Know your tools: JavaScript Promises

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I am sure you have used Promises before, but if you avoid them because of their mystical behavior, this article is for you.

A Promise is an object that allows us to work on (possible) async task, and notify others when the task is done

Initially, a Promise looks just like a glorified callback. If you are familiar with NodeJS callbacks you've seen this pattern before

// callback version
asyncTask((error, result) => {
if (error) {
onError(error);
return;
}
onSuccess(result);
});

If asyncTask returns a Promise instead, this would be the equivalent version

// Promise version
asyncTask()
.then(onSuccess)
.catch(onError);

The latest code present some advantages from the former:

  1. It is shorter: 3 vs 7 lines of code
  2. onSuccess and onError functions are going to be called at most once, and only one of them, guaranteed
  3. Promises are microtasks, which means they run before functions from macrotasks like setTimeout or I/O

But one of the biggest benefits is for the Developer Experience: running multiples async tasks without the callback hell.

Avoiding callback hell #

What is the callback hell? Let's see an example by calling in series 4 async functions using callbacks

// callback version
getCredentials((error, credentials) => {
if (error) return console.error('Credentials not found');

login(credentials, (error, accessToken) => {
if (error) return console.error('Credentials are invalid');

getHomeInformation(accessToken, (error, homeInformation) => {
if (error) return console.error('There was an error getting your info');

recordAnalytics('home loaded', () => {
// we can keep adding indentation, forever...
// you will probably need a bigger monitor
// to avoid all the horizontal scrolling 😂
})
})
})
})

Slowly, we start to increase indentation by each callback call — and we are not even properly handle errors!

Let's take a look of how to handle this case with Promises

// Promises version
getCredentials()
.then(login)
.then(getHomeInformation)
.then(() => recordAnalytics('home loaded'))
.catch((error) =>{
/* Handles each error properly */
});

The advantages are clear: keeping indentation under control. No need for buying a bigger monitor 😉

Now, if you are used to use callbacks you can have the Promise callback hell as well

// Promises + callback hell version
// 🚫 DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME! 🚫
getCredentials()
.then((credentials) => {
login(credentials)
.then((accessToken) => {
getHomeInformation(accessToken)
.then(() => {
recordAnalytics('home loaded')
.then(() => {
// for new async tasks,
// they will keep increasing indentation
// you will need to buy a new monitor, again 😂
})
})
.catch((error) => console.error('There was an error getting your info'));
})
.catch((error) => console.error('Credentials are invalid'));
})
.catch((error) => console.error('Credentials not found'))

Just by using Promises you don't avoid the callback hell: it is in your hands to use Promises as designed. Let's follow 3 simple rules that will help us improve our relationship with Promises.

Rule #1: onSuccess and onError should always return (or throw) #

Promise objects have two methods: .then(onSuccess) and .catch(onError), and their received callback will be called when the Promise state changes from its initial value, pending, to a fulfilled or rejected state respectively.

For both onSuccess and onError callbacks it is a good practice to always return (or to throw), to pass a value to the next chained .then/.catch. But what should we return?

  • a sync value (a number, an object, a string...), or
  • another Promise object

In case of a Promise, its result will be the value available for the next chained .then/.catch. Let's look at some examples

// always return/throw
fetch('https://api.domain.com/')
.then((response) => {
return response.json(); // pass its result to the next `.then`
});
.then((json) => {
if ('id' in json) {
return json; // pass the object to the next `.then`
}

// skip all following `.then` and pass error to next `.catch`
throw new Error('id is not present');
})
.then((validatedJson) => {
// we have an object with an `id`
});

And what happen if we don't return nor throw? Promises will not be chained at things will run in an order not guaranteed. Look at these anti-patterns

// random things you can do inside a `.then`
// 🚫 DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME! 🚫
fetch('https://api.domain.com/')
.then((response) {
response.json(); // 🐛 function doesn't return, order isn't guaranteed!
});
.then((json) => {
console.log(json); // 🐛 received undefined from last `.then`, not what we expected!
})
.then(); // 🐛 no function at all, resolved value will pass to next `then`
.then(aPromiseObject); // 🐛 expected a function, received an object!

Rule #2: Prepare for errors, always catch #

This rule is simple. Eventually, things will go wrong and you have to prepare for that case.

Always place a .catch at the end of your Promise chains and make sure you handle unexpected errors. If you don't, modern browsers will print an error in the console: that is really useful for you during development but gives users no clue if they press a button and nothing happens.

Continuing with the previous example,

// always catch
fetch('https://api.domain.com/')
.then((response) => response.json());
.then((json) => {
if ('id' in json) {
return json;
}
throw new Error('id is not present');
})
.catch((error) => {
if (error.message === 'id is not present') {
// handle the `id` was not present error
} else {
// other errors, like fetch failing
}
})

Remember: think in your users and always add at least one .catch.

Rule #3: Create Promise with the right approach #

Until this moment, Promise objects have appeared from existing APIs. But how can we create our own Promises?

Create a Promise from a sync value #

This is easy: all you have to do is call Promise.resolve(value) or Promise.reject(message) if you want a fulfilled or rejected Promise.

Create a Promise from a callback #

If you want to convert a callback-based function to return a Promise you will have to call the Promise constructor. Let's look an example:

// from NodeJS callback to Promise
const asyncTaskPromise = () => {
return new Promise((resolve, reject) => {
asyncTask((error, result) =>
(error) ? reject(error) : resolve(result)
);
});
};

asyncTaskPromise()
.then(...)

Now that you know the basic rules, let's take a look to a bit more advanced patterns you will be writing.

Advanced Promise patterns #

You have to be mindful and create Promise only when you need them. Consider this: you have a dynamic list of Promises you want to run in parallel, and other list to be run in series each after other. How would you approach each case?

Running in parallel #

Use Promise.all(list) to wait for a list of promises to be ready. If every Promise succeeded you will receive a list with their corresponding values in the next .then; if any of them fails you will get the error in the next .catch.

// running in parallel ✈️️️️️️️️️️ ✈️️️️️️️️️️️️ ✈️️️️️️️️️️️️ ✈️️️️️️️️️️️️
const urls = ['/1', '/2', '/3', '/4'];
// fetch are triggered "in parallel"
const promises = urls.map(url => fetch(url));

Promise.all(promises)
.then((responses) => responses.map(res => res.json())
.then((jsons) => {
// we have an array with the json for each call!
})
.catch((error) => {
// the first rejected error will get here
})

Running in series #

What if we need to wait for the result of a previous Promise before calling the next one?

Running a .map will not work as the Promise is created in that moment. You need to create a function that will return a new Promise when needed (also called a factory).

Start the Promise series with an initial Promise.resolve(), just to have something where to chain to (call .then).

// run in series 🚂🚃🚃🚃
const series = Promise.resolve();
urls.forEach(url => {
series.then((previousText) => fetchFactory(url, previousText));
})

series
.then((finalText) => {
// we have the last Promise result
})
.catch((error) => {
// the first rejected error will get here
})

function fetchFactory(url, text) {
if (text) {
url = url + '?text=' + text;
}

return fetch(url)
.then(response => response.text());
}

Cancelling a Promise #

Let's say you want to poll an API, and you want to have a way to cancel it. There is no .cancel method in the Promise class, but we can achieve something similar by creating our own cancel function by racing between Promises.

Here I used Promise.race(list): it receives a list of Promises and resolves or rejects as soon as one of the Promise from its list resolves or rejects, with the value from that Promise.

In the next example, a wait Promise will race against the user cancelling the Promise. If the user never cancels, the system will keep polling until the response has a status === 'ready' and will fulfilled with the json response. If the user cancel, the Promise will reject with a message 'cancelled by user' instead.

function wait(delay) {
return new Promise((resolve) => setTimeout(resolve, delay));
}

function cancellablePolling(url, ms) {
let rejectCallback;
const cancelPromise = new Promise((resolve, reject) => {
rejectCallback = reject;
});

const poll = () => Promise.race([wait(ms), cancelPromise])
.then(() => fetch(url))
.then((response) => response.json())
.then((json) => json.status === 'ready' ? json : poll());

const cancel = () => rejectCallback('cancelled by user');
const promise = poll();

return {
cancel,
promise,
};
}

const { promise, cancel } = cancellablePolling('/status', 5000);
promise.then(...); // is a regular Promise
cancel(); // that will be rejected if `cancel` is called before

What's next? #

Once you feel comfortable with Promises, a nice addition to the JavaScript language is the await operator and the async functions. This allows to call async functions in a more standard syntax, like sync functions with the regular try/catch statements.

By using async function you declare a function to be async, and always returning a Promise. The advantage is now you can "halt" the execution of your function and wait for Promises to fulfill. Let's take a look to the first example of this article and see how it is different:

// callback version
const main = () => {
asyncTask((error, result) => {
if (error) {
onError(error);
return;
}
onSuccess(result);
});
};

and now, using async function + await, assuming asyncTaskPromise is the Promise version of asyncTask:

// Promise version, async function/await
const main = async () => {
try {
const result = await asyncTaskPromise();
onSuccess(result);
}
catch (error) {
onError(error);
}
};

Currently, Promises are widely supported across browsers as well as async functions, both over 90%. The recommendation is to understand who are your users and polyfill and/or transpile if it makes sense.

Hope you have learn something today. Do you have your own rules or advances uses cases for Promises? Comment them below. Have a nice week!

🙏🙏🙏

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