Revamping Rust Embedded Error Handling - a case for embedded-error

In this blog post we'll have a look at error handling in Rust embedded scenarios. How does this work at the moment, what are the user expectations and what can we do to make error handling future proof?


There have been many great articles, discussions and talks about error handling Rust in the last few months. The ecosystem has made great progress on that front ever since the std::error::Error trait became powerful with the introduction of the source method in 1.30.0 and the #[non_exhaustive] attribute in 1.40.0. I'm really amazed about the fantastic work and would highly recommend to have a look at e.g. anyhow and thiserror to see some state of the art possibilities, if you're not familiar with those achievements.

BUT we're talking about embedded here and there're some notable differences to what is possible in the std world mentioned above. Some of these are:

Of course it needs also to be possible to easily bridge the gap between no_std and std since devices like a Raspberry Pi should also be able to use embedded device drivers, so we should not stray to far away from known territory.

The current situation

In embedded we achieve composability by relying on the traits provided by the embedded-hal crate. This provides an interface between HAL implementations providing the access to the hardware peripherals on one side and drivers and/or applications on the other side. In the current version most of the traits are fallible, in the upcoming version 1.0 there will only be fallible methods, so we will always have a Result returning us any errors or other conditions from the hardware peripherals or external components hooked up to those peripherals.

However there's one slight snag: All error kinds are based on associated types defined inside the traits. Take the serial::Read trait for example:

pub trait Read<Word> {
    /// Read error
    type Error;

    /// Reads a single word from the serial interface
    fn read(&mut self) -> nb::Result<Word, Self::Error>;

What this means is that the implementation defines its own error type and asssigns it as an associated type in its implementation. So every user of this trait needs to know exactly what the Err kind type is and be able to handle the relevant specific cases of that particular type, which is... not ideal.

So within an application the Result handling is specific to the HAL impl it is using. This might be okay in a few cases because you don't care about the non-Ok case or you simply use wildcard handling for errors. Of course you could also create a cfg-gated features mess to adapt to each possible hardware abstraction your application is supposed to run on.

But what if you want to write a generic driver which only depends those traits and does not even know which hardware it'll be running on and this particular driver requires to handle specific conditions which can only be signalled using the Err part? E.g. there're flash chips for the I2C bus which will return a NACK condition when they're currently busy processing a previous request. The driver would know what to do when that occurs but it cannot know about the condition, because it's part of a custom type only known to the HAL implementation. The only thing a driver can do is forward the Err to the application which might either not be able to cope with it in the context of the driver or run into the previously mentioned problem again.

How to deal with the Err case in a generic way?

In order to address this problem with arbitrary unknown Err cases, I've proposed and created a new crate called embedded-error. The concept behind that is based on the very same principles used by enum std::io::ErrorKind, which are:

In order to make it useful for embedded uses I introduced a few additional ideas:

This allows us to have dependable Err types which everyone knows and which are able to convey an exact message to the user of an embedded-hal implementation or driver and thus to handle errors efficiently and idependently of the target platform while being easily extendable at any point in the future whenever the need arises.

Future plans for embedded-error

At the moment it is mostly a proof of concept and does by far not cover all possible peripherals and error kinds. But that's okay because as mentioned we can add more types at any time and I'd highly encourage everyone to PR their favourite error kinds to the embedded-error repository.

I will also convert various HAL impls (like stm32f0xx-hal and stm32f4xx-hal, unless someone beats me to it 😉) to those error kinds because most of those custom error kinds are very rudimentatry. So at least from a documentation and naming perspective such a change makes a lot of sense even though we still have the associated type complication in embedded-hal for now.

Of course the final step would be general acceptance and use through embedded-hal by getting rid of the associated type. But quite frankly I'm very tired of the discussion in Issue #229 (and in private) where the current opinion is stuck in "this is nice but not good enough for [insert hypothetical use case here], so let's rather do nothing at all" limbo.

Please feel free to let me know your thoughts, either personally via the available channels or via issues in the mentioned repositories. Of course I'd also love to PRs implementing or furthering any of the mentioned things.

So long and until the next post. 👋