Robin blogging about dev stuff

Maybe it's time to stop using null

The usage of null was introduced by Tony Hoare back in 1965 in order to be able to create pointers that point to something that doesn’t exists. This ha been called (by Mr. Hoare him self) as the billion dollar mistake.

Today most of us .NET developers doesnt’s use pointers, not directly at least. But still we see a lot of NullReferenceException and perhaps spend time chasing bugs caused by some variable being null. So shouldn’t we stop using nulls? Well the short answer is yes, in the cases where we know that a NullReferenceException could occur we should take action and make sure to prevent this.

What to do instead of null?

In many functional languages the concept of null simply doesn’t exist, Haskell has it’s Maybe monad and F# has an option type. But C# doesn’t really come with a pragmatic solution out of the box, so I thought that I would show you a simple case of fetching a person from a database using F# and C# and in both cases taking care of the null problem by using an option type.

Simple example

In F# the option type is built in and is defined as an genric type Option<T> and to make use of it’s value you often use pattern matching. If there is a value you will get Some<T> and if there is no value you will get None.

let person = Datalayer.getPersonById 12

match person with
| Some(p) -> printf "%s %s" p.firstName p.lastName
| None -> printf "No person was found"

In this simple scenario we ask the datalayer to fetch the person with id 12 from the database. So if the a person with id 12 doesn’t exist the function will return None but if the person does exist we will get Some<Person>.

We use pattern matching on the option type and match for the case where we find a person and then prints that person’s full name, otherwise we just print No person was found.

That’s all fine but what do we do in C#? I recently came across a great Nuget package for C# called Optional and it will give us more or less the same functionality as the built in option type in F#.

public Option<Person> GetPersonById(int id)

The method in the datalayer is defined to return Option<Person> (an option of person). The package supports many ways to check and extract the value and one way to do it is call the Match function on the option type and pass two actions, one for the Some value and one for the None value.

var person = _datalayer.GetPersonById(12);

    some: (p) => Console.WriteLine($"{p.FirstName} {p.LastName}"),
    none: () => Console.WriteLine("No person was found")

In cases where you would like to do some opertion and if it succeeded we should use the result of that operation otherwise we should use some sort of default you could do something like this:

var option = Divide(2, 0);

var result = option.Match(
    some: (res) => res,
    none: () => 0

Here the result variable get assiged the value of a succesfull operation or the default value 0.


There is tools available to us to start writing code that doesn’t result in NullReferenceException and also is readable and forces the user of your function to handle both the case when they get a value and if they don’t which is powerful since it all it takes is for some one to forget to write an if-statement to check for null.

comments powered by Disqus