Easier Concurrent Programming in JavaScript with Async Functions

We’re about to introduce async functions internally at Facebook so I’m taking the time to reflect on how this could be a great win for building reliable software.

When I joined the company, I worked on a team tasked with improving photo upload reliability on the site. We were failing 1 out of 10 people that tried to upload a photo album. Which translates to millions of people having terrible experiences on daily basis. One of the first things that we struggled with was understanding the ordering of operations. The system was made up of multiple components (Flash for image re-sizing, UIs, Controllers, Servers) that had to asynchronously communicate via JS and was all done in callbacks. This made debugging really hard. Sometimes callbacks will get lost and never get called, at times they will be called multiple times, sometimes errors will occur after the callback is called and never gets reported. Not to mention all the horrible race conditions that we saw. And this is not something that is limited to Facebook, or that can only happen at our scale. I was in similar situations at small startups too. This can happen in any sizable (potentially distributed) system written in JavaScript using callbacks.

When I first started learning JavaScript, one of things people praised it for was: “easy concurrent programming”. The argument goes “it’s a single-threaded process with a strict run-to-completion programming model and that means you can’t have race conditions”. Turns out that can’t be further from the truth. The definition of race conditions is not tied to multithreading. It is simply when you have a system that is dependent on the sequence of events from multiple components and then the components behave in an unintended way. Which brings me to the point of this post. I want to show that using async functions (or generally co-routines) you can write programs that makes the expected ordering of events explicit and makes it easier to recover from failures in subcomponents.

I will illustrate this by going through an example of building a vending machine. Everything in the vending machine costs 1 cent, but the machine can take in any coin that is worth any arbitrary number of cents. A sample run of this machine:

  • Insert a quarter
  • Select an item
  • Dispense the item
  • Return 24 cents change

Here is my initial implementation:

  • A VendingMachine class with two public methods
  • coin(value) inputs a coin with a given value in cents to the machine
  • select(item) inputs an item selection to the machine
  • Two subcomponents itemDispenser and change resoponsible for dispensing the items and returning the change respectively
class VendingMachine {
  coin(value) {
    this.cents = value;
  }

  select(item) {
    this.itemDispenser.dispense(item, () => {
      this.change.return(this.cents - 1);
    });
  }
}

Simple enough. But of course it’s missing a few things. First of all there is no error handling:

  • What if the itemDispenser failed? We should of course return all the money.
  • What if the change component failed? We should get into broken state so we don’t accept any more coins until someone fixes the machine.

Let’s add error handling and a broken state.

class VendingMachine {
  coin(value) {
    if (this.broken){
      console.error('Out of order');
      return;
    }

    this.cents = value;
  }

  select(item) {
    let change = this.cents - 1;
    this.itemDispenser.dispense(item, e => {
      if (e) {
        console.error(e.message);
        // Failed to dispense item, return all the money.
        change = this.cents;
      }

      this.change.return(change, e => {
        if (e) {
          this.broken = true;
        }
      })
    });
  }
}

Now that we can handle errors from the machine components. What if the outside world behaved in an unintended way? In other words, what if someone selected an item without paying? What if someone inserted two coins without selecting an item? Ideally we’d have input queuing, but let’s keep it simple for now.

class VendingMachine {
  coin(value) {
    if (this.broken){
      console.error('Out of order');
      return;
    }

    if (this.cents) {
      console.error('Processing existing order');
      return;
    }

    this.cents = value;
  }

  select(item) {
    if (!this.cents) {
      console.error('Please insert a coin');
      return;
    }

    let change = this.cents - 1;
    this.itemDispenser.dispense(item, e => {
      if (e) {
        console.error(e.message);
        // Failed to dispense item, return all the money.
        change = this.cents;
      }

      this.change.return(change, e => {
        if (e) {
          this.broken = true;
        }
        this.cents = 0;
      })
    });
  }
}

Can you spot the potential race condition? What if you inserted a coin, selected an item, then before the machine gets a chance to dispense the item and return the change you selected another item? We should make sure this.cents is updated right after the selection.

class VendingMachine {
  coin(value) {
    if (this.broken){
      console.error('Out of order');
      return;
    }

    if (this.cents) {
      console.error('Processing existing order');
      return;
    }

    this.cents = value;
  }

  select(item) {
    if (!this.cents) {
      console.error('Please insert a coin');
      return;
    }

    let change = this.cents - 1;
    // Immediately update to avoid race conditions
    this.cents = 0;

    this.itemDispenser.dispense(item, e => {
      if (e) {
        console.error(e.message);
        // Failed to dispense item, return all the money.
        change += 1;
      }

      this.change.return(change, e => {
        if (e) {
          this.broken = true;
        }
        this.cents = 0;
      })
    });
  }
}

But wait, are we really done? What if you inserted a coin, selected an item, and then immediatly inserted another coin? That coin is then lost in limbo. We should gaurd the entire the process with another state variable. But the problem is that every time we add a state variable it makes the program harder to understand and test, and presents more race hazards. Who would’ve thought a program with two input events can be so complex to build reliabily. I’ll spare you anymore inspection and iteration and directly jump to what any sensible programmer would do when presented with this challenge: build a state machine.

class VendingMachine {
  constructor() {
    this.state = IDLE;
    this.queue = [];
  }

  coin(coin) {
    if (this.state === BROKEN) {
      return console.error('Machine broken');
    }

    this.queue.push(coin);
    this.dispatch();
  }

  dispatch() {
    if (this.state !== IDLE) {
      return;
    }

    this.cents = this.queue.shift();
    this.state = WAIT_FOR_SELECT;
  }

  break(err) {
   console.error(err.message);
   this.state = BROKEN;
  }

  select(item) {
    if (this.state === IDLE) {
      return console.error('Please insert coin');
    }

    if (this.sate !== WAIT_FOR_SELECT) {
      return console.error('Processing existing order');
    }

    let change = this.cents - 1;
    this.itemDespenser.despense(item, err => {
      if (err) {
        console.error('Error dispensing item');
        change += 1;
        return;
      }

      this.change.return(change, err => {
        if (err) {
          this.break(err);
          return;
        }
        this.state = IDLE;
        this.dispatch();
      });
    });
  }
}

I think I got it right. But who knows, you wouldn’t know by reading the program, you’d need to write a lot of unit tests to convince yourself that it works. And then write some pseudocode in comments to explain what you intended to do here for future programmers. But even then there is room for failure. One of the subcomponents can call our callback multiple times causing all kind of failures to happen.

Now that we’ve explored how hard building something – that is conceptually easy – using callbacks can be. Let’s try with a better concurrency primitive, namely async functions.

If you’re not familiar with async functions, read this intro first.

Here’s how we’ll structure our code for the async version:

  • We’ll be using a data-structure called PromiseQueue (it’s really simple and can be implemented in ~20 lines of code)
  • A PromiseQueue has two methods put and get. get would return a promise that can only be resolved once we put something into the queue
  • We’ll be using two promise queues, one for the coins and one for the items
  • We’ll have a main run loop that will run indefinitely or until the machine breaks
class VendingMachine {
  constructor() {
    this.coins = new PromiseQueue();
    this.items = new PromiseQueue();
    this.brokenErr = e;
    this.run().catch(e => this.brokenErr = e);
  }

  coin(coin) {
    if (this.brokenErr) {
      return console.error('Machine broken', this.brokenErr);
    }
    this.coins.put(coin);
  }

  select(item) {
    if (this.brokenErr) {
      return console.error('Machine broken', this.brokenErr);
    }
    this.items.put(item);
  }

  async run(item) {
    while (1) {
      let cents = await this.coins.get();
      let item = await this.items.get();
      let change = cents - 1;

      try {
        await this.itemDispenser.dispense(item);
      } catch (e) {
        console.error('Error dispensing item');
        change = cents;
      }

      try {
        await this.change.return(change);
      } catch (e) {
        console.error('Error returning change');
        throw e;
      }
    }
  }
}

Look how beautiful this is. Everything you need to know about the program you’ll know by reading the run function. A single function that reads exactly like how we described the machine should work. We are even using elementary control flow, like try/catch, and while loops! What’s more, the entire state of the machine are basically local variables. That leaves less room for races to happen. Which brings me to the conclusion:

Co-routines are to state machines what recursion is to stacks

Co-routines are the generalized form of async functions. Where async functions can only pause execution while waiting on a promise, co-routines allow multiple entry points for functions to suspend and resume execution. ES6 generator functions are an example of a generalized co-routines. So, similar to how recursion can help process nested data-structures without using explicit stacks, co-routines helps solve problems involving state without using explicit state machines.