knitr::opts_chunk$set(error=TRUE, comment=NA)
suppressWarnings({
  library(vetr)
  library(assertive)
  library(assertthat)
  library(checkmate)
})

Overview


Introduction

Systematically vetting function parameters is as tedious as it is important. Fortunately many functions and packages exist to assist with the process. We will review:


Summary

We compare several packages to stopifnot for the task of checking function parameters. We ignore all other features. The following table summarizes the strengths of each package:

assertthatassertivecheckmatevetr
Simple
Concise
Informative
Fast

And in our opinion what each package does best in the context of function parameter checking:

More details on the categories in the summary table:

Simple

Ideally packages should have a minimal learning curve.

Concise

The benefit to increased complexity is the ability to express complex requirements succinctly:

Informative

One drawback for stopifnot is that the error messages it produces are sometimes cryptic. All the reviewed packages seek to improve on this:

All packages allow users to attach custom error messages to Check Expressions or Predicate Functions, but here we focus on those available "out of the box".

Fast

Parameter checks should add minimal overhead.

We base our conclusions on the tests we ran. It is entirely possible different tests could lead to different results. See benchmarks.

Comparison Details


Simple Parameters

We want to write a functions that accept a length two numeric vector with no missing values. To illustrate we use functions that enforce that requirement and do nothing else, starting with stopifnot:

simple_stopifnot <- function(x)
  stopifnot(is.numeric(x), length(x) == 2, !is.na(x))

vetr looks similar on the surface:

simple_vetr_a <- function(x)
  vetr(is.numeric(.) && length(.) == 2 && !is.na(.))

The vetr arguments are matched to those of the enclosing function. As a result we reference x with ., and we must use && instead of , to delimit our checks.

Additionally, vetr introduces templates, so we can rewrite simple_vetr_a as:

simple_vetr <- function(x)
  vetr(numeric(2L) && !is.na(.))

numeric(2L) && !is.na(.) is a Vetting Expression that contains the Template Token numeric(2L), and the Standard Token !is.na(.). Template Tokens require that parameters match their structure (i.e. length, type, and attributes). Standard Tokens, marked by the presence of the . symbol, are evaluated as they would be by stopifnot.

Templates should be familiar to vapply users, but there are some wrinkles. For example zero-length templates like numeric() match any length objects. See ?vetr::alike and vignette('alike', 'vetr') for details.

asserthat is like stopifnot:

simple_assertthat <- function(x)
  assert_that(is.numeric(x), length(x) == 2, !anyNA(x))

assertive and checkmate rely on the Predicate Functions and the accompanying assertions they implement:

# assertive: 200+ simple Predicate Functions
simple_assertive <- function(x) {
  assert_is_numeric(x)
  assert_is_of_length(x, 2)
  assert_all_are_not_na(x)
}
# checkmate: 40+ flexible/complex Predicate Functions
simple_checkmate <- function(x)
  assertNumeric(x, any.missing=FALSE, len=2)

For this type of check the improvements from the third party packages seem marginal until we look at the result with an illegal parameter:

simple_stopifnot(pi)
simple_vetr(pi)

In addition to what our parameter is not, vetr tells you what it is, gives you the original call of the function, and gives you the input as it appears in the calling frame (i.e. length(pi) instead of length(x)).

assertthat makes the error message friendlier, but does not add information:

simple_assertthat(pi)

The other packages improve on the error message, in particular by telling you what the object is in addition to what it is not:

simple_assertive(pi)
simple_checkmate(pi)

Complex Objects

Here we wish to verify that an input conforms to the structure of the iris built-in data set.

# make a bad version of iris
iris.fake <- iris
levels(iris.fake$Species)[3] <- "sibirica"   # tweak levels

Then, with stopifnot:

iris.col.classes <- lapply(iris, class)

complex_stopifnot <- function(x) {
  stopifnot(
    is.data.frame(x),                     # this only checks class
    is.list(x),
    length(x) == length(iris),
    identical(lapply(x, class), iris.col.classes),
    is.integer(attr(x, 'row.names')),
    identical(names(x), names(iris)),
    identical(typeof(x$Species), "integer"),
    identical(levels(x$Species), levels(iris$Species))
) }
complex_stopifnot(iris.fake)

While some of these checks may seem over-the-top, R's informality with respect to S3 classes make them necessary. For example, nothing guarantees that an object with class "data.frame" has type "list" as it should.

vetr carries out all those checks and more by inferring them from a template:

# zero row DF contains structure info only, and matches any # of rows
iris.template <- iris[0,]

complex_vetr <- function(x) vetr(iris.template)
complex_vetr(iris.fake)

vetr recursively traverses the template and the function parameter in parallel and checks each sub element of the latter against the former. The error messages are also better. Notice how you can copy all of or part of levels(iris.fake$Species)[3] from the message into the R prompt for further examination.

checkmate is reasonably succinct:

complex_checkmate <- function(x) {
  assertDataFrame(x, types=unlist(iris.col.classes), ncols=5)
  assertTRUE(is.list(x))
  assertInteger(attr(x, 'row.names'))
  assertNames(names(x), identical.to=names(iris))
  assertFactor(x$Species, levels=levels(iris$Species))
}
complex_checkmate(iris.fake)

assertive, and assertthat end up with the same number of explicit checks as stopifnot, and with similar error messages so we omit them here. See the code appendix for those implementations.

complex_assertive <- function(x) {
  assert_is_list(x)
  assert_all_are_equal_to(length(x), 5)
  assert_is_integer(attr(x, 'row.names'))
  assert_is_data.frame(x)
  assert_is_identical_to_true(identical(iris.col.classes, lapply(x, class)))
  assert_is_identical_to_true(identical(names(x), names(iris)))
  assert_is_identical_to_true(identical(typeof(x$Species), "integer"))
  assert_is_factor(x$Species)
  assert_is_identical_to_true(
    identical(levels(x$Species), levels(iris$Species))
  )
}
complex_assertthat <- function(x) {
  assert_that(
    is.data.frame(x),                     # this only checks class
    is.list(x),
    length(x) == length(iris),
    identical(lapply(x, class), iris.col.classes),
    is.integer(attr(x, 'row.names')),
    identical(names(x), names(iris)),
    identical(typeof(x$Species), "integer"),
    identical(levels(x$Species), levels(iris$Species))
) }

Vector Values

Suppose we wish to ensure our input is a strictly positive numeric vector with no missing values. With vec <- -1:1 and stopifnot we would use:

vec <- -1:1
vector_stopifnot <- function(x) stopifnot(is.numeric(x), !anyNA(x), all(x > 0))
vector_stopifnot(vec)

vetr implements the all_bw function primarily for speed, but it also generates more useful error messages:

vector_vetr <- function(x) vetr(numeric() && all_bw(., lo=0, bounds="(]"))
vector_vetr(vec)

asserthat is like stopifnot, with a better error message:

vector_assertthat <- function(x)
  assert_that(is.numeric(x), !anyNA(x), all(x > 0))
vector_assertthat(vec)

checkmate implements a powerful notation for checking vectors:

vector_checkmate <- function(x) qassert(x, "N*(0,]")
vector_checkmate(vec)

assertive has a custom function for the job, with a particularly helpful error message:

vector_assertive <- function(x) assert_all_are_positive(x)
vector_assertive(vec)

Compound Checks

If you wish to build re-usable complex checks with stopifnot, asserthat, assertive, and checkmate you do so by writing new functions. vetr implements a special type of programmable Non Standard Evaluation. Here we write a Vetting Expression that accepts either a square numeric matrix, or a scalar numeric:

sqr.mx <- quote(ncol(.) == nrow(.))
num.mx <- matrix(numeric(), 0, 0)       # 0 x 0 matrix, matches any matrix
sqr.num.mx <- quote(sqr.mx && num.mx)
sqr.num.mx.or.sclr.num <- quote(sqr.num.mx || numeric(1L))

compound_vetr <- function(x) vetr(sqr.num.mx.or.sclr.num)

rect.mx <- matrix(1:12, 3)
compound_vetr(rect.mx)

vetr recursively substitutes symbols in the Vetting Expression which makes it very easy to assemble complex expressions from simple ones by using quote. Note that standalone templates like matrix(numeric(), 0, 0) need not be quoted.

Benchmarks


Detail Benchmarks

We benchmark the functions with mb, a thin wrapper around microbenchmark (see the appendix for its definition). We focus on timings for checks that succeed.

Starting with the simple checks on nums <- runif(2):

mb <- function(...) {
  mb.call <- match.call()
  mb.call[[1]] <- quote(microbenchmark::microbenchmark)
  gc()
  mb.dat <- eval(mb.call, envir=parent.frame())
  mb.res <- summary(mb.dat)
  mb.res <- mb.res[order(mb.res$median), ]
  mb.res[, -1] <- lapply(
    mb.res[, -1], function(x) sprintf("  %s", format(round(x, 1), big.mark=","))
  )
  cat(
    sprintf("Unit: %s, neval: %s\n\n", attr(mb.res, 'unit'), mb.res$neval[1])
  )
  print(mb.res[, c('expr', 'lq', 'median', 'uq', 'mean')], quote=FALSE)
}
nums <- runif(2)
mb(
  simple_stopifnot(nums),
  simple_vetr(nums),
  simple_assertive(nums),
  simple_assertthat(nums),
  simple_checkmate(nums)
)

stopifnot and checkmate lead the way, with vetr not too far behind.

For complex objects vetr takes the lead:

mb(
  complex_assertive(iris),
  complex_assertthat(iris),
  complex_checkmate(iris),
  complex_stopifnot(iris),
  complex_vetr(iris)
)

vetr is the fastest option for checking that values in a long vector are in range:

str.pos.vec <- runif(5e5) + 1  # test with a 500K long vector
mb(
  vector_assertthat(str.pos.vec),
  vector_checkmate(str.pos.vec),
  vector_stopifnot(str.pos.vec),
  vector_vetr(str.pos.vec)
)

This is primarily because we use vetr::all_bw instead of the semantically similar isTRUE(all(. > 0)) expression. all_bw is implemented in C and avoids the intermediate vectors required to evaluate the standard R version. checkmate does the same with qassert.

assertive is substantially slower so we benchmark it separately:

mb(times=5,
  vector_assertive(str.pos.vec)
)

If your functions will never be run thousands of times then you probably do not need to worry about the differences shown here. However, general purpose parameter check functions should be compatible with functions that are, and in those cases microseconds matter.

Making vetr Faster

We made a design choice with vetr that the overhead associated with running two match.call calls was worth the features it allowed us to implement. In some cases even those ~10 microseconds are too much. For those you can use vet which is a general purpose object checker that uses Vetting Expressions just like vetr, or go even further and call vetr::alike directly to do template comparisons:

simple_vet <- function(x) vet(numeric(2L) && !anyNA(.), x, stop=TRUE)
simple_vet(pi)

simple_alike <- function(x) {
  if(!isTRUE(msg <- alike(numeric(2L), x))) stop("Argument `x` invalid: ", msg)
  if(anyNA(x)) stop("Argument `x` contains NAs")
}
simple_alike(pi)

The error messages / ease of use degrade, but we do improve our timings (again, with nums <- runif(2)):

mb(times=10000,
  simple_vet(nums),
  simple_vetr(nums),
  simple_checkmate(nums),
  simple_alike(nums)
)

Conclusions


Take these with a grain of salt, as they are written by the vetr author:

In favor of vetr:

Against vetr:

If you are tired of dealing with checks for non-trivial S3 objects and are willing to try out a young package, vetr is for you. If not, we would recommend2 checkmate as it is fast, well established, and more expressive than the other options.

Appendix


Definitions

Definitions of terms as we use them in this document. They may have different definitions elsewhere.

Check Function
Similar to a [Predicate Function](#predicate-function), may return either TRUE or a vector of only TRUE values on success, and something else on failure. `all.equal(x, y)` is a common example. Check Functions should be used within `isTRUE(all(check_fun(...)))` to establish success or failure, unless they are used within `stopifnot` or `vetr` where such a check is implicit.
Check Expression
A collection of calls to [Check](#check-function) and/or [Predicate Functions](#predicate-function) combined with logical operators. For example `!anyNA(x) && x > 0`.
Non Standard Evaluation
Refers to the evaluation of an R expression different than would normally occur, because the expression is modified prior to evaluation, it is evaluated in a different environment than it would normally be, or both. A classic example is `subset(x, subset)` where the `subset` argument is evaluated within `x` instead of in the parent frame. `vetr` implements a special type of Non Standard Evaluation that recursively substitutes all non-function symbols (i.e. symbols not at position 1 in a call) that resolve to symbols until the resulting expression only contains symbols that point to non-symbol R objects. It also substitutes `.` with the corresponding function parameter. Finally, it tokenizes the expression by breaking it apart into by `&&` and `||`, and evaluates each token separately.
Predicate Function
Function that typically accepts one non-optional argument and returns TRUE or FALSE according to whether that argument conforms to a requirement. `isTRUE(x)` and `is.numeric(x)` are single argument examples, and `identical(x, y)` is a two argument example.
Standard Token
Part of a [Vetting Expression](#vetting-expression) that should be treated as a standard R expression. If `isTRUE(all(evaluated_standard_token))` then the token will be considered to pass. [Standard Tokens](#standard-token) are identified by the presence of a `.` symbol within a token. You can also wrap expressions in `.()` to mark them as standard tokens. If you need to use the `.` symbol for other purposes escape it with another `.` (i.e. to use a literal `.`, use `..`). See `vignette('vetr', 'vetr')` for more details.
Template Token
Part of a [Vetting Expression](#vetting-expression) that should be treated as a template by `vetr`. It should resolve to an R object when it is evaluated in the calling frame of the enclosing function to the `vetr` call. See `vignette('vetr', 'vetr')` for more details.
Vetting Expression
Like a [Check Expression](#check-expression), but augmented for use in `vetr`. In addition to Check and [Predicate Function](#predicate-function) calls, it can include [Template Tokens](#templated-token). References to the object being checked should be made with the `.` symbol. For example `numeric(1L) && !is.na(.) && . > 0`, is made up of three tokens, where `numeric(1L)` is a [Template Token](#templated-token), and `!is.na(.)` and `. > 0` are [Standard Tokens](#standard-token). Beware of accidentally referencing a variable in a token intended to be a [Standard Token](#standard-token). If we had used `x > 0` instead of `. > 0`, `vetr` would evaluate `x > 0` and use the result as a template since `x > 0` does not contain the `.` symbol to mark it as a [Standard Token](#standard-token). See `vignette('vetr', 'vetr')` for more details.
Vetting Token
Component piece of [Vetting Expressions](#vetting-expression). May be either [Standard Tokens](#standard-token) or [Template Tokens](#templated-token). [Vetting Tokens](#vetting-token) are the arguments to "top level" `&&`, `||`, and `(` calls. For example, in the [Vetting Expression](#vetting-expression) `!anyNA(.) && I(. > 0 && interactive())` there are two [Vetting Tokens](#vetting-token): `!anyNA(.)` and `I(. > 0 && interactive())`. The `&&` inside `I(...)` is not considered to be at the "top level" because of the intervening `I` call.

References

Ancillary Code

Benchmarking Function

We use a thin wrapper around microbenchmark:


Complex Objects for Other Packages

These are the implementations we omitted from the iris checks in the details section.


complex_assertive(iris.fake)
complex_assertthat(iris.fake)

Session Info

sessionInfo()

End Notes

1 assertthat requires Check Expressions to evaluate to TRUE or FALSE, whereas stopifnot accepts anything, with all TRUE vectors considered a success and all else failure. Additionally, assertthat implements a handful of useful Predicate Functions for common checks (e.g. scalars, etc.).
2 Our recommendation for checkmate is made solely on the basis of the tests described in this document. We have not used it in any of our packages.



brodieG/vetr documentation built on Aug. 19, 2018, 12:35 a.m.