Error management in Rust, and libs that support it

As part of learning the Rust ecosystem, I dedicated the last few days to error management. Here are my findings.

Error management 101

The Rust book describes the basics of error management. The language separates between recoverable errors and unrecoverable ones.

Unrecoverable errors benefit from the panic!() macro. When Rust panics, it stops the program. Recoverable errors are much more enjoyable.

Rust uses the Either monad, which stems from Functional Programming. Opposite to exceptions in other languages, FP mandates to return a structure that may contain either the requested value or the error. The language models it as an enum with generics on each value:

#[derive(Copy, PartialEq, PartialOrd, Eq, Ord, Debug, Hash)]
pub enum Result<T, E> {

Because Rust manages completeness of matches, matching on Result enforces that you handle both branches:

match fn_that_returns_a_result() {
    Ok(value) => do_something_with_value(value)
    Err(error) => handle_error(error)

If you omit one of the two branches, compilation fails.

The above code is safe if unwieldy.

But Rust offers a full-fledged API around the Result struct. The API implements the monad paradigm.

Result enum diagram

Propagating results

Propagating results and errors is one of the main micro-tasks in programming. Here’s a naive way to approach it:

struct Foo {}
struct Bar { foo: Foo }
struct MyErr {}

fn main() {
    print!("{:?}", a(false));

fn a(error: bool) -> Result<Bar, MyErr> {
    match b(error) {                                   (1)
        Ok(foo) => Ok(Bar{ foo }),                     (2)
        Err(my_err) => Err(my_err)                     (3)

fn b(error: bool) -> Result<Foo, MyErr> {
    if error {
        Err(MyErr {})
    } else {
        Ok(Foo {})
1 Return a Result which contains a Bar or a MyErr
2 If the call is successful, unwrap the Foo value, wrap it again, and return it
3 If it isn’t, unwrap the error, wrap it again, and return it

The above code is a bit verbose, and because this construct is quite widespread, Rust offers the ? operator:

When applied to values of the Result<T, E> type, it propagates errors. If the value is Err(e), then it will return Err(From::from(e)) from the enclosing function or closure. If applied to Ok(x), then it will unwrap the value to evaluate to x.

We can apply it to the above a function:

fn a(error: bool) -> Result<Bar, MyErr> {
    let foo = b(error)?;
    Ok(Bar{ foo })

The Error trait

Note that Result<T, E> enforces no bound on the right type, the "error" type. However, Rust provides an Error trait.

Error trait diagram

Two widespread libraries help us manage our errors more easily. Let’s detail them in turn.

Implement Error trait with thiserror

In the above section, I described how a struct could implement the Error trait. However, doing so requires quite a load of boilerplate code. The thiserror crate provides macros to write the code for us. Here’s the documentation sample:

#[derive(Error, Debug)]                                                   (1)
pub enum DataStoreError {
    #[error("data store disconnected")]                                   (2)
    Disconnect(#[from] io::Error),
    #[error("the data for key `{0}` is not available")]                   (3)
    #[error("invalid header (expected {expected:?}, found {found:?})")]   (4)
    InvalidHeader {
        expected: String,
        found: String,
1 Base Error macro
2 Static error message
3 Dynamic error message, using field index
4 Dynamic error message, using field name

thiserror helps you generate your errors.

Propagate Result with anyhow

The anyhow crate offers several features:

  • A custom anyhow::Result<T> struct. I will focus on this one
  • A way to attach context to a function returning an anyhow::Result<T>
  • Additional backtrace environment variables
  • Compatibility with thiserror
  • A macro to create errors on the fly

Result propagation has one major issue: functions signature across unrelated error types. The above snippet used a single enum, but in real-world projects, errors may come from different crates.

Here’s an illustration:

#[derive(thiserror::Error, Debug)]
pub struct ErrorX {}                                                      (1)
#[derive(thiserror::Error, Debug)]
pub struct ErrorY {}                                                      (1)

fn a(flag: i8) -> Result<Foo, Box<dyn std::error::Error>> {               (2)
    match flag {
        1 => Err(ErrorX{}.into()),                                        (3)
        2 => Err(ErrorY{}.into()),                                        (3)
        _ => Ok(Foo{})
1 Two error types, each implemented with a different struct with thiserror
2 Rust needs to know the size of the return type at compile time. Because the function can return either one or the other type, we must return a fixed-sized pointer; that’s the point of the Box<dyn Error> construct. For a discussion on when to use Box compared to other constructs, please read this StackOverflow question.
3 To wrap the struct into a Box, we rely on the into() method

With anyhow, we can simplify the above code:

fn a(flag: i8) -> anyhow::Result<Foo> {
    match flag {
        1 => Err(ErrorX{}.into()),
        2 => Err(ErrorY{}.into()),
        _ => Ok(Foo{})

With the Context trait, we can improve the user experience with additional details.

Context trait diagram

The with_context() method is evaluated lazily, while the context() is evaluated eagerly.

Here’s how you can use the latter:

fn a(flag: i8) -> anyhow::Result<Bar> {
    let foo = b(flag).context(format!("Oopsie! {}", flag))?;              (1)
    Ok(Bar{ foo })

fn b(flag: i8) -> anyhow::Result<Foo> {
    match flag {
        1 => Err(ErrorX{}.into()),
        2 => Err(ErrorY{}.into()),
        _ => Ok(Foo{})
1 If the function fails, print the additional Oopsie! error message with the flag value


Rust implements error handling via the Either monad of FP and the Result enum. Managing such code in bare Rust requires boilerplate code. The thiserror crate can easily implement the Error trait for your structs, while anyhow simplifies function and method signatures.

Nicolas Fränkel

Nicolas Fränkel

Developer Advocate with 15+ years experience consulting for many different customers, in a wide range of contexts (such as telecoms, banking, insurances, large retail and public sector). Usually working on Java/Java EE and Spring technologies, but with focused interests like Rich Internet Applications, Testing, CI/CD and DevOps. Also double as a trainer and triples as a book author.

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Error management in Rust, and libs that support it
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