Python Option Types

Ask not for whom the NULL tolls; it tolls for thee.

pythonprogramming Thursday September 17, 2015

NULL has, rightly, been called a “billion dollar mistake”. If that is so, then None is a hundred million dollar mistake, at least.

Forgetting, for the moment, about the numerous pitfalls of a C-style NULL, Python’s None has a very significant problem of its own. Of course, the problem is not None itself; the fact that the default return value of a function is None is (in my humble opinion, at least) fine; it’s just a marker that means “nothing to see here, move along”. The problem arises from values which might be None, or might be some other, useful thing.

APIs present values in a number of ways. A value might be exposed as the return value of a method, an attribute of an object, or an entry in a collection data structure such as a list or dictionary. If a value presented in an API might be None or it might be something else, every single client of that API needs to check the type of the value that it’s calling before doing anything.

Since it is rude to use a “simple suite” (a line of code like if x: y() with no newline after the colon), that means the minimum number of lines of code for interacting with your API is now 4: one for the if statement, one for the then clause, and one for the else clause.

Worse than the code-bloat required here, the default behavior, if your forget to do this checking, is that it works sometimes (like when you’re testing it), and that other times (like when you put it into production), you get an unhelpful exception like this:

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Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<your code>", line 1, in <module>
    value.method()
AttributeError: 'NoneType' object has no attribute 'method'

Of course NoneType doesn’t have an attribute called method, but why is value a NoneType? Science may never know.

In languages with static type declarations, there’s a concept of an Option type. Simply put, in a language with option types, the API declares its result value as “maybe something, maybe null”, and then if the caller fails to account for the “null” case, it is a compile-time error.

Python doesn’t have this kind of ahead-of-time checking though, so what are we to do? In order of my own personal preference, here are three strategies for getting rid of maybe-None-maybe-not data types in your Python code.

1: Just Say No

Some APIs - especially those that require building deeply complex nested trees of data structures - use None as a way to provide a convenient mechanism for leaving a space for a future value to be filled out. Using such an API sometimes looks like this:

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value = MyValue()
value.foo = 1
value.bar = 2
value.baz = 3
value.do_something()

In this case, the way to get rid of None is simple: just stop doing that. Instead of .foo having an implicit type of “int or None”, just make it always be int, like this:

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value = MyValue(
    foo=1, bar=2, baz=3
)
value.do_something()

Or, if do_something is the only method you’re going to call with this data structure, opt for the even simpler:

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do_something_with_value(foo=1, bar=2, baz=3)

If MyValue has dozens of fields that need to be initialized with different subsystems, so you actually want to pass around a partially-initialized value object, consider the Builder pattern, which would make this code look like the following:

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builder = MyValueBuilder()
foo = builder.with_foo(1)
bar = foo.with_bar(2)
baz = bar.with_baz(3)
value = baz.build()
value.do_something()

This acknowledges that the partially-constructed MyValueBuilder is a different type than MyValue, and, crucially, if you look at its API documentation, it does not misleadingly appear to support the do_something operation which in fact requires foo, bar, and baz all be initialized.

Wherever possible, just require values of the appropriate type be passed in in the first place, and don’t ever default to None.

2: Make The Library Handle The Different States, Not The Caller

Sometimes, None is a placeholder indicating an implicit state machine, where the states are “initialized” and “not initialized”.

For example, imagine an RPC Client which may or may not be connected. You might have an API you have to use like this:

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def ask_question(self):
    message = {"question":
               "what is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?"}
    if self.rpc_client.connection is None:
        self.outbound_messages.append(message)
        self.rpc_client.when_connected(self.flush_outbound_messages)
    else:
        self.rpc_client.send_message(message)

By leaking through the connection attribute, rpc_client is providing an incomplete abstraction and foisting off too much work to its callers. Instead, callers should just have to do this:

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def ask_question(self):
    message = {"question":
               "what is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?"}
    self.rpc_client.send_message(message)

Internally, rpc_client still has to maintain a private _connection attribute which may or may not be present, but by hiding this implementation detail, we centralize the complexity associated with managing that state in one place, rather than polluting every caller with it, which makes for much better API design.

Hopefully you agree that this is a good idea, but this is more what to do rather than how to do it, so here are two strategies for achieving “make the library do it”:

2a: Use Placeholder Implementations

However, rather than using None as the _connection attribute, rpc_client’s internal implementation could instead use a placeholder which provides the same interface. Let’s the expected interface of _connection in this case is just a send method that takes some bytes. We could initialize it initially with this:

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class NotConnectedConnection(object):
    def __init__(self):
        self._buffer = b""
    def send(self, data):
        self._buffer += b

This allows the code within rpc_client itself to blindly call self._connection.send whether it’s actually connected already or not; upon connection, it could un-buffer that data onto the ready connection.

2b: Use an Explicit State Machine

Sometimes, you actually have quite a few states you need to manage, and this starts looking like an ugly proliferation of lots of weird little flags; various values which may be True or False, or None or not-None.

In those cases it’s best to be clear about the fact that there are multiple states, and enumerating the valid transitions between them. Then, expose a method which always has the same signature and return type.

Using a state machine library like ClusterHQ’s “machinist” or my Automat can allow you to automate the process of checking all the states.

Automat, in particular, goes to great lengths to make your objects look like plain old Python objects. Providing an input is just calling a method on your object: my_state_machine.provide_an_input() and receiving an output is just examining its return value. So it’s possible to refactor your code away from having to check for None by using this library.

For example, the connection-handling example above could be dealt with in the RPC client using Automat like so:

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class RPCClient(object):
    _machine = MethodicalMachine()
    @_machine.state()
    def _connected(self):
        "We have a connection."
    @_machine.state()
    def _not_connected(self):
        "We have no connection."
    @_machine.input()
    def send_message(self, message):
        "Send a message now if we're connected, or later if not."
    @_machine.output()
    def _send_message_now(self, message):
        "Send a message immediately."
        # ...
    @_machine.output()
    def _send_message_later(self, message):
        "Enqueue a message for when we are connected."
        # ...
    @_machine.output()
    def _send_queued_messages(self, connection):
        "send all messages enqueued by _send_message_later"
        # ...
    @_machine.input()
    def connection_established(self, connection):
        "A connection was established."
    _connected.upon(send_message, enter=_connected, output=[_send_message_now])
    _not_connected.upon(send_message, enter=_connected,
                        output=[_send_message_later])
    _not_connected.upon(connection_established, enter=_connected,
                        output=[_send_queued_messages])

3: Make The Caller Account For All Cases With Callbacks

The absolute lowest-level way to deal with multiple possible states is to, instead of exposing an attribute that the caller has to retrieve and test, expose a function which takes multiple callbacks, one for each case. This way you can provide clear and immediate error feedback if the caller forgets to handle a case - meaning that they forgot to pass a callback. This is only really suitable if you can’t think of any other way to handle it, but it does at least provide a very clear expectation of the interface.

To re-use our connection-handling logic above, you might do something like this:

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def try_to_send(self):
    def connection_present(connection):
        connection.send_message(my_message)
    def connection_not_present():
        self.enqueue_message_for_later(my_message)
    self.rpc_client.with_connection(connection_present,
                                    connection_not_present)

Notice that while this is slightly awkward, it has the nice property that the connection_present callback receives the value that it needs, whereas the connection_not_present callback doesn’t receive anything, because there’s nothing for it to receive.

The Zeroth Strategy

Of course, the best strategy, if you can get away with it, may be the non-strategy: refuse the temptation to provide a maybe-None, just raise an exception when you are in a state where you can’t handle. If you intentionally raise a specific, meaningful exception type with a good error message, it will be a lot more pleasant to use your API than if return codes that the caller has to check for pop up all over the place, None or otherwise.

The Principle Of The Thing

The underlying principle here is the same: when designing an API, always provide a consistent interface to your callers. An API is 1 to N: you have 1 API implementation to N callers. As N→∞, it becomes more important that any task that needs performing frequently is performed on the “1” side of the equation, and that you don’t force callers to repeat the same error checking over and over again. None is just one form of this, but it is a particularly egregious form.