Return Types can Capture Async Processes and Failures


I’ve written about using the Result enum to return values or errors already. Result guards against errors in the process. There’s also a way to guard against latency, often called “Futures”. There exist well-crafted solutions in Swift already.

Lately, I’ve been watching interesting talks. Eric Meijer’s talks taught me that honest functions communicate what they do in their return types. Swift doesn’t have honest functions like Haskell does: side effects can always occur. But Swift is more honest than Objective-C: instead of throwing exceptions, you have to use something like the Result enum. To indicate a value may be nil, you have to wrap it in optionals. That’s a huge step forward.

Then I found GitHub repositories for working implementations of Result (boxing values with [Box][box]) and Deferred, which is an implementation of Futures.

Deferred return values return immediately, but they are just containers. They contain no real value until the process finishes and fills something in. As a client, you act on the real value contents using blocks:

let deferredResult: Deferred<Something> = performOperation()

deferredResult.upon { result: Something in
    println("got \(result)")

You can even use common monadic data transformation functions like map and bind to chain deferred results together:

// Producer fills in a String asynchronously
func readString() -> Deferred<String> {
        let deferredResult = Deferred<String>()
        // dispatch_async to fill deferredResult
        dispatch_async(dispatch_get_main_queue(), {
            let result = computeComplicatedResult()
        return deferredResult

// Consumer transforms the String to Int ...
let deferredInt: Deferred<Int?> = readString().map { $0.toInt() }

// ... and uses the resulting number when it's ready.
deferredInt.upon { println "next int: \($0 + 1)" }

If an async operation may fail, you can use Result and Deferred together.

A function guarding against latency, errors, and optionals, which indicate successful operations without a return value, may have a rather long signature:

func foo() -> Deferred<Result<Optional<Int>>>
func foo() -> Deferred<Result<Int?>>          // equivalent

You will now with absolute certainty what to expect from this function (except side-effects). The client code will not be blocked and you can handle errors in a convenient way.

Sounds like too much hassle? Well, think about it this way: the nested generics-based return type is a mouthful, but you don’t have to act on any of it until you know you want to. Until then, you can pass it around. Working with the Result enum is more complicated on the surface because you have to unwrap the value in case of success – but once you do, you can simply use the real value and its type to communicate with other objects.

Imagine the implications for writing highly responsive user interfaces: no more blocking the main thread while you wait for data! The same holds true for waiting for server responses, no matter if you talk to a remote web server or to a local XPC service.

These little gems will make your life easier. If you use them, you have to think differently in your code: you have to design your application to work asynchronously or to handle error cases gracefully.

At least now you will know what to do when.

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