Exceptions - Modern C# Standards and Conventions

This article is part of a series describing Modern C# Standards and Conventions. A list of the other articles in this series can be found below.

Contents

If you feel there is something else that should be included here, please drop a comment below, or better yet send me a PR.

Exceptions

An exception is the .Net Framework representation for an error condition or unexpected behaviour. That is a pretty broad description but it’s basically what MSDN says on the subject.

There are two sides to Exceptions which will help us break down this article. They are Handling exceptions, and Throwing exceptions. As you will see by the length of this article, both are commonly misused and misunderstood, but I will try keep each section brief and to the point.

(Mis)Handling Exceptions

The essence of exception handling in C# (and many other languages) is the try/catch block, whereby you try to execute one or more lines of code, and can catch a model representation of an exception should one occur. We’ll primarily focus on the catch block and statement, however it’s worth noting that you should try to limit the size and extent of your try blocks. You should pay attention to the types of Exception that can be thrown, and only place the code that may throw an exception in said block.

It may be that you have a broader catch-all statement towards the application entry in order to log the condition and state of the application and perhaps provide an apology to the end-user. However, these broad catch blocks should not be littered throughout your code!

Exception Logic

Exceptions are exceptional, and we can but aim to do our best in the case one is thrown. What we should not do is make Exceptions an expectation.

There are two common examples of such behaviour, the first is Validation which we will examine later, but there is also something commonly referred to as Exception Logic. That is, we use an exception to represent conditional flow in the same way an if statement is used. For example:

public bool TryGetData(out int result)
{
  result = default(int);
  try
  {
    result = int.Parse(GetStringRepresentation());
    return true;
  }
  catch
  {
    return false;
  }
}

You see here that we attempt to parse some data. If we are unable to parse the data, an exception is thrown which we swallow, and return false. The golden path is of course that we are able to parse the data and return true. This is a pretty simple and obvious example, but is worth bearing in mind next time you write a try/catch.

Exceptions should not be used in place of an if statement. i.e.

public bool TryGetData(out int result)
{
  if (int.TryParse(GetStringRepresentation(), out result))
    return true;
  else
    return false;
}

I’m simply using this middle-step to demonstrate that there is an implicit if statement in play, but of course the code example can be slimmed down to:

public bool TryGetData(out int result)
{
  return int.TryParse(GetStringRepresentation(), out result);
}

There will be cases in which exception logic cannot be avoided, but always use it as a last resort!

On Error Resume Next

A somewhat bizarre statement I recall coming across back in my VB days, On Error Resume Next means to ignore an exception and continue processing. Oftentimes mixed with aforementioned Exception Logic, but also occasionally used in solitude. This is a big no-no, and includes try/catch blocks that have nothing but a TODO comment in the catch block.

try
{
  DoSomething();
}
catch
{
  // TODO : Should probably write this to a log or something
}

This is not handling an exception, it is attempting to ignore an exception. This can lead to all kinds of atrocities further down the line, which I’ll try not to run through my what-if-generator. Don’t swallow exceptions unless you really, really have to.

Catch Scope

The root most object in the exception hierarchy, is the Exception object itself, from which all other exceptions derive. The catch block allows us to filter our handling logic based upon inheritance, so that if we try to catch an ArgumentException for example, we would also catch instances of ArgumentNullException (unless it has a separate catch block), because ArgumentNullException inherits from ArgumentException.

As of C#6 there are additional filters we can apply to our catch blocks, but I’ll omit these for sake of brevity. The same concepts apply for C#6, if not more so due to the additional filtering the features allow.

So by catch scope, I mean “How many exceptions are within scope of your catch block”. This should be the smallest number your code can possibly get away with. For example, if I’m working with sockets, I should only catch SocketException or derivatives, never Exception.

This is made easier if you follow the advice above about keeping your try blocks as small as possible.

Throwing Exceptions

On the flip side of catching exceptions, developers also have the ability to throw exceptions. There are some commonly made mistakes and misunderstanding regarding the implications of throwing an exception, so let’s start with some basics.

Exception Stack

As you’ve probably seen, when an exception is thrown the runtime will collect information regarding the call stack at the point the exception is thrown, and add that information to the Exception. It can be very useful seeing which method and class throws an exception when diagnosing an issue, but equally vital can be seeing which methods were invoked in order to reach that location in code.

Unfortunately, it is possible for un-informed developers to accidentally drop that stack information, as shown here:

try
{
  DoSomething();
}
catch (SpecificException ex)
{
  _log.Error(ex);
  throw ex;
}

You see here that we are trying to log some information before bubbling the details up. However, in doing so, the stack information in the bubbled exception no longer points to the originating method, it points to your catch block! Please don’t do this unless you truly intend to - you may do this for security reasons to prevent some sensitive information being leaked.

The correct behaviour in 99.999% of cases is to use one of the following two techniques:

try
{
  DoSomething();
}
catch (SpecificException ex)
{
  _log.Error(ex);
  // by removing the `ex` on the throw, we preserve the stack.
  throw; 
}
catch (AnotherException innerEx)
{
  // we can preserve the stack of the original exception
  // by wrapping it up safely in another exception which can 
  // then be used to provide additional information.
  throw new OuterException("Some useful information", innerEx);
}

Validation

I’ve seen this hotly debated in the past, so feel like I should probably explain this as quickly and concisely as possible. Validation falls into two main categories. There is Code Validation which involves making sure your method arguments are within expected ranges for example, and there is User Input Validation. The former can and should use exceptions, the latter I do not believe should.

Ignoring that user input validation probably falls into the Exception Logic section above, Exceptions are not cheap. Whether thrown by the runtime or in user code, generating exceptions is no small task. If you’re ignoring the mis-use of exception logic, and the performance cost of doing so, consider this: We actively differentiate and segregate domain from view; why would we tie ourselves to the limitations, conditions and restrictions of an Exception, when user-input validation is clearly a case for View logic.

I know many will still argue in favour of Exceptions for validation, but this is an age-old argument to which I’ve already chosen sides because the argument “but it’s easier” is to me, unprofessional.

Next

The next article in this series is ref & out Keywords.

Written on August 4, 2015