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Pony doesn’t feature exceptions as you might be familiar with them from languages like Python, Java, C++ et al. It does, however, provide a simple partial function mechanism to aid in error handling. Partial functions and the error keyword used to raise them look similar to exceptions in other languages but have some important semantic differences. Let’s take a look at how you work with Pony’s error and then how it differs from the exceptions you might be used to.

Raising and handling errors

An error is raised with the command error. At any point, the code may decide to declare an error has occurred. Code execution halts at that point, and the call chain is unwound until the nearest enclosing error handler is found. This is all checked at compile time so errors cannot cause the whole program to crash.

Error handlers are declared using the try-else syntax.

  if not callB() then error end

In the above code callA() will always be executed and so will callB(). If the result of callB() is true then we will proceed to callC() in the normal fashion and callD() will not then be executed.

However, if callB() returns false, then an error will be raised. At this point, execution will stop and the nearest enclosing error handler will be found and executed. In this example that is, our else block and so callD() will be executed.

In either case, execution will then carry on with whatever code comes after the try end.

Do I have to provide an error handler? No. The try block will handle any errors regardless. If you don’t provide an error handler then no error handling action will be taken - execution will simply continue after the try expression.

If you want to do something that might raise an error, but you don’t care if it does you can just put it in a try block without an else.

  // Do something that may raise an error

Is there anything my error handler has to do? No. If you provide an error handler then it must contain some code, but it is entirely up to you what it does.

What’s the resulting value of a try block? The result of a try block is the value of the last statement in the try block, or the value of the last statement in the else clause if an error was raised. If an error was raised and there was no else clause provided, the result value will be None.

Partial functions

Pony does not require that all errors are handled immediately as in our previous examples. Instead, functions can raise errors that are handled by whatever code calls them. These are called partial functions (this is a mathematical term meaning a function that does not have a defined result for all possible inputs, i.e. arguments). Partial functions must be marked as such in Pony with a ?, both in the function signature (after the return type) and at the call site (after the closing parentheses).

For example, a somewhat contrived version of the factorial function that accepts a signed integer will error if given a negative input. It’s only partially defined over its valid input type.

fun factorial(x: I32): I32 ? =>
  if x < 0 then error end
  if x == 0 then
    x * factorial(x - 1)?

Everywhere that an error can be generated in Pony (an error command, a call to a partial function, or certain built-in language constructs) must appear within a try block or a function that is marked as partial. This is checked at compile time, ensuring that an error cannot escape handling and crash the program.

Prior to Pony 0.16.0, call sites of partial functions were not required to be marked with a ?. This often led to confusion about the possibilities for control flow when reading code. Having every partial function call site clearly marked makes it very easy for the reader to immediately understand everywhere that a block of code may jump away to the nearest error handler, making the possible control flow paths more obvious and explicit.

Partial constructors and behaviours

Class constructors may also be marked as partial. If a class constructor raises an error then the construction is considered to have failed and the object under construction is discarded without ever being returned to the caller.

When an actor constructor is called the actor is created and a reference to it is returned immediately. However, the constructor code is executed asynchronously at some later time. If an actor constructor were to raise an error it would already be too late to report this to the caller. For this reason, constructors for actors may not be partial.

Behaviours are also executed asynchronously and so cannot be partial for the same reason.

Try-then blocks

In addition to an else error handler, a try command can have a then block. This is executed after the rest of the try, whether or not an error is raised or handled. Expanding our example from earlier:

  if not callB() then error end

The callE() will always be executed. If callB() returns true then the sequence executed is callA(), callB(), callC(), callE(). If callB() returns false then the sequence executed is callA(), callB(), callD(), callE().

Do I have to have an else error handler to have a then block? No. You can have a try-then block without an else if you like.

Will my then block really always be executed, even if I return inside the try? Yes, your then expression will always be executed when the try block is complete. The only way it won’t be is if the try never completes (due to an infinite loop), the machine is powered off, or the process is killed (and then, maybe).

With blocks

A with expression can be used to ensure disposal of an object when it is no longer needed. A common case is a database connection which needs to be closed after use to avoid resource leaks on the server. For example:

with obj = SomeObjectThatNeedsDisposing() do
  // use obj

obj.dispose() will be called whether the code inside the with block completes successfully or raises an error. To take part in a with expression, the object that needs resource clean-up must, therefore, provide a dispose() method:

class SomeObjectThatNeedsDisposing
  // constructor, other functions

  fun dispose() =>
    // release resources

Multiple objects can be set up for disposal:

with obj = SomeObjectThatNeedsDisposing(), other = SomeOtherDisposableObject() do
  // use obj and other

The value of a with expression is the value of the last expression in the block.

Language constructs that can raise errors

The only language construct that can raise an error, other than the error command or calling a partial method, is the as command. This converts the given value to the specified type if it can be. If it can’t then an error is raised. This means that the as command can only be used inside a try block or a partial method.

Comparison to exceptions in other languages

Pony errors behave very much the same as those in C++, Java, C#, Python, and Ruby. The key difference is that Pony errors do not have a type or instance associated with them. This makes them the same as C++ exceptions would be if a fixed literal was always thrown, e.g. throw 3;. This difference simplifies error handling for the programmer and allows for much better runtime error handling performance.

The else handler in a try expression is just like a catch(...) in C++, catch(Exception e) in Java or C#, except: in Python, or rescue in Ruby. Since exceptions do not have types there is no need for handlers to specify types or to have multiple handlers in a single try block.

The then block in a try expression is just like a finally in Java, C#, or Python and ensure in Ruby.

If required, error handlers can “reraise” by using the error command within the handler.