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Refactoring with Monads

I was recently cleaning up some Scala code I’d written a few months ago when I realized I had been structuring code in a very confusing way for a very long time. At work, we’ve been trying to untangle the knots of code that get written by different authors at different times, as requirements inevitably evolve. We all know that code should be made up of short, easily digestible functions but we don’t always get guidance on how to achieve that. In the presence of error handling and nested data structures, the problem gets even harder.

The goal of this blog post is to describe a concrete strategy for structuring code so that the overall flow of control is clear to the reader, even months later; and so the smaller pieces are both digestible and testable. I’ll start by giving an example function, operating on some nested data types. Then I’ll explore some ways to break it into smaller pieces. The key insight is that we can use computational effects in the form of monads (more specifically, MonadError) to wrap smaller pieces and ultimately, compose them into an understandable sequence of computations.

Example domain: reading a catalog

Let’s not worry about MonadError yet, but instead look at some example code. Consider a situation where you need to translate data from one domain model to another one with different restrictions, and controlled vocabularies. This can happen in a number of places in a program, for instance reading a database or an HTTP request to construct a domain object.

Suppose we need to read an object from a relational database. Unfortunately, rows in the table may represent objects of a variety of types so we have to read the row and build up the object graph accordingly. This is the boundary between the weakly typed wilderness and the strongly typed world within our program.

Say our database table represents a library catalog, which might have print books and ebooks. We’d like to look up a book by ID and get back a nicely typed record.

Here’s a simple table

id title author format download_type
45 Programming In Haskell Hutton, Graham print null
46 Programming In Haskell Hutton, Graham ebook epub
49 Programming In Haskell Hutton, Graham ebook pdf

We can define a simple domain model:

sealed trait Format
case object Print extends Format
case object Digital extends Format
object Format {
  def fromString(s: String): Try[Format] = ???
}

sealed trait DownloadType
case object Epub extends DownloadType
case object Pdf extends DownloadType
object DownloadType {
  def fromString(s: String): Try[DownloadType] = ???
}

sealed trait Book extends Product with Serializable {
  def id: Int
  def title: String
  def author: String
  def format: Format
}

case class PrintBook(
    id: Int,
    title: String,
    author: String,
) extends Book {
  override val format: Format = Print
}

case class EBook(
    id: Int,
    title: String,
    author: String,
    downloadType: DownloadType
) extends Book {
  override val format: Format = Digital
}

We want to be able to define a method such as:

def findBookById(id: Int): Try[Book] = ???

Monolithic function

One trivial definition of findBookById might be:

import scala.util.{Failure, Success, Try}

def findBookById(id: Int): Try[Book] = {
  // unsafeQueryUnique returns a `Try[Row]`
  DB.unsafeQueryUnique(sql"""select * from catalog where id = $id""").flatMap { row =>
    // pick out the properties every book possesses
    val id = row[Int]("id")
    val title = row[String]("title")
    val author = row[String]("author")
    val formatStr = row[String]("format")

    // now start to determine the types - get the format first
    Format.fromString(formatStr).flatMap {
      case Print =>
        // for print books, we can construct the book and return immediately
        Success(PrintBook(id, title, author))
      case Digital =>
        // for digital books we need to handle the download type
        row[Option[String]]("download_type") match {
          case None =>
            Failure(new AssertionError(s"download type not provided for digital book $id"))
          case Some(downloadStr) =>
            DownloadType.fromString(downloadStr).flatMap { dt =>
              Success(EBook(id, title, author, dt))
            }
        }
    }
  }
}

Depending on your perspective, that is arguably a long function. If you think it is not so long, pretend that the table has a number of other fields that must also be conditionally parsed to construct a Book.

Tail refactoring

One possible approach is a a strategy I’m going to call “tail-refactoring”, for lack of a better description. Basically, each function does a little work or some error checking, and then calls the next appropriate function in the chain.

You can imagine what kind of code will result. The functions are smaller, but it’s hard to describe what each function does, and functions occasionally have to carry along additional parameters that they will ignore except to pass deeper into the call chain. Let’s take a look at an example refactoring:

import scala.util.{Failure, Success, Try}

def extractEBook(
    id: Int,
    title: String,
    author: String,
    downloadTypeStrOpt: Option[String]): Try[EBook] =
  downloadTypeStrOpt match {
    case None => Failure(new AssertionError())
    case Some(downloadTypeStr) =>
      DownloadType.fromString(downloadTypeStr).flatMap { dt =>
        Success(EBook(id, title, author, dt))
      }
  }

def extractBook(
    id: Int,
    title: String,
    author: String,
    formatStr: String,
    downloadTypeStrOpt: Option[String]): Try[Book] =
  Format.fromString(formatStr).flatMap {
    case Print =>
      Success(PrintBook(id, title, author))
    case Digital =>
      extractEBook(id, title, author, downloadTypeStrOpt)
  }

def findBookById(id: Int): Try[Book] =
  DB.unsafeQueryUnique(sql"""select * from catalog where id = $id""").flatMap { row =>
    val id = row[Int]("id")
    val title = row[String]("title")
    val author = row[String]("author")
    val formatStr = row[String]("format")
    val downloadTypeStr = row[Option[String]]("download_type")
    extractBook(id, title, author, formatStr, downloadTypeStr)
  }

As you can see, this form has more manageably-sized functions, although they are still a little long. You can also see that the flow of control is distributed through all three functions, which means understanding the logic enough to modify or test it requires understanding all three functions both individually and as a whole. To follow the logic, we must trace the functions like a recursive descent parser.

Refactoring with Monads

Without throwing exceptions and catching them at the top, it’s going to be hard to do substantially better than the “tail-refactoring” approach, unless we start to make use of the fact that we’re working with Try, a data type that supports flatMap. More precisely, Try has a monad instance - recall that monads let us model computational effects that take place in sequence.

Let’s try to factor out smaller functions, each returning Try, and then use a for-comprehension to specify the sequence of operations:

import scala.util.{Failure, Success, Try}

def parseDownloadType(o: Option[String], id: Int): Try[DownloadType] = {
  o.map(DownloadType.fromString)
    .getOrElse(Failure(new AssertionError(s"download type not provided for digital book $id")))
}

def findBookById(id: Int): Try[Book] =
  for {
    row <- DB.unsafeQueryUnique(sql"""select * from catalog where id = $id""")
    format <- Format.fromString(row[String]("format"))
    id = row[Int]("id")
    title = row[String]("title")
    author = row[String]("author")
    book <- format match {
      case Print =>
        Success(PrintBook(id, title, author))
      case Digital =>
        parseDownloadType(row[Option[String]]("download_type"), id)
          .map(EBook(id, title, author, _))
    }
  } yield book

It’s less code, the functions are smaller, and the top-level function dictates the entire flow of control. No function takes more than 2 arguments. These are testable, understandable functions. This version really shows the power of using monads to sequence computation.

Now we are truly making use of the fact that Try has a monad instance and not just another container class. We can simply describe the “happy path” and trust Try to short-circuit computation if something erroneous or unexpected occurs. In that case, Try captures the error and stops computation there. The code does this without the need for explicit branching logic.

Abstracting effect type

Now, let’s take this one step further - here’s where we achieve buzzword compliance. Let’s abstract away from the effect, Try, and instead make use of MonadError. This lets us use a more diverse set of effect types, from IO to Task, so we can execute our function in whatever asynchronous context we wish. This has the feel of a tagless final strategy (although we aren’t worrying about describing interpreters here).

Here we go:

import cats.MonadError
import cats.implicits._

def parseDownloadType[F[_]](o: Option[String], id: Int)(
    implicit me: MonadError[F, Throwable]): F[DownloadType] = {
  me.fromOption(o, new AssertionError(s"download type not provided for digital book $id"))
    .flatMap(s => me.fromTry(DownloadType.fromString(s)))
}

def findBookById[F[_]](id: Int)(implicit me: MonadError[F, Throwable]): F[Book] =
  for {
    row <- DB.queryUnique[F](sql"""select * from catalog where id = $id""")
    format <- me.fromTry(Format.fromString(row[String]("format")))
    id = row[Int]("id")
    title = row[String]("title")
    author = row[String]("author")
    book <- format match {
      case Print =>
        me.pure(PrintBook(id, title, author))
      case Digital =>
        parseDownloadType[F](row[Option[String]]("downloadType"), id)
          .map(EBook(id, title, author, _))
    }
  } yield book

The code isn’t much more complicated than the version using Try but it adds a lot of flexibility. In a synchronous context, we could still use Try. In that case, however, the database call is executed eagerly, which means the function isn’t referentially transparent. We can make the function referentially transparent by using a monad such as IO or Task as the effect type and delaying the evaluation of the database call until “the end of the universe”.

In this example, pay attention to the use of fromOption and fromTry, which adapt Option and Try to F. If you are using existing APIs that aren’t already generalized to MonadError these methods adapt common error types, but require very little ceremony to use.

Refactoring strategy

When faced with a similar refactoring problem, consider whether you can break the problem into a sequence of independently executable steps, each of which can be wrapped in a monad. If so, begin by describing the control flow in your refactored function with a monadic for-comprehension. Don’t define the individual functions that comprise the steps of the for-comprehension until you have filled in the yield at the end. You can use pseudocode or stubs to minimize the amount of code churn at the beginning. This is a great time to shuffle steps around and work out exactly what arguments are needed and when, as well as where they are coming from.

Once the top level function looks plausible, begin implenting the steps of the for-comprehension. You can replace the stubs or pseudocode you wrote by refactoring code from your original function. If the original code did not operate in a monadic context, recall that you can convert a simple function A => B to F[A] => F[B] using lift (thanks, Functor!). This makes converting your existing code even easier.

Conclusion

In this post, we have seen how we can use monads as an aid in refactoring code to improve both readability and testability. We have also demonstrated that we can do this in many cases without needing to specify the monad in use a priori. As a result, we gain the flexibility to choose the appropriate monad for our application, independently of the program logic.

Licensing

Unless otherwise noted, all content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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