Dealing With Errors in Go Projects

Dealing With Errors in Go Projects

Note: In this post I talk both about the purely technical reasons for doing certain things and some practices that have made debugging production systems easier for me. I’m still fairly new to Go and still learning so if you find any issues with my approach or have a better way to approach the problem, please leave a comment.

I come from a NodeJS background and my coding habits have been heavily influenced by the paradigms most used in Node. I started coding in Go quite recently and I immediately fell in love with the language. I love a lot of things about Go, but let’s not get into that right now or we’ll never get to the point.

Let’s talk, instead, of what caused me a lot of headache and frustration: errors.

I didn’t know what to do with the darned things. The idiomatic way in Go is to return errors as a second value and that’s what pretty much all libraries do. There is a panic-recover mechanism but I’ve found it to be used to recover from things like illegal memory access or nil pointer dereference (these shouldn’t happen if you code properly).

I was looking down the barrel of either handling and logging errors on the spot, or returning them up the chain of function calls. Neither sounded like a good idea. Why? Here’s why:

If you handle errors on the spot and log them you lose context of the steps that led to this error. You can log variables local to the function where the error occured, but you have no idea what path your program took to finally call this function and face this error.

If you return errors up the chain and then handle them at the topmost level, you end up with almost the same thing. You have the error and you know which entry point of your function eventually led to that error, but now you’ve lost context of the function where the error originated.

Neither of them is a good idea, especially not at 4 in the morning when your boss calls you up to debug some obscure bug made more obscure by insufficient information. You need to know where the error originated, which entry point led to this and what path it followed. And of course, the details of the error itself.

To work around these issues, I had this idea of annotating the error message at each stage. So say I have the following extremely contrived code:

package contrived

import(
    "thirdparty/lib"
    "errors"
)

func HandleRequest(req Request, res Response) {
    result, err := ControllerCall(req.Id)
    if err != nil {
        log(err.Error())
        res.BadResponse("...")
        return
    }
    
    res.GoodResponse("...")
}

func ControllerCall(id string) (*string, error) {
    result, err := DbCall(id)
    if err != nil {
        return nil, errors.New("controller failed to blah blah blah "+err.Error())
    }
    
    return result, nil
}

func DbCall(id string) (*string, error) {
    result, err := lib.DoSomething(id)
    if err != nil {
        return nil, errors.New("db call failed for id: "+id+" "+err.Error())
    }
    
    return result, nil
}

By concatenating the errors at each step I retain context. At the top level, when I log, I can see the calls that led to the error. This is better than not having much context but is extremely tedious in practice.

Then I came across this excellent blog post by Dave Cheney. And once you’ve read through it (seriously, read through it before continuing), you’ll see that he’s implemented the same idea I had but done it a gazillion times better. So I started perusing more things he’d written. The presentation link includes most of the content of the preceding articles.

After reading through all that and tinkering around for a while, I came up with a set of sensible guidelines for handling errors. Some of them are taken directly from Dave Cheney’s blog, some I added based on my own experiences.

Let’s Begin

  • Always check for errors if the function returns one. I know that sounds obvious but you’d be surprised at how much code I’ve seen that doesn’t do this.
  • Create custom error types for the errors you know you are gonna face (bad input, duplicate request, etc.). Return these, wrapped by the errors package, when you face them.
  • When dealing with errors returned from a library, wrap it with errors.Wrap or errors.Wrapf and return.
  • When dealing with errors returned from your own code, if:
    • it requires no further context, just return it.
    • if it requires some extra context (perhaps data points captured within that function), use Wrap or Wrapf.
  • Handle errors without further propagation at the entry point of your program (commands in a cli or handlers in a web server). Unwrap it with errors.Cause and test it:
    • If it is of the custom type you have defined for your project, handle accordingly (you might wanna log these at level Error or Warning since these were expected). If it’s an endpoint facing your users, you might wanna have a contract with the client on what codes to return and act accordingly (you might even end up returing a generic error message). If it is an internal endpoint (thinking microservices), you could return an appropriate status code and message while logging the same.
    • If it is of an unknown type, you might wanna log a fatal. This is an error that should never have happened. After that it’s up to you.

I use these guidelines to make sure I have enough information during debugging to figure what’s going wrong. I still have to do error != nil everywhere but I think that’s not as bad a thing as I first thought. Unlike exception propagation, this way of doing things makes me stop and think at each step if I wanna let the error propagate on its own or add more context.

Lastly

This approach works for me, for now. Is there a better way to do this? I don’t know. There’s still a lot for me to learn and I’m hoping that as I keep coding, I’ll face enough new challenges to keep me reaching for better ways to code.

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