Friday, December 27, 2013

Let's talk about Undef

Let's talk about Undef

In the previous post about the Puppet 3.5 experimental feature Puppet Types I presented and overview of the types in the Puppet Type System and provided details about the Scalar types.

In this third post on the topic of the new Type System, I am going to present undef - what it means to have undefined value, and what it means when something is empty. At least from a type perspective - if you are in a bar with a drink in your hand with undefined or empty contents you have a very different problem.

Let's talk about Undef

All computer languages have to deal with "undefinedness"; a variable that has no value, an array or hash that is empty, a hash with no value for a key, etc. When the language also has the ability to use a symbol to denote the "undefinedness" it gets more complicated since it is now also represented by a value and it can be used as the value of a variable, as a key or value in a hash entry etc.

Only undef is Undef

To start out simple, the literal undef in the Puppet Language is the only thing that is an instance of the Undef type. We can easily confirm this:

 undef =~ Undef     # true
 42    =~ Undef     # false
 hi    =~ Undef     # false
                    # etc.

The undef value is also an Object.

 undef =~ Object    # true

The value undef is also produced when something looked up does not have a value.

 $hsh = { a => 10 }
 $hsh[b] =~ Undef    # true

So far, this is quite straight forward. The fun starts when considering collections of values that may be empty, contain a mix of values and undef etc.

Combining undef with values

When the type system performs type inference (the act of figuring out the type of values) it will combine types to produce a single type that describes the value / values. It does this by widening (i.e. making the type more general). Say, if we combine an Integer with a Float, the inference will return Numeric, since that is the type that is general enough to describe both of them. When undef is involved, the only more general type is Object.

 [1, 3.14]  =~ Array[Numeric]  # true
 [1, undef] =~ Array[Numeric]  # false
 [1, undef] =~ Array[Object]   # true

We now have a problem if we do not want to accept all kinds of objects just because we want to accept undef values among the numbers. Luckily, the type system has a type called Optional that does exactly what we want in this situation, it accepts something of a specific type or Undef.

 [1, undef]    =~ Array[Optional[Numeric]] # true
 [1, a, undef] =~ Array[Optional[Numeric]] # false

In case you wonder, if the array only contains undef values, its type is Array[Undef].

 [undef, undef] =~ Array[Undef]  # true


"Emptiness" is very much related to "Undefinedness". As an example - what is the type of the elements of an empty array? Clearly, there is a difference between an empty array and an array containing undef values.

The type system handles this by using a different quality of the array; its size. The concept is generalized; Collection, Array, Hash, and String are types that consider the size of values - they are said to be sized types.

  • By default a sized type allows the instance to be empty (as well as having unlimited size).
  • An empty sized collection (array, hash) has an element type that matches any type

Here are some examples:

 [] =~ Array[Integer]         # true
 [] =~ Array[String]          # true
 {} =~ Hash[Scalar, String]  # true

We can make this behave in a strict way by also constraining the size - read on...

Constraining the Size

The Type System supports constraining the size of the sized types. This is done by using a range (like we have already seen when expressing Integer and Float ranges).

We can specify that a String should not be empty:

 String[1]        # at least one character
 '' =~ String[1]  # false

We can cap the upper limit:

 String[1,80]           # min 1, max 80 characters
 'abcd' =~ String[1,3]  # false, too long

For an Array the limit comes after the type:

 Array[Integer, 1]      # at least one Integer
 Array[Integer, 1, 10]  # at least one Integer, at most 10

The same is true for Hash:

 Hash[Scalar, Integer, 1]      # at least one Integer entry
 Hash[Scalar, Integer, 1, 10]  # at least one Integer entry, at most 10

The Collection type also accepts a range (but no type).

Collection[1]  # i.e. a non-empty collection (array or hash)

The range can be specified as one or two integer values, using a literal default, by giving an Integer type with a range, or an array containing the values. This means you can do things like these:

$range = Integer[1,10]
$arr =~ Array[Integer, $range]

$range = [$from, $to]
$arr =~ Array[Integer, $range]

In the Next Post

In the next post I am going to talk about the Variant, and Data types - types that represent a selection of other types and how they can be used.

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