Exploring Scala Options

January 27, 2014

About Scala options

Scala Option is a very convenient way to deal with objects that may not be defined. Most languages tend to represent an undefined object as null, leading to all kinds of null-checking code, and uncaught NullPointerExceptions. In fact, null is such a bad idea that its inventor, Tony Hoare, called it his billion dollar mistake 1.

This post will not be about whether you should use null or not; instead, you will learn how to use the Scala Option feature to simplify coding if you do decide to avoid nulls in Scala (as is highly recommended).

What is an Option?

Option is a Scala class used to represent values that are either an instance of Some[A] if the value is present, or an instance of None in case the value is not present (similar to null). Options are monads, and as such provide several important methods that allow for operations and composition: map, foreach, filter, and flatMap. In addition, Options provide other useful methods such as isEmpty, get, getOrElse, orElse, etc.

When you first start using Option, it is really tempting to make use of Opion.get - do not fall into temptation. Option.get will throw an exception if the Option value is None, which is equivalent to not using Options and accessing a null object. Instead, using the various other methods defined on the Option class in order to make the most of Scala.

Creating an Option

The easiest way to create an Option is to use the apply method in the Option companion object.

val option1 = Option("Foobar")

You can also define a value that is empty, or None:

val option2 = None

Options come in very handy when interacting with libraries that rely on null values:

val input = null
val option3 = Option(null) // option3 will be None

Important Note: You can also create an instance of the Some class by wrapping values with Some(). Unlike Option.apply however, Some.apply will wrap the null value instead of returning an instance of None, so be especially careful when using Some.apply:

val option4: Option[String] = Some(null) // option4 is an instance of Some[String] with value set to null
val option5: Option[String] = Option(null) // option5 is an instance of None

Working with Options

Transform values

Use Option.map to transform a value where the transformation function returns a value not wrapped in an Option:

def toUpper(s: String) = s.toUpperCase

val result = None.map(toUpper) // Returns None
val result = Option("foo").map(toUpper) // Returns Some("FOO")
val result = Option("12345").map(_.length) // Returns Some(5)

The equivalent of above code using match instead:

def toUpper(s: String) = s.toUpperCase

val result = Option("foo") match {
    case None => None
    case Some(x) => Some(toUpper(x))

And for fun, an equivalent without using functional programming concents:

def toUpper(s: String) = s.toUpperCase
val foo = Some("foo")

val result = 
    if (foo.isDefined)

Apply a method to the Option's value

Sometimes we want to apply a method to the option's value, such as print the option's value, or perform a unit of work. In such cases, where we do not care about the value returned from our method (i.e. we do not want to transform the option's value), we use Option.foreach:

def log(msg: String): Unit = println(s"Message Length: ${msg.length}")
Option("I am a log statement").foreach(log) // Prints "Message Length: 20")
None.foreach(log) // Does nothing

Option("Another Example").foreach(println) // Prints "Another Example"

Above code can also be rewritten in a more verbose mode, though use of foreach is encouraged due to brewity:

Option("I am a log statement") match {
    case Some(s) => log(s)
    case None =>

val o = Option("I am a log statement")
if (o.isDefined)
    log(o.get) // we know o.get will return a value since we already tested it

Combining multiple Options

Occasionally we need to combine several methods, each of which returns an option, to return a result. Database and web service access will often need to make combine results from multiple method calls that return options. Generally speaking, we do not want to return a nested Option; instead we want to flatten the results to a single Option[A] value. Here is an example of how we can combine options using Option.flatMap:

// Database accessor methods that return user's data
def getUserById(id: Long): Option[User] = {...}
def getBusinessByUserId(userId: Long): Option[Business] = {...}
def getBusinessProfileByBusinessId(businessId: Long): Option[BusinessProfile] = {...}

// Combine results of above methods to return employee count at user's business
val id = 100
val businessDetails: Option[(String, Int)] = getUserById(id).flatMap { user =>
    getBusinessByUserId(user.userId).flatMap { business =>
        getBusinessProfileByBusinessId(business.businessId).map { businessProfile =>
            (business.name, businessProfile.employeeCount) // return the business name and employee count

In the above example, we will return the employee count if and only if we've successfully retrieved our user, business, and business profile. If any of the three calls return None, we will immediately return None as our employee count, indicating that we were not able to find all the necessary data.

Deep nesting issues become immediately apparent with above code as soon as we start combining results from more than a couple methods. Thankfully, Scala has a convenient way of combining options using the for-yield construct. for-yield comprehensions are only syntactic sugar - they get compiled to a standard map/flatMap expression. However they hide a lot of ugly code for us, so its usability is immediatley apparent:

val businessDetails: Option[(String, Int)] = for {
    user <- getUserById(id)
    business <- getBusinessByUserId(user.userId)
    businessProfile <- getBusinessProfileByBUsinessId(business.businessId)
} yield {
    (business.name, businessProfile.businessId)

Once again, if any one of the three calls returns None, businessDetails will also be set to None.

Flattening nested Options

If you ever end up with nested options in form of Option(Option[A]), calling flatten will return the inner option or None if the inner option is also None:

val o1 = Option("foo")
val o2 = None
val o3 = Option(o1) // Option(Option("foo"))
val o4 = Option(o2) // Option(None)

val o5 = o3.flatten // Option("foo")
val o6 = o4.flatten // None

Option.flatten can also be written using match:

Option(Option("foo")) match {
    case Some(x) => x
    case None => None

Testing whether Option value is defined

Option.isEmpty returns true if option value is not defiend (i.e. if it is None), false otherwise Option.isDefined returns true if the option value is defined, false otherwise

Option("foo").isEmpty // false
None.isEmpty // true
Option("foo").isDefined // true
None.isDefined // false

Once again, the equivalent written using match:

// Option.isEmpty
Option("foo") match {
    case Some(_) => false
    case None => true

// Option.isDefined
Option("foo") match {
    case Some(_) => true
    case None => false

Working with Option values

Sometimes we want to retrieve the option value instead of applying a transformation function to the value. In such cases, we can use one of several methods:


val full: Option[String] = Option("Glass is full")
val empty: Option[String] = None

full.getOrElse("Glass is empty") // returns "Glass is full"
empty.getOrElse("Glass is empty") // returns "Glass is empty"

def default = "Glass is empty"
empty.getOrElse(default) // pass method returning a string, returns "Glass is empty".  Only evaluated if option is `None` (i.e. lazy evaluation)

full.orElse(Option("Glass is empty")) // returns Option("Glass is full")
empty.orElse(Option("Glass is empty")) // returns Option("Glass is empty")

full.orNull // returns "Glass is full"
empty.orNull // returns null

full.get // returns "Glass is full"
empty.get // throws NoSuchElementException

Further reading

So far I've explained core methods of the Option Scala object. There are dozens more useful methods that you can explore by reading the API Docs.


I am a software developer from Winnipeg with a passion for learning about new things on a regular basis.
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