Handling nulls in C# the right way

How to use the language-ext library to handle nulls in C# in an effective and safe manner

Working with the possibility of null in any language that allows it, sucks. It’s tedious, and there’s boilerplate code involved, it’s not fun and error prone. Luckily for those who write C#, there’s a very nice library called language-ext that among other things can help handling nulls in C#.

The Problem

Really? Do I need to talk about the problem with nulls in C#?

I guess everyone that has worked professionally with C# has already faced that kind of error. Many times in production, because someone forgot to handle it correctly.

The Design Fix

First, the easy part. Don’t return or pass null in your code, EVER!

If you’re returning null, you’re creating a source of bugs, and you are miscommunicating the intention of your function/method.

Second, if for any reason you are doing this:

var obj = new MyClass();
obj.SomeMethod(1, "das", null);

You’re clearly doing it wrong. If an argument is optional, you can create a method overload (as one simple solution).

Bottom line is: don’t return or pass null in your code, EVER!

In your code, you might feel tempted to return a null value, because you can’t return anything else or you think you can’t return anything else which is not true, you can always use the Null Object Pattern, after all, C# is an object-oriented language.

The not so simple solution

But life is not that simple, and most of the times we are interacting with third party libraries or legacy code that we can’t or won’t change for whatever reason, and that code or libraries may return null values.

This is one situation where the language-ext library can help and a lot.

So let’s see a real life scenario, like for instance if we were using the Entity Framework library to fetch some data.

In the following example, I have an action method from an MVC controller that is trying to fetch a movie from the database.

public ActionResult Details(int id)
{
    Movie movie = db.Movies.Find(id);
    if (movie == null)
    {
        return HttpNotFound();
    }
    return View(movie);
}

And what is the problem with that code?

Well, first we have to check if the movie object is null, and if it is, return a not found. And the problem is, by the signature of the method alone you can’t tell.

EF return movie

But go ahead and read the last phrase of the documentation in the above image. See, there’s some documentation to tell you that it may return a null value. Wouldn’t it be better if the compiler told us that?

With language-ext is very simple. First, to use it, all you have to do is add a nuget package to your project.

Next, you can declare a variable of type Option<T>.

Option<Movie> movie = db.Movies.Find(id);

The Option<T> has an implicit conversion from the null or the T type. So if the Find method returns null, it will be converted to an especial derivation of Option<Movie> a None.

An Option<T> will either contain a value of the type T (in this case a movie instance), or it will contain an especial type known as None.

And how None is better than null you might ask? Well, that will get clear once we start seeing how we interact with an instance of Option<T>.

The first thing you notice when working with an Option is that you can’t access its inner value, there’s no property Option<Movie>.Value or method Option<T>.GetValue().

Let’s say you want to print the title of the movie in the console if the movie is found and a message indicating that no movie was found otherwise.

Here’s how you can do that:

Option<Movie> movie = db.Movies.Find(id);
movie.Match(
    m => Console.WriteLine(m.Title), 
    () => Console.WriteLine("No movie was found")
);

To interact with a movie value, one of the options is to call the Match method. The match method expects two arguments one action to handle the case where there’s a movie value and another case where there’s no movie (a.k.a. a None).

Another way to handle that is by calling the methods Some or None. Like so:

Option<Movie> movie = db.Movies.Find(id);
movie
    .Some(m => Console.WriteLine(m.Title))
    .None(() => Console.WriteLine("No movie found"));
);

In this case, you might think that you can call only the Some method and only handle one case, but language-ext is smart enough and it will only execute after you call the None method and the None method is only available after calling the Some method.

Why is that good?

That’s good because we are using the compiler to our advantage. The application will only compile if the program provides a way to handle both cases. No more hidden bugs and unhandled edge cases. That’s why we use a static compiled language in the first place, isn’t it?

Let’s see another example, let’s say that after searching for a movie, I want only to return its title capitalized or a no movie found message. Well, to convert a value (a Movie) into another one (a string) we use the Map method, which works in the same way as the Match method.

Option<Movie> movie = db.Movies.Find(id);
Console.WriteLine(movie.Map(m => m.Title.ToUpper(), () => "No movie found"));

Again, we have to pass two arguments to the Map method, one for each case. And if we don’t it won’t compile.

Sure, there are times when we don’t have a case for handling the nulls, meaning there’s nothing to do with it. For that case, there’s the IfSome method.

Option<Movie> movie = db.Movies.Find(id);
movie.IfSome(m => Console.WriteLine(m.Title));

The difference, in this case, is that you know for sure that if that inline function is called, it means that the Option<T> has a value. One more time, using the compiler to our advantage.

The None value

So yeah, the None value is mostly a derivation of the Option<T> one that indicates that the Option doesn’t have a value. It is used mostly internally by the Option to decide if it can execute a branch or another of the code. But you can check it the Option is a Some or a None

Option<Movie> movie = db.Movies.Find(id);
if(movie.IsSome) 
{
    //
}

if(movie.IsNone)
{
    //
}

A better version of the above example

At the top I showed an example of an MVC action, so how would I rewrite it? On version and I’m pretty sure that by now you would be able to do, is this one:

public ActionResult Details(int id)
{
    Option<Movie> movie = db.Movies.Find(id);

    return movie
        .Match<ActionResult>(
            movie => View(movie),
            () => HttpNotFound());
}

But this is so common that I’d suggest you write a small method extension, something like this:

public static class DbSetExtensions
{
    public static Option<T> FindOptional<T>(this DbSet<T> src, int id) 
        where T : class
    {
        return src.Find(id);
    }
}

public class MovieController
{
    public ActionResult Details(int id)
    {
        return db.Movies.FindOptional(id)
            .Match<ActionResult>(
                movie => View(movie),
                () => HttpNotFound());
    }
}

Improving the design

So, I started justifying the use of language-ext’s Option when dealing with third party libraries or legacy code. But to be honest, all new code can benefit from a better design using the Option<T> type.

Let’s say you want to use the Repository pattern. When you’re creating methods such as GetById or Find as we’ve seen, you can always return an Option<T>

class MovieRepository
{
    public Option<Movie> GetById(int id)
    {
        // 
    }
}

This way, the users of you’re class will always have to handle both cases, and, you’ll never return null values because the null will be converted to an Option<Movie>.None. But the most important benefit is that your code will transmit the correct message just by reading the signature of the method.

You know that, just by reading public Option<Movie> GetById(int id) that this method might return a Movie, but there’s a chance that it might not.

Conclusion

Nulls are some of the most boring problems to handle in programming and one big source of bugs. This is definitely a better way to deal with it. The language-ext has other very interesting features worth exploring, the Option<T> monad (yes I said it, it’s a monad) is just one of them. I recommend checking it out.