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Propagating the AppException

Jakob Jenkov
Last update: 2014-05-26

As mentioned in the text Propagating Exceptions there are two ways to propagate an exception:

  1. Passive propagation
  2. Active propagation

Passive propagation pretty much just means to let the exception bubble up, without doing anything except closing opened resources. Thus, I will not touch upon that much more in this text. If you have nothing to add to an exception that is thrown from a deeper layer of code, just let it bubble up. Active propagation should only be used, if you have actually something to add to the exception.

Active propagation means catching the exception, add information to it, and rethrow it. Active propagations is also called "exception enrichment" - since the exception is enriched with information on the way up the call stack.

Here is an example:

public void loadConfigFile(String configFile) throws AppException {

  try {

     byte[] file = loadFile(configFile);

     //do something with config file...

  } catch (AppException e) {

     ErrorInfo errorInfo = e.addInfo();

     errorInfo.setErrorId  ("ConfigFileLoad");

     errorInfo.setSeverity (ErrorInfo.SEVERITY_FATAL);

     errorInfo.setErrorDescription("Error loading config file: "
        + configFile);
     errorInfo.setErrorCorrection ("Stop application, " +
        "and check that the configuration file is present and valid");

     errorInfo.getParameters().put("configFile", configFile);

     throw e;


This example shows a loadConfigFile() method which calls the loadFile() method shown in the previous text, Throwing the AppException.

The called loadFile() method throws an exception if the file cannot be found. However, the loadFile() method does not know what kind of file is being loaded, and thus cannot know if a load error is a serious error or not. Therefore, the loadFile() method will just report the severity of the error as SEVERITY_ERROR.

The loadConfigFile() method however, knows that it is loading a very important configuration file. Therefore, if the underlying loadFile() throws an AppException, this exception is caught, and more information is added to it (a new ErrorInfo object is added). Here is what information is updated:

  • The errorId and errorContext are updated to reflect what was being done and where, when the exception occurred (ConfigFileLoad and ConfigFileLoader)
  • The severity is updated to SEVERITY_FATAL, since the configuration file must be present for the application to work.
  • The errorType is set to ERROR_TYPE_INTERNAL, since a missing or invalid configuration file is definately an internal application problem.
  • The errorDescription and errorCorrection are updated to tell what the error is, and what can be done about it. The loadConfigFile() method knows more about that, than the loadFile() method did, that threw the AppException originally.
  • The configFile parameter is added to the ErrorInfo parameters, just in case loadFile() forgets to add the name of the failed file to it's own ErrorInfo.

Finally, the original AppException is rethrown. Rethrowing the AppException does not destroy the original stack trace (at least not in Java). In Java, the stack trace is filled in when the exception is instantiated, not when it is thrown. It is probably the same in Scala, since Scala runs on the Java VM. I don't know how this works in C#.

After the AppException as been rethrown, it now contains 2 ErrorInfo objects internally. One from the loadFile() method, and one from the loadConfigFile() method. This is illustrated here:

An AppException with an ErrorInfo list internally.
An AppException with an ErrorInfo list internally.

When to Add an ErrorInfo Object

You should not add an ErrorInfo object at every single propagation layer, on the way up the call stack. Only add an ErrorInfo object if you have actually something new to say. Something to add to the original exception.

For instance, you may have more information about what was attempted when the exception occurred - what parameters were used etc. If loading of a file fails, and thus results in an exception, you may add information about what kind of file was attempted loaded. Was it a fatal configuration file? Or was it a user who typed in the wrong file name for a file they wanted to load in the application?

What to set in the ErrorInfo Object

When you actively propagate an exception, you do not need to fill in every field in the new ErrorInfo object added to the exception. It is only ncecessary to set the information that is actually new.

For instance, if you do not want to change the severity of the error, don't set it. Just leave it empty in the new ErrorInfo object. Likewise, if you are throwing an exception from some utility method, like loadFile(), you may not actually know what the proper error correction is. That may depend on what part of your application that called the method. In that case, just leave it empty (null).

Playing it Safe

Of course you can decide to play it safe, and set every field each time an exception is actively propagated. It is not wrong to do so. It just takes up some more code lines.

The advantage of setting every field every time is, that you do not depend on underlying fields to be set correctly.

For instance, if the loadFile() reported the severity as SEVERITY_FATAL already, you may decide not to set the severity in the loadConfigFile() method. However, if the loadFile() then one day is changed to set the severity to SEVERIY_ERROR, then the loadConfigFile() file is no longer correct. It should then set the SEVERITY_FATAL explicitly then.

By alway setting each field explicitly, you avoid these kinds of dependency errors.

The Common Cases

Most often you will have only a single ErrorInfo object in the list, all the way up the call stack. That is, you attempted some operation, and some part of it failed. The whole operation now has to be aborted. The point where the part operation fails, will set the severity and error type. If that point in the code can only be reached through one path in the code, you know that the error is always of the same severity and type.

On the way up the call stack you may add additional ErrorInfo objects, which only add additional parameters etc. to the exception. The error type and severity are often untouched.

Only if an exception can occur in a piece of code with multiple possible paths to the failing code, is it necessary to update the error type and severity, depending on what context the failing piece of code was called in.

For instance, a FileLoader component may be called both from a ConfigFileLoader, and a UserFileLoader component. If the file loading fails, it depends on which component that called it, how severe the error is, and what type it is.

Contrarily you may have an EmployeeDao which can insert Employee records in the database. You may know that this EmployeeDao.insert() is only ever called from one other component. Thus, it is always the same error type and severity if an exception occurs during insert. There is no need to add extra information to the original ErrorInfo object, except perhaps a few extra parameters further up the call stack, if relevant.

This may all sound a bit confusing, and it is, until you start using it in your own applications. Then, little by little it will be more and more clear to you how it works.

Jakob Jenkov

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