24 days of Rust - error_chain

If you have a background in Python, Java or C++, you're probably used to raising exceptions if something goes wrong. Rust doesn't have exceptions. The official Rust book has a comprehensive chapter on error handling, but the TL;DR is we should probably use the Result type. We can match on its variants to handle both the happy path and error cases in a very explicit, if not verbose, way. To address the verbosity, there was a try! macro that cut down on a lot of pattern matching boilerplate. And as of now we have an even simpler syntax - the ? operator. But when there are many error types, possibly coming from different libraries, making them compose well still requires a lot of code: From and Error implementations and such.

The error_chain crate was created to avoid all that remaining boilerplate. Let's see it in action!

Results and Errors and ErrorKinds, oh my!

We will build a simple command line utility called json2cron. It's going to read a JSON file with a schedule of commands to run, convert it into a format that cron understands and finally feed that into crontab. (One could argue that it's better to learn crontab syntax rather than write custom JSON, but I'm not going to discuss the usefulness of our tool here.)

But first let's start with adding error_chain to our project.

#![recursion_limit = "1024"]

extern crate error_chain;

mod errors {

use errors::*;

With only these few lines of code, we have now:

  • custom Error and ErrorKind types
  • a Result type wrapping the standard library Result with a fixed error type - the custom Error mentioned above
  • a ResultExt trait that adds a chain_err() method to standard library Results

Our main() function will follow the template recommended by Brian Anderson in the getting started with error_chain blog post.

fn main() {
    if let Err(ref e) = run() {
        println!("error: {}", e);
        for e in e.iter().skip(1) {
            println!("caused by: {}", e);
        if let Some(backtrace) = e.backtrace() {
            println!("backtrace: {:?}", backtrace);

This will print the entire error chain and possibly a backtrace of the original error. We're also good command line citizens and return with a non-zero exit code.

With main() out of the way, we can now focus on the run() function.

Different errors in json2cron

A lot of things can go wrong. File I/O, JSON parsing, even calling crontab can fail. And if Murphy is right, if anything can go wrong, it will. But we're prepared for that, we're using Rust! If you've seen the if programming languages were people cartoon, you'll remember Rust being portrayed as a knight with three shields and a witty message. I like to think of error_chain as a squire loyal to the Rust knight.

fn run() -> Result<()> {
    let schedule = load_schedule("data/schedule.json").chain_err(|| "failed to load schedule")?;
    if schedule.rules.is_empty() {
        bail!("the schedule is empty");
    update_crontab(&schedule).chain_err(|| "failed to update crontab")

We're doing three things in the run() function. First we need to load the schedule from a JSON file, using chain_err() to add some more context to any errors that load_schedule() may return. Next, we check business logic rules, such as requiring a non-empty schedule. The bail! macro does an early return, converting its argument into an Err with our custom error inside. Finally we try to update crontab with a new schedule.

The Schedule type is not important here. It's just a struct that is JSON-serializable (with serde) and implements the Display trait. You can find the entire source code for this example in the 24daysofrust repository.


extern crate serde_derive;
extern crate serde_json;
extern crate tempfile;

use std::fs::File;
use std::io::Write;
use std::path::Path;
use std::process::Command;

fn load_schedule<P: AsRef<Path>>(path: P) -> Result<Schedule> {
    let file = File::open(path).chain_err(|| "failed to open input file")?;
    serde_json::from_reader(&file).chain_err(|| "failed to read JSON")

fn update_crontab(schedule: &Schedule) -> Result<()> {
    let mut file =
        tempfile::NamedTempFile::new().chain_err(|| "failed to create a temporary file")?;
    let schedule_str = format!("{}", schedule);
    file.write_all(&schedule_str.into_bytes()[..]).chain_err(|| "failed to write schedule")?;
    let path = file.path().to_str().ok_or("temporary path is not UTF-8")?;
        .chain_err(|| "failed to run crontab command")?;

We're using several APIs here that return Results. Thanks to the ResultExt trait implementation generated by error_chain!, all of them have a chain_err() method, even though they may come from external crates. Note the ok_or("...")? call. Path::to_str() returns an Option and not a Result, but we can fix that with Option::ok_or(). And thanks to the ? operator we can still return immediately in case of an error.

Let's raise our shields, run the program a few times and see what happens. What if the JSON file is missing?

$ cargo run
error: failed to load schedule
caused by: failed to open input file
caused by: The system cannot find the file specified. (os error 2)

Let's fix that part by adding the file, but make it invalid JSON.

$ cargo run
error: failed to load schedule
caused by: failed to read JSON
caused by: expected `:` at line 2 column 11

We can see that the general message (failed to load schedule) didn't change, but the actual reason why it failed is different. Yay, error chaining!

And what if the crontab command fails for some reason?

$ cargo run
error: failed to update crontab
caused by: failed to run crontab command
caused by: The system cannot find the file specified. (os error 2)

The actual operating system error isn't really helpful here, but it boils down to the crontab command being unavailable on Windows.

Embrace Open Source

If you want to find real-life examples of how a Rust crate works (which is what I did with error_chain before writing this article), I have a tip for you. The page for each crate on crates.io has a Dependent crates link, which leads to a listing like this. From there it's just a matter of opening several browser tabs with repositories for interesting crates and using code search to find the APIs you want. A few examples:

Further reading

Photo by Chris Combe and shared under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. See https://www.flickr.com/photos/cosmicherb70/15670211956/