Archive for August, 2008

What do you do when you’ve caught an exception?

Abort, Retry, Ignore

This article is a follow up to “Don’t Catch Exceptions“, which advocates that exceptions should (in general) be passed up to a “unit of work”, that is, a fairly coarse-grained activity which can reasonably be failed, retried or ignored. A unit of work could be:

  • an entire program, for a command-line script,
  • a single web request in a web application,
  • the delivery of an e-mail message
  • the handling of a single input record in a batch loading application,
  • rendering a single frame in a media player or a video game, or
  • an event handler in a GUI program

The code around the unit of work may look something like

[01] try {
[02]   DoUnitOfWork()
[03] } catch(Exception e) {
[04]    ... examine exception and decide what to do ...
[05] }

For the most part, the code inside DoUnitOfWork() and the functions it calls tries to throw exceptions upward rather than catch them.

To handle errors correctly, you need to answer a few questions, such as

  • Was this error caused by a corrupted application state?
  • Did this error cause the application state to be corrupted?
  • Was this error caused by invalid input?
  • What do we tell the user, the developers and the system administrator?
  • Could this operation succeed if it was retried?
  • Is there something else we could do?

Although it’s good to depend on existing exception hierarchies (at least you won’t introduce new problems), the way that exceptions are defined and thrown inside the work unit should help the code on line [04] make a decision about what to do — such practices are the subject of a future article, which subscribers to our RSS feed will be the first to read.

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Converting A Synchronous Program Into An Asynchronous Program


One of the challenges in writing programs in today’s RIA environments  (Javascript, Flex, Silverlight and GWT)  is expressing the flow of control between multiple asynchronous XHR calls.  A “one-click-one-XHR” policy is often best,  but you don’t always have control over your client-server protocols.  A program that’s simple to read as a synchronous program can become a tangle of subroutines when it’s broken up into a number of callback functions.  One answer is program translation:  to manually or automatically convert a synchronous program into an asynchronous program:  starting from the theoretical foundation,  this article talks about a few ways of doing that.

Thibaud Lopez Schneider sent me a link to an interesting paper he wrote, titled “Writing Effective Asynchronous XmlHttpRequests.” He presents an informal proof that you can take a program that uses synchronous function calls and common control structures such as if-else and do-while, and transform it a program that calls the functions asynchronously. In simple language, it gives a blueprint for implementing arbitrary control flow in code that uses asynchronous XmlHttpRequests.

In this article,  I work a simple example from Thibaud’s paper and talk about four software tools that automated the conversion of conventional control flows to asynchronous programming.  One tool,  the Windows Workflow Foundation, lets us compose long-running applications out of a collection of asynchronous Activity objects.  Another two tools are jwacs and Narrative Javascript,  open-source   translators that translated pseudo-blocking programs in a modified dialect of JavaScript into an asynchronous program in ordinary JavaScript that runs in your browser.

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