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5.8 Using exceptions

Ada exceptions are a reliability-enhancing language feature designed to help specify program behavior in the presence of errors or unexpected events. Exceptions are not intended to provide a general purpose control construct. Further, liberal use of exceptions should not be considered sufficient for providing full software fault tolerance (Melliar-Smith and Randell 1987).

This section addresses the issues of how and when to avoid raising exceptions, how and where to handle them, and whether to propagate them. Information on how to use exceptions as part of the interface to a unit includes what exceptions to declare and raise and under what conditions to raise them. Other issues are addressed in the guidelines in Sections 4.3 and 7.5.

Handling Versus Avoiding Exceptions


  • When it is easy and efficient to do so, avoid causing exceptions to be raised.
  • Provide handlers for exceptions that cannot be avoided.
  • Use exception handlers to enhance readability by separating fault handling from normal execution.
  • Do not use exceptions and exception handlers as goto statements.
  • Do not evaluate the value of an object (or a part of an object) that has become abnormal because of the failure of a language-defined check.


In many cases, it is possible to detect easily and efficiently that an operation you are about to perform would raise an exception. In such a case, it is a good idea to check rather than allowing the exception to be raised and handling it with an exception handler. For example, check each pointer for null when traversing a linked list of records connected by pointers. Also, test an integer for 0 before dividing by it, and call an interrogative function Stack_Is_Empty before invoking the pop procedure of a stack package. Such tests are appropriate when they can be performed easily and efficiently as a natural part of the algorithm being implemented.

However, error detection in advance is not always so simple. There are cases where such a test is too expensive or too unreliable. In such cases, it is better to attempt the operation within the scope of an exception handler so that the exception is handled if it is raised. For example, in the case of a linked list implementation of a list, it is very inefficient to call a function Entry_Exists before each call to the procedure Modify_Entry simply to avoid raising the exception Entry_Not_Found. It takes as much time to search the list to avoid the exception as it takes to search the list to perform the update. Similarly, it is much easier to attempt a division by a real number within the scope of an exception handler to handle numeric overflow than to test, in advance, whether the dividend is too large or the divisor too small for the quotient to be representable on the machine.

In concurrent situations, tests done in advance can also be unreliable. For example, if you want to modify an existing file on a multiuser system, it is safer to attempt to do so within the scope of an exception handler than to test in advance whether the file exists, whether it is protected, whether there is room in the file system for the file to be enlarged, etc. Even if you tested for all possible error conditions, there is no guarantee that nothing would change after the test and before the modification operation. You still need the exception handlers, so the advance testing serves no purpose.

Whenever such a case does not apply, normal and predictable events should be handled by the code without the abnormal transfer of control represented by an exception. When fault handling and only fault handling code is included in exception handlers, the separation makes the code easier to read. The reader can skip all the exception handlers and still understand the normal flow of control of the code. For this reason, exceptions should never be raised and handled within the same unit, as a form of a goto statement to exit from a loop,if, case, or blockstatement.

Evaluating an abnormal object results in erroneous execution (Ada Reference Manual 1995, §13.9.1). The failure of a language-defined check raises an exception. In the corresponding exception handler, you want to perform appropriate cleanup actions, including logging the error (see the discussion on exception occurrences in Guideline 5.8.2) and/or reraising the exception. Evaluating the object that put you into the exception handling code will lead to erroneous execution, where you do not know whether your exception handler has executed completely or correctly. See also Guideline 5.9.1, which discusses abnormal objects in the context of Ada.Unchecked_Conversion.

Handlers for Others


  • When writing an exception handler for others, capture and return additional information about the exception through the Exception_Name, Exception_Message, or Exception_Information subprograms declared in the predefined package Ada.Exceptions.
  • Use others only to catch exceptions you cannot enumerate explicitly, preferably only to flag a potential abort.
  • During development, trap others, capture the exception being handled, and consider adding an explicit handler for that exception.


The following simplified example gives the user one chance to enter an integer in the range 1 to 3. In the event of an error, it provides information back to the user. For an integer value that is outside the expected range, the function reports the name of the exception. For any other error, the function provides more complete traceback information. The amount of traceback information is implementation dependent.

with Ada.Exceptions;
with Ada.Text_IO;
with Ada.Integer_Text_IO;
function Valid_Choice return Positive is
subtype Choice_Range is Positive range 1..3;

Choice : Choice_Range;
Ada.Text_IO.Put ("Please enter your choice: 1, 2, or 3: ");
Ada.Integer_Text_IO.Get (Choice);
if Choice in Choice_Range then -- else garbage returned
return Choice;
end if;
when Out_of_Bounds : Constraint_Error =>
Ada.Text_IO.Put_Line ("Input choice not in range.");
Ada.Text_IO.Put_Line (Ada.Exceptions.Exception_Name (Out_of_Bounds));
when The_Error : others =>
Ada.Text_IO.Put_Line ("Unexpected error.");
Ada.Text_IO.Put_Line (Ada.Exceptions.Exception_Information (The_Error));
end Valid_Choice;


The predefined package Ada.Exceptions allows you to log an exception, including its name and traceback information. When writing a handler for others, you should provide information about the exception to facilitate debugging. Because you can access information about an exception occurrence, you can save information suitable for later analysis in a standard way. By using exception occurrences, you can identify the particular exception and either log the details or take corrective action.

Providing a handler for others allows you to follow the other guidelines in this section. It affords a place to catch and convert truly unexpected exceptions that were not caught by the explicit handlers. While it may be possible to provide "fire walls" against unexpected exceptions being propagated without providing handlers in every block, you can convert the unexpected exceptions as soon as they arise. The others handler cannot discriminate between different exceptions, and, as a result, any such handler must treat the exception as a disaster. Even such a disaster can still be converted into a user-defined exception at that point. Because a handler for others catches any exception not otherwise handled explicitly, one placed in the frame of a task or of the main subprogram affords the opportunity to perform final cleanup and to shut down cleanly.

Programming a handler for others requires caution. You should name it in the handler (e.g., Error : others;) to discriminate either which exception was actually raised or precisely where it was raised. In general, the others handler cannot make any assumptions about what can be or even what needs to be "fixed."

The use of handlers for others during development, when exception occurrences can be expected to be frequent, can hinder debugging unless you take advantage of the facilities in Ada.Exceptions. It is much more informative to the developer to see a traceback with the actual exception information as captured by the Ada.Exceptions subprograms. Writing a handler without these subprograms limits the amount of error information you may see. For example, you may only see the converted exception in a traceback that does not list the point where the original exception was raised.


It is possible, but not recommended, to use Exception_Id to distinguish between different exceptions in an others handler. The type Exception_Id is implementation defined. Manipulating values of type Exception_Id reduces the portability of your program and makes it harder to understand.



  • Handle all exceptions, both user and predefined .
  • For every exception that might be raised, provide a handler in suitable frames to protect against undesired propagation outside the abstraction .


The statement that "it can never happen" is not an acceptable programming approach. You must assume it can happen and be in control when it does. You should provide defensive code routines for the "cannot get here" conditions.

Some existing advice calls for catching and propagating any exception to the calling unit. This advice can stop a program. You should catch the exception and propagate it or a substitute only if your handler is at the wrong abstraction level to effect recovery. Effecting recovery can be difficult, but the alternative is a program that does not meet its specification.

Making an explicit request for termination implies that your code is in control of the situation and has determined that to be the only safe course of action. Being in control affords opportunities to shut down in a controlled manner (clean up loose ends, close files, release surfaces to manual control, sound alarms) and implies that all available programmed attempts at recovery have been made.

Localizing the Cause of an Exception


  • Do not rely on being able to identify the fault-raising, predefined, or implementation-defined exceptions.
  • Use the facilities defined in Ada.Exceptions to capture as much information as possible about an exception.
  • Use blocks to associate localized sections of code with their own exception handlers.


See Guideline 5.6.9.


In an exception handler, it is very difficult to determine exactly which statement and which operation within that statement raised an exception, particularly the predefined and implementation-defined exceptions. The predefined and implementation-defined exceptions are candidates for conversion and propagation to higher abstraction levels for handling there. User-defined exceptions, being more closely associated with the application, are better candidates for recovery within handlers.

User-defined exceptions can also be difficult to localize. Associating handlers with small blocks of code helps to narrow the possibilities, making it easier to program recovery actions. The placement of handlers in small blocks within a subprogram or task body also allows resumption of the subprogram or task after the recovery actions. If you do not handle exceptions within blocks, the only action available to the handlers is to shut down the task or subprogram as prescribed in Guideline 5.8.3.

As discussed in Guideline 5.8.2, you can log run-time system information about the exception. You can also attach a message to the exception. During code development, debugging, and maintenance, this information should be useful to localize the cause of the exception.


The optimal size for the sections of code you choose to protect by a block and its exception handlers is very application-dependent. Too small a granularity forces you to expend more effort in programming for abnormal actions than for the normal algorithm. Too large a granularity reintroduces the problems of determining what went wrong and of resuming normal flow.