Recoverable Errors with Result

Most errors aren’t serious enough to require the program to stop entirely. Sometimes, when a function fails, it’s for a reason that you can easily interpret and respond to. For example, if you try to open a file and that operation fails because the file doesn’t exist, you might want to create the file instead of terminating the process.

Recall from “Handling Potential Failure with the Result Type” in Chapter 2 that the Result enum is defined as having two variants, Ok and Err, as follows:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
enum Result<T, E> {
    Ok(T),
    Err(E),
}
#}

The T and E are generic type parameters: we’ll discuss generics in more detail in Chapter 10. What you need to know right now is that T represents the type of the value that will be returned in a success case within the Ok variant, and E represents the type of the error that will be returned in a failure case within the Err variant. Because Result has these generic type parameters, we can use the Result type and the functions that the standard library has defined on it in many different situations where the successful value and error value we want to return may differ.

Let’s call a function that returns a Result value because the function could fail. In Listing 9-3 we try to open a file:

Filename: src/main.rs

use std::fs::File;

fn main() {
    let f = File::open("hello.txt");
}

Listing 9-3: Opening a file

How do we know File::open returns a Result? We could look at the standard library API documentation, or we could ask the compiler! If we give f a type annotation that we know is not the return type of the function and then try to compile the code, the compiler will tell us that the types don’t match. The error message will then tell us what the type of f is. Let’s try it! We know that the return type of File::open isn’t of type u32, so let’s change the let f statement to this:

let f: u32 = File::open("hello.txt");

Attempting to compile now gives us the following output:

error[E0308]: mismatched types
 --> src/main.rs:4:18
  |
4 |     let f: u32 = File::open("hello.txt");
  |                  ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ expected u32, found enum
`std::result::Result`
  |
  = note: expected type `u32`
             found type `std::result::Result<std::fs::File, std::io::Error>`

This tells us the return type of the File::open function is a Result<T, E>. The generic parameter T has been filled in here with the type of the success value, std::fs::File, which is a file handle. The type of E used in the error value is std::io::Error.

This return type means the call to File::open might succeed and return a file handle that we can read from or write to. The function call also might fail: for example, the file might not exist, or we might not have permission to access the file. The File::open function needs to have a way to tell us whether it succeeded or failed and at the same time give us either the file handle or error information. This information is exactly what the Result enum conveys.

In the case where File::open succeeds, the value in the variable f will be an instance of Ok that contains a file handle. In the case where it fails, the value in f will be an instance of Err that contains more information about the kind of error that happened.

We need to add to the code in Listing 9-3 to take different actions depending on the value File::open returns. Listing 9-4 shows one way to handle the Result using a basic tool, the match expression that we discussed in Chapter 6.

Filename: src/main.rs

use std::fs::File;

fn main() {
    let f = File::open("hello.txt");

    let f = match f {
        Ok(file) => file,
        Err(error) => {
            panic!("There was a problem opening the file: {:?}", error)
        },
    };
}

Listing 9-4: Using a match expression to handle the Result variants that might be returned

Note that, like the Option enum, the Result enum and its variants have been brought into scope by the prelude, so we don’t need to specify Result:: before the Ok and Err variants in the match arms.

Here we tell Rust that when the result is Ok, return the inner file value out of the Ok variant, and we then assign that file handle value to the variable f. After the match, we can use the file handle for reading or writing.

The other arm of the match handles the case where we get an Err value from File::open. In this example, we’ve chosen to call the panic! macro. If there’s no file named hello.txt in our current directory and we run this code, we’ll see the following output from the panic! macro:

thread 'main' panicked at 'There was a problem opening the file: Error { repr:
Os { code: 2, message: "No such file or directory" } }', src/main.rs:9:12

As usual, this output tells us exactly what has gone wrong.

Matching on Different Errors

The code in Listing 9-4 will panic! no matter why File::open failed. What we want to do instead is take different actions for different failure reasons: if File::open failed because the file doesn’t exist, we want to create the file and return the handle to the new file. If File::open failed for any other reason—for example, because we didn’t have permission to open the file—we still want the code to panic! in the same way as it did in Listing 9-4. Look at Listing 9-5, which adds another arm to the match:

Filename: src/main.rs

use std::fs::File;
use std::io::ErrorKind;

fn main() {
    let f = File::open("hello.txt");

    let f = match f {
        Ok(file) => file,
        Err(error) => match error.kind() {
            ErrorKind::NotFound => match File::create("hello.txt") {
                Ok(fc) => fc,
                Err(e) => panic!("Tried to create file but there was a problem: {:?}", e),
            },
            other_error => panic!("There was a problem opening the file: {:?}", other_error),
        },
    };
}

Listing 9-5: Handling different kinds of errors in different ways

The type of the value that File::open returns inside the Err variant is io::Error, which is a struct provided by the standard library. This struct has a method kind that we can call to get an io::ErrorKind value. The enum io::ErrorKind is provided by the standard library and has variants representing the different kinds of errors that might result from an io operation. The variant we want to use is ErrorKind::NotFound, which indicates the file we’re trying to open doesn’t exist yet. So, we match on f, but we also then have an inner match on error.kind().

The condition we want to check in the match guard is whether the value returned by error.kind() is the NotFound variant of the ErrorKind enum. If it is, we try to create the file with File::create. However, because File::create could also fail, we need to add another inner match statement as well. When the file can’t be opened, a different error message will be printed. The last arm of the outer match stays the same so the program panics on any error besides the missing file error.

That’s a lot of match! match is very powerful, but also very much a primitive. In Chapter 13, we’ll learn about closures. The Result<T, E> type has many methods that accept a closure, and are implemented as match statements. A more seasoned Rustacean might write this:

use std::fs::File;
use std::io::ErrorKind;

fn main() {
    let f = File::open("hello.txt").map_err(|error| {
        if error.kind() == ErrorKind::NotFound {
            File::create("hello.txt").unwrap_or_else(|error| {
                panic!("Tried to create file but there was a problem: {:?}", error);
            })
        } else {
            panic!("There was a problem opening the file: {:?}", error);
        }
    });
}

Come back to this example after you’ve read Chapter 13, and look up what the map_err and unwrap_or_else methods do in the standard library documentation. There’s many more of these methods that can clean up huge nested matches when dealing with errors. We’ll be looking at some other strategies shortly!

Shortcuts for Panic on Error: unwrap and expect

Using match works well enough, but it can be a bit verbose and doesn’t always communicate intent well. The Result<T, E> type has many helper methods defined on it to do various tasks. One of those methods, called unwrap, is a shortcut method that is implemented just like the match statement we wrote in Listing 9-4. If the Result value is the Ok variant, unwrap will return the value inside the Ok. If the Result is the Err variant, unwrap will call the panic! macro for us. Here is an example of unwrap in action:

Filename: src/main.rs

use std::fs::File;

fn main() {
    let f = File::open("hello.txt").unwrap();
}

If we run this code without a hello.txt file, we’ll see an error message from the panic! call that the unwrap method makes:

thread 'main' panicked at 'called `Result::unwrap()` on an `Err` value: Error {
repr: Os { code: 2, message: "No such file or directory" } }',
src/libcore/result.rs:906:4

Another method, expect, which is similar to unwrap, lets us also choose the panic! error message. Using expect instead of unwrap and providing good error messages can convey your intent and make tracking down the source of a panic easier. The syntax of expect looks like this:

Filename: src/main.rs

use std::fs::File;

fn main() {
    let f = File::open("hello.txt").expect("Failed to open hello.txt");
}

We use expect in the same way as unwrap: to return the file handle or call the panic! macro. The error message used by expect in its call to panic! will be the parameter that we pass to expect, rather than the default panic! message that unwrap uses. Here’s what it looks like:

thread 'main' panicked at 'Failed to open hello.txt: Error { repr: Os { code:
2, message: "No such file or directory" } }', src/libcore/result.rs:906:4

Because this error message starts with the text we specified, Failed to open hello.txt, it will be easier to find where in the code this error message is coming from. If we use unwrap in multiple places, it can take more time to figure out exactly which unwrap is causing the panic because all unwrap calls that panic print the same message.

Propagating Errors

When you’re writing a function whose implementation calls something that might fail, instead of handling the error within this function, you can return the error to the calling code so that it can decide what to do. This is known as propagating the error and gives more control to the calling code, where there might be more information or logic that dictates how the error should be handled than what you have available in the context of your code.

For example, Listing 9-6 shows a function that reads a username from a file. If the file doesn’t exist or can’t be read, this function will return those errors to the code that called this function:

Filename: src/main.rs


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
use std::io;
use std::io::Read;
use std::fs::File;

fn read_username_from_file() -> Result<String, io::Error> {
    let f = File::open("hello.txt");

    let mut f = match f {
        Ok(file) => file,
        Err(e) => return Err(e),
    };

    let mut s = String::new();

    match f.read_to_string(&mut s) {
        Ok(_) => Ok(s),
        Err(e) => Err(e),
    }
}
#}

Listing 9-6: A function that returns errors to the calling code using match

This function can be written in a much shorter way, but we’re going to start by doing a lot of it manually in order to explore error handling; at the end, we’ll show the easy way. Let’s look at the return type of the function first: Result<String, io::Error>. This means the function is returning a value of the type Result<T, E> where the generic parameter T has been filled in with the concrete type String, and the generic type E has been filled in with the concrete type io::Error. If this function succeeds without any problems, the code that calls this function will receive an Ok value that holds a String—the username that this function read from the file. If this function encounters any problems, the code that calls this function will receive an Err value that holds an instance of io::Error that contains more information about what the problems were. We chose io::Error as the return type of this function because that happens to be the type of the error value returned from both of the operations we’re calling in this function’s body that might fail: the File::open function and the read_to_string method.

The body of the function starts by calling the File::open function. Then we handle the Result value returned with a match similar to the match in Listing 9-4, only instead of calling panic! in the Err case, we return early from this function and pass the error value from File::open back to the calling code as this function’s error value. If File::open succeeds, we store the file handle in the variable f and continue.

Then we create a new String in variable s and call the read_to_string method on the file handle in f to read the contents of the file into s. The read_to_string method also returns a Result because it might fail, even though File::open succeeded. So we need another match to handle that Result: if read_to_string succeeds, then our function has succeeded, and we return the username from the file that’s now in s wrapped in an Ok. If read_to_string fails, we return the error value in the same way that we returned the error value in the match that handled the return value of File::open. However, we don’t need to explicitly say return, because this is the last expression in the function.

The code that calls this code will then handle getting either an Ok value that contains a username or an Err value that contains an io::Error. We don’t know what the calling code will do with those values. If the calling code gets an Err value, it could call panic! and crash the program, use a default username, or look up the username from somewhere other than a file, for example. We don’t have enough information on what the calling code is actually trying to do, so we propagate all the success or error information upward for it to handle appropriately.

This pattern of propagating errors is so common in Rust that Rust provides the question mark operator ? to make this easier.

A Shortcut for Propagating Errors: the ? Operator

Listing 9-7 shows an implementation of read_username_from_file that has the same functionality as it had in Listing 9-6, but this implementation uses the question mark operator:

Filename: src/main.rs


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
use std::io;
use std::io::Read;
use std::fs::File;

fn read_username_from_file() -> Result<String, io::Error> {
    let mut f = File::open("hello.txt")?;
    let mut s = String::new();
    f.read_to_string(&mut s)?;
    Ok(s)
}
#}

Listing 9-7: A function that returns errors to the calling code using ?

The ? placed after a Result value is defined to work in almost the same way as the match expressions we defined to handle the Result values in Listing 9-6. If the value of the Result is an Ok, the value inside the Ok will get returned from this expression, and the program will continue. If the value is an Err, the Err will be returned from the whole function as if we had used the return keyword so the error value gets propagated to the calling code.

There is a difference between what the match expression from Listing 9-6 and ? do: error values taken by ? go through the from function, defined in the From trait in the standard library, which is used to convert errors from one type into another. When ? calls the from function, the error type received is converted into the error type defined in the return type of the current function. This is useful when a function returns one error type to represent all the ways a function might fail, even if parts might fail for many different reasons. As long as each error type implements the from function to define how to convert itself to the returned error type, ? takes care of the conversion automatically.

In the context of Listing 9-7, the ? at the end of the File::open call will return the value inside an Ok to the variable f. If an error occurs, ? will return early out of the whole function and give any Err value to the calling code. The same thing applies to the ? at the end of the read_to_string call.

The ? operator eliminates a lot of boilerplate and makes this function’s implementation simpler. We could even shorten this code further by chaining method calls immediately after the ?, as shown in Listing 9-8:

Filename: src/main.rs


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
use std::io;
use std::io::Read;
use std::fs::File;

fn read_username_from_file() -> Result<String, io::Error> {
    let mut s = String::new();

    File::open("hello.txt")?.read_to_string(&mut s)?;

    Ok(s)
}
#}

Listing 9-8: Chaining method calls after ?

We’ve moved the creation of the new String in s to the beginning of the function; that part hasn’t changed. Instead of creating a variable f, we’ve chained the call to read_to_string directly onto the result of File::open("hello.txt")?. We still have a ? at the end of the read_to_string call, and we still return an Ok value containing the username in s when both File::open and read_to_string succeed rather than returning errors. The functionality is again the same as in Listing 9-6 and Listing 9-7; this is just a different, more ergonomic way to write it.

Speaking of different ways to write this function, there’s a way to make this even shorter:

Filename: src/main.rs


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
use std::io;
use std::fs;

fn read_username_from_file() -> Result<String, io::Error> {
    fs::read_to_string("hello.txt")
}
#}

Listing 9-9: Using fs::read_to_string

Reading a file into a string is a fairly common operation, and so Rust provides a convenience function called fs::read_to_string that will open the file, create a new String, read the contents of the file, and put the contents into that String, and then return it. Of course, this doesn’t give us the opportunity to show off all of this error handling, so we did it the hard way at first.

The ? Operator Can Only Be Used in Functions That Return Result

The ? operator can only be used in functions that have a return type of Result, because it is defined to work in the same way as the match expression we defined in Listing 9-6. The part of the match that requires a return type of Result is return Err(e), so the return type of the function must be a Result to be compatible with this return.

Let’s look at what happens if we use ? in the main function, which you’ll recall has a return type of ():

use std::fs::File;

fn main() {
    let f = File::open("hello.txt")?;
}

When we compile this code, we get the following error message:

error[E0277]: the `?` operator can only be used in a function that returns `Result` or `Option` (or another type that implements `std::ops::Try`)
 --> src/main.rs:4:13
  |
4 |     let f = File::open("hello.txt")?;
  |             ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ cannot use the `?` operator in a function that returns `()`
  |
  = help: the trait `std::ops::Try` is not implemented for `()`
  = note: required by `std::ops::Try::from_error`

This error points out that we’re only allowed to use ? in a function that returns Result<T, E>. In functions that don’t return Result<T, E>, when you call other functions that return Result<T, E>, you’ll need to use a match or one of the Result<T, E> methods to handle the Result<T, E> instead of using ? to potentially propagate the error to the calling code.

However, the main function can return a Result<T, E>:

use std::error::Error;
use std::fs::File;

fn main() -> Result<(), Box<dyn Error>> {
    let f = File::open("hello.txt")?;

    Ok(())
}

The Box<dyn Error> is called a “trait object”, which we’ll talk about in Chapter 17. For now, you can read Box<dyn Error> to mean “any kind of error.”

Now that we’ve discussed the details of calling panic! or returning Result, let’s return to the topic of how to decide which is appropriate to use in which cases.