How to F# - Part 6

Handling data that is not there

Functional F# .NET

Sometimes when dealing with data, the value you are expecting does not exist. Functional programming has a common abstraction for dealing with this called Maybe. In F# this abstraction is known as option.

Rather than just diving into the functional way of handling no data lets briefly dive into how non-functional languages typically handle the absence of data, namely null.

What is the problem with null?

So what problem are we solving by abstracting what it means to have data or not? Well lets look at how things are typically handled in most popular languages. In languages like Java, C#, and Javascript null represents the intentional absence of any object. So why is this a problem? Firstly, null carries no information about the type of data that was expected. Was it a missing string or a Person object? If null is all you have, you by definition have NOTHING! The other problem is in the handling of it. You need to explicitly handle any case where a value may be null.

// Problem 1: Need to check for null
} else ...

This means your code can become littered with null checks and if you forget to check and a null sneaks through, your code will throw some kind of NullReferenceException.

// Problem 2: If you do not check for null your application can blow up
var email = (firstname.ToLower()) + ""; 

If firstname is null, this statement will throw an exception and possibly crash our application.

The strategies for mitigating these problems are to try catch all nulls at the boundaries of your application and to use the Null Object/Special Case pattern. We won't go into these but my main criticism is the noise it adds to the code.

Maybe this is here

The nice thing about the Maybe abstraction is it is generic, unlike the Special Case and in general can be much more elegant, saving you from repeatedly checking for null.

As mentioned before, in F# the Maybe abstraction (known as a Monad in functional programming theory) is an option. To see how it works we are going to define a function that takes a name as string option and turns it into an email.

First, lets briefly discuss what option actually is. option can have one of 2 values : Some of 'T OR None. We can optionally have some value of type 'T, else we will have None.

Below we see how we define a value with Some or None

let fname1 = Some "Brandon"
let fname2 = None
//string option -> string option
let makeEmail name = (fun n -> sprintf "%[email protected]" n) name
let email1 = makeEmail fname1
let email2 = makeEmail fname2

val email1 : string option = Some "[email protected]" val email2 : string option = None has a signature of ('T -> 'U) -> 'T option -> 'U option.

  1. ('T -> 'U) - a function that maps from 'T to 'U. This is a generic function so in our case it is a function of string -> string
  2. 'T option - the input value to map. In our case 'T will be string that is the name
  3. 'U option - the return value of type 'U will be the email string


What if we wanted to have a fallback email incase no name was supplied? That is simple enough:

//string option -> string option
let makeEmail name =
    |> Option.orElse (Some "info")
    |> (fun n -> sprintf "%[email protected]" n)

We have changed to a pipeline style now where the string option is piped through Option.orElse which. If the value is Some it passes through, if it is None it gets the value of Some("info").

Running again we would get the following value for email2:

val email2 : string option = Some "[email protected]"

Handling null

What if we are getting values from a database but always wrapping them in Some. Then we would be getting values of Some(null). We could convert the Some(null) to None using Option.bind. This has a signature ('T -> 'U option) -> 'U option. So we would pass it a function of string -> string option, which you can see below is the Option.ofObj function.

//string option -> string
let makeEmail name =  
    |> Option.bind Option.ofObj
    |> Option.orElse (Some "info")
    |> (fun n -> sprintf "%[email protected]" n)

Finally, what if we are dealing with data that comes from a C# library and we had not wrapped them in Some? Values could be null. Lets ease out makeEmail constraints a bit and just accept string, we will then transform it directly to an option type. Unfortunately since databases and other languages make null an acceptable value we often do still have to deal with it when stepping outside our process.

//string -> string
let makeEmail name = 
    let sanitizeString (s:string) = null |> (fun x -> if (box x = null) then None else Some(x))
    |> Option.bind sanitizeString
    |> Option.orElse (Some "info")
    |> (fun n -> sprintf "%[email protected]" n)
    |> Option.get

In the above example I also then returned the contained values, so a string instead of string option.

Now at this point you might ask what is the point of using option and I would tend to agree. This is after all, demo code. I just wanted to point out how to sanitize a possible null value and then use Option.get to get the 'T value. In this case string. get will throw a ArgumentException if passed a None.


We really just scratched the surface of the functions available on Option but I hope you have seen how it can be used to represent the absence of data. Although when dealing with the outside world (outside your application process) you are still forced to think about the possibility of null, Option has some major advantages over its OO counterparts. For one there is a lot less branching logic. The Option functions will often just handle None elegantly. This is a particular challenge of the Special case approach which requires you to think about a specific implementation for every type that can be null and think about what a no operation means.

The most important function to understand here though would have to be map. We will see map over and over in different modules. It allows you to operate in the abstraction you are in without leaving that abstraction but still manipulate the data contained within.

Next up we will finally be diving into collections.


  1. Null Values
  2. Option

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