So how then, given this problem, are we to try to write null-safe code in Scala? NullPointerExceptions (NPEs) occur when we try to access a field, method, or index, of an object that is actually null.

case class A(b: B)
case class B(c: C)
case object C

val a: A = null

a.b.c //Would result in an NPE

Most Scala programmers would opt to wrap their code in Option in order to avoid NPEs, however sometimes you don’t have the option (pun intended) to do this. I frequently ran into this situation at my work, where we needed to pull data out of highly nested Avro classes, in some cases 6 levels deep. Avro schemas get compiled into regular Java objects, that don’t use Option. So then what, if your code is not designed around Option, is the best approach to extract deeply nested values in a null-safe way? Essentially, what is missing from Scala here is a safe navigation operator similar to Groovy or Kotlin.§

In order to find the best solution to this problem, I began by enumerating all of the possible ways that I could think of to implement null-safe access.

1. Explicit null safety

if(a != null){
   val b = a.b
   if(b != null){
   } else null
} else null

Pros: Very efficient, just comprised of null-checks

Cons: Poor readability and writability

2. Option flatmap

   .flatMap(a => Option(a.b))
   .flatMap(b => Option(b.c))

Pros: Better read/writability, but still not great.

Cons: High performance overhead, object allocation + virtual method calls per level of drilldown

3. For Loop

for {
 aOpt <- Option(a)
 b <- Option(aOpt.b)
 c <- Option(b.c)
} yield c

Similar to the approach #2, but slightly slower and worse readability.

4. Null-safe navigator extension method

implicit class nullSafe[A](val a: A) extends AnyVal {
 def ?[B <: AnyRef](f: A => B): B = if (a == null) null else f(a)


Pros: Pretty readable syntax. No object allocation.

Cons: Syntax still not perfect. 1 function call per level of drilldown

5. Try Catch NPE

try { a.b.c } catch {
 case _: NullPointerException => null

Pros: Syntax could be very nice if abstracted out to a function

Cons: Harsh performance penalty in case of NPE. Could intercept other NPEs

6. Monocle Lenses

import monocle.Optional
val aGetB = Optional[A,B]{
    case A(b) if b != null => Some(b)
    case _ => None
}(b => { case A(_) => A(b) })
val bGetC = Optional[B,C]{
    case B(c) if c != null => Some(c)
    case _ => None
}(c => { case B(_) => B(c) })
val aGetC = aGetB composeOptional bGetC


I didn’t really consider using lenses when I began this project, but someone asked me one time, “Why not use lenses, like in Monocle?” So I tried it out, but it didn’t succeed in either read/writability, or performance, in this use case.

7. § com.thoughtworks NullSafe DSL

So actually, when I began this project I didn’t know that this library existed. Essentially what it does is add in the missing safe navigation operator to Scala, via a compiler plugin.

import com.thoughtworks.dsl.keywords.NullSafe._


It has nice syntax, but it does introduce some performance overhead.

Comparing Approaches

Here are some benchmarks of the different approaches.

Performance of different null-safe implementations
Performance of different null-safe implementations
Data in tabular form
[info] Benchmark                             Mode  Cnt    Score   Error   Units
[info] Benchmarks.fastButUnsafe             thrpt   20  230.157 ± 0.572  ops/us
[info] Benchmarks.explicitSafeAbsent        thrpt   20  429.090 ± 0.842  ops/us
[info] Benchmarks.explicitSafePresent       thrpt   20  231.400 ± 0.660  ops/us
[info] Benchmarks.optionSafeAbsent          thrpt   20  139.369 ± 0.272  ops/us
[info] Benchmarks.optionSafePresent         thrpt   20  129.394 ± 0.102  ops/us
[info] Benchmarks.loopSafeAbsent            thrpt   20  114.330 ± 0.113  ops/us
[info] Benchmarks.loopSafePresent           thrpt   20   59.513 ± 0.097  ops/us
[info] Benchmarks.nullSafeNavigatorAbsent   thrpt   20  274.222 ± 0.441  ops/us
[info] Benchmarks.nullSafeNavigatorPresent  thrpt   20  181.356 ± 1.538  ops/us
[info] Benchmarks.tryCatchSafeAbsent        thrpt   20  254.158 ± 0.686  ops/us
[info] Benchmarks.tryCatchSafePresent       thrpt   20  230.081 ± 0.659  ops/us
[info] Benchmarks.monocleOptionalAbsent     thrpt   20   77.755 ± 0.800  ops/us
[info] Benchmarks.monocleOptionalPresent    thrpt   20   36.446 ± 0.506  ops/us
[info] Benchmarks.nullSafeDslAbsent         thrpt   30  228.660 ± 0.475  ops/us
[info] Benchmarks.nullSafeDslPresent        thrpt   30  119.723 ± 0.506  ops/us
[success] Total time: 3909 s, completed Feb 24, 2019 3:03:02 PM

In order to summarize the pros and cons of each approach, let’s evaluate them based on null-safty, read/writability, and efficiency.

  Null-safe Readable / Writable Efficient
Normal access :no_entry: :heavy_check_mark: :heavy_check_mark:
Explicit null-checks :heavy_check_mark: :no_entry: :heavy_check_mark:
Option flatMap :heavy_check_mark: :no_entry: :no_entry:
For loop flatMap :heavy_check_mark: :warning: :no_entry:
Null-safe navigator :heavy_check_mark: :warning: :warning:
Try-catch NPE :heavy_check_mark: :heavy_check_mark: :warning:
Monocle Optional (lenses) :heavy_check_mark: :skull: :warning:
thoughtworks NullSafe DSL :heavy_check_mark: :heavy_check_mark: :warning:

Key: :heavy_check_mark:️ = Good, :warning: = Sub-optimal, :no_entry: = Bad

After evaluating all of the options available, I wasn’t quite satisfied with any of them, so I decided to create a new way via Scala’s blackbox macros.