Category Archives: Scala

Real Life Bug Prevention in Scala

Using Scala for the last 5 years to run eventsofa I’ve became a better programmer creating less bugs. Most of the code is Java++ Scala compared to more canonical functional Haskell-like Scala. So I’m interested how Scala used in this way prevents bugs that I would make in Java, Python or Ruby.

There have been two things that made a huge impact, Options and tagged types.

Lets explore both concepts with a small example:

Option vs. Null

How does one signal that there is no invoice or there is no user? In Java this is often done with Null or throwing some kind of InvoiceNotFoundException. With Nulls for error handling (Some Thoughts on Error Handling) code looks like this

Code with exceptions would look similar. This code is noisy and because developers are not forced to check for Null, sometimes developers do not test for error conditions signaled with Null. The result are hard to find NullPointerExceptions (I also blame you Java, for not printing more information in NPEs, take a look at Elm!)

In Scala one would use Option type to signal that there is no user, with returning Some(User) if a user was found and None if there wasn’t.

Code using Option does not need to check for the result type of the method call and split the code path depending on success and error as with Null. One code path is used for both the error and the success case. Error handling can be deferred to a later point and errors can be accumulated.

or

For cleaner syntax Scala provide for sugaring which expands to the code above, but is easier to read

In Scala it’s easy to compose Options compared to composing Nulls – which don’t compose. Also the code is easier to read with less noise, especially the for version is easy to understand even with more complex dependencies. Code that is easy to read and easy to understand results in less misunderstandings and less bugs. This way error handling is improved as developers do write more and better error handling code. From my experience with Scala the usage of Option instead of Null or Exceptions leads to a lot less lazyness bugs.

Tagged Types

The usage of String for accountNumber and userId is problematic.

For developers it’s hard to understand how these Strings look like or how to get or create a correct one. There might be different userIds in different String formats and it is easy to plug the wrong userId formatted String into a method. The same object might have different names in different method signatures like id, userId, or user. A little bit more nuanced the problems shines in

If you find this code, your first thought is “What is percentage?”. To represent 11.5% the Float value could be 11.5 or 0.115. This has biten me in the past when I’ve assumed 10% percent for a coupon was represented by 0.10. As a result millions of users got mails with coupons with a value 0.10% because the developer of that method represented 10% with 10.0.

Where this also rears its head is with money.

First Once and for all: Do not use double for money, second is this a Netto or Brutto amount? A bug I’ve seen several times is when variables representing netto amounts are plugged into methods expecting brutto amounts.

The classic approach would be to create abstract data types (ADTs), classes, case classes or data types classes (Value Objects).

The downside with this is (Never, never, never use String in Java (or at least less often :-)) and the reason developers don’t use this often enough: developers need to write more code plus Percentage is harder to understand, to reuse and to calculated with than Float. I can plug in Float into more methods than Percentage.

In Scala I’m using Tagged Types instead of case classes her

These have several benefits. It’s easy to see that Percentage is a Float, creation can be documented (10% represented by 0.10) and controlled plus the API is easier to read. All of this leads to less misunderstandings and from my experience therefor to less bugs.

Other examples are

Tagged types have made my code much better than before.

How about other Scala features to prevent bugs? As I am writing server side, request isolated code, immutable data structures didn’t help to prevent concurrency bugs in the last years. My only concurrency is fire and forget usage of actors for logging, database side effects, sending mails etc. Limited concurrency is used to get data from different data sources, neither of these use cases share data though.

Sealed traits have helped with checking if switch statements are exhaustive, especially in larger code bases this helps when adding new features. Case classes prevented hashcode bugs as they generate correct hashcode methods by themselves.

All in all my Scala code has a reduced level of bugs due to some Scala features compared to my code in Java, Ruby or Python. Any new language I am using would need to support both Option and tagged types.

Scala is Unfit for Serious Development

Updates: 1. I do love Scala as proven by this blog 2. I’m critical of the things I love 3. I’m ok with a language that is marketed as a research language, I’m not ok if this language markets itself as post functional, the next big thing and a Java successor.

Update 2: Community response as expected: Everything is fine, personal attacks, move on. How sad. Sorry, shouldn’t have written this as pk11 pointed out.

Scala is Unfit for Serious Development (where serious means you want to make money from it, compared to a hobby). Fact. Because it’s object oriented? No. Because it’s functional? No. Because of the complex type system? No. Because of the love of symbols over words? No. It’s unfit because the developers and the community are unwilling. Since one week I haven’t written one productive line of code, but have been stuck in 2.8 version hell. One little upgrade due to a bug in a library put me into this hell trying to get the code running again. The major points are:

  1. The developers are interested in language research and writing papers, not in making a language for real development
  2. The version hell that is 2.8 – calling this version 2.8.0 is deceptive. As Python (3000) or Ruby (2.0) this should have been a major version called 3.0
  3. The developers do not care about binary compatibility, deprecated, soft migration or API compatibility. Things are changed on a whim – from one RC to the next, and they change major parts of the language/libraries in point releases
  4. They remove and add classes just as they see fit
  5. The community loves cutting edge. Instead of fixing bugs they upgrade to all new released RCs – so have you. It’s called cutting edge for a reason: You’ll cut yourself. And it’s called bleeding edge because you will bleed.

In 15 years of Java I never had those problems. I could focus on writing production code.

The sad thing is: There is no alternative. No statically typed, functional, object oriented language with enough libraries to get going. Would love to use C# if it’s not from MS. Due to no other options I will stay with Scala (Clojure with static types would be heaven [edit] or with x:String instead of #^String x). A sad day.

Thanks to @pk11 and @debasishg for their help and patience.

From Martin Odersky – see comment below:

Wow, what a controversial posting, and what an avalanche of reposes. Let me just
clarify some points.

1. 2.8 is a difficult release, on the order of Python 3 vs the 2.x series. We are almost there.

2. RCs are by definition bleeding edge, and unfit for serious development. Wait until 2.8 final is out — I expect that to happen within the week.

3. “Scala’s developers are interested in language research and writing papers, not in making a language for real development.” That one you got totally wrong. In fact I am about to take a leave from university and found a startup to do commercial Scala support. I am taking some of the key Scala developers with me.

4. Binary compatibility: Yes, it’s a tricky issue. I have said in the past that we will address this issue for releases from 2.8 onwards. And that’s still the plan.