Option vs Either (Part 2)

06/24/20192 Min Read — In SoftwareDesign

In the first post of this trilogy, I introduced Scala's Option type and why I prefer it over null. This post is all about another Scala monad called Either.


Let's build a little wheel of Fortune application for a game show to determine a player's prize, which is either a car🚗 or a goat🐐. The chance for a player to win a brand new car is 33% (lucky guy!), whereas there is a chance of 67% that the player returns home with a new pet (sorry, bad luck!).

We assume, for whatever reasons, that the car and the goat have no common superclass or interface. So for now we have two classes which represent the prizes:

case class Car(color: String)
case class Goat(name: String)

Now let's create a function which determines the prize for a player, called determinePrize. Since a player can only win one of both prizes, we have to choose a return type which is able to handle both cases. Reminder: our classes Car and Goat have no common superclass. So what return type do we expect from our function? Should we go for Any class, which is the superclass of all other classes (similar to Object in Java)? While Any as return type would be technically ok, I don't like this approach very much since a caller really doesn't know what to expect from the function's result. (Of course, we could use Any as return type and add a comment that the function will return a car object or a goat object, but comments are outdated quickly because they are often not updated when the code changes.)

The Either Type

As I already mentioned above, a player can only win one of both prizes, that is either a car or a goat. Scala's standard library defines a trait called Either[A, B] with the type arguments, A and B. There are exactly two subclasses of Either, called Left[A] and Right[B]. So an object can be either of type Left and contain a value of type A, or of type B and contain a value of type B. So lets use Either[A, B] as return type for our function determinePrize, using Goat for type parameter A and Car for type parameter B, i.e. Either[Goat, Car].

def determinePrize(wheelOfFortuneResult: Double): Either[Goat, Car] = {
val chanceToWinTheCar = 0.33
if (wheelOfFortuneResult <= chanceToWinTheCar)

Let's write some tests to see how it works in practice:

"Prize for Wheel of Fortune" should "be a car" in {
val prize = determinePrize(wheelOfFortune = 0.25)
prize.isLeft shouldBe false
prize.isRight shouldBe true
prize.right.get shouldBe Car("Red")
it should "be a goat in" in {
val prize = determinePrize(wheelOfFortune = 0.8)
prize.isLeft shouldBe true
prize.isRight shouldBe false
prize.left.get shouldBe Goat("Pitu")
it should "be possible to pattern match the prize" in {
val wheelOfFortune = generateRandomDoubleBetween(0, 1)
val prize = determinePrize(wheelOfFortune)
prize match {
case Left(Goat(name)) => println(s"Your goat is called $name")
case Right(Car(color)) => println(s"Your car is $color")

Note: Either is not the same as a tuple! While a tuple is an element containing two values at a time, an instance of Either is either Left[A] or Right[B] and thus contains only a single value of the specified type.

In the third blog post of this trilogy, I'll explain why Lewis and I decided for a refactoring from Option to Either. P.S.: If you ever take part in a Wheel of Fortune, don't be sad if you win the 🐐 - it gives excellent milk🥛 and cheese🧀!