Need a Second Opinion on Your Ruby Code? Ask Crystal

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Need a Second Opinion on Your Ruby Code? Ask Crystal

Ruby's dynamically typed, but Crystal, a Ruby that runs on LLVM, isn't. You can use the static typing to help find bugs prior to deployment - find out how here.

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When it comes to your health, you don’t hesitate to get a second opinion. Doctors don’t always agree, and a second doctor’s appointment is always time well spent when it comes to staying healthy.

But what about your code? A code review is similar to going to see a doctor: Someone examines your code, looks for potential problems and hopefully gives you some advice you can take away. Sadly, however, we don’t always have the time or opportunity for a real code review.

Recently I’ve been learning about the Crystal programming language, a variation on Ruby syntax implemented on the LLVM platform. What’s interesting about Crystal is that is uses static types while at the same time retaining much of Ruby’s original elegance and natural feel. The two languages are so similar, in fact, it’s possible to use the Crystal compiler to parse your Ruby code after making just a few superficial changes. This can be a great way to get helpful feedback on your Ruby code, a free code review from a dramatically different perspective.

Using a compiler for one language on code from another sounds crazy. Will it really work? To find out, let’s look at a simple example.

Rock Stars

Here’s a Ruby class that represents the lead singer of a rock band, and a couple of methods that use it:

 class Singer attr_reader :band, :first_name, :last_name def initialize(band, first_name, last_name) @band = band @first_name = first_name @last_name = last_name end end def lead_singer_for(band, singers) singers.find{|s| s.band == band} end def longest_last_name(singers) singers.map{|s| s.last_name}.max_by{|name| name.size } end 

This is similar to Ruby code I write everyday: small classes containing a few instance variables, and short, simple methods. With some test data we can try out this code to see if it works:

 lead_singers = [ Singer.new("The Rolling Stones", "Mick", "Jagger"), Singer.new("Queen", "Freddie", "Mercury"), Singer.new("The Doors", "Jim", "Morrison") ] singer = lead_singer_for('The Doors', lead_singers) puts "#{singer.first_name} #{singer.last_name}" # => Jim Morrison puts longest_last_name(lead_singers) # => Morrison 

Everything works well. On a real project I’d express this as a series of Minitest expectations, and seeing green I’d go ahead and check it into Git on a branch and ask a colleague for a code review.

But what if no one is around or even awake in my time zone? Or what if I’m working alone on this? Well, I’d have to review my own code alone.

Code Reviewing Yourself

I believe in the medical world doctors have a legal or at least an ethical prohibition on treating themselves, for obvious reasons. And just as giving yourself a physical exam makes no sense, reviewing your own code doesn’t either. You don’t have perspective on what you wrote, especially just after you finish writing it. Usually, a fresh pair of eyes will see mistakes that you can’t see.

But in this case I have no choice – I decide to review my own code before checking it in. And right away I find a problem: I call find but never consider whether the return value could be nil:

 def lead_singer_for(band, singers) singers.find{|s| s.band == band} end 

In my test, I happened to pick a band name that existed in the test data set, but if I misspell it or look for a different band, I would get an error:

 singer = lead_singer_for('Doors', lead_singers) puts "#{singer.first_name} #{singer.last_name}" # => undefined method `first_name' for nil:NilClass (NoMethodError) 

I make this sort of mistake quite often, actually. In fact, I do it so often that checking for nil after calling find is part of my mental checklist for code reviews.

Superficial Syntax Differences: Crystal vs. Ruby

But suppose I was tired or in a rush; I might not have noticed the call to find. And often forgetting to check for a nil return value isn’t as obvious as it is here in this example. What if there was a way to find code issues the Ruby interpreter doesn’t report? Imagine if this code review could happen before my code is ever deployed or used?

There is; we just need to run my Ruby code through the Crystal compiler:

 $ cp lead_singers.rb lead_singers.cr $ crystal lead_singers.cr 

What? Pat, this is nuts. Crystal, while superficially similar to Ruby, is a very different language. How in the world can I use a compiler written for one language on code written in another?

Well, you’re right. I run into a syntax error immediately:

 $ crystal lead_singers.cr Syntax error in ./lead_singers.cr:27: unterminated char literal, use double quotes for strings singer = lead_singer_for('Doors', lead_singers) ^ 

The most common difference of all between Crystal and Ruby is that Crystal uses only double quotes for string literals, while Ruby allows either single or double quotes. (Some people think Ruby should limit us to double quotes also.) A quick search and replace solves this problem:

 singer = lead_singer_for("Doors", lead_singers) 

Let’s compile again:

 $ crystal lead_singers.cr Error in ./lead_singers.cr:3: undefined method 'attr_reader' attr_reader :band, :first_name, :last_name ^~~~~~~~~~~ 

We’ve run into another difference: Crystal uses the property keyword (actually a macro) instead of attr_reader, attr_writer and attr_accessor. Easy enough to fix:

 class Singer property :band, :first_name, :last_name def initialize(band, first_name, last_name) @band = band @first_name = first_name @last_name = last_name end end 

Now let’s try again. Compiling my Ruby code using Crystal for a third time, I get:

 $ crystal lead_singers.cr Error in ./lead_singers.cr:22: instantiating 'Singer:Class#new(String, String, String)' Singer.new("The Rolling Stones", "Mick", "Jagger"), ^~~ instantiating 'Singer#initialize(String, String, String)' in ./lead_singers.cr:6: Can't infer the type of instance variable '@band' of Singer The type of a instance variable, if not declared explicitly with `@band : Type`, is inferred from assignments to it across the whole program. The assignments must look like this: 1. `@band = 1` (or other literals), inferred to the literal's type 2. `@band = Type.new`, type is inferred to be Type 3. `@band = Type.method`, where `method` has a return type annotation, type is inferred from it 4. `@band = arg`, with 'arg' being a method argument with a type restriction 'Type', type is inferred to be Type 5. `@band = arg`, with 'arg' being a method argument with a default value, type is inferred using rules 1, 2 and 3 from it 6. `@band = uninitialized Type`, type is inferred to be Type 7. `@band = LibSome.func`, and `LibSome` is a `lib`, type is inferred from that fun. 8. `LibSome.func(out @band)`, and `LibSome` is a `lib`, type is inferred from that fun argument. Other assignments have no effect on its type. Can't infer the type of instance variable '@band' of Singer @band = band ^~~~~ 

Oh my God, I’ve made a mistake so terrible the Crystal compiler has given me an error message an entire page long! This is never going to work. As you might guess, I’ve fixed all of the superficial syntax issues. Now my Ruby code is essentially Crystal code. This error is telling me I haven’t picked a type for one of my instance variables, which I’ll do next.

But let’s stop for a moment to review what I’ve changed so far:

  • First, I replaced single quotes with double quotes for all of my string literals.
  • Then, I changed attr_reader to property.

There are a few other superficial differences you’ll run into between Ruby and Crystal. Here are a few more I’ve come across:

  • include? is called includes? in Crystal. This reads better in English, but I suppose Crystal loses a bit of that charming Japanese style we’ve come to love in Ruby.
  • The Symbol#to_proc syntax doesn’t work in Crystal, for example map(&:method. Instead, they’ve invented a new syntax for that idiom which doesn’t exist in Ruby: map(&.method). The Crystal team explains why on their blog.
  • Declaring an empty array [] or hash {} requires a type definition, like this: [] of Int32.

The syntax changes I had to deal with are quite small. In fact, it’s amazing the two languages are so similar. In just a few minutes I can change my code from Ruby, a dynamic language running with an interpreter, to Crystal, a statically typed language that compiles to LLVM byte code and later native machine language.

Think About Which Types to Use

Like an X-Ray, Crystal can find problems with your Ruby code hidden underneath the surface.

Of course, now that I’m using a language with static types I have to pick types for my variables. If you’ve ever used an older, statically typed language like Java or C, you know how tedious and verbose this can be. In fact, avoiding static types is why many of us started to use Ruby in the first place.

But one of Crystal’s strengths is that it can guess which type to use for each value in your code based on a series of rules. I don’t have to explicitly write the type for every variable, method argument or return value in my code. This might even be a preview of how Ruby might work in the future.

However, in some cases, Crystal can’t guess which type to use. That’s what happened here. Take the time to read through the page-long error message; it’s quite helpful. It explains all of the patterns the Crystal compiler looked for in my code, @band = 1, @band = Type.new etc. But because my assignment @band = band didn’t fall into any of these categories, Crystal couldn’t figure out what type of value @band represents:

 in ./lead_singers.cr:6: Can't infer the type of instance variable '@band' of Singer 

To fix this, I’ll just declare the type of my @band variable right where I declare it, along with my two other instance variables:

 class Singer property band : String property first_name : String property last_name : String def initialize(band, first_name, last_name) @band = band @first_name = first_name @last_name = last_name end end 

Notice here I use property three times, specifying each variable’s name and type. My three variables, band, first_name and last_name are all strings, so I just need to tell Crystal this using a more verbose declaration.

Now we should be good to go! Let’s try compiling again:

 $ crystal lead_singers.cr Error in ./lead_singers.cr:30: undefined method 'first_name' for Nil (compile-time type is (Singer | Nil)) puts "#{singer.first_name} #{singer.last_name}" ^~~~~~~~~~ ================================================================================ Nil trace: ./lead_singers.cr:29 singer = lead_singer_for("Doors", lead_singers) ^~~~~~ ./lead_singers.cr:29 singer = lead_singer_for("Doors", lead_singers) ^~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ./lead_singers.cr:15 def lead_singer_for(band, singers) ^~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ./lead_singers.cr:16 singers.find{|s| s.band == band} ^~~~ /Users/pat/bllvm/crystal/src/enumerable.cr:228 def find(if_none = nil) /Users/pat/bllvm/crystal/src/enumerable.cr:232 if_none ^~~~~~~ /Users/pat/bllvm/crystal/src/enumerable.cr:228 def find(if_none = nil) ^ 

Ugh; more trouble. Another page-long error message. Maybe I should just forget all about Crystal and go back to writing Ruby.

Understanding a Crystal Nil Trace

Instead, I decide to take some time to understand what Crystal is telling me. I focus at the beginning of the Crystal error message:

 Error in ./lead_singers.cr:30: undefined method 'first_name' for Nil (compile-time type is (Singer | Nil)) puts "#{singer.first_name} #{singer.last_name}" ^~~~~~~~~~ 

This looks unfamiliar to me, a Ruby developer, at first. The message is similar to the error I saw earlier in Ruby when I didn’t check the return value for find. Recall that was “undefined method `first_name' for nil:NilClass (NoMethodError)”. Crystal seems to be telling me the same thing: “undefined method ‘first_name’ for Nil.”

And it is. But instead of giving me a runtime exception, Crystal is giving me a compile time error based on types. Ruby didn’t report the problem until I ran my Ruby code, when Ruby actually tried to call the first_name method on the NilClass class. But Crystal’s compiler has found the problem before my code was ever run. It knows the Nil class doesn’t have a first_name method at compile time.

But why does Crystal think there is a Nil class in my code? I just told it my three instance variables are strings:

 property band : String property first_name : String property last_name : String 

What the Crystal compiler did is quite interesting! While compiling my code, it saw that I use the @band instance variable in the lead_singer_for method:

 def lead_singer_for(band, singers) singers.find{|s| s.band == band} end 

Internally, the Crystal compiler now has to decide what type lead_singer_for returns. That’s obvious, isn’t it? It should return a Singer. The call to find returns a Singer object, the first element of the singers array which matches the band, the element for which the block returns true.

But what if the band name doesn’t match any singers? What if the block never returns true for any element in the array? As we know from Ruby, in that case lead_singer_for would return nil. So lead_singer_for might return nil or it might return a singer.

Crystal’s type system has a solution for this situation: a union type. Crystal decides lead_singer_for returns a (Singer | Nil) type, which it mentions in the error message. Now when I use this return value, Crystal’s compiler knows to check whether the first_name and last_name methods are defined for every class in that union type: Singer and Nil.

The rest of the long error message is known as a “Nil trace.” To help us understand what is wrong, Crystal backtracks through the code starting from where the missing method was found to where the offending type was introduced. You can read the Nil trace above for yourself. It starts with:

 ./lead_singers.cr:29 singer = lead_singer_for("Doors", lead_singers) ^~~~~~ 

And reading down you can see where the Nil type was actually introduced:

 /Users/pat/bllvm/crystal/src/enumerable.cr:228 def find(if_none = nil) 

As you can see, the Nil type is a default value passed to the Enumerable#find method, which I call in lead_singer_for. Crystal’s standard library is entirely implemented using Crystal. This means if I’m curious (and I am) I can read how Crystal implements all of the Enumerable methods. I could even go and experiment with the language by modifying them.

In fact, the Crystal compiler itself is implemented with Crystal! Interested in learning about how a real world compiler works but don’t have time to learn C or C++? Read the Crystal source code.

Think Twice About Which Types to Use

Now back to my example. I’m done, right? Recall in my Ruby code I added a check for the return value of lead_singer_for:

 singer = lead_singer_for("Doors", lead_singers) if singer puts "#{singer.first_name} #{singer.last_name}" else puts "Not found" end 

The same fix will work for Crystal. The Crystal compiler is clever enough to know that inside the first branch of the if-statement the type of singer is Singer and not Nil. And in the second, else branch it is Nil and not Singer. It splits up the union type again depending on the syntax of my program. Amazing.

But before I declare victory, this business about the (Singer | Nil) union type has got me thinking… Crystal decided that a nil value can be introduced by my code in a certain scenario. But maybe nil should be a valid value for one of my variables? After all, I’m dealing with rock stars. Sometimes rock stars become so famous they decide they don’t need a last name any more. What about lead singers like String, Bono or Prince? How would I represent them in my test data set?

The answer is obvious: their singer objects would have a nillast_name value. I would create them like this:

 Singer.new("The Police", "Sting", nil) 

In Ruby, this would have worked just fine. But Crystal objects:

 $ crystal lead_singers.cr Error in ./lead_singers.cr:26: instantiating 'Singer:Class#new(String, String, Nil)' Singer.new("The Police", "Sting", nil), ^~~ instantiating 'Singer#initialize(String, String, Nil)' in ./lead_singers.cr:10: instance variable '@last_name' of Singer must be String, not Nil @last_name = last_name ^~~~~~~~~~ 

What do I do now? How can I save a nil last name in my Singer class? The instance variables are strings and cannot hold nil.

The answer is I picked the wrong type for last_name. To accommodate super-famous singers, I need to use the same union type we saw earlier:

 class Singer property band : String property first_name : String property last_name : (String | Nil) def initialize(band, first_name, last_name) @band = band @first_name = first_name @last_name = last_name end end 

Now I can create the Sting object no problem:

 Singer.new("The Police", "Sting", nil) 

Finally, we’re ready to compile my Ruby and move on!

 $ crystal lead_singers.cr Error in ./lead_singers.cr:37: instantiating 'longest_last_name(Array(Singer))' puts longest_last_name(lead_singers) ^~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ in ./lead_singers.cr:20: undefined method 'size' for Nil (compile-time type is (String | Nil)) singers.map{|s| s.last_name}.max_by{|name| name.size } ^~~~ ================================================================================ Nil trace: ./lead_singers.cr:20 singers.map{|s| s.last_name}.max_by{|name| name.size } ^~~~ 

Once again the Crystal compiler has stopped me in my tracks. When will I ever get this right? Is this another Ruby vs. Crystal difference? Another subtlety of the Crystal type system I need to learn about?

Static Types Reveal a Hidden Problem

No. Crystal has found a real problem with by Ruby code, a problem I never noticed. Because Sting doesn’t have a last name, the longest_last_name method runs into a problem:

 def longest_last_name(singers) singers.map{|s| s.last_name}.max_by{|name| name.size } end 

The first call to map returns an array of last names, which now will contain nil. Then I pass that array into max_by which converts the names into corresponding name lengths, and then returns the longest name.

Now that I know where to look, it’s easy to see the problem: max_by will pass nil to the second block for Sting’s missing last name, and the block will then try to call the size method on nil. Easy enough to fix:

 def longest_last_name(singers) singers.map{|s| s.last_name}.compact.max_by{|name| name.size } end 

Using compact, I remove the nil element from the array of names, meaning the size method will never be called on nil. Of course, now that I’m thinking about nil values and the longest_last_name method, I realize that maybe all the singers are super-famous and have no last names, or possibly there were no singers to begin with. I tighten up my code even more:

 def longest_last_name(singers) singers_with_last_names = singers.map{|s| s.last_name}.compact unless singers_with_last_names.empty? singers_with_last_names.max_by{|name| name.size } end end last_name = longest_last_name(lead_singers) if last_name puts last_name else puts "Not found" end 

Now everything works!

One interesting footnote here: Ruby allows me to get away without checking for an empty array using unless. In Ruby if I call max_by on an empty array it simply returns nil, meaning there is no maximum value at all. But Crystal is even more strict: It raises an runtime exception “Empty enumerable (Enumerable::EmptyError)”. In a sense this is going a bit overboard, because nil seems to me a valid result in this case. But on the other hand, calling max_by on an empty array might be an indication of other problems in my code. Crystal brings that to my attention, but with a runtime exception not a compile error. Crystal reports runtime errors for other cases as well, for example looking for a value in a hash when the key doesn’t exist:

 hash = { "a" => 123 } puts hash["b"] # => Missing hash key: :b (KeyError) 

The Crystal compiler expects a higher level of quality and thoroughness in my code than Ruby does, it seems to me.


There are two important concepts I took away from this exercise. First, using Ruby we depend on the completeness of our test suite in order to find and avoid mistakes. Precisely which values you choose for your test data set is very important. If I had thought of using Sting when I originally wrote my tests, I would have found the missing last name problem right away. But I didn’t.

Second, the most tedious and time-consuming part of converting from Ruby to Crystal, choosing a type for each value in my code, is of course, the most valuable step in the process. It wasn’t until I tried using (String | Nil) for the @last_name variable that the Crystal compiler found the missing last name problem for me.

You still may not be convinced. This was obviously a very contrived example and using the Crystal compiler on real-world Ruby code won’t be easy. I agree. It would be pointless to try to compile a large Rails application using Crystal.

But look over your code. I would guess there are a few important methods or classes which are central to your application’s behavior and logic. Take an hour or two and copy and paste those important lines of code into a separate file, stub out any dependencies, and run it through the Crystal compiler. Take the time to convert your code to use static types. Take the time to think carefully about which types of values your code should be able to handle.

Bring your important Ruby code to the Crystal compiler for a second opinion. You might be surprised by what Crystal finds.

ruby ,rails ,web dev

Published at DZone with permission of Pat Shaughnessy , DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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