Although C++ has a sophisticated error handling mechanism, ie exceptions, in embedded domains they are usually disabled due to code size spent on jump table sizes with zero overhead exceptions or the runtime overhead in other implementations. And in projects they are enabled, their use is usually frowned upon due to the extreme costs of throwing an exception. It’s said that you should only throw an exception in exceptional situations, though what constitutes an exceptional situation is not well defined.

Anyway, due to these reasons, the C++ community has been in search of better error handling mechanisms. While some [1] are working on fixing exceptions with core language changes, some [2], [3] are working on going a different, purely library based route.

I personally like and use the expected objects as the return value from fallible functions. They encapsulate the reason for the failure if something fails, so it’s better for the caller to get such information.

However, there are a few pain points I have with it:

They don’t easily compose

If you have a function expected<T, foo_errors> foo(); and another expected<T, bar_errors> bar();, which calls foo, it’s difficult to return it’s error value directly. Either you have to put all the values of foo_errors to bar_errors, or simply discard that and put a single foo_failed in bar_errors. That’s not really nice. You could change bar to be expected<T, variant<foo_errors, bar_errors>> to make a better interface, but it just goes deeper and deeper and still doesn’t compose automatically, you have to keep track of the error types of every callee in a function.

However, I can live with this.

They don’t work in embedded

expected<float, int> foo() { return unexpected(42); }

auto r = foo();
std::cout << r.value() << '\n';


What does this program do?

According to the proposal, and the reference implementation, it throws an exception. But the reason I’ve picked this library is it was kind of promising to replace exceptions for me. Though the purpose of the paper isn’t exactly that, I think we might actually solve this.

The main problem it’s useless in embedded is that the expected::value function, which promises to return the internal value unconditionally. We want a tighter interface. For it to be usable in a mission critical domain, it has to enforce the error checking at compile time.

## tos::expected

This is a type we provide in our embedded operating system. It simply privately inherits from tl::expected and exposes a much more restricted interface. In short, there’s only safe functions for accessing the internal value:

1. with
2. get_or
3. operator std::optional<T>
4. force_get

The first one is simple, you call it with an expected, and pass 2 lambdas, one for when there’s a value, and one for when there’s an error:

with(fallible_func(), [](auto& val) {
... use val ...
}, [](auto& err){
... use err ...
});


It’s statically enforced that you can’t try to access the internal value if there’s none.

The second one is simply a refinement over with, it basically tries to get the internal value, and if there’s no value, it returns another value passed to the function:

auto v = get_or(fallible_func(), 705);


This doesn’t let you handle the error explicitly, but you still can’t access a non-existent value, enforced at compile time.

The third one is a little convenience conversion operator for times when you don’t care about the error at all and just want to get a std::optional. The operator is explicit, so you don’t get any unexpected (see the pun?) conversions. However, this is a bit dangerous as std::optional doesn’t enforce checking the error at compile time as we do.

Finally, force_get. Despite it’s name, it doesn’t really force anything. When you call this function, if there’s no value in the expected object, the kernel panics. So, no undefined behavior, but still not really a desirable thing to have in your systems.

However, the use case is definitely not calling it on random expecteds. The use case is to call this function only when you know there’s a value in the expected:

auto e = fallible_func();

if (!e) return;

auto& v = force_get(e);


Since you check the expected before accessing e, there’s no risk of a kernel panic.

However, as you might’ve guessed, we can’t enforce this at compile time.

Or can we?

Although it’s not completely standard, there’s a hack we use to enforce this. We can’t really enforce this at the compiler since the types don’t care about the control flow.

However, using some tricks, we can actually detect whether you’ve missed to check an error. The trick is to always inline the force_get call, and have a special hook to call when it fails:

decltype(auto) ALWAYS_INLINE force_get(ExpectedT&& e)
{
if (e)
{
return *e.m_internal;
}

tos_force_get_failed(nullptr);
}


expected::m_internal is a tl::expected. As you can see, we have an always inline function that repeats the check we’re supposed to do in the scope we should call it. This means that the compiler will see that we’re doing a redundant check, and drop the if that’s coming from force_get. Since it drops the if, the branch that calls tos_force_get_failed disappears completely. Therefore, we don’t get any runtime overhead for doing this.

We also use link time size optimizations such as garbage collecting unused symbols. In a program that always checks whether there’s a value before calling force_get, the tos_force_get_failed symbol must be unused, and thus should not appear in the final binary. Therefore, with a single nm | grep tos_force_get_failed, we can determine whether we’ve called force_get on an unknown expected.

Obviously, this won’t give you a lot of information regarding where you’ve forgot to check the expected, but it’s better to realize you’ve forgotten to check it before programming the device rather than after crashing at runtime.

## References

• [1]“ACCU talk video posted – Sutter’s Mill.” \urlhttps://herbsutter.com/2019/04/28/accu-talk-video-posted/.
• [2]“Outcome documentation.” \urlhttps://ned14.github.io/outcome/.
• [3]J. F. B. Vicente J. Botet Escribá, “Utility class to represent expected object.” \urlhttp://www.open-std.org/jtc1/sc22/wg21/docs/papers/2017/p0323r3.pdf.