Async Javascript Tutorial

5/19/2021

Handling asynchronous code explicitly is mandatory for single-threaded languages (like JavaScript), otherwise, long running operations will result in performance problems described in Synchronous and Blocking.

This tutorial will focus on understanding the three ways we handle asynchronous calls (Callbacks, Promises, and Async/Await) so that you can write scalable JavaScript applications.

This is required reading for the Code Chrysalis Immersive Bootcamp’s precourse — a series of assignments, projects, assessments, and work that all students must successfully complete remotely before embarking on our full-stack software engineering course.

Before You Begin

  • You will need to have Node installed on your computer. A simple way of describing Node is that it is a program that will allow you to run JavaScript on your computer (rather than just in the browser). This means that you will be able to control, among other things, your file system! If you are new to Node, please check out Node School to get started.
  • This is a hands-on tutorial, so you will need to follow along and play around with the code yourself.
  • We recommend reading Synchronous and Blocking JavaScript to learn about fs.
  • Learning to look through and read documentation is a very important skill for software engineers. Please practice looking through the NodeJS documentation as you are going through this tutorial. Please be cognizant of the version of Node that you have and the documentation version that you are looking at.

Higher Order Functions: Serving a Higher Purpose

We’ve already seen how higher-order functions can be useful to abstract behaviors while performing synchronous operations, but the most important use of higher-order functions is when doing things asynchronously.

Why are Handling Asynchronous Operations Important?

JavaScript can only do one thing at a time (review Synchronous and Blocking) because it is a single-threaded language. This can cause problems when the application is dependent on asynchronous operations.

One of the most common ways developers interact with asynchronous code in JavaScript is through APIs, which stands for Application Programming Interface. You will build your own APIs when you learn servers, and you will also learn to interact with third party APIs.

In general terms, an API is a set of clearly defined methods of communication among various components. APIs receive requests (e.g. "What's the weather?") and sends responses ("22 degrees!").

Sometimes, this communication can take awhile– and that can cause problems when other code depends on the response from those requests. Because of that, JavaScript has built-in ways to handle this situation.

How NOT to Handle Asynchronous Operations

Below, there are three examples of how to handle asynchronous code. Because these examples don't actually use an API, we are using setTimeout to cause a delay. This method takes two arguments– a function, and a number (n). It will then invoke the function after n milliseconds.

Before we show you what to do, here's what NOT to do. Take a look at the function below. It should return a result after three seconds. What happens when you paste the code in your console and run it?

function getCoffee(num) {
 setTimeout(() => {
   if (typeof num === "number") {
     return `Here are your ${num} coffees!`;
   } else {
     return `${num} is not a number!`;
   }
 }, 3000);
}

console.log(getCoffee(2));
console.log(getCoffee("butterfly"));

It returns undefined. The console.log() ran before getCoffee() had time to receive a response. That's a problem.

Option 1: Callbacks

Prior to ES6, asynchronous code was handled through callbacks.

In the example below, getCoffeeCallback is a function that takes two arguments– the number of coffees AND a callback function. This callback function takes two arguments: error and result. Depending on the success of the request, it will return the callback function invoked with either the result or the error (and null for the other argument).

Try running the code below in your console!

function getCoffeeCallback(num, func) {
 setTimeout(() => {
   if (typeof num === "number") {
     return func(`Here are your ${num} coffees!`, null);
   } else {
     return func(null, `${num} is not a number!`);
   }
 }, 3000);
}

getCoffeeCallback(2, (error, result) => console.log(error ? error : result));

getCoffeeCallback("butterfly", (error, result) => console.log(error ? error : result));

This time, the code doesn't return undefined. Why? The reason is because of something called the Event Loop. Essentially, the function passed into getCoffeeCallback was added to a queue. JavaScript's event loop works with that queue to execute callback functions at the right time.

Let's look at one more example. Remember how we were reading files synchronously using readFileSync? Because reading files can be a long operation, Node provides both synchronous and asynchronous implementations. The asynchronous version is called readFile.

const fs = require('fs');

const result = fs.readFile('index.js', 'utf8');
console.log(result);

When we use readFile, we get undefined as our result.

If we check the docs, we can see why: readFile expects a third parameter, which is a callback function that gets passed error and result parameters.

Just like our getCoffeeCallback function, let's give it what it wants– a callback!

const fs = require('fs');

fs.readFile('index.js', 'utf8', (error, result) => console.log(error, result));

Yay! It worked.

Option 2: Promises

ES6 normalized a much, much better way to do asynchronous operations– Promises.

Take a look at the refactored code below. You'll notice that the higher order function getCoffeePromise looks almost identical to the getCoffeeCallback function. This time, however, we don't pass in a callback, and we return a Promise (which we create with the new keyword). This Promise gets passed a function with two arguments: a function we call resolve and a function we call reject.

The way getCoffeePromise is called is a little different as well. Since we're no longer passing in a callback, we need to handle the responses another way– by chaining .then() and .catch().

  • The .then() is printing whatever was passed into the resolve function
  • The .catch() prints whatever was passed into the reject function.

Try running this code in your console!

function getCoffeePromise (num) {
 return new Promise((resolve, reject) => {
   setTimeout(() => {
     if (typeof num === "number") {
       resolve(`Here are your ${num} coffees!`);
     } else {
       reject(`${num} is not a number!`);
     }
   }, 3000);
 });
};

getCoffeePromise(2).then(result => console.log(result)).catch(error => console.log(error));

getCoffeePromise("butterfly")
 .then(result => console.log(result))
 .catch(error => console.log(error));

Note: When you call a promise, you can write it in one line like the first example or on separate lines like the second example. If you choose to put it on separate lines like the second example, just make sure you don't add spaces, comments, or semi-colons in the middle of the chain!

You can read more about Promises here.

Option 3: Async/Await

ES7 brought another upgrade to the syntax for Promises.

Here is how it works:

  1. We define getCoffeeAsync as an async function using the async keyword.
  2. This allows us to call it later using the await keyword.
  3. The next line of code after the await keyword waits until that line is resolved.
  4. We can handled the success and failure of a call using the try and catch keywords.

What makes this upgrade so great is the await keyword. Normally, writing console.log() outside of a callback or chained Promise method would return undefined. That's not a problem here, because the await keyword STOPS the code from running until that line of code is resolved!

Try it in your browser!

const getCoffeeAsync = async function(num) {
 return new Promise((resolve, reject) => {
   setTimeout(() => {
     if (typeof num === "number") {
        resolve(`Here are your ${num} coffees!`);
     } else {
       reject(`${num} is not a number!`);
     }
   }, 3000);
 });
}

const start = async function(num) {
 try {
   const result = await getCoffeeAsync(num);
   console.log(result);
 } catch (error) {
   console.error(error);
 }
}

start(2);
start("butterfly");

Note: You'll notice in this example that we are still returning a Promise in the getCoffeeAsync function. Unfortunately, setTimeout doesn't explicitly support async/await (yet!), so we are adding this wrapper to make our code still work.

You can read more about Async/Await here.

Side-by-Side Comparison

Let's take a look at how all three ways of handling asynchronous JavaScript are used to make the same request to the Pokemon API.

To make these API calls, we are using XMLHttpRequest (which takes a callback) or Fetch (which uses Promises).

Test them out in your browser!

1. Callback

function request(callback) {
 const xhr = new XMLHttpRequest();
 xhr.open("GET", "<https://pokeapi.co/api/v2/ability/4/>", true);
 xhr.onreadystatechange = function() {
   if (xhr.readyState === 4 && xhr.status === 200) {
     (function(response) {
       callback(JSON.parse(response));
     })(xhr.responseText);
   } else {
     callback(xhr.status);
   }
 };
 xhr.send();
}
request((error, result) => console.log(error ? error : result));

2. Promise

fetch("<https://pokeapi.co/api/v2/ability/4/>")
 .then(response => response.json())
 .then(jsonResponse => console.log(jsonResponse))
 .catch(error => console.log(error));

3. Async / Await

async function request() {
 const response = await fetch("<https://pokeapi.co/api/v2/ability/4/>");
 const jsonResponse = await response.json();
 console.log(jsonResponse);
}
request();

These look a little different. Why?

These calls return response that aren't immediately useable as JSON– which is common for a lot of APIs.

  1. In the first example, it returns information that requires another callback to process. We handle this by passing the response into an immediately invoked anonymous function, and the calling JSON.parse() on the result (yikes).
  2. In the other two examples, it returns another Promise! We handle this by calling a method called .json() on the response from the previous Promise. We then either chain another .then() method or use another await to get to our results.

You will probably need to process JSON when you work with APIs in the future, so make a mental note to remember the .json() method!

Conclusion

Which should you use? Generally, you should stick with using async/await or promises. You should be knowledgeable about the weaknesses of the syntax, but in general, JavaScript syntax gets upgraded for a reason!

async/await (and to a lesser extent, promises) are cleaner looking and more concise, have better error handling, and are easier to debug.

Explore using them in your code!

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