Exceptions Are Shared Secrets

December 3, 2012

Exceptions are commonly criticized as being the “goto’s” of modern programming languages.  Raising an exception transfers control to an unknown destination, it is said, and this is a bad thing on engineering grounds.  I disagree.  It is perfectly predictable where a raised exception will be handled, provided that exceptions are done properly, which, unfortunately, is not always the case.

The crucial point that exception values are shared secrets. Let us distinguish two parties, the raiser of the exception, and the handler of it. The fundamental idea of exceptions is to transfer a value from the raiser to the handler without the possibility of interception by another party. While the language of secrecy seems appropriately evocative, I hasten to add that I am not here concerned with “attackers” or suchlike, but merely with the difficulties of ensuring modular composition of programs from components. In such a setting the “attacker” is yourself, who is not malicious, but who is fallible.

By raising an exception the raiser is “contacting” a handler with a message. The raiser wishes to limit which components of a program may intercept that message. More precisely, the raiser wishes to ensure that only certain previously agreed-upon components may handle that exception, perhaps only one. This property should remain stable under extension to the program or composition with any other component. It should not be possible for an innocent third party to accidentally intercept a message that was not intended for it.

Achieving this requires a secrecy mechanism that allows the raiser and the handler(s) to agree upon their cooperation. This is accomplished by dynamic classification, exactly as it is done properly in Standard ML (but not O’Caml). The idea is that the raiser has access to a dynamically generated constructor for exception values, and any handler has access to the corresponding dynamically generated matcher for exception values. This means that the handler, and only the handler, can decode the message sent by the raiser; no other party can do anything with it other than pass it along unexamined. It is “perfectly encrypted” and cannot be deciphered by any unintended component.

The usual exception mechanisms, as distinct from exception values, allow for “wild-card handlers”, which means that an exception can be intercepted by a third party. This means that the raiser cannot ensure that the handler actually receives the message, but it can ensure, using dynamic classification, that only a legitimate handler may decipher it. Decades of experience with Standard ML shows that this is a very useful thing indeed, and has application far beyond just the simple example considered here. For full details, see my forthcoming book, for a full discussion of dynamic classification and its role for ensuring integrity and confidentiality in a program. Dynamic classification is not just for “security”, but is rather a good tool for everyday programming.

Haskell is one language that does not get exceptions right.  Allocating an exception incurs a storage effect, and so would have to be confined to the IO monad in Haskell.  But this would destroy the utility of exceptions in pure code.  The result is an exception mechanism that is arguably broken and that does not provide the guarantees that make exceptions a perfectly pleasant and useful way to write code.

Update: Reworked last paragraph to clarify the point I am making; the previous formulation appears to have invited misinterpretation.

Update: This account of exceptions also makes clear why the perennial suggestion to put exception-raising information into types makes no sense to me. I will write more about this in a future post, but meanwhile contemplate that a computation may raise an exception that is not even in principle nameable in the type. That is, it is not conservativity that’s at issue, it’s the very idea.

Update: Wordsmithing, removal of irrelevant remarks to focus on the main point about dynamic exceptions.

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Practical Foundations for Programming Languages Is Out

December 3, 2012

Practical Foundations for Programming Languages, published by Cambridge University Press, is now available in print! It can be ordered from the usual sources, and maybe some unusual ones as well. If you order directly from Cambridge using this link, you will get a 20% discount on the cover price (pass it on).

Since going to press I have, inevitably, been informed of some (so far minor) errors that are corrected in the online edition. These corrections will make their way into the second printing. If you see something fishy-looking, compare it with the online edition first to see whether I may have already corrected the mistake. Otherwise, send your comments to me.

By the way, the cover artwork is by Scott Draves, a former student in my group, who is now a professional artist as well as a researcher at Google in NYC. Thanks, Scott!

Update: The very first author’s copy hit my desk today!