Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Error handling in Upspin

The Upspin project uses a custom package,, to represent error conditions that arise inside the system. These errors satisfy the standard Go error interface, but are implemented using a custom type,, that has properties that have proven valuable to the project.

Here we will demonstrate how the package works and how it is used. The story holds lessons for the larger discussion of error handling in Go.


A few months into the project, it became clear we needed a consistent approach to error construction, presentation, and handling throughout the code. We decided to implement a custom errors package, and rolled one out in an afternoon. The details have changed a bit but the basic ideas behind the package have endured. These were:

  • To make it easy to build informative error messages.
  • To make errors easy to understand for users.
  • To make errors helpful as diagnostics for programmers.

As we developed experience with the package, some other motivations emerged. We'll talk about these below.

A tour of the package

The package is imported with the package name "errors", and so inside Upspin it takes over the role of Go's standard "errors" package.

We noticed that the elements that go into an error message in Upspin are all of different types: user names, path names, the kind of error (I/O, permission, etc.) and so on. This provided the starting point for the package, which would build on these different types to construct, represent, and report the errors that arise.

The center of the package is the Error type, the concrete representation of an Upspin error. It has several fields, any of which may be left unset:

  type Error struct {
      Path upspin.PathName
      User upspin.UserName
      Op  Op
      Kind Kind
      Err error

The Path and User fields denote the path and user affected by the operation. Note that these are both strings, but have distinct types in Upspin to clarify their usage and to allow the type system to catch certain classes of programming errors.

The Op field denotes the operation being performed. It is another string type and typically holds the name of the method or server function reporting the error: "client.Lookup", "dir/server.Glob", and so on.

The Kind field classifies the error as one of a set of standard conditions (Permission, IO, NotExist, and so on). It makes it easy to see a concise description of what sort of error occurred, but also provides a hook for interfacing to other systems. For instance, upspinfs uses the Kind field as the key to translation from Upspin errors to Unix error constants such as EPERM and EIO.

The last field, Err, may hold another error value. Often this is an error from another system, such as a file system error from the os package or a network error from the net package. It may also be another value, creating a kind of error trace that we will discuss later.

Constructing an Error

To facilitate error construction, the package provides a function named E, which is short and easy to type.

  func E(args ...interface{}) error

As the doc comment for the function says, E builds an error value from its arguments. The type of each argument determines its meaning. The idea is to look at the types of the arguments and assign each argument to the field of the corresponding type in the constructed Error struct. There is an obvious correspondence: a PathName goes to Error.Path, a UserName to Error.User, and so on.

Let's look at an example. In typical use, calls to errors.E will arise multiple times within a method, so we define a constant, conventionally called op, that will be passed to all E calls within the method:

  func (s *Server) Delete(ref upspin.Reference) error {
    const op errors.Op = "server.Delete"

Then through the method we use the constant to prefix each call (although the actual ordering of arguments is irrelevant, by convention op goes first):

  if err := authorize(user); err != nil {
    return errors.E(op, user, errors.Permission, err)

The String method for E will format this neatly:

  server.Delete: user permission denied: user not authorized

If the errors nest to multiple levels, redundant fields are suppressed and the nesting is formatted with indentation:

  client.Lookup: item does not exist:

Notice that there are multiple operations mentioned in this error message (client.Lookup, dir/remote, dir/server). We'll discuss this multiplicity in a later section.

As another example, sometimes the error is special and is most clearly described at the call site by a plain string. To make this work in the obvious way, the constructor promotes arguments of literal type string to a Go error type through a mechanism similar to the standard Go function errors.New. Thus one can write:

   errors.E(op, "unexpected failure")


   errors.E(op, fmt.Sprintf("could not succeed after %d tries", nTries))

and have the string be assigned to the Err field of the resulting Err type. This is a natural and easy way to build special-case errors.

Errors across the wire

Upspin is a distributed system and so it is critical that communications between Upspin servers preserve the structure of errors. To accomplish this we made Upspin's RPCs aware of these error types, using the errors package's MarshalError and UnmarshalError functions to transcode errors across a network connection. These functions make sure that a client will see all the details that the server provided when it constructed the error.

Consider this error report:

  client.Lookup: item does not exist:
         fetching 404 Not Found

This is represented by four nested errors.E values.

Reading from the bottom up, the innermost is from the package (responsible for taking to remote storage servers). The error indicates that there was a problem fetching an object from storage. That error is constructed with something like this, wrapping an underlying error from the cloud storage provider:

  const op errors.Op = `store/remote("").Get`
  var resp *http.Response
  return errors.E(op, errors.Sprintf("fetching %s: %s", url, resp.Status))

The next error is from the directory server (package, our directory server reference implementation), which indicates that the directory server was trying to perform a Lookup when the error occurred. That error is constructed like this:

  const op errors.Op = "dir/server.Lookup"
  return errors.E(op, pathName, errors.NotExist, err)

This is the first layer at which a Kind (errors.NotExist) is added.

The Lookup error value is passed across the network (marshaled and unmarshaled along the way), and then the package (responsible for talking to remote directory servers) wraps it with its own call to errors.E:

  const op errors.Op = "dir/remote.Lookup"
  return errors.E(op, pathName, err)

There is no Kind set in this call, so the inner Kind (errors.NotExist) is lifted up during the construction of this Error struct.

Finally, the package wraps the error once more:

  const op errors.Op = "client.Lookup"
  return errors.E(op, pathName, err)

Preserving the structure of the server's error permits the client to know programmatically that this is a "not exist" error and that the item in question is "". The error's Error method can take advantage of this structure to suppress redundant fields. If the server error were merely an opaque string we would see the path name multiple times in the output.

The critical details (the PathName and Kind) are pulled to the top of the error so they are more prominent in the display. The hope is that when seen by a user the first line of the error is usually all that's needed; the details below that are more useful when further diagnosis is required.

Stepping back and looking at the error display as a unit, we can trace the path the error took from its creation back through various network-connected components to the client. The full picture might help the user but is sure to help the system implementer if the problem is unexpected or unusual.

Users and implementers

There is a tension between making errors helpful and concise for the end user versus making them expansive and analytic for the implementer. Too often the implementer wins and the errors are overly verbose, to the point of including stack traces or other overwhelming detail.

Upspin's errors are an attempt to serve both the users and the implementers. The reported errors are reasonably concise, concentrating on information the user should find helpful. But they also contain internal details such as method names an implementer might find diagnostic but not in a way that overwhelms the user. In practice we find that the tradeoff has worked well.

In contrast, a stack trace-like error is worse in both respects. The user does not have the context to understand the stack trace, and an implementer shown a stack trace is denied the information that could be presented if the server-side error was passed to the client. This is why Upspin error nesting behaves as an operational trace, showing the path through the elements of the system, rather than as an execution trace, showing the path through the code. The distinction is vital.

For those cases where stack traces would be helpful, we allow the errors package to be built with the "debug" tag, which enables them. This works fine, but it's worth noting that we have almost never used this feature. Instead the default behavior of the package serves well enough that the overhead and ugliness of stack traces are obviated.

Matching errors

An unexpected benefit of Upspin's custom error handling was the ease with which we could write error-dependent tests, as well as write error-sensitive code outside of tests. Two functions in the errors package enable these uses.

The first is a function, called errors.Is, that returns a boolean reporting whether the argument is of type *errors.Error and, if so, that its Kind field has the specified value.

  func Is(kind Kind, err error) bool

This function makes it straightforward for code to change behavior depending on the error condition, such as in the face of a permission error as opposed to a network error:

  if errors.Is(errors.Permission, err) { ... }

The other function, Match, is useful in tests. It was created after we had been using the errors package for a while and found too many of our tests were sensitive to irrelevant details of the errors. For instance, a test might only need to check that there was a permission error opening a particular file, but was sensitive to the exact formatting of the error message.

After fixing a number of brittle tests like this, we responded by writing a function to report whether the received error, err, matches an error template:

  func Match(template, err error) bool

The function checks whether the error is of type *errors.Error, and if so, whether the fields within equal those within the template. The key is that it checks only those fields that are non-zero in the template, ignoring the rest.

For our example described above, one can write:

  if errors.Match(errors.E(errors.Permission, pathName), err) { … }

and be unaffected by whatever other properties the error has. We use Match countless times throughout our tests; it has been a boon.


There is a lot of discussion in the Go community about how to handle errors and it's important to realize that there is no single answer. No one package or approach can do what's needed for every program. As was pointed out elsewhere, errors are just values and can be programmed in different ways to suit different situations.

The Upspin errors package has worked out well for us. We do not advocate that it is the right answer for another system, or even that the approach is right for anyone else. But the package worked well within Upspin and taught us some general lessons worth recording.

The Upspin errors package is modest in size and scope. The original implementation was built in a few hours and the basic design has endured, with a few refinements, since then. A custom error package for another project should be just as easy to create. The specific needs of any given environment should be easy to apply. Don't be afraid to try; just think a bit first and be willing to experiment. What's out there now can surely be improved upon when the details of your own project are considered.

We made sure the error constructor was both easy to use and easy to read. If it were not, programmers would resist using it.

The behavior of the errors package is built in part upon the types intrinsic to the underlying system. This is a small but important point: No general errors package could do what ours does. It truly is a custom package.

Moreover, the use of types to discriminate arguments allowed error construction to be idiomatic and fluid. This was made possible by a combination of the existing types in the system (PathName, UserName) and new ones created for the purpose (Op, Kind). Helper types made error construction clean, safe, and easy. It took a little more work—we had to create the types and use them everywhere, such as through the "const op" idiom—but the payoff was worthwhile.

Finally, we would like to stress the lack of stack traces as part of the error model in Upspin. Instead, the errors package reports the sequence of events, often across the network, that resulted in a problem being delivered to the client. Carefully constructed errors that thread through the operations in the system can be more concise, more descriptive, and more helpful than a simple stack trace.

Errors are for users, not just for programmers.

by Rob Pike and Andrew Gerrand