Sunday, December 09, 2012

Error Wrangling

Last week the OTN SQL and PL/SQL Forum hosted of those threads which generate heat and insight without coming to a firm conclusion: this one was titled WHEN OTHERS is a bug. Eventually Rahul, the OP, complained that he was as confused as ever. The problem is, his question asked for a proof of Tom Kyte's opinion that, well, that WHEN OTHERS is a bug. We can't proof an opinion, even an opinion from a well-respected source like Tom. All we can do is weigh in with our own opinions on the topic.

One of the most interesting things in the thread was Steve Cosner's observations on designing code "to be called by non-database, and ... non-Oracle software (Example: Oracle Forms, or a web process)". He uses WHEN OTHERS to produce a return code. Now return codes are often cited as an example of bad practice. Return codes disguise the error and the allow the calling program to proceed as though nothing had gone wrong in the called unit. Exceptions, on the other hand, cannot be ignored.

But Steve goes on to make a crucial point: we must make allowances for how our code will be called. For instance, one time I was writing PL/SQL packages for an E-Business Suite application and I was doing my usual thing, coding procedures which raised exceptions on failure. This was fine for the low level routines which were only used in other PL/SQL routines. But the procedures which ran as concurrent jobs had to finish cleanly, no matter what happened inside; each passed a return code to the concurrent job manager, and logged the details. Similarly the procedures used by Forms passed back an outcome message, prefixed with "Success" or"Error" as appropriate.

This rankled at first but it is undoubtedly true that exceptions make demands on the calling program. Although the demands are not as high in PL/SQL as in say C++ or Java, raising exceptions still changes how the calling function must be coded. We have to work with the grain of the existing code base when introducing new functionality. (Interestingly, Google has a fiat against exceptions in its C++ code base, and developed its Go language to support return codes as the default error handling mechanism. Find out more.)

The point is APIs are a contract. On its side the called program can enforce rules about how it is called - number and validity of input parameters, return values. But it cannot impose rules about what the calling program does with the outcome. So there's no point in exposing a function externally if its behaviour is unacceptable to the program which wants to call it. When the calling program wants to use return codes there's little point in raising exceptions instead. Sure the coder writing the calling program can ignore the value in the return code, but that is why we need code reviews.

So, is WHEN OTHERS a bug? The answer is, as so often, it depends.

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