Considerations When Throwing Exceptions

A co-worker sent an email with some code he’s struggling with. He’s trying to avoid using try/catches to drive business logic.

The problem is not the try/catches it’s simply a symptom of the problem. Can you spot the problem? You’ll have to make some assumption, but I have faith you’ll come to the same conclusion I came too.

The code is below; I changed it to protect the innocent:

private Customer GetOrCreateCustomer(long customerTelephoneNumberOrCustomerId)
        {
           Customer customer;
            try
            {
                customer = this.DoMagic(customerMasterTelephoneNumberOrCustomerId);
            }
            catch (DataException)
            {
                try
                {
                    //TODO: I know this isn't ideal. Still thinking of a better way to do this. 
                    customer = this. GetCustomer(customerMasterTelephoneNumberOrCustomerId);
                }
                catch (DataException)
                {
                    customer = this.GetCustomerFromExternal(customerMasterTelephoneNumberOrCustomerId);
                    customer.CustomerId = this.CreateCustomer(customer);
                }
            }

            return customer;
        }

There is an underlining philosophy in this system that nulls are bad. In most cases where a null can be generated an exception is thrown. At first I did not see a problem with this. I saw it as an architecture decision, an aesthetic, but as I interface with the code, it’s apparent to me it’s an architectural mistake.

You might ask, why is throwing an exception in the case of nulls bad?

Below are some guidelines when considering throwing an exception:

  1. The fact that you have to check for the null to throw the exception should be a hint that it is not needed. It an expected outcome, thus not an exception.

  2. Throwing an exception is a resource intensive operation, one of the most resource intensive operations that can be done in .Net.

  3. An exception is just that, an exception. It’s an exception to the assumptions made in the code – when these assumptions are broken, the system must terminate, it cannot move on because the system is in an unknown state (i.e. the database is no longer available) this could also be an attack vector.

  4. Throwing an exception means you have to wrap the upstream call in a try/catch block to enforce business rules. A null value is a business opportunity to control the flow of the application. The action upon the null value should be done at the point in which a business decision must take place. For example, a customer variable is null, at the UI layer a message is shown to the user stating the customer with id ‘1234’ cannot be found.

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