JavaScript - How do I return the response from an asynchronous call?

JavaScript - How do I return the response from an asynchronous call?

async, Javascript

Welcome back fam! It's been quite awhile since we've written a blog post at System Out Of Memory but the time has come. Let's explain one of the top C# questions, how to return the response from and async call.  

For anyone starting out let's explain the exact meaning of "ajax". To start let's understand that "AJAX" means Asynchronous JavaScript And XML. This means we are sending an asynchronous call to the server using JavaScript and returning XML, or JSON in modern programming. The request to an API endpoint (ex. MVC Controller method) will return a JSON or XML object which will be then be parsed by the client using JavaScript. While this all make perfect sense, often the confusion starts when we compare synchronous AJAX calls with asynchronous calls. Check out the examples below:

Synchronous

Imagine you make a call to a friend and they don't answer. Although it might take a while, you wait on the phone until your call "times out" and then your leave a voicemail message.

For example the same is happening when using in while loop example:

function connectCall(user endUser) {
    var call;
    while(endUser_not_found) {
        // search for endUser
    }
    return call;
}

var call = connectCall();
call.recordCallLog();

Even though connectCall might take a long time to execute, any code coming after var call = connectCall(); has to wait until the function returns the result.  For example if connectCall() times out recordCallLog() will never be executed as it has to wait until the function returns the result. call.recordCallLog() will only be executed when and if the connectCall() method returns.

Asynchronous

You call your friend again but this time they push the f*** you button. Now it's urgent and you leave a voicemail explaining they need to call you back immediately.You hang up and immediately your friend calls back and tells you what's going on. Immediately you are processing with the information they gave to you.

That's exactly what's happening when you do an Ajax request.

connectCall(function(call) {
    yourCallbackMethod();
});
call.recordLog();

Rather than waiting for the response, execution continues and call.recordLog() is called. To get the response eventually, you provide a function to be called once the response was received, in this example yourCallbackMethod(). Any statement coming after that call is executed before the callback is called.


Solution(s)

Embrace the asynchronous nature of JavaScript! While certain asynchronous operations provide synchronous counterparts (so does "Ajax"), it's generally discouraged to use them, especially in a browser context.

Why is it bad do you ask?

JavaScript runs in the UI thread of the browser and any long running process will lock the UI, making it unresponsive. Additionally, there is an upper limit on the execution time for JavaScript and the browser will ask the user whether to continue the execution or not.

All of this is really bad user experience. The user won't be able to tell whether everything is working fine or not. Furthermore, the effect will be worse for users with a slow connection.

In the following we will look at three different solutions that are all building on top of each other:

  • Promises with async/await (ES2017+, available in older browsers if you use a transpiler or regenerator)
  • Callbacks (popular in node)
  • Promises with then() (ES2015+, available in older browsers if you use one of the many promise libraries)

All three are available in current browsers, and node 7+.


ES2017+: Promises with async/await

The new ECMAScript version released in 2017 introduced syntax-level support for asynchronous functions. With the help of async and await, you can write asynchronous in a "synchronous style". Make no mistake though: The code is still asynchronous, but it's easier to read/understand.

async/await builds on top of promises: an async function always returns a promise. await"unwraps" a promise and either result in the value the promise was resolved with or throws an error if the promise was rejected.

Important: You can only use await inside an async function. That means that at the very top level, you still have to work directly with the promise.

You can read more about async and await on MDN.

Here is an example that builds on top of delay above:

// Using 'superagent' which will return a promise.
var superagent = require('superagent')

// This is isn't declared as `async` because it already returns a promise
function delay() {
  // `delay` returns a promise
  return new Promise(function(resolve, reject) {
    // Only `delay` is able to resolve or reject the promise
    setTimeout(function() {
      resolve(42); // After 3 seconds, resolve the promise with value 42
    }, 3000);
  });
}


async function getAllBooks() {
  try {
    // GET a list of book IDs of the current user
    var bookIDs = await superagent.get('/user/books');
    // wait for a second (just for the sake of this example)
    await delay(1000);
    // GET information about each book
    return await superagent.get('/books/ids='+JSON.stringify(bookIDs));
  } catch(error) {
    // If any of the awaited promises was rejected, this catch block
    // would catch the rejection reason
    return null;
  }
}

// Async functions always return a promise
getAllBooks()
  .then(function(books) {
    console.log(books);
  });

Newer browser and node versions support async/await. You can also support older environments by transforming your code to ES5 with the help of regenerator (or tools that use regenerator, such as Babel).


Let functions accept callbacks

A callback is simply a function passed to another function. That other function can call the function passed whenever it is ready. In the context of an asynchronous process, the callback will be called whenever the asynchronous process is done. Usually, the result is passed to the callback.

In the example of the question, you can make foo accept a callback and use it as successcallback. So this

var result = foo();
// Code that depends on 'result'

becomes

foo(function(result) {
    // Code that depends on 'result'
});

Here we defined the function "inline" but you can pass any function reference:

function myCallback(result) {
    // Code that depends on 'result'
}

foo(myCallback);

foo itself is defined as follows:

function foo(callback) {
    $.ajax({
        // ...
        success: callback
    });
}

callback will refer to the function we pass to foo when we call it and we simply pass it on to success. I.e. once the Ajax request is successful, $.ajax will call callback and pass the response to the callback (which can be referred to with result, since this is how we defined the callback).

You can also process the response before passing it to the callback:

function foo(callback) {
    $.ajax({
        // ...
        success: function(response) {
            // For example, filter the response
            callback(filtered_response);
        }
    });
}

It's easier to write code using callbacks than it may seem. After all, JavaScript in the browser is heavily event-driven (DOM events). Receiving the Ajax response is nothing else but an event.
Difficulties could arise when you have to work with third-party code, but most problems can be solved by just thinking through the application flow.


ES2015+: Promises with then()

The Promise API is a new feature of ECMAScript 6 (ES2015), but it has good browser supportalready. There are also many libraries which implement the standard Promises API and provide additional methods to ease the use and composition of asynchronous functions (e.g. bluebird).

Promises are containers for future values. When the promise receives the value (it is resolved) or when it is cancelled (rejected), it notifies all of its "listeners" who want to access this value.

The advantage over plain callbacks is that they allow you to decouple your code and they are easier to compose.

Here is a simple example of using a promise:

function delay() {
  // `delay` returns a promise
  return new Promise(function(resolve, reject) {
    // Only `delay` is able to resolve or reject the promise
    setTimeout(function() {
      resolve(42); // After 3 seconds, resolve the promise with value 42
    }, 3000);
  });
}

delay()
  .then(function(v) { // `delay` returns a promise
    console.log(v); // Log the value once it is resolved
  })
  .catch(function(v) {
    // Or do something else if it is rejected 
    // (it would not happen in this example, since `reject` is not called).
  });

Applied to our Ajax call we could use promises like this:

function ajax(url) {
  return new Promise(function(resolve, reject) {
    var xhr = new XMLHttpRequest();
    xhr.onload = function() {
      resolve(this.responseText);
    };
    xhr.onerror = reject;
    xhr.open('GET', url);
    xhr.send();
  });
}

ajax("/echo/json")
  .then(function(result) {
    // Code depending on result
  })
  .catch(function() {
    // An error occurred
  });

Describing all the advantages that promise offer is beyond the scope of this answer, but if you write new code, you should seriously consider them. They provide a great abstraction and separation of your code.

More information about promises: HTML5 rocks - JavaScript Promises

Side note: jQuery's deferred objects

Deferred objects are jQuery's custom implementation of promises (before the Promise API was standardized). They behave almost like promises but expose a slightly different API.

Every Ajax method of jQuery already returns a "deferred object" (actually a promise of a deferred object) which you can just return from your function:

function ajax() {
    return $.ajax(...);
}

ajax().done(function(result) {
    // Code depending on result
}).fail(function() {
    // An error occurred
});

Side note: Promise gotchas

Keep in mind that promises and deferred objects are just containers for a future value, they are not the value itself. For example, suppose you had the following:

function checkPassword() {
    return $.ajax({
        url: '/password',
        data: {
            username: $('#username').val(),
            password: $('#password').val()
        },
        type: 'POST',
        dataType: 'json'
    });
}

if (checkPassword()) {
    // Tell the user they're logged in
}

This code misunderstands the above asynchrony issues. Specifically, $.ajax() doesn't freeze the code while it checks the '/password' page on your server - it sends a request to the server and while it waits, immediately returns a jQuery Ajax Deferred object, not the response from the server. That means the if statement is going to always get this Deferred object, treat it as true, and proceed as though the user is logged in. Not good.

But the fix is easy:

checkPassword()
.done(function(r) {
    if (r) {
        // Tell the user they're logged in
    } else {
        // Tell the user their password was bad
    }
})
.fail(function(x) {
    // Tell the user something bad happened
});

Not recommended: Synchronous "Ajax" calls

As I mentioned, some(!) asynchronous operations have synchronous counterparts. I don't advocate their use, but for completeness' sake, here is how you would perform a synchronous call:

Without jQuery

If you directly use a XMLHTTPRequest object, pass false as third argument to .open.

jQuery

If you use jQuery, you can set the async option to false. Note that this option is deprecated since jQuery 1.8. You can then either still use a success callback or access the responseText property of the jqXHR object:

function foo() {
    var jqXHR = $.ajax({
        //...
        async: false
    });
    return jqXHR.responseText;
}

If you use any other jQuery Ajax method, such as $.get, $.getJSON, etc., you have to change it to $.ajax (since you can only pass configuration parameters to $.ajax).

Heads up! It is not possible to make a synchronous JSONP request. JSONP by its very nature is always asynchronous (one more reason to not even consider this option).