The error code you get might not be the one you want

Raymond Chen

A customer was following the instructions on how to create a register a background task from a Win32 desktop app, but they found that the sample code failed with an exception:

bool taskRegistered = false;
std::wstring sampleTaskName = L"SampleTask";
auto allTasks = BackgroundTaskRegistration::AllTasks();
//                                          ^^^^^^^^^ exception

for (auto const& task : allTasks)
    if (task.Value().Name() == sampleTaskName)
        taskRegistered = true;

// The code in the next step goes here.

The code for the exception was ERROR_NOT_FOUND (“Element not found”).

Which is weird. I mean, I’m asking for all of the tasks, and you’re telling me “I couldn’t find any” and throwing an exception? Shouldn’t it just be returning an empty collection if there aren’t any existing tasks?

Indeed, it does return an empty collection if there aren’t any existing tasks. The error code is not telling you that there are no existing tasks. The error code is telling you that your app doesn’t have a packaged app identity (probably because it’s not packaged at all). The thing that couldn’t be find was the package identity.

Okay, sure, but shouldn’t the error code have been APPMODEL_ERROR_NO_PACKAGE (“The process has no package identity”)?

Error codes are one of the places where abstractions are leakiest, because errors merely propagate out from their point of origin, and the context in which the error is generated may not be anything the application developer is aware of.

In this case, what’s happening is that the request is going down through the background task infrastructure. The request goes out to a server, and the server tries to find out who is calling. There’s an internal function for identifying the caller, and it works by looking for information inside the caller’s token.

If the caller does not have package identity, then the “Find the thing in a token” function returns ERROR_NOT_FOUND because “I couldn’t find the thing you asked about.” That low-level function doesn’t know why the caller is asking for the thing. It is just reporting the simple fact that the thing the caller wants is not present.

As the error propagates out of the system, nobody thinks to say “Let me transform that generic ERROR_NOT_FOUND into this other more specific-sounding error code,” so what comes out is a generic ERROR_NOT_FOUND.

Which is technically correct, but in the context of something you the application developer are probably unaware of.

As a general rule, HRESULTs and Win32 error codes are like that. The actual numeric value is often descriptive of a low-level situation far removed from the high-level operation the application requested. In the absence of specific documentation to the contrary, the only stable thing about HRESULT and Win32 error codes is whether or not they succeeded. If they report failure, you might be able to use the specific value to help guide debugging, but it’s not usually expected that they be specific with pinpoint accuracy.

This is one reason why the Windows Runtime design guidelines recommend that failures that application are expected to reason over should be reported with a specific enumeration, rather than using HRESULTs. This makes the stability boundary explicit: The system will make sure that the errors map to one of the values of the enumeration, even if under the covers they are aggregated from multiple sources. It is the system’s responsibility to take those failures and convert them to something that the application can rely on not changing.

Bonus chatter: As far as I can tell, the APPMODEL_ERROR_NO_PACKAGE error code is used only by a handful of functions in appmodel.h.


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  • Felix Collins 0

    This is a classic case where access to the source code allows the API consuming developer to figure out what is going on. In my career I have several times had to burrow deep into win32 code at the asm level (with only the symbol names to guide me) to figure out why I am getting a weird error. It is amazing what one can deduce from function names alone, but I would have saved hours if I had the source!

    • 0

      This is #1 reason why UWP/WinRT is DOA. It is completely closed source and completely unpredictable. Native code is so overrated.

  • Dave Gzorple 0

    This is where stacked error codes are handy: “Component X reported this: Component Y reported this: Component Z reported this: Quadrant change in relocatable expression in subspace $CODE$” (that last one is an actual error message, from PHUX). That way the error-generating component can report the error that makes sense for it, and the chain of control gives it context. Having said that the Java-style error backtraces take this to ridiculous lengths, so you need a balance between too little and too much.

    • Raymond ChenMicrosoft employee 0

      And that’s what 16-bit HRESULTs were. Turns out almost nobody looked at it. The idea has been reinvented with RoTransformError, so it’s still there if you want it, although it relies on the error code producer to provide the transformation information.

  • Kim Homann 0

    In an ideal world, every function calling a function that may throw an exception should handle all of the possible exceptions and decide one by one what would be sensible to do with them, usually throwing an exception itself, but with a message that fits the caller’s context, not the called function’s context.

    Unfortunately, this is not made easy by C++ oder C# like in Java, where all possible exceptions have to be declared upfront.

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