Thursday, September 20, 2018

Null/Undefined Analysis in N4JS

The N4JS IDE integrates validations and analyses that are quite common for IDEs of statically typed languages. However, these analyses are seldom available for dynamically typed languages like N4JS or TypeScript. In this post we present the null/undefined analysis for N4JS source code.

TypeError: Cannot read property of undefined
- Developer's staff of life

The runtime error above occurs pretty often for JavaScript programmers: A quick search on Google returned about 1.2 million for the term TypeError: Cannot read property of undefined. When constraining search results to the query will still yield 126 thousand results. These numbers are comparable to the somewhat similar error NullPointerException which has about 3 million hits on Google and about 525 thousand when constrained to Some of these results are caused by rather simple mistakes that a null/undefined analysis could detect. As a result, the developer could restructure his code and remove these potential errors even before he runs his first test and hence save time.

Null/Undefined Analysis

The N4JS IDE provides static analyses to indicate problems when it detects a property access on a variable which can be null or undefined. The analysis considers all assignments that occur either through a simple assignment expression or via destructuring. Loops, conditional expressions (e.g. i = c? 1 : 0;) and declaration initializers are respected as well.

The screenshot above shows a first example where a potential TypeError is detected. Since there exists at least one control flow from v.length backwards to all reachable definitions of v,  such that one definition assigns null or undefined to v, a warning is issued telling that v may be undefined.

To make sure that the analysis will produce fast results, it is implemented within some limitations. One is that the analysis is done separately for each body of a function, method, etc. (i.e. intra-procedural analysis). Hence it lacks knowledge of variables that cross the borders of these bodies such as the return value of a nested function call. In addition, property variables (such as v.length) are not analyzed since this would require the analysis to be context sensitive to the receiver object (here v). However, these limitations are common for static analyses of statically typed languages and still allow to detect many problems regarding local variables and parameters.

Usually, the analysis makes optimistic assumptions. For instance it can happen that a local variable receives the value of a method call or another non-local variable. In this situation the analysis assumes this value is neither null nor undefined. The same is true for function parameters. Only when there are distinct indications in the source code for a value of a local variable to be null or undefined, the analysis will issue a warning.



Sometimes the programmer knows that a variable may be null or undefined and hence checks the variable explicitly, for instance using if (v) {...}. As a result this check disables the warning in the then-branch that complies to the execution semantics.

As shown in the screenshot above, neither at the expression w.length < 1 nor at the statement return w.length; a warning is shown. Of course, the else-branch of such a check would consequently always indicate a warning when a property of variable v is accessed. Checks for conditional expressions and binary logical expressions (e.g. v && v.length) are also supported. A reader might think: "In case w is null the expression w.length would fail." True, but in this example the analysis detects the value of w being undefined. In case null might have been assigned to w e.g. in an if-condition before, the analysis will issue a warning of w being null at the two w.length expressions.

Data Flow

There are situations where the value of a variable is null or undefined due to a previous assignment of a variable which may have been null or undefined before, like shown in the example above. Then, the null/undefined dereference problem occurs later when a property is accessed. Since the analysis respects data flow, it can follow the subsequent assignments. Hence a warning is shown at a property access indicating the null or undefined problem. Moreover, the warning also indicates the source of the null or undefined value which would be the variable w in the example above.

The interested reader would find more details about the N4JS flow graphs and their implementation in the N4JS Design Document, Chapter: Flow Graphs.

by Marcus Mews