Value Classes in Scala

12 minute read

This article is brought to you by Riccardo Cardin, a proud student of the Scala with Cats course. Riccardo is a senior developer, a teacher and a passionate technical blogger. For the last 15 years, he’s learned as much as possible about OOP, and now he is focused on his next challenge: mastering functional programming.

Enter Riccardo:

One of the main rules of functional developers is that we should always trust a function’s signature. Hence, when we use functional programming, we prefer to define ad-hoc types to represent simple information such as an identifier, a description, or a currency. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the value classes.

1. The Problem

First, let’s define an example to work with. Imagine we have an e-commerce business and that we model a product to sell using the following representation:

case class Product(code: String, description: String)

So, every product is represented by a code (which can mean some barcode), and a description. So far, so good. Now, we want to implement a repository that retrieves products from a persistent store, and we want to allow our users to search by code and by description:

trait ProductRepository {
  def findByCode(code: String): Option[Product]
  def findByDescription(description: String): List[Product]

We cannot avoid using a description in the search by code or a code in the search by description. As we are representing both pieces of information through a String, we can wrongly pass a description to the search by code, and vice versa:

val aCode = "8-000137-001620"
val aDescription = "Multivitamin and minerals"


The compiler cannot warn us of our errors because we represent both pieces of information, i.e. the code and the description, using simple Strings. This fact can lead to subtle bugs, which are very difficult to intercept at runtime as well.

2. Using Straight Case Classes

However, we are smart developers, and we want the compiler to help us identify such errors as soon as possible. Fail fast, they said. Hence, we define two dedicated types, both for the code, and for the description:

case class BarCode(code: String)
case class Description(txt: String)

The new types, BarCode and Description, are nothing more than wrappers around strings. In jargon, we call them value classes. However, they allow us to refine the functions of our repository to avoid the previous information mismatch:

trait AnotherProductRepository {
  def findByCode(barCode: BarCode): Option[Product] =
    Some(Product(barCode.code, "Some description"))
  def findByDescription(description: Description): List[Product] =
    List(Product("some-code", description.txt))

As we can see, it is not possible anymore to search a product by code while accidentally passing a description. Indeed, we can try to pass a Description instead of a BarCode:

val anotherDescription = Description("A fancy description")

As desired, the compiler diligently warns us that we are bad developers:

[error] /Users/daniel/Documents/value-types/src/main/scala/ValuesTypes.scala:33:39: type mismatch;
[error]  found   : com.rockthejvm.value.ValuesTypes.Description
[error]  required: com.rockthejvm.value.ValuesTypes.BarCode
[error]   AnotherProductRepository.findByCode(anotherDescription)
[error]                                       ^

However, we can still create a BarCode using a String representing a description:

val aFakeBarCode: BarCode = BarCode("I am a bar-code")

To overcome this issue we must use the smart constructor design pattern. Though the description of the pattern is beyond the scope of this article, the smart constructor pattern hides to developers the main constructor of the class, and adds a factory method that performs any needed validation. In its final form, smart constructor pattern for the BarCode type is the following:

sealed abstract class BarCodeWithSmartConstructor(code: String)
object BarCodeWithSmartConstructor {
  def mkBarCode(code: String): Either[String, BarCodeWithSmartConstructor] =
      new BarCodeWithSmartConstructor(code) {},
      s"The given code $code has not the right format"

val theBarCode: Either[String, BarCodeWithSmartConstructor] =

Awesome! We reach our primary goal. Now, we have fewer problems to worry about…or not?

3. An Idiomatic Approach

The above approach resolves some problems, but it adds many others. In fact, since we are using a class to wrap Strings, the compiler must instantiate a new BarCode and Description every single time. The over instantiation of objects can lead to a problem concerning performance and the amount of consumed memory.

Fortunately, Scala provides an idiomatic way to implement value classes. Idiomatic value classes avoid allocating runtime objects and the problems we just enumerated.

A idiomatic value class is a class (or a case class) that extends the type AnyVal, and declares only one single public val attribute in the constructor. Moreover, a value class can declare def:

case class BarCodeValueClass(val code: String) extends AnyVal {
  def countryCode: Char = code.charAt(0)

However, value classes have many constraints: They can define def, but not val other than the constructor’s attribute, cannot be extended, and cannot extend anything but universal traits (for the sake of completeness, a universal trait is a trait that extends the Any type, has only def as members, and does no initialization).

The main characteristic of a value class is that the compiler treats it as a case class at compile-time. Still, at runtime, its representation is equal to the type declared in the constructor. Roughly speaking, the BarCodeValueClass type is transformed as a simple String at runtime.

Hence, due to the lack of runtime overhead, value classes are a valuable tool used in the SDK to define extension methods for basic types such as Int, Double, Char, etc.

3.1. The Problem With the Idiomatic Approach

We must remember that the JVM doesn’t support value classes directly. So, there are cases in which the runtime environment must perform an extra allocation of memory for the wrapper type.

The Scala documentation reports the following use cases that need an extra memory allocation:

  • A value class is treated as another type.
  • A value class is assigned to an array.
  • Doing runtime type tests, such as pattern matching.

Unfortunately, the first rule’s concrete case also concerns using a value class as a type argument. Hence, also the use of a simple generic method show, creating a printable representation of an object, can cause an undesired instantiation:

def show[T](obj: T): String = obj.toString

Moreover, for the same reason, every time we want to implement the type classes pattern for a value class, we cannot avoid its instantiation. We love type classes, as functional developers, and many Scala libraries, such as Cats, are based on the root of the type classes pattern. So, this is a big problem.

The second rule concerns the use of a value class inside an array. For example, imagine we want to create a bar-code basket:

val macBookBarCode = BarCodeValueClass("1-234567-890234")
val iPhone12ProBarCode = BarCodeValueClass("0-987654-321098")
val barCodes = Array[BarCodeValueClass](macBookBarCode, iPhone12ProBarCode)

As expected, the barCodes array will contain BarCodeValueClass instances, and not a String primitive. Again, additional instantiations are needed. In detail, the problem is not due to Scala, but to how the JVM treats arrays of objects and arrays of primitive types.

Finally, as the third rule states, we cannot use a value class with pattern matching avoiding a runtime instantiation. Hence, the following method, testing if a bar-code represents a product made in Italy, forces a runtime instantiation of the barCode object as a BarCodeValueClass:

def madeInItaly(barCode: BarCodeValueClass): Boolean = barCode match {
  case BarCodeValueClass(code) => code.charAt(0) == '8'

Due to these limitations, the Scala community searched for a better solution. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the NewType library.

4. The NewType Library

The NewType library allows us to create new types without the overhead of extra runtime allocations, avoiding the pitfalls of Scala values classes. To use it, we need to import the proper dependency in the build.sbt file:

libraryDependencies += "io.estatico" %% "newtype" % "0.4.4"

It uses the experimental feature of Scala macros. So, it is necessary to enable it at compile-time, using the -Ymacro-annotations. In details, the library defines the @newtype annotation macro:

import io.estatico.newtype.macros.newtype
@newtype case class BarCode(code: String)

The macro expansion generates a new type definition and an associated companion object. Moreover, the library expands the class marked with the @newtype annotation with its underlying value at runtime. So, a @newtype class can’t extend any other type.

Despite these limitations, the NewType library works like a charm and interacts smoothly with IDEs.

Using two @newtypes, one representing a bar-code and one representing a description, we can easily improve the definition of the initial Product class:

@newtype case class BarCode(code: String)
@newtype case class Description(descr: String)

case class Product(code: BarCode, description: Description)

Moreover, creating a new instance of a newtype it’s as easy as creating an instance of a Scala regular type:

val iPhoneBarCode: BarCode = BarCode("1-234567-890123")
val iPhoneDescription: Description = Description("Apple iPhone 12 Pro")
val iPhone12Pro: Product = Product(iPhoneBarCode, iPhoneDescription)

As we can see, the code looks like the original Product definition. However, we altogether avoid the runtime instantiation of the wrapper classes. Such an improvement!

What about smart constructors? If we choose to use a case class, the library will generate the apply method in the companion object. If we want to avoid access to the apply method, we can use a class instead and create our smart constructor in a dedicated companion object:

@newtype class BarCodeWithCompanion(code: String)

object BarCodeWithCompanion {
  def mkBarCode(code: String): Either[String, BarCodeWithCompanion] =
      s"The given code $code has not the right format")

4.1. Type Coercion

Wait. What is the code.coerce statement? Unfortunately, using a class instead of a case class removes the chance to use the apply method for other developers and us. So, we have to use type coercion.

As we know, the Scala community considers type coercion a bad practice because it requires a cast (via the asInstanceOf method). The NewType library tries to make this operation safer using a type class approach.

Hence, the compiler will let us coerce between types if and only if an instance of the Coercible[R, N] type class exists in the scope for types R and N. Fortunately, the NewType library does the dirty work for us, creating the needed Coercible type class instances. Taking our example, the generated Coercible type classes let us cast from BarCode to String, and vice versa:

val barCodeToString: Coercible[BarCode, String] = Coercible[BarCode, String]
val stringToBarCode: Coercible[String, BarCode] = Coercible[String, BarCode]

val code: String = barCodeToString(iPhoneBarCode)
val iPhone12BarCode: BarCode = stringToBarCode("1-234567-890123")

However, if we try to coerce a Double to a BarCode, the compiler will not find the needed type class:

val doubleToBarCode: Coercible[Double, BarCode] = Coercible[Double, BarCode]

In fact, the above code makes the compiler yelling:

[error] could not find implicit value for parameter ev: io.estatico.newtype.Coercible[Double,in.rcard.value.ValuesClasses.NewType.BarCode]
[error]       val doubleToBarCode: Coercible[Double, BarCode] = Coercible[Double, BarCode]
[error]                                                                  ^

As the type classes pattern recommends, the NewType library defines also an extension method, coerce, for the types with a Coercible type class associated:

val anotherCode: String = iPhoneBarCode.coerce
val anotherIPhone12BarCode: BarCode = "1-234567-890123".coerce

However, it’s proven that the scope resolution of the Coercible type class (a.k.a., the coercible trick) is an operation with a very high compile-time cost and should be avoided. Moreover, as the library documentation says

You generally shouldn’t be creating instances of Coercible yourself. This library is designed to create the instances needed for you which are safe. If you manually create instances, you may be permitting unsafe operations which will lead to runtime casting errors.

4.2. Automatically Deriving Type Classes

The NewType library offers a very nice mechanism for deriving type classes for our newtype. Taking an idea coming from Haskell (as the library itself), the generated companion object of a newtype contains two methods, called deriving and derivingK.

We can call the first method deriving, if we want to derive an instance of a type class with the type parameter that is not higher kinded. For example, we want to use our BarCodeWithCompanion type together with the cats.Eq type class:

implicit val eq: Eq[BarCodeWithCompanion] = deriving

Whereas, if we want to derive an instance of a type class with the type parameter that is higher kinded, we can use the derivingK method instead.

Therefore, we can quickly implement type classes for newtypes should dispel any doubt whether using them to value classes.

However, with Dotty’s advent (a.k.a. Scala 3), a new competitor came in town: The opaque types.

5. Scala 3 Opaque Types Aliases

As many of us might already know, Dotty is the former name of the new major version of Scala. Dotty introduces many changes and enhancements to the language. One of these is opaque type aliases, which addresses the same issue as the previous value classes: Creating zero-cost abstraction.

In effect, opaque types let us define a new type alias with an associated scope. Hence, Dotty introduces a new reserved word for opaque type aliases, opaque:

object BarCodes {
  opaque type BarCode = String

To create a BarCode from a String, we must provide one or many smart constructors:

object BarCodes {
  opaque type BarCode = String

  object BarCode {
    def mkBarCode(code: String): Either[String, BarCode] = {
        s"The given code $code has not the right format"

Inside the BarCodes scope, the type alias BarCode works as a String: We can assign a String to a variable of type BarCode, and we have access to the full API of String through an object of type BarCode. So, there is no distinction between the two types:

object BarCodes {
  opaque type BarCode = String
  val barCode: BarCode = "8-000137-001620"

  extension (b: BarCode) {
    def country: Char = b.head

As we can see, if we want to add a method to an opaque type alias, we can use the extension method mechanism, which is another new feature of Dotty.

Outside the BarCodes scope, the compiler treats a String and a BarCode as completely different types. In other words, the BarCode type is opaque with respect to the String type outside the definition scope:

object BarCodes {
  opaque type BarCode = String
val anotherBarCode: BarCode = "8-000137-001620"

Hence, in the above example, the compiler diligently warns us that the two types are incompatible:

[error] 20 |  val anotherBarCode: BarCode = "8-000137-001620"
[error]    |                      ^^^^^^^
[error]    |                      Not found: type BarCode

Finally, we can say that the opaque type aliases seem to be the idiomatic replacement to the NewType library in Dotty / Scala 3. Awesome!

6. Conclusion

Summing up, in this article, we have first introduced the reason why we need the so-called value classes. The first attempt to give a solution uses case classes directly. However, due to performance concerns, we introduced the idiomatic solution provided by Scala. This approach, too, had limitations due to random memory allocations.

Then, we turned to additional libraries, and we found the NewType library. Through the use of a mix of type and companion objects definition, the library solved the value classes problem in a very brilliant way.

Finally, we looked at the future, introducing opaque type aliases from Dotty that give us the idiomatic language solution we were searching for.