, this might damage the data, it might commit something in the database that it should have rolled it back.

I hope you understand the distinction now. There are bugs, and there are exceptional situations, so throw exceptions only in the second category.

Q: Doesn't the argument against the rewriter for Code Contracts also apply to PostSharp?

A: Actually, no – IL rewriting done by Code Contracts makes the code you see during debugging not the same as the code you execute. PostSharp respects the whole development chain, so even though it is rewriting the IL, the debugging experience remains untouched. You can debug not only your production code, but also the aspect code including even your custom build-time logic. And the PostSharp Visual Studio extension helps you to keep track of all the enhancements PostSharp does in your code.

Q: Why not using the standard Microsoft Code Contracts library instead?

A: Code Contracts are obtrusive, and my experience shows that development teams are not ready to take the risk. The teams I was leading have never even considered using Code Contracts library, and I didn’t want to push the matters either.
If I had to pick the sole reason for not advocating use of Code Contracts library, it would be the fact that it is modifying the IL code in a non-transparent manner. Even the original documentation states that IL code rewriting may be the reason for teams to avoid using Code Contracts.
In my opinion, Code Contracts could have been designed as a regular library, and that would remove that veil of mystery that surrounds the process of code rewriting. I suspect that primary concern was performance. But then, if you look at spectacular performance gains of ASP.NET Core, for example, we could question that reasoning on grounds that performance could have been improved using other means. We will probably never know.

Q: How does this relate to Code Contracts?

A: If you decided to try Code Contracts on this same example, then you would find that there is correlation between syntax I have shown and Code Contracts syntax.
That is not a coincidence, because my example was strongly influenced by the Code Contracts library.
There are two reasons why I have opted to use custom contracts instead of a library. For one thing, I wanted to show you the bare bones, because that looks more convincing. Core of the contracts implementation is, as you could see, no longer than ten lines of code. The second reason is that in previous demonstrations part of the audience was complaining that I am pursuing a lost cause, predicting slow and painful death to Code Contracts. I am very fond of that library, it is very smart and also complete, but current level of support truly doesn’t fuel optimistic feelings.

Q: How does this presentation apply to PostSharp?

A: PostSharp tool supports code contracts as an aspect. You can add attributes to method arguments and describe preconditions that must be satisfied (e.g. that an argument must be non-null). It also supports custom extensions so that you can widen the use of aspects provided by the tool.
The theory which I have demonstrated is more general than any tool (except Code Contracts) currently supports, and that stands for PostSharp as well. I have insisted on unconstrained version of the theory so that you can see the direction in which that is going. Tools are getting better with every year anyway.

Q: How to extend code in a way that client code will know that method does not return null or does not accept null as an argument for instance?

A: Expectations made by the method are called preconditions; promises made by the method are called postconditions. Failing to meet a precondition indicates a bug in the caller; failing to meet the postcondition indicates a bug in the called code. So much about terminology.
Preconditions and postconditions are part of documentation. You may wish to write unit tests which would document them in an executable way, but there is currently no way to rely on, say, language or Visual Studio about that.
There was an attempt to design a Visual Studio extension which would read Code Contracts and expose them as part of IntelliSense. That extension was unstable and I had to remove it from my copy of Visual Studio after trying it for some time. There are other similar attempts, but none which would make an impression.
There were requests to Microsoft to include contracts in Roslyn compiler, but the team has rejected that. It remains to wait for someone to develop an extension which would incorporate contracts validation into the build, I suppose.

Q: Are these given precondition contracts all we need, or do you use (many) different ones not shown here?

A: As in previous question, we also have postconditions – promises made by the method. For example, method should never return null, and then it asserts that the return value is non-null before exiting. Such postcondition tells callers that they don’t have to guard against null before accessing the result of our method – a useful hint indeed.
But generally, even if you decide not to use any tools, preconditions that I have shown in this demonstration are pretty much everything you might need. As any great idea, Design by Contract is very simple.
There is, however, one subtlety. Preconditions are inherited, so that derived classes are satisfying the Liskov Substitution Principle out of the box. It is forbidden to add more preconditions in the derived class. Now, that sounds easy when you have base and derived classes. The real problem is that all this stands for interface inheritance as well, and that is what makes Design by Contract messy in .NET.
Code Contracts library came with a powerful (and complicated) solution to contracts inheritance problem. You may refer to their documentation for details.

Q: Where can I get more instructions on using contracts?

A: The authoritative source of information on Design by Contract is Bertrand Meyer’s book Object-Oriented Software Construction. That is where Mr. Meyer has introduced and explained DbC theory in such terms that there is virtually nothing more to be added.

Q: Your idea of recovery is not technically sound... How this "separate" concern can work in multi-threaded environment?

A: Multithreading is another concern. It is not advisable to enforce thread safety on any given piece of code. It is better to implement thread safety as a separate class which wraps a non-safe component. In that way, code is much simpler and usually less error prone.

When things are put that way, it turns that contracts will remain in the component which doesn’t deal with threads and therefore it is 100% sound.
Take TPL as an example – threading was incorporated in Tasks and Task Managers, leaving logic intact. If you take a look at the way Code Contracts library is already handling async/await constructs, you will see that there is nothing missing in their solution.

Q: How practical it is to remove precondition from production code? What should your method returns in production if someone violate your preconditions for method?

A: Sometimes people decide to remove contracts checking from production code just for performance reasons. Note that contract clauses can also be viewed as part of a larger testing picture.
You can consider rigorous proofs as one level (which you run once – on paper), automated tests as another level (which you run sometimes), and then contract checks as the third safety valve (which you run every time the code executes). Now, it’s obvious that you can drop contract checks if you are pretty sure that automated tests have done the good job, or even that you have a formal proof that contract check will never fail.
In about one month from now a new course of mine will be published at Pluralsight – titled Writing Highly Maintainable Unit Tests. In that course I am explaining in great depth relation between formal proofs, unit tests and code contracts. For those of you having Pluralsight subscription, it might be useful to watch that course once it goes live.

Q: If we have checks/contracts on debug or staging, how would we not want that on production? Ex: checking to see if the students exists would have to be checked on production as well right?

A: This relates to previous question, where I have argued that code contracts are only one level of safety, though the most rigid one. If your code is tested well, then you don’t even have to put explicit contract checks into your code. However, I don’t think that any production code is tested enough to truly remove contract checks, because contract violation would then pass unnoticed and it could possibly damage data.
Therefore the conclusion. It pays to consider removing some of the costly contract checks. For example, remove quantifier which has O(N) complexity from methods with sub-O(N) complexity – like methods that have O(logN) or O(1) complexity. Leaving contract checks there would make the code observably slower. You probably don’t have to remove an O(N) contract check from a method which already has O(N) complexity or higher – like O(NlogN) or O(N^2). Contract check would then reduce performance by at most a constant factor, which we can survive.

Q: Wouldn't Debug.Assert be removed from Release build even without the #if DEBUG compiler directive?A: That is true in my example. I have included the conditional build just to show you the concept. But don’t forget that there is the Release version of assertions in .NET. Some people opt to assert in Release build as well. That makes sense in very sensitive code, where erroneous execution might cause unacceptable consequences.

Q: Is there any situation in which non-private custom Exceptions should be used?A: Exceptions remain valid solution in all exceptional situations. If you are writing a library, you would probably opt to throw a custom exception back to the caller, than to put a burden to the caller to have to use certain code contracts library (including your own).
However, inside your library, you could still be fine if you decide to institute contracts as the design strategy. That will at least save you from your own bugs, not related to any other code that might call your functions.
Other legitimate cases are already covered by the .NET Framework and other libraries and frameworks. Consider network exceptions as an example. Network communication is a typical example of the process which is full of exceptional cases, and that is where exceptions can be of great value.
Note, however, that there is one funny side of exceptions, which can give us a hint about when exceptions are a valid option. Although they are representing exceptional events, we always expect exceptions. We expect network exceptions when working with remote services. We expect database exceptions, like concurrent edit, deadlocks or timeouts. We expect IO exceptions when working with files. If you have a situation in which you actually do not expect anything exceptional to happen, than you will probably be better off if you avoid introducing an exception.

Q: Is it correct to say that catching or throwing exceptions in between the execution of a function is an anti-pattern?

A: Using exceptions to procure information or to alter control flow is definitely the anti-pattern. Just consider this case. You have caught a custom exception and you are ready to do what it says. Now – how do you know that the exception was thrown by the entity you expected? Exceptions can jump over activation frames. You are certainly not going to inspect call stack from the exception object to discover which function has thrown it.
This analysis can go much deeper than this. Maybe it is enough to think of catching specific exceptions as breaking encapsulation of the called code and knowing too much about its implementation. That is rigid and fragile and it breaks principles of OO programming - which is not the problem in itself, but then you won’t have any benefits of OO like polymorphic execution.

Q: Since preconditions have been rephrased as declarative code, can we use attributes to define contracts? Any frameworks for doing this?

A: PostSharp tool is defining contracts through use of attributes. However, keep in mind that attributes must be compile-time constant, and therefore you cannot pass just any expression as an attribute-based contract.
However, it is possible to cope with that (in theory). You could use static attribute to somehow point to another method which contains more elaborate contract verification code.

Q: Briefly, what was the purpose of the private ContractException?

A: Primary fear from throwing exceptions when precondition/postcondition is violated is that somebody might catch that exception and forget to rethrow it. In that way, operation might continue to run, even though we have just found sufficient reason to terminate it.
That is the reason why in Debug mode many developers opt to assert, i.e. to kill entire process, rather than throw an exception. But then, in production, killing the process is not the most user friendly behavior we could come up with, and for that reason we may decide to throw exceptions instead.
But then, we don’t want to throw an exception which can be explicitly listed in the catch block. We don’t want anyone to catch that exception for any reason. In order to catch a private exception, you must catch its base System.Exception instead. And it makes sense to expect that nobody will ever catch System.Exception deep inside code. That is the justification behind private exception class.

Q: If you want to access a resource such as database and you split it to two function: One to check whether there is a value, and another to fetch the value. This will use expensive resource twice, so maybe here return nullable value is ok?

A: Database access is not subject to Design by Contract. Database is to our code just another outer system and we are dealing with it with all precautions we would make in any other case. You have to catch exceptions coming out from the database because you have no idea what might go wrong there (like deadlocks or timeouts, or even plain failures such as corrupt index).

Then the question how to deal with a nonexistent value where it was expected becomes easier. You just query the database as it is. Then turn concrete data into concrete objects. And then those objects would be subject to Design by Contract. If an object requires a value, and you got nothing from the database, then don’t call the method and take a recovery course instead. Otherwise, if you try to invoke the method with null reference, just because database returned no rows, the called object would preserve right to explode.

 

About the speaker, Zoran Horvat

Matt Warren

After fifteen years in development and after leading a dozen of development teams, Zoran has turned to training, publishing and recording video courses for Pluralsight, eager to share practical experience with fellow programmers. Zoran is currently working as CEO and principal consultant at Coding Helmet Consultancy, a startup he has established to streamline in-house training and production of video courses. Zoran's blog.

 

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