Mr Rampage
The Rampage

The Rampage

The Power of Empty

Mr Rampage's photo
Mr Rampage
·Feb 1, 2022·

5 min read

The Power of Empty

The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.

– Soren Kierkegaard

This is a series to share simple tips to improve the maintainability of code. The premise is that code becomes easier and simpler when constraints are put in place. In this post, we'll discuss the constraint of using Empty values instead of null.

Non-nullable code

I call it my billion-dollar mistake…At that time, I was designing the first comprehensive type system for references in an object-oriented language. My goal was to ensure that all use of references should be absolutely safe, with checking performed automatically by the compiler.

But I couldn’t resist the temptation to put in a null reference, simply because it was so easy to implement. This has led to innumerable errors, vulnerabilities, and system crashes, which have probably caused a billion dollars of pain and damage in the last forty years.

– Tony Hoare, inventor of ALGOL W.

Problems with null

null is easy, but in most cases it can lead to more problems. Almost every developer's had some experience with it in their career. If you have used it, the chances are pretty high that you've had to fix the dreaded null-pointer exception bug.

However, null can lead to another problem that will impact the longevity of the code. This is the communication problem that arises from using null. What does null mean? Does it mean that the value is undefined? Does it mean that the value is empty? When building code for longevity, optimization for maintainability and code readability are essential.

The side effect of using nullable code is that now, it's up to any developer using that value to do extra work. When using a nullable value, a developer must:

  • remember to guard against null-pointer exceptions.
  • implicitly know what null means for that value.

Solution

The simple solution is to just not use null, use an empty value instead! If null is avoided, then getting a null-pointer exception becomes impossible!

An empty value is a representation of the empty state of that type. For example, an array without any items is the empty state of an array. Defaulting all arrays or lists to the empty state instead of null makes the life of someone reading your code easier because it makes the code explicit. There is no confusion of what an empty list is compared to a list set to null.

So how does one represent the empty state for other types?

Use Optionals

The Maybe or Optional type is a wrapper type to represent the empty state. A Maybe can have only two values, a Some<T> and a None<T>. By wrapping a value with the Maybe type, it forces developers to explicitly:

  • Unwrap the value by checking for the Some<T>
  • Declare the value as None<T> when it is empty

The value inside the Some is guaranteed to be non-null, while the value inside the None is guaranteed to be null. It enables the developer to proactively guard against null-pointer exceptions by making it explicit.

Use Interfaces

For Object Oriented Languages, an interface can be defined. With an interface in place, a type can have an empty implementation and a non-empty implementation. However, this technique requires a bit more discipline, as the developer will need to remember to:

Program to an interface, not an implementation.

– Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software (Addison-Wesley, 1994, p. 18)

Consider the following:


public interface IJob {}

public record PrintWorkOrders(string Name) : IJob;

public record Noop() : IJob;

If the code is programmed to the interface, then users of this interface are required to perform a check on the interface against the implementation.


public void ProcessWorkOrders(IJob job) {
  if (job is not PrintWorkOrders printWorkOrders) return;
  // process the job
}

Again, it accomplishes the same goals of the Maybe type.

  • Users explicitly check for the implementation type
  • Empty types are explicit and type safe

Identity of Empty values

Below are some examples of empty values for different types. However, it should be noted that the representation of empty will depend on your use case.

TypeEmpty Value NameExample Representation
ArrayEmpty Array[]
Hash MapEmpty Dictionary{}
ProcedureNo-op() => {}
FunctionIdentityx => x
NumbersIdentity0 or 1 (depends on operation)
StringsEmpty String""
PromiseFulfilledPromise.Resolve(T)

An interesting observation is that in most of these cases, applying the empty value to an existing value should yield the same result. As an example, using the Concat function to concatenate an empty array with an array will yield the input array. Similarly, concatenating an empty string to a string will yield the input string. It could be that an empty value is the identity for a given operation. 🤔

In contrast, using Concat between a null and an array will yield a null-pointer exception.

Conclusion

The use of an empty object seems like extra work compared to null because in both cases a conditional check is still required. The main difference is that performing a null check is optional, whereas, an empty value check is required. In summary, avoid the use of null to avoid:

  • null-pointer exceptions
  • increase code clarity and readability

If you don't create the problem, then there's no problem to solve!

Reference

 
Share this