Strategic Scala Style: Practical Type Safety

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Strategic Scala Style: Practical Type Safety

Posted 2016-04-30

This post explores how you can make use of the type-safety of the Scala programming language to help catch the mistakes you make when writing Scala programs.

While Scala is has a compiler that can help you catch errors, and many call it "type-safe", there is in fact a whole range of ways you can write Scala that provide greater- or lesser- amounts of safety. We will discuss various techniques that you can use to shift your code to the "safer" side of the spectrum. We'll consciously ignore the theoretical side of things with it's absolute proofs and logic, and focus on the practical side of how to make the Scala compiler catch more of your dumb bugs.

This is the third in the Strategic Scala Style series (after Principle of Least Power and Conciseness & Names).

About the Author: Haoyi is a software engineer, and the author of many open-source Scala tools such as the Ammonite REPL and the Mill Build Tool. If you enjoyed the contents on this blog, you may also enjoy Haoyi's book Hands-on Scala Programming

There are many facets to the term Type Safety. You could spend an entire career studying the theoretical foundations for the type-systems of the Haskell or Scala programming languages, and could spend another entire career studying the implementation of types inside the Haskell runtime or the Java Virtual Machine. We will ignore both those fields.

Instead, this post explores the practical side of how to use the Scala language in a "type safe" way, where the compiler's knowledge of Types lets you mitigate the consequences of your mistakes, often turning them into straightforward-to-fix-during-development compilation errors, thus provides Safety in developing your code. An experienced Scala programmer will likely find everything in this post "basic" or "obvious", but anyone less experienced will hopefully find these useful techniques to add to the toolbox they use for solving problems in Scala.

Each of the techniques described here will have trade-offs: added verbosity, complexity, extra class files, poorer runtimes performance. We'll ignore those trade-offs for this post, as usually they're pretty clear. This post will only enumerate the possibilities, and not go into deep discussions on whether the trade-offs are worth it. Furthermore, this post only applies to Vanilla Scala, and not extensive third-party libraries like Scalaz or Cats or Shapeless. Those libraries would have their own idioms or techniques that deserve their own post, if someone with expertise is willing to write it up!

Like the other two posts in this series, hopefully none of the guidelines will be too controversial, and I aim to document what people experienced with the Scala language may count as "common sense". Hopefully this post will lay a foundation of common principles that people share and basic techniques to be aware of, which you can combine with your own project-specific guidelines, preference and judgement when designing your Scala programs.


Before we discuss concrete techniques and tradeoffs around type-safety, it makes sense to step back for a moment and ask what this is all about. What is a type? What does it mean to be "safe"?

What is a Type?

A Type is something you know about a value in our program at compile time.

Basically every programming language has a different type-system. Some have generics, some have reified generics. Some, like Java, have reified types, where the "type" of a value always corresponds to a class or interface can be checked at runtime. Others, like C, don't. Dynamic languages like Python do not have static types, and so a type only exists at runtime.

The Scala language, that this post is about, has its own, relatively complex, ad-hoc type-system. There are also some attempts to formalize it, e.g. in the Dotty project. This post will ignore all of that.

For this post, I will be using the definition above. A Type is something you know about a value in your program at compile-time. For example:

  • Something which is an Int definitely contains a 32 bit integer from -2147483648 to 2147483647
  • Something which is a Option[T] definitely contains either a Some[T], or None
  • Something which is a CharSequence definitely contains Chars and lets me call .length, .chatAt, and .subsequence methods, but i don't know whether it is a String, a StringBuffer, or something else. You don't know if it's mutable or immutable, how it stores its contents, or what the performance characteristics are.
  • Something which is a String also has characters, but you know it's immutable, stores its contents in an internal array of characters, and has O(1) lookup to look up Chars by index

The type of a value tells you both what something can be, and what it cannot be. A Option[String] can be Some or None, but it cannot be a 32 bit integer! In Scala, this is not something you need to check in your code: it is something you can rely on being correct, with the compiler checking for you during compilation.

This knowledge is exactly what comprises the "Type" of a value.

What is a Type not?

A Class

By this definition, a type is not a class. Yes, in Java, and Scala on the JVM, all types are represented by classes (or interfaces). This does not hold true in e.g. Scala.js, where you can define types to be synthetic (traits extending js.Any) with no remnants left behind to inspect after everything is compiled, or in other programming languages.

While the types being backed by classes is a true fact, it is an implementation detail that is mostly irrelevant to this post.

The Scala Type System

The idea of a "Type" we discuss here is vague, broad, and applies to more languages than just Scala. Scala's own type system is complex, with classes, abstract types, refinement types, traits, type-bounds, context bounds, and other even more obscure things.

From the perspective of this post, these all are details that serve the same purpose: to let you describe to the compiler things you know about the values in your program, and let it check that what you're doing is consistent with what you said you wanted to do.

What is Safety?

Safety means that when you make a mistakes, the consequences are minor.

There are probably even more definitions of Safety than there are of Types. The above definition is broader than types: it applies to security practices, isolation, robustness & resilience in distributed systems, and many other things.

People make all sorts of mistakes: typos in code, poor load-estimation, copy-pasting the wrong command. When you make a mistake, what happens?

  • You see a red squiggly in your editor and fix it in 5 seconds
  • You want for a full compile, taking 10s, then fix it
  • You run the test suite, which takes 10s, then fix it
  • You deploy the mistake, notice the bug a few hours later, fix it, and deploy the fix
  • You deploy the mistake, the bug goes un-noticed for weeks, and even when noticed and fixed it takes weeks to clean up the mess of corrupted data that it left behind
  • You deploy the mistake, and find your company totally bankrupt 45
    minutes later
    . Your job, your team, your organization and plans, all gone.

Ignoring the idea of "types" and "compile time", it is obvious that different environments have different levels of safety. even runtime errors can have smaller impact if caught early and are easy to debug, making Python's habit of throwing TypeError at runtime when something doesn't match significantly "Safer" than PHP's habit of coercing values when things don't match (which tends to mask/hide problems resulting in data-corruption and obscure/hard-to-trace bugs).

What is Type Safety?

Type-safety is making use of what we know of our values at compile-time to minimize the consequences of most mistakes.

For example, one "minor consequence" could be seeing an easy-to-understand compile error during development, and taking 30s to fix it.

This definition follows straightforwardly from our definitions of "Types" and "Safety" above. It is significantly broader than most definitions of type-safety. In particular:

  • Type-safety is not writing Haskell; the idea is much broader than that.

  • Type-safety is not avoiding mutable state, unless it contributes to our goal stated above.

  • Type-safety is not an absolute to reach, but a property to try and optimize

  • Type-safety is not the same for everyone; if different people tend to make different sorts of mistakes, and their mistakes have different levels of harm, they should optimize for different things to try and minimize the overall harm of those mistakes.

  • Even compile errors can have serious consequences if the error-messages are inscrutable and resolving them is difficult! A nice compile error that you can fix in 10 seconds is different from a humongous compile error that might take you half an hour to understand before you can fix it

There are a wide variety of definitions of type-safety; if you ask a developer working in C++, a web developer writing Python, and a professor studying programming-languages, each one will have their own distinct definition. For this post, we will use the arbitrary, broad definition above:

Type-safety is making use of what we know of our values at compile-time to minimize the consequences of most mistakes.

Scalazzi Scala

Many people have thought a lot about how to write Scala in a way that is "type safe". The so-called "Scalazzi Subset" of the Scala language is one of those philosophies:

The Scalazzi Safe Subset of Scala

While there is a lot to discuss about these guidelines, we'll spend time reviewing just the few of them I find the most interesting:

Avoid Null

It is very tempting to use null to represent some data that is missing, un-initialized, or not available, e.g. as an uninitialzied value

class Foo{
  val name: String = null // override this with something useful if you want

Or a "no value" argument to pass into a function

def listFiles(path: String) = ...

listFiles(null) // no argument, default to current working directory

Scalazzi Scala tells us to avoid doing this, and for good reason:

  • nulls can appear anywhere in your program, in any variable or value, and there is no way to control what variable is or is-not null

  • nulls propagate throughout your program: you can pass nulls into functions, assign them to other variables, and store them in collections.

Together, this means that null values tend to cause errors far away from where they where initialized, and are difficult to track down. When something blows up with a NullPointerException, you have to first find the misbehaving variable (there may be many variables in use in a single line of code!) and then trace it through as it gets passed in and out of functions and stored-in/retrieved-from collections, until you can figure out where the null initially came from.

In a dynamic language like Python, this sort of accidental wrong-value-propagation is common, and it's not unusual to spend hours tracing through the program, adding print-statements everywhere, trying to figure out where an invalid value came from. Often it's as simple as someone mixing up the arguments to a function, passing in user_id instead of user_email or something equally trivial, but nonetheless it takes a significant effort to track down and fix.

In a compiled language with a type-checker, like Scala, many such mistakes are caught before you even run your code by the compiler: passing in an Int or a Seq[Double] where a String is expected results in a type-error. Not all things are caught, but many of the more egregious mistakes are. Except for passing in null when no-null was expected.

Here are some alternatives to nulls:

If you are trying to represent a value that may-or-may-not exist, whether are a function argument or as a class attribute to override:

class Foo{
  val name: String = null // override this with something useful if you want

Consider using an Option[T] instead:

class Foo{
  val name: Option[String] = None // override this with something useful if you want

Some("foo") and None instead of "foo" and null seems similar, but by doing so everyone knows it can be None, and unlike with nulls you get a compilation error if you try to put the Some[String] somewhere a String was expected.

If you are using null in a var as a placeholder for an un-initialized variable

def findHaoyiEmail(items: Seq[(String, String)]) = {
  var email: String = null // override this with something useful if you want

  for((name, value) <- items){
    if (name == "Haoyi") email = value
  if (email == null) email = "Not Found"

Consider how you could replace it with a val and declare-and-initialize it all at one go.

def findHaoyiEmail(items: Seq[(String, String)]) = {
  val email = 
    items.collect{case (name, value) if name == "Haoyi" => value} 
         .getOrElse("Not Found")

Even if you can't initialize the email value in a single expression, Scala lets you put arbitrary code inside curly {...}s when declaring a val, so in most cases any code you were going to use to initialize your var "later" you should be able to place inside the {...}s to declare-and-initialize your val at one go.

def findHaoyiEmail(items: Seq[(String, String)]) = {
  val email = {

And in doing so, we manage to prevent email from ever becoming null.

By simply avoid null in your program, you do not change the theoretical situation: in theory someone could pass in null and you would be in the same spot tracing down hard-to-debug problems. But you change the practical environment: you spend much less time tracing down hard-to-debug NullPointerExceptions. Every once in a while you still do (due to nulls appearing due to initialization order, or third-party libraries using nulls) but on overall the consequences for making mistakes tends to be lower. More bugs become straightforward compilation errors to fix during development, rather than expensive runtime exceptions to track down.

Avoid Exceptions

Exceptions are basically additional return-values for a piece of code. Any code you write can return the "normal" way via the return keyword or simply returning the last expression in a block, or it could throw an exception. And that exception can contain arbitrary data.

While other languages like Java have tried to have the compiler check that you make sure to catch the exceptions that can be thrown, their "checked exceptions" feature has generally not been a success: the inconvenience of having to declare what checked exceptions you throw often leads to people just declaring their methods to have a blanket throws Exception, or to catch the checked exceptions and re-throw them as un-checked runtime exceptions. Later languages like C# or Scala have dropped the idea of checked exceptions entirely.

Why shouldn't you use exceptions?

  • You have no way of statically knowing all the different kinds of exception a piece of code can throw. You thus don't know if you've handled all the possible "return" cases for that code

  • Annotations for what exceptions you throw are optional and trivially fall out of sync with reality as development happens and refactorings occur.

  • They propagate, so even if a library you're using has gone through the discipline of annotating all its methods with the exceptions they throw, the chances are in your own code you'll get sloppy and won't

As a replacement for exceptions, you can return Option[T] to represent the result of a function with only one failure mode, or Either[T, V] or your own custom sealed-trait hierarchy to represent results with more than one failure mode:

sealed trait Result
case class Success(value: String) extends Result
case class InvalidInput(value: String, msg: String) extends Result
case class SubprocessFailed(returncode: Int, stderr: String) extends Result
case object TimedOut extends Result

def doThing(cmd: String): Result = ???

Using a sealed trait hierarchy, you can easily communicate to the user exactly what failure modes exist, what data is available in each case, and the compiler will provide a warning if the user failed to handle a case when they match on the result of doThing.

In general, though, you will never get rid of all exceptions:

  • Any non-trivial program has enough different failure modes that it's impractical to list them out exhaustively

  • Many are uncommon enough that you actually do want to catch them in bulk and handle generic "something went wrong" behavior to e.g. log or report them, or re-try the logic, even if you don't know exactly what caused it.

  • For these uncommon failure modes, logging them with debugging information so you can examine them manually is the best you can do, and exceptions with their stack-trace generation do it by default.

However, even with a stack trace, figuring out why un-wanted exceptions keep appearing takes significantly more time than seeing compile-errors due to trying to use an Option[T] where a plain-old T is desired.

Programming in Scala is living in a world with exceptions:

  • NullPointerExceptions
  • MatchErrors from bad pattern matches
  • IOExceptions for any sort of arbitrary filesystem or network failure
  • ArithmeticExceptions when you divide by 0
  • IndexOutOfBoundsException when you mess up your arrays
  • IllegalArgumentException when you mis-use third-party code

And many more! Nevertheless, just because they are everywhere doesn't mean you should add to the problem. In your own code, avoid using exceptions to improve type-safety and give the compiler more chances to catch your mistakes when you forget to handle failure cases in your Option[T]s or Either[T, V]s or sealed trait data types.

Avoid Side Effects

Side effects are, at least in Scala, not tracked by the compiler. While they superficially don't have anything to do with "types", it can be argued that they undermine the type-safety we've defined above.

As an example, let's consider a piece of code like:

var result = 0

for (i <- 0 until 10){
  result += i

if (result > 10) result = result + 5 

println(result) // 50

While simpler than what happens in real codebases, it illustrates the point: we initialize result to some placeholder value, and then use side-effects to modify result to get it ready for the makeUseOfResult function which presumably does something important we care about.

There are many things that can go wrong. You could accidentally leave out one of the mutations

var result = 0

for (i <- 0 until 10){
  results += i

println(result) // 45
makeUseOfResult(result) // getting invalid input!

This may seem like an "obvious" mistake, but when the snippet is 1000 lines instead of 10, it's an easy mistake to make in the middle of a refactoring effort. It means that makeUseOfResult gets invalid input and might do the wrong thing. Here's another, equally common failure mode:

var result = 0


for (i <- 0 until 10){
  results += i

if (result > 10) result = result + 5 

println(result) // 50


def foo() = {

Here, instead of accidentally botching the initialization code during a refactoring, we are accidentally making use of the result variable before it's finished being initialized! Maybe we're using it indirectly, in this example through the foo() helper, but the effect is the same: at some point in our program, we'll "see" result having the wrong value, and later on we'll see it having a different, right value.

In this case, a "solution" would be to eliminate the side effects, and giving the different "stages" of result different names:

val summed = (0 until 10).sum

val result = if (summed > 10) summed + 5 else summed

println(result) // 50

Although equivalent when done correctly, it is immune to the two accidental failure-modes shown above. Accidentally leaving out one stage in the computation results in a compile error:

val summed = (0 until 10).sum

println(result) // Compilation Failed: not found: value result

And similarly using result before it's ready, even indirectly, results in a compilation error:


// Compilation Failed:  
// forward reference extends over definition of value summed
val summed = (0 until 10).sum

val result = if (summed > 10) summed + 5 else summed

println(result) // 50

def foo() = {
def makeUseOfResult(i: Int) = ()

Although these may not be considered "type errors" in the sense of a value's type not lining up with an expected type, it is a case of the compiler using its knowledge of the code to catch our mistakes and making them easy to fix early, minimizing their impact. That definitely falls under the extra-broad umbrella of Type Safety we defined earlier.

Limitations of Scalazzi Scala

Here's some code that is perfectly valid Scalazzi Scala as defined above, but will definitely upset people if it appeared in a code review:

def fibonacci(n: Double, count: Double = 0, chain: String = "1 1"): Int = {
  if (count >= n - 2) chain.takeWhile(_ != ' ').length
    val parts = chain.split(" ", 3)
    fibonacci(n, count+1, parts(0) + parts(1) + " " + chain)
for(i <- 0 until 10) println(fibonacci(i))

This code is correct, and follows the Scalazzi Scala guidelines to the letter:

  • No null
  • No exceptions
  • No isInstanceOf or asInstanceOf
  • No side-effects and all values are immutable
  • No classOf or getClass
  • No reflection

Yet most people would agree it's terrible, unsafe code. Why is that? The answer lies in Structured Data...

Structured Data

Not all data has the same "shape": if you have some data containing pairs of (name, phone-number), there are a variety of ways you can store them:

  • In a Array[Byte]: this is the format that the filesystem stores them in, after all! If you dump your data to disk, this is what it becomes.
  • In a String: when you open your data-file in a text editor, this is what you see.
  • In a Seq[(String, String)]
  • In a Set[(String, String)]
  • In a Map[String, String]

All of these are valid data-structures for our name/phone-number pairs. How do we choose which representation to use?

Avoid Strings in favor of Structured Data

It is often tempting to treat Strings as your data-store, storing data by concatenating them together, extracting data by slicing them apart. For example, you may want to get the hashcode of an object in hexadecimal form, and notice that it's already part of the toString:

@ println((new Object).toString)
[email protected]

And may decide that splitting it on the @ will be enough to get what you want:

@ val myHashCode = (new Object).toString.split("@")(1)
myHashCode: String = "36de8d79"

And you'd be right! However, while this works "sometimes", it fails in many other cases, e.g. when the object has a custom toString:

@ case class Foo()
defined class Foo
@ val myHashCode = (new Foo).toString.split("@")(1)
java.lang.ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException: 1

The solution is to avoid trying to take apart the toString string to get the data you want, and instead compute it yourself using the same technique that toString does: using the .hashCode and converting it to base 16:

@ Integer.toHexString((new Object).hashCode)
res36: String = "a58a099"
@ Integer.toHexString((new Foo).hashCode)
res37: String = "114a6"

To use the example above, imagine we take in a string with user names and phone-numbers as comma-separated values, and want to find everyone whos phone number starts with 415 indicating they're from California:

val phoneBook = """

We may come up with a piece of code like:

val lines = phoneBook.split("\n")

val californians = lines.filter(_.contains(",415"))
// Bob,4159239232
// Charlie,4159239232

And it will work. Until the text format changes, e.g. to tab-separated values, and your code silently starts returning nothing:

val phoneBook = """
Haoyi   6172340123
Bob     4159239232
Charlie 4159239232
Alice   4159239232

val lines = phoneBook.split("\n")

val californians = lines.filter(_.contains(",415"))
// <nothing>

In such situations, the better thing to do would be to first parse the phoneBook into some structured data format (here a Seq[(String, String)]) you expect, before working with the structured data to get your answer:

val parsedPhoneBook = for(line <- phoneBook.split("\n")) yield {
  val Seq(name, phone) = line.split(",")
  (name, phone)
// Seq( 
//   ("Haoyi", "6172340123"),
//   ("Bob", "4159239232"),
//   ("Charlie", "4159239232"),
//   ("Alice"," 8239239232")
// )

// Seq( 
//   ("Bob", "4159239232"),
//   ("Charlie", "4159239232")
// )

In such a scenario, if the input data format changes unexpectedly, your code will fail loudly when computing parsedPhoneBook. Furthermore, the compiler can statically check to make sure that once you're passed that point, your code won't misbehave due to the data being in the wrong shape! Thus you can be sure that data-format errors will only happen in one place, and after that you can be confident your code is "safe": it won't blow up randomly in the middle of your logic due to invalid input.

Here we're only dealing with tuples of strings, but as the data-format gets more complex with more fields of more different types, it gets even more important to structure your data and make sure it fits the shape you expect before you start trying to do work with it.

This may seem obvious to some people, but plenty of people would consider slicing apart the toString to get what they want an acceptable solution. For example, if you have a shell-scripting background, or a Perl background, this sort of string-spicing is the normal way of doing things. You can actually achieve quite a lot with it, once you start including regexes and other more-advanced string-slicing techniques.

Nevertheless, this has no place in Scala programs. When you assume data is "in the string", this is something that may or may not be true, and the compiler cannot help you verify. On the other hand, if you access and transform data via the methods and attributes of your objects, such as .hashCode or toHexString, you can be pretty sure that these will exist and will work on whatever you pass in. And if you make a mistake and use them in some incorrect way, the compiler is likely to be able to tell you, whereas if you make a mistake string-slicing you get runtime errors. This is one way to improve the type-safety of your Scala code.

Encode Invariants in Types

Even if you're out of the "storing things in strings" mindset, and are storing/accessing your values in the form of structured data (objects with methods and attributes, collections) there is still a wide range of different ways you can represent things. For example, in the above example, we chose to use a Seq[(String, String)] to store the phone-book containing users and their phone numbers. But we could also easily pick a Map[String, String] or a Set[(String, String)]. So which one should we use?

It turns out that apart from having different performance characteristics (Set having a fast contains to check if a tuple exists in it, map has a fast contains to check if a key exists) each of these data structures promises different things:

  • Seq[(String, String)]: it's possible to have duplicate entries (names, phone-numbers, or both) and the order of the entries matters
  • Set[(String, String)]: you can have duplicate names, duplicate phone-numbers, but each (name, phone-number) pair is unique. Order of entries doesn't matter
  • Map[String, String]: you can have duplicate phone-numbers but no duplicate names; the order of entries doesn't matter.

Just by looking at which data-structure you store your code in you can be sure, at compile time, of certain properties. If you have a Map, you know you never need to worry about the same person having multiple phone-numbers, whereas if you have a Set or a Seq it could happen and you may need to write code to handle that case.

Similarly, if you find yourself writing a lookup function to get a user's phone-number based on their name:

def lookup(name: String): ???

What should it return? It could return

  • String if you are sure there is a 1 to 1 correspondence between names and phone-numbers, and the name being looked up will always exist
  • Option[String] if there's a 1 to 1 correspondence between names and phone-numbers but the name may not exist in the phonebook sometimes

Both of these return types correspond to the Map[String, String] case above. But that's not all it could return, it could also return:

  • Seq[String] if the name may correspond to multiple phone-numbers in the phone-book (possibly with duplicates), or not exist, and the order matters

  • Set[String] if the name may correspond to multiple phone-numbers in the phone-book without duplicates, or not exist, and the order does not matter

These correspond to the Seq[(String, String)] and Set[(String, String)] cases above. But there are still other possibilities for the return type:

  • (String, Seq[String]) if the name may correspond to multiple phone-numbers in the phone-book (possibly with duplicates), but at least one must exist, and the order matters

  • (String, Set[String]) if the name may correspond to multiple phone-numbers in the phone-book without duplicates, but at least one must exist, and the order does not matter

By returning a tuple of (String, Seq[String]), you are guaranteeing to the caller of your lookup function that you will always return at least one item, never zero. That can be useful for the caller: they may use

val (first, rest) = lookup(name)

instead of

val numbers = lookup(name)

And can be 100% confident that their code will not throw a java.lang.UnsupportedOperationException: empty.reduceLeft due to an empty list being returned.

By the time you're returning a tuple (String, Seq[String]), the API starts to get slightly inconvenient, and so many people will not go to such extents to strictly define exactly what their values can contain. Nevertheless, if you want to optimize for extreme safety, this is a possible technique.

Libraries like Scalaz provide NonEmptyList data-structures that make this slightly more convenient to use. Internally it is basically the same (a tuple of a single element and a list) but they provide nice APIs to make it less clunky to work with.

Even if you're not going to return (String, Seq[String]) from your functions to enforce the non-emptiness of the result, or aren't going to depend on Scalaz for these convenient data-types, this kind of analysis is still very useful for improving the type-safety of your code. Rather than picking an arbitrary type that "can" contain the data you want, it is often worth thinking for a moment about what exactly can appear in that value, and choosing from the possible data-types the type that most precisely represents what you mean.

Self-describing data

Even data with the same "shape", not all of it is the same! For example, a Double representing a value in Newtons is very different from a Double representing a value in Pounds, even though they're both Doubles, and confusing the two can cause your $327,000,000 space-craft to crash and burn . Similarly, an Int containing a timestamp, an Int containing an ID, and an Int containing a enum or flag-value are not the same thing, despite all being Ints. You certainly aren't going to add your ID Int to your enum Int: you can, but it's basically never what you want.

There is a solution to this: teach the compiler that these values have different meanings, even if they are the same shape! This means giving them different types. Here are some common cases where you can do this

Avoid Integer Enums

It is not an uncommon pattern to define an enumeration of possible values via:


This has several advantages:

  • Ints are cheap, take minimal memory to store or pass around
  • By using constants instead of literals, it becomes a bit more obvious "what" you are trying to do instead of seeing magic values like 2 pop up everywhere within your code

Not bad. However, this code is "less safe" than it could be. For example, the following is meaningless, and basically incorrect, but does not cause a compile error:


Nor does


In both of these cases, the result of the computation can't really be used anywhere a UNIT_TYPE is expected. If I have a function taking a UNIT_TYPE and pass in UNIT_TYPE_UNKNOWN + 10, I can't expect it to work.

Although the UNIT_TYPE values are declared as Ints, none of the normal operations on Ints really apply to them. Similarly, while an Int can be anywhere from +2147483647 to -2147483648, only three our of those four billion values can be used somewhere one of these UNIT_TYPE constants is being used. And like how there's nothing stopping you from performing invalid Int operations on a UNIT_TYPE constant, there's also nothing stopping you from passing in invalid Ints (for example, 15) where a UNIT_TYPE constant from 0 to 2 is expected.

A more type-safe solution may be

sealed trait UnitType  
object UnitType{
  case object Unknown extends UnitType
  case object UserSpaceOnUse extends UnitType
  case object ObjectBoundingBox extends UnitType

Or perhaps

// You can also make it take a `name: String` param to give it a nice toString 
case class UnitType private () 
object UnitType{
  val Unknown = new UnitType
  val UserSpaceOnUse = new UnitType
  val ObjectBoundingBox = new UnitType

Both of these cases accomplish the same thing: by making UnitType an actual type. That means if we try to perform Int operations on them it gives a compile error:

@ UnitType.Unknown + 10
type mismatch;
 found   : Int(10)
 required: String
UnitType.Unknown + 10
Compilation Failed

And so does trying to pass an invalid Int where a UnitType is expected:

@ val currentUnitType: UnitType = 15
type mismatch;
 found   : Int(15)
 required: UnitType
val currentUnitType: UnitType = 15
Compilation Failed

Naturally, it will always be possible to intentionally convert UnitTypes to Ints and vice versa:

@ def unitTypeToInt(ut: UnitType): Int = ut match{
    case UnitType.Unknown => 0
    case UnitType.UserSpaceOnUse => 1
    case UnitType.ObjectBoundingBox => 2
defined function unitTypeToInt
@ unitTypeToInt(UnitType.Unknown)
res46: Int = 0
@ unitTypeToInt(UnitType.ObjectBoundingBox)
res47: Int = 2

And this will no doubt be necessary if you're serializing the UnitTypes to send over the network, or you're passing them to third-party libraries that rely on the integer constants. Nevertheless, when you perform this conversion you have to do so explicitly, and it's unlikely that you would "accidentally" call unitTypeToInt (or the converse intToUnitType) to convert something you didn't meant to.

As in our definition of Type Safety above, it doesn't just matter what the theoretical problems are, but also the practical chances of bumping into them. And you are much less likely to accidentally call a conversion function than you are to put a value in the wrong place!

Avoid String Flags

For the same reason you want to Avoid Integer Enums, you may also want to avoid using passing strings around to represent flags. To use the same example, but tweaked to represent a common pattern of passing around strings:

val UNIT_TYPE_UNKNOWN = "unknown"
val UNIT_TYPE_USERSPACEONUSE = "user-space-on-use"
val UNIT_TYPE_OBJECTBOUNDINGBOX = "object-bounding-box"

This has the same problem as using integers; you can call .subString, .length, .toUpperCase and all other string methods on these UNIT_TYPE flags, and they're all meaningless and definitely not what you want. Similarly, you can pass in all sorts of Strings into places where a UNIT_TYPE flag is required, almost all invalid except for these three special values.

The solution is the same as we used to Avoid Integer Enums: define a type to represent UnitType and then use that instead of Strings:

sealed trait UnitType
object UnitType{
  case object Unknown extends UnitType
  case object UserSpaceOnUse extends UnitType
  case object ObjectBoundingBox extends UnitType

// Or perhaps

class UnitType private ()
object UnitType{
  val Unknown = new UnitType
  val UserSpaceOnUse = new UnitType
  val ObjectBoundingBox = new UnitType

Box Integer IDs

IDs of varioues sorts are often stored as primitives; auto-incrementing IDs are often Ints or Longs, while UUIDs are often Strings or java.util.UUID. However, unlike Ints or Longs, IDs have certain unique properties:

  • All the arithmetic operations generally don't make sense: given a userId: Int, userId * 2 or is something you basically never do.

  • Different IDs are not interchangeable: if I have a userId: Int and a function def deploy(machineId: Int), calling deploy(userId) is basically never what I want

Although the IDs are probably stored in memory as Ints or Longs or Strings or java.util.UUIDs, and maybe stored in the database or caches in the same way, they really can't be substituted for primitives, or used in primitive operations, and can't even be substituted for each other. Thus, it may make sense to box the IDs of various sorts into distinct classes, e.g.

case class UserId(id: Int)
case class MachineId(id: Int)
case class EventId(id: Int)

This has some memory overhead, and some performance overhead, but it does ensure that if I have a userId: UserId and a def deploy(machine: MachineId), accidentally calling deploy(userId) would be come a compilation error rather than a runtime error. Or worse, having no error at runtime and instead silently deploying the wrong machine! It's not bulletproof - a "malicious" programmer can easily call deploy(MachineId(userId.id)) to work around this barrier - but nevertheless would catch most cases of accidental re-use.

While the example given is short and "obvious", in real code, written by other people, possibly months or years ago, things are a lot less clear than

def deploy(machineId: Int) = ...

deploy(myUserId) // wrong
deploy(myMachineId) // right

In a more realistic scenario we may be looking at:

def deploy(machineId: Int, 
           deployingUser: Int, 
           proxyMachine: Int, 
           timeout: Int,
           machineType: String,
           ipAddress: String,
           timeout: Int) = ...

) // wrong

) // right

And in such a scenario, we may be glad to pay the cost of boxing the different sorts of IDs into different types:

def deploy(machineId: MachineId, 
           deployingUser: UserId, 
           proxyMachine: MachineId, 
           timeout: Int,
           machineType: String,
           ipAddress: String,
           timeout: Int) = ...
// type mismatch;
//   found   : MachineId
//   required: UserId
// myProxyId,
// ^
// Compilation Failed

In order to have the // wrong example be a compilation error rather than a runtime-error or runtime-misbehavior!

This sort of technique can be taken arbitrarily far. For example, should machineId and proxyMachine be different types, instead of both MachineId? The answer to that depends on how often you re-use one as the other. If you do make them different types (e.g. DeployTargetId and ProxyMachineId), re-using them isn't impossible: you simply need to write some extra boilerplate to unwrap one via it's .id attribute and then wrap it again in the desired wrapper:

case class DeployTargetId(id: Int)
case class ProxyMachineId(id: Int)

val deployTargetId: DeployTargetId = ???
val proxyId = ProxyMachineId(deployTargetId.id)

Practically, if you almost never wrap/unwrap the IDs when passing them around, it's more worth giving them separate wrappers. If you find that you would need to wrap/unwrap the IDs continuously throughout your code, then it's not worth giving them separate wrapper-types.


In this post we've talked about what it means to be "type safe" from a practical point of view, and gone over a number of techniques that help improve the type-safety properties of your Scala code. In all these cases, the added safety is approximate: there isn't any theoretical barrier stopping people from reaching around "behind" your code to do bad things, e.g. unwrapping your boxed integer IDs or converting your non-string flags back into strings with by matching on it. We just hope that the added inconvenience of unwrapping these when we really need to is outweighed by the added safety of eliminating these "easy" mistakes in other situations.

But how do you know if the benefit actually does outweight the cost?

That is an empirical question depending on how you are using the code: how often you would get inconvenienced vs how often you'd be saved from your mistakes. Basically all of these techniques have trade-offs, whether in terms of performance or convenience, and it's up to each developer to use their judgement to decide what's the right trade-off for each scenario.

Hopefully by reading this post, you've learned some useful techniques that you can make use of in your own Scala code to get the compiler to help catch your mistakes and improve type-safety.

What other tips or techniques to you use to increase type-safety when you're writing Scala? Let us know in the comments below!

About the Author: Haoyi is a software engineer, and the author of many open-source Scala tools such as the Ammonite REPL and the Mill Build Tool. If you enjoyed the contents on this blog, you may also enjoy Haoyi's book Hands-on Scala Programming

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