Option vs Either (Part 1)

06/20/20191 Min Read — In SoftwareDesign

The last days I paired with Lewis, a former apprentice, to refactor some functions in a Scala codebase. By doing this, we decided to refactor the return type of some functions from Option to Either. This post is the first one of a trilogy and describes Scala's Option type. In the second post, we will see what the Either type is. In the last post of this series, I will I'll talk about some problems we had using Option and how Either helped us achieve a better design.

What is Option?

Scala's Option trait defines a data type which has exactly two subclasses, called Some and None. You can use the Option type for the case you want to present the absence of a value with an object (instead of just using null as done in some other languages).

For me, Option has two main benefits over nulls:

1. Your code explicitely states that it can be that there is no value present:

val maybeHotel: Option[Hotel] = database.findHotelByName("Dana Beach")
maybeHotel match {
case None => println("There is no hotel with the given name")
case Some(hotel) => println("The hotel has " + hotel.rooms.size + " number of rooms")

By returning an Option[Hotel] instead of either a Hotel object or null, the client (the one which calls this function) knows that it is possible that there is no hotel for a given name. In my opinion, this is much better than presenting the absence of the hotel with a null value because it can help to prevent you from NullPointerExceptions by making it clear that the hotel may not exist.

2. Some and None share a common interface:

Since Some and None share the common interface Option, we can operate on them the same way, which can lead to much more readable code. Let's write some 'old-style' Java code to find out how many drinks are left in a minibar using using null-checking.

int numberOfDrinks = -1;
Hotel hotel = findHotelByName("Dana Beach")
if (hotel != null) {
Room room = hotel.getRoomByRoomNumber(212)
if (room != null) {
Minibar minibar = room.getMinibar()
if (minibar != null) {
numberOfDrinks = minibar.drinks.size;

In contrast to the code above, Scala's Option type helps us to get rid of these null checks in an elegant way. This allows us for example to chain function calls like map or flatMap. Therefore, we can also use Options in combination with Scala's for-comprehension. I think this makes the code much nicer to read:

val numberOfDrinks = (for {
hotel <- findHotelByName("Dana Beach") // returns Option[Hotel]
room <- hotel.getRoomByRoomNumber(212) // returns Option[Room]
minibar <- room.minibar // returns Option[Minibar]
} yield minibar.drinks.size)

In the next blog post, I will introduce the Either type and its benefits!