Specifying Exceptions with Servant and Swagger



To be able to exert fine-grained control over errors defined in Swagger API specifications.


Our API is defined in Haskell with Servant, and translated into Swagger format using the servant-swagger library.

Swagger makes it possible to specify that an endpoint can return one or more errors. For example, the following specification states that the endpoint can return a 404 (not found) error:

"responses" :
  { "200" : { "schema" : {"$ref" : "#/definitions/Location" }
            , "description" : "the matching location" } }
  , "404" : { "description" : "a matching location was not found" }

By default, Servant doesn’t provide a way for API authors to manually specify errors they might wish to return. However, this might be desirable: consider the case where you’d like to perform validation based on constraints that are not conveniently expressible in the Haskell type system. In this case, you would reject input at run-time, but this would typically not be reflected in the Servant type.

Since Servant itself doesn’t provide a way to manually specify errors, and since it is typical to define errors when writing a Swagger specification, servant-swagger takes the approach of auto-generating errors when various Servant combinators appear in the API. For example, when a Capture combinator is used, servant-swagger automatically inserts a 404 (not found) error in the generated Swagger output.

However, auto-generation of error responses has two problems:

  • The generated error responses are sometimes incomplete.
  • The generated error responses are sometimes inappropriate.


Consider the following endpoint, allowing the caller to add a new Location to a location database:

type AddLocation = "location"
  :> "add"
  :> Summary "Add a new location"
  :> Capture "locationName" Text
  :> Put '[JSON] Location

By default, the generated Swagger output includes a 404 error (not found):

"/location/add/{locationName}" :
  { "put" :
    { "parameters" : [ { "in" : "path"
                       , "type" : "string"
                       , "name" : "locationName"
                       , "required" : true } ]
    , "responses" :
      { "200" : { "schema" : { "$ref" : "#/definitions/Location" }
                , "description" : "the added location" }
      , "404" : { "description" : "`locationName` not found" } }
    , "summary" : "Add a new location"
    , "produces" : ["application/json;charset=utf-8"] } }

In the above example:

  • The generated error is inappropriate. Since we’re adding a new location (and not looking up an existing location), we don’t want to ever return a 404.
  • The error we really want is missing. We’d like to perform various validation checks on the new location name, and possibly return a 400 error if validation fails. However, this isn’t included in the generated Swagger output.

What do we really want?

Suppose that adding a Location can fail in two ways, either because:

  • the location name is too short; or
  • the location name contains invalid characters.

We’d ideally like for the "responses" section to reflect the above modes of failure:

"responses" :
  { "200" : { "schema" : { "$ref" : "#/definitions/Location" }
            , "description" : "the added location" }
  , "400" : { "description" :
                "the location name was too short
                 the location name contained invalid characters" } }

How can we achieve this?

The servant-checked-exceptions package defines the Throws combinator, making it possible to specify individual exceptions as part of the endpoint definition.

Let’s have a look at how we might use the Throws combinator to define our modes of failure:

type AddLocation = "location"
  :> "add"
  :> Summary "Add a new location"
  :> Throws LocationNameHasInvalidCharsError
  :> Throws LocationNameTooShortError
  :> Capture "locationName" Text
  :> Put '[JSON] Location

data LocationNameTooShortError = LocationNameTooShortError
  deriving (Eq, Generic, Read, Show)
data LocationNameHasInvalidCharsError = LocationNameHasInvalidCharsError
  deriving (Eq, Generic, Read, Show)

The above type specifies an endpoint that can throw two different types of exception.

It’s possible to assign specific response codes to individual exceptions by defining ErrStatus instances. In our example, both exceptions will share the same response code 400 (bad request):

instance ErrStatus LocationNameHasInvalidCharsError where
  toErrStatus _ = toEnum 400
instance ErrStatus LocationNameTooShortError where
  toErrStatus _ = toEnum 400

For client code that’s written in Haskell, the servant-checked-exceptions library provides the very useful catchesEnvelope function, allowing the caller to perform exception case analysis on values returned by an API.

So far so good.

However there are two problems that we need to solve:

  • servant-swagger doesn’t know what to do with the Throws combinator.
  • servant-swagger inserts its own default error response codes.

In the sections below, we attempt to solve these errors.

Adding custom errors to the generated Swagger output

Recall that Swagger error definitions include a description:

"400" : { "description" : "the location name was too short" }

By default, servant-checked-exceptions doesn’t provide a way to define descriptions for exceptions. We can solve this by defining our own ErrDescription class, and providing instances:

class ErrDescription e where
  toErrDescription :: e -> Text

instance ErrDescription LocationNameHasInvalidCharsError where
  toErrDescription _ =
    "the location name contained non-alphabetic characters"
instance ErrDescription LocationNameTooShortError where
  toErrDescription _ =
    "the location name was too short"

To include these descriptions in the generated Swagger output, we need to define a new instance of the HasSwagger type class:

type IsErr err = (ErrDescription err, ErrStatus err)

instance (IsErr err, HasSwagger sub) => HasSwagger (Throws err :> sub)
    toSwagger _ =
      toSwagger (Proxy :: Proxy sub) &
          (\old _ -> addDescription old)
          (fromEnum $ toErrStatus (undefined :: err))
          (return $ mempty & description .~ errDescription)
          addDescription = description %~ ((errDescription <> " OR ") <>)
          errDescription = toErrDescription (undefined :: err)

Note that in the above instance, if multiple errors share the same response code, then we concatenate together the descriptions, separating the descriptions with " OR ".

Let’s have a look at the auto-generated output:

"responses" :
  { "200" : { "schema" : { "$ref" : "#/definitions/Location" }
            , "description" : "the added location" }
  , "400" : { "description" :
                "the location name was too short
                 the location name contained invalid characters" }
  , "404" : { "description" : "`locationName` not found" } }

The 400 section now contains what we want.

However, the unwanted 404 section is still there. Recall that this is generated automatically by servant-swagger. How can we remove this default error response?

Removing default errors from the generated Swagger output

Currently, servant-swagger doesn’t provide a way to disable the generation of default error responses. There are several possible ways to solve this:

  • Provide a patch to servant-swagger that adds a configuration option to disable the generation of default error responses. See here for a simple fork that disables all default error responses.

  • Define a new alternative Capture operator and associated HasSwagger instances that don’t generated default error responses. The downside is that this might require us to define instances for multiple other type classes.

  • Amend the HasSwagger instance of Throws to detect and erase any default error responses. This solution would be rather brittle, as it would require the Throws combinator to appear at a particular place in endpoint definition.

  • Add a new combinator that disables the generation of default error responses. This solution would also be rather brittle, as it would require the new combinator to appear at a particular place in the endpoint definition.

Complete working example project

See the following example project for a complete working example:


Note that the above example also uses a patched version of servant-client, to allow pattern matching on error responses with the catchesEnvelope function.