About Tomasz Nurkiewicz

Java EE developer, Scala enthusiast. Enjoying data analysis and visualization. Strongly believes in the power of testing and automation.

Promises and Deferred objects in jQuery and AngularJS

Series of articles about futures/promises without JavaScript would not be complete. Futures (more commonly named promises in JS land) are ubiquitous in JavaScript to the point where we almost don’t recognize them any more. AJAX, timeouts and whole Node.JS are built on top of asynchronous callbacks. Nested callbacks (as we will see in just a second) are so hard to follow and maintain that the callback hell term was coined. In this article I will explain how promises can improve readability and modularize your code.

Introducing promise object

Let’s take the first, simplest example using AJAX and $.getJSON() helper method:

$.getJSON('square/3', function(square) {
    console.info(square);
});

square/3 is an AJAX resource that yields 9 (3 square). I assume you are familiar with AJAX and understand that the callback logging 9 will be executed asynchronously once the response arrives from the server. As simple as that, but it quickly gets unwieldy once you start nesting, chaining and wish to handle errors:

$.getJSON('square/3', function(threeSquare) {
    $.getJSON('square/4', function(fourSquare) {
        console.info(threeSquare + fourSquare);
    });
});
 
$.ajax({
    dataType: "json",
    url: 'square/10',
    success: function(square) {
        console.info(square);
    },
    error: function(e) {
        console.warn(e);
    }
});

Suddenly business logic is buried deeply inside nested callbacks (as a matter of fact this is still not bad, but it tends to be much worse in practice). There is another problem with callbacks – it’s virtually impossible to write clean, reusable components once you need callbacks. For example I would like to encapsulate AJAX call with nice function square(x) utility. But how to “return” result? Typically developers simply require callback function to be provided, which is definitely not clean: function square(x, callbackFun). Luckily we know the future/promise pattern and jQuery (as of 1.5 with further improvements in 1.8) implements it using CommonJS Promises/A API proposal:

function square(x) {
    return $.getJSON('square/' + x);
}
 
var promise3 = square(3);
//or directly:
var promise3b = $.getJSON('square/3');

What does square() or more precisely $.getJSON() return? Call is not synchronous – we return a promise object! We “promise” that the result will be available some time in the future. How do we retrieve that result? In Java and Scala blocking on a Future is discouraged. In jQuery it’s not even possible (at least there is no API). But we have a clean API for registering callbacks:

promise3.done(function(threeSquare) {
    console.info(threeSquare);
});
promise3.done(function() {
    console.debug("Done");
});
promise3.done(function(threeSquare) {
    $('.result').text(threeSquare);
});

So, what’s the difference? First of all we return something rather than take a callback – which makes code much more readable and pleasant to look at. Secondly we can register as many unrelated callbacks as we want and they are all executed in order. Finally promise object remembers the result so even if we register callback after promise was resolved (response arrived) it’ll still be executed. But that’s just a tip of an iceberg. Later we will see various techniques and patterns that emerge with promises in JavaScript.

Combining promises

First of all you can easily “wait” for two or more arbitrary promises:

var promise3 = $.getJSON('square/3');
var promise5 = $.getJSON('square/5');
 
$.when(promise3, promise5).done(
    function(threeSquare, fiveSquare) {
        console.info(threeSquare, fiveSquare);
    }
);

No nesting or state. Simply obtain two promises and let the library notify us when both results are available. Notice that $.when(promise3, promise5) returns another promise, so you can further chain and transform it. One shortcoming of $.when is that it doesn’t accept (recognize) array of promises. But JavaScript is dynamic enough to workaround it easily:

var promises = [
    $.getJSON('square/2'),
    $.getJSON('square/3'),
    $.getJSON('square/4'),
    $.getJSON('square/5')
];
 
$.when.apply($, promises).done(function() {
    console.info(arguments);
});

If you find it hard to follow:

  1. Each $.getJSON() returns a promise object, thus promises is an array of promises (duh!)
  2. Each resolved promise is passed as a separate argument so we must use arguments pseudo-array to capture them all.
  3. done() callback is executed when all promises are resolved (last AJAX call returns) but promises can come from any source, not necessarily from AJAX request (read further about Deferred object)
  4. $.when() has exact same semantics as Futures.allAsList() in Guava and Future.sequence() in Akka/Scala.
  5. (sidenote) Initiating several AJAX calls at the same time is not necessarily the best design, try combining them to improve performance and responsiveness.

Custom promises with Deferred

We implemented custom Future and ListenableFuture before. Many developers are confused what is the difference between promise and $.Deferred – this is exactly when we need it – to implement custom methods returning promises, just like $.ajax() and friends. Apart from AJAX, setTimeout() and setInterval() are notoriously known for introducing nested callbacks. Can we do better with promises? Sure!

function timeoutPromise(millis, context) {
    var deferred = $.Deferred();
    setTimeout(function() {
        deferred.resolve(context);
    }, millis);
    return deferred.promise();
}
 
var promise = timeoutPromise(1000, 'Boom!');
promise.done(function(s) {
    console.info(s);
});

Every single line of timeoutPromise() is important so please study it carefully. First we create $.Deferred() instance which is basically a container for not yet resolved value (future). Later we register timeout to be triggers after millis milliseconds. Once that time elapses, we resolve the deferred object. When promise is resolved, all registered done callbacks are automatically called. Finally we return internal promise object to the client. Below you saw how such promise can be used – it’s virtually the same as with AJAX. Can you guess what will be printed? Of course object represented by context in deferred.resolve(context) call, that is 'Boom!' string.

I hope I don’t have to repeat myself highlighting that we can register as many callbacks as we want and if we register callback after promise was resolved (after timeout) it will still be executed, immediately.

Monitoring progress

Promises are nice but they don’t fit when we would like to use setInterval() instead of setTimeout(). Future can only be resolved once while setInterval() can fire supplied callback multiple times. But jQuery promises have one unique feature which we haven’t yet seen in our series: progress monitoring API. Before we resolve promise we can notify clients about its progress. It makes sense for long-running, multi-stage processes. Here is a utility for setInterval():

function intervalPromise(millis, count) {
    var deferred = $.Deferred();
    if(count <= 0) {
        deferred.reject("Negative repeat count " + count);
    }
    var iteration = 0;
    var id = setInterval(function() {
        deferred.notify(++iteration, count);
        if(iteration >= count) {
            clearInterval(id);
            deferred.resolve();
        }
    }, millis);
    return deferred.promise();
}

intervalPromise() repeats count times every millis milliseconds. First notice call to deferred.reject() which will fail promise immediately (see below). Secondly pay attention to deferred.notify() which is called on every iteration to notify about progress. Here are two, equivalent ways of using this function. fail() callback will be used if promise was rejected:

var notifyingPromise = intervalPromise(500, 4);
 
notifyingPromise.
    progress(function(iteration, total) {
        console.debug("Completed ", iteration, "of", total);
    }).
    done(function() {
        console.info("Done");
    }).
    fail(function(e) {
        console.warn(e);
    });

Or:

intervalPromise(500, 4).then(
    function() {
        console.info("Done");
    },
    function(e) {
        console.warn(e);
    },
    function(iteration, total) {
        console.debug("Completed ", iteration, "of", total);
    }
);

Second example above is a bit more compact but also slightly less readable. But they both produce the exact same output (progress messages printed every 500 ms):

Completed 1 of 4
Completed 2 of 4
Completed 3 of 4
Completed 4 of 4
Done

Progress notifications probably make even more sense with multi-request AJAX calls. Imagine you need to performs two AJAX requests to complete some process. You want to let user know when the whole process finishes but also, optionally, when the first call finished. This might be useful to e.g. for building more responsive GUI. It’s quite easy:

function doubleAjax() {
    var deferred = $.Deferred();
    $.getJSON('square/3', function(threeSquare) {
        deferred.notify(threeSquare)
        $.getJSON('square/4', function(fiveSquare) {
            deferred.resolve(fiveSquare);
        });
    });
    return deferred.promise();
}
 
doubleAjax().
    progress(function(threeSquare) {
        console.info("In the middle", threeSquare);
    }).
    done(function(fiveSquare) {
        console.info("Done", fiveSquare);
    });

Notice how we notify promise once the first request completes and resolve it in the end. Client is free to handle only done() callback or both. With traditional, callback-based APIs we would get doubleAjax(doneCallback, progressCallback) function taking two functions as an argument, where the second one is optional (?) Progress API is unavailable in other major languages we explored so far, which makes jQuery promises quite useful and interesting.

Chaining and transforming promises

One last thing I would like to share with you is chaining and transforming promises. The concept isn’t new to us (both in Java and Scala/Akka). How would it look like in JavaScript? First define few low-level methods:

function square(value) {
    return $.getJSON('square/' + value);
}
 
function remoteDouble(value) {
    return $.getJSON('double/' + value);
}
 
function localDouble(x) {
    return x * 2;
}

We can now seamlessly combine them:

square(2).then(localDouble).then(function(doubledSquare) {
    console.info(doubledSquare);
});
 
square(2).then(remoteDouble).then(localDouble).then(function(doubledSquare) {
    console.info(doubledSquare);
});

First example applies localDouble() function once the result arrives (2 square) and multiplies it by two. Thus final callback prints 8. Second example is much more interesting. Please look carefully. When square(2) promise is resolved we call remoteDouble(4) (4 is a result of asynchronous square/2 AJAX call). But this function, again, returns a promise. Final callback prints 8 (result of double/4 call) when this second promise returns. This construct allows us to chain AJAX calls (and any other promises) by providing result of one call as an argument to subsequent call.

Promises in AngularJS

AngularJS has one really neat feature, taking advantage of dynamic typing and promises. I believe jQuery could learn a lot from this simple idea and implement it in core library as well. But back to the point. This is a typical AJAX interaction updating GUI in AngularJS:

angular.module('promise', []);
 
function Controller($scope, $http) {
    $http.get('square/3').success(function(reply) {
        $scope.result = {data: reply};
    });
}

Where the template is as follows:

<body ng-app="promise" ng-controller="Controller">
    3 square: {{result.data}}
</body>

If you are not familiar with AngularJS – assigning value to $scope automatically updates all DOM elements referring to modified scope variables. Thus running this application will render 3 square: 9 once the response arrives. Looks pretty clean (notice that AngularJS uses promises as well!) But we can do much better! First some code:

function Controller($scope, $http) {
    $scope.result = $http.get('square/3');
}

This code is much more clever than it looks like. Remember that $http.get() returns a promise, not a value. This means we are assigning promise (possibly not yet received AJAX response) to our scope. Still don’t understand why I’m so excited? Try:

`$('.result').text($.getJSON('square/3'))`

in jQuery. Won’t work. But AngularJS is clever enough to recognize that scope variable is actually a promise. Thus instead of trying to render it (results in [object Object])) it simply waits for it to resolve. Once promise is resolved it replaces it with its value and updates DOM. Automatically. No need to use callbacks, framework will understand that we don’t want to display promise but the value of it, once resolved. And by the way AngularJS has its own implementation of Deferred and promises in $q service.

Summary

By using promises instead of dreadful callbacks we can greatly simplify JavaScript code. It looks and feels much more imperative, despite asynchronous nature of JS applications. Also, as we already seen, concept of futures and promises is present in many modern programming languages, thus every programmer should be familiar and feel comfortable with them.
 

Reference: Promises and Deferred objects in jQuery and AngularJS from our JCG partner Tomasz Nurkiewicz at the NoBlogDefFound blog.

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2 Responses to "Promises and Deferred objects in jQuery and AngularJS"

  1. Kim says:

    What about error handling?

    • There is a small example with fail(). I skipped error handling deliberately to make examples cleaner. In general errors are forwarded to the very end of chain.

      BTW there is a mistake in this example: square(2).then(remoteDouble).then(localDouble).then(function(doubledSquare) – first callback prints 8, second one – 16. The original article is fixed.

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