Enjoy Writing JavaScript With Async/Await

JavaScript has come a long way since the days of callback hell. Many libraries were introduced to help ease the pain but it wasn't until the introduction of promises did things really start to improve.1 While promises solve the nesting issue, chaining them together is still an awkward way to compose a procedure.

Now that async/await has full support in LTS versions of node as well as recent versions of all modern browsers, JavaScript can be enjoyable to write. If you are targeting older platforms, Babel can help by providing polyfills or by compiling your code to specific targets.

#You Can't Erase History

While async/await does an excellent job of covering up the old blemishes, history cannot be erased. Callbacks and promises will still be used however sparingly.

function sleep(ms) {
  return new Promise(resolve => {
    setTimeout(() => {
      resolve(ms)
    }, ms)
  })
}

In the example above, the familiar setTimeout function is being "promisified" to create a convenient sleep function. At the bottom "layer", there's a call to the resolve function provided by the promise. resolve is mostly synonymous with return. Whatever value we resolve, in this case ms, can be thought of as the return value of the promise. Because resolve is invoked within the callback function of setTimeout, the promise will "return" after ms milliseconds. Historically, to synchronize this promise, we would use sleep(ms).then(...) but with async/await we can just await sleep(ms). This layering/wrapping pattern can be used to "modernize" any legacy higher-order function. Suppose you want to use fs.readFile, wrap it in a promise, and then call it with await.

#Composing Async Functions

// sync version
function main() {
  syncSleep(1000)
  syncSleep(2000)
  syncSleep(3000)
}

main()
// async version
async function main() {
  await sleep(1000)
  await sleep(2000)
  await sleep(3000)
}

main()

The first code block shows how normal synchronous code is composed into a procedure. This example is both fake in that syncSleep does not exist and contrived in that you could just syncSleep(6000) if it did but go with it. The second block composes asynchronous functions and it's nearly identical to the first except for the addition of async and await. If you need to synchronize a promise or a function that includes async in its definition (also a promise under the hood), call it with the await keyword. Any function that contains awaited calls must include the async keyword in its definition.

To prove that the sleeps in main take a total of 6 seconds to run we can write a timing mechanism.

async function timed(action) {
  console.log('running timed action...')
  const start = Date.now()
  await action()
  console.log(`${Math.floor((Date.now() - start) / 1000)} seconds elapsed`)
}

Because timed takes an async action, await is used to synchronize it. As await is used within the body of timed, it must include the async keyword in its definition. Now we can modify main to use timed.

async function main() {
  await timed(async () => {
    console.log(await sleep(1000))
    console.log(await sleep(2000))
    console.log(await sleep(3000))
  })
}

main()

The example groups the calls to sleep within an asynchronous anonymous function which is passed, as the async action, to timed. Running this produces the output:

running timed action...
1000
2000
3000
6 seconds elapsed

From the output it is clear that the calls to sleep are running synchronously and do not "overlap" in any way.

#Running Async Functions Concurrently

Sometimes we don't want to run a set of async actions synchronously. Instead we'd like to compose them into a single async action that runs the sub-actions concurrently.

Pretend that sleep(1000), sleep(2000), and sleep(3000) are all requests to some API that fetch data and have ms latency. The requests are totally independent so they can be performed concurrently. If we await each one sequentially like in the previous example, we are waiting unnecessarily long. As requests are typically IO bound, sending request concurrently provides a significant performance boost.

We can do this easily with the extremely useful and oft forgotten Promise.all which takes a list of awaitable actions:

async function main() {
  await timed(async() => {
    console.log(await Promise.all([
      sleep(1000),
      sleep(2000),
      sleep(3000),
    ]))
  })
}

main()

Running this produces different output:

running timed action...
[ 1000, 2000, 3000 ]
3 seconds elapsed

Because the three requests (sleeps) are run concurrently, the total elapsed time is bounded by the request that takes the longest, in this case, 3 seconds. Notice that the result of Promise.all is a list of the return values of each sub-action. Destructuring makes this easy to handle:

[r1, r2, r3] = Promise.all([a1, a2, a3])

#Exception Handling

Now that asynchronous code looks essentially the same as synchronous code we can use the previously irrelevant try/catch/finally construct.

Let's make a new promise that again uses setTimeout but this time results in an error.

function nightmare(ms) {
  return new Promise((_, reject) => {
    setTimeout(() => {
      reject(ms)
    }, ms)
  })
}

nightmare is the same as sleep except that it uses reject instead of resolve. reject is to throw as resolve is to return.

async function main() {
  try {
    await timed(async () => await nightmare(1000))
  } catch (error) {
    console.error(`error: ${error}`)
  } finally {
    console.log('always runs')
  }
}

main()

Running the above produces:

running timed action...
error: 1000
always runs

The exception generated by nightmare bubbles up through the timing mechanism, up into main where it is caught and logged. The console.log in the finally block demonstrates that code in a finally will run regardless of whether or not the code in the try throws an exception.

#JavaScript, Elegant?

JavaScript was one of the first languages I learned. Maturing as a developer while the language matured has been an edifying experience. As the community around the language became more knowledgable and skillful, the more elegant the language became and vice versa. Many times the community has been made fun of for rediscovering solutions to problems already solved by a host of other languages. While there is certainly truth to that, this constantly evolving environment was the perfect place for young developers to learn, experiment, and grow.


  1. Pretentious haskellers sneered and said something like "Lmao, the script kiddies unwittingly discovered monads".