Rust vs. Go: Error Handling

No exceptions, errors as values, but still different approaches


Recently, I've been diving into the Go programming language. I have to say that I'm very fond of many of its aspects: The standard library is plain awesome, especially functionality related to HTTP. Async via goroutines and channels feels very ... well-thought-out? Static typing feels like a breath of fresh air. I'd rather the compiler scream at me during compilation than my Python script breaking during runtime. The deployment story is very easy due to statically compiled binaries. The compilation is fast enough, and the runtime speed is amazing (though this might be unfair when comparing it to Python).

But there is one thing that I'm not too happy about. It's the following, and if you've ever written Go, you know it all too well most likely:

result, err := somefunc()
if err != nil {
    // panic

This is the extend of Go's error handling: The convention that functions return a (value, error) tuple, with error being nil if everything went well. So many function signatures look like this (using the stdlib function to open a file as an example:

func Open(name string) (*File, error)

Now, there are a few drawbacks to that approach. The first one is the verbosity. In any Go codebase, you'll see err != nil littered everywhere. This is, honestly, not too bad. You get used to it. But there is a bigger problem. Take a look at following snippet:

configFile, err := os.CreateTemp("/tmp", "config")
errorFile, err := os.CreateTemp("/tmp", "error")
if err != nil {
    return fmt.Errorf("failed to create temp file, %s", err)

Looks sane at first glance, but what happens when the first call to CreateTemp() fails? Well, nothing, or at least no error handling for sure. The err variable is redeclared in the next line, effectively overwriting any error that happened. If the second call succeeds, the program will continue, even though configFile is not safe to use.

So, the verbose ceremony around error handling is not the problem. But you must never forget it. Whenever you get an error variable, you must check it. If you don't, you got a bug!

How can this be done better?

I've been playing around with Rust on and off for years now, never really getting around to properly diving into it. It's very complex and quite unlike all other languages I've worked with so far. By now, I know enough to at least understand most Rust snippets.

On thing that Rust just gets right in my opinion is its approach to error handling.

Short Rust Type System Detour!

To lay the groundwork for the dive into error handling, we first have to quickly talk about a few Rust data types. You have to know that Rust has a very rich type system. One of the types that you won't have in Python or Go are Sum Types, called Enums in Rust. Effectively, a sum type is a type that can hold a value that is one, and only one, of a known list of types.

For example, Rust does not have an "empty" value, e.g. None (Python) or nil (Go). Instead, there is an Option Enum, which is defined like this:

enum Option<T> {

T is a generic type parameter here, so you can use Option with any value. Effectively, an Option can either be "something" (Some) or "nothing" (None). And here comes the big advantage over nil or None: You cannot accidentally get a None when you expect a value. Whenever you have an Option, the compiler forces you to handle both cases: Either you got something, or you got nothing. The compiles forces you to do this, or your program will not compile. Assume we have some function that returns an option that can either be nothing or an integer:

let r: Option<i32> = returns_option();

You will not be able to use r like an integer:

let x = r * 2;

The compiler complains:

error[E0369]: cannot multiply `Option<i32>` by `{integer}`
  --> src/
   |     let x = r * 2;
   |             - ^ - {integer}
   |             |
   |             Option<i32>

It's because you don't have an integer, you have an Option that can be an integer. To get the value, we have to match all possible cases:

let actual_value = match r {
    None => {
        panic!("Got no value!");
    Some(i) => i,

Instead of panicking, you'd most likely have some actual error handling or course ;) Note that the compiler enforces that you handle any value that your Enum can have. Let's say you forget to handle the None case:

let actual_value = match r {
    Some(i) => i,

Rust won't like that:

error[E0004]: non-exhaustive patterns: `None` not covered
   --> src/
    |     let actual_value = match r {
    |                              ^ pattern `None` not covered

The compiler even tells you which case you did not handle.

Note that you won't have to use match every time. There are a lot of convenience methods on Option, just take a look at the documentation.

For example, our code above that called panic!() on a None value could be simply rewritten like this:

let actual_value = r.unwrap()

unwrap() gives you the Some value, or panics if there is a None value. Especially unwrap_or_else() is quite helpful.

Rust Error Handling

So, how can sum types help with error handling? Easy: Rust uses the so-called Result type whenever a function can return an error or an actual value.

Result is defined like this:

enum Result<T, E> {

This is quite similar to Option, right? Result can either be the expected value (Ok) or a certain error (Err). Conceptually, this is quite close to Go. The big benefit is that it's enforced at the type level that you cannot forget to handle the error. As we saw above with Option, Rust won't even let you compile your program if you don't handle the Err case. And like Option, Result has all those convenience functions like unwrap().

Result is used everywhere in Rust. Remember Go's Open() function:

func Open(name string) (*File, error)

In Rust, the equivalent function looks like this1:

fn open(path: Path) -> Result<File, std::io::Error>

Error Bubbling

Error Bubbling refers to the practice of throwing an error up the call stack to the caller function from the perspective of the called function. In other words, if our function cannot handle the error, we just return it to the function that called us and hope they know what to do.

In Go, this looks like this:

func ourFunction() (int, error) {
    i, err := someFunc()
    if err != nil {
        return 0, err
    // do something with i

The equivalent in Rust might look like this:

fn our_function() -> Result<i32, String> {
    let r = some_function();

    match r {
        Err(e) => return Err(e),
        Ok(i) => {
            // do something with i

Wow, this is even more boilerplatey than Go! But there is a nice little operator, the question mark (?), that can be used in all functions that return Result. It's similar to unwrap(), but instead of panicking on Err values, it bubbles them up to the calling function. So our code could be rewritten like this:

fn our_function() -> Result<i32, String> {
    let i = some_function()?;
    // do something with i

That is much better, don't you think?


Go gets a lot of things right. But error handling is not one of them, and Rust shows how it can be done better. Less boilerplate and compiler-time checks for error handling.

If you want to read more about error handling in Rust, read the chapter "Recoverable Errors with Result" from the awesome Rust Book.

  1. This is heavily simplified. Actually, the Result type in std::io is different from the Result type we talked about. Its Err variant is not generic, but always has the std::io::Error type. Also, I left out generics. The actual signature looks like this: fn open<P: AsRef<Path>>(path: P) -> Result<File>