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Flattening Callback Chains with Monad Do-Notation

A few unrelated topics on my reading list made me want to randomly experiment with a few things. I wanted to understand monads a bit better, see how they applied to callback-based asynchronous programming, and play around with macro programming in a Lisp dialect. This is a partial log of the theoretical-and-probably-not-directly-applicable-but-nevertheless-fun rabbit hole I dived into.

The Callback Pyramid Problem

JavaScript (and especially Node.js) uses lots of asynchronous APIs. These are implemented by adding an extra callback parameter to asynchronous methods, where the callback parameter is a function that receives the result of the call when it’s finished.

fetch("foo", (err, foo) => {
  // We have a 'foo' value. Do something with it.
  doSomethingWith(foo);
});

Although this is a very simple and easy to understand way of implementing asynchronicity, the drawback is that it becomes a bit ugly when chaining many of these calls:

fetch("foo", (err, foo) => {
  doSomethingWith(foo);
  fetch("bar", (err, bar) => {
    doSomethingElse();
    fetch("baz", (err, baz) => {
      doSomethingWith(foo, baz);
    });
  });
});

Each asynchronous call needs to be nested inside the other, resulting in an ever-growing callback pyramid of doom or callback hell (and this trivial example doesn’t even do error handling yet).

JavaScript offers libraries to help manage callbacks and flatten them out a bit more, such as async or Promises. Unfortunately, these libraries only tend to work well when the callback chains are waterfalls, where each callback’s result is only needed in the next callback. When you need to combine values, you either get a pyramid again, or some ugly code like this:

let foo;
let baz;
fetch("foo")
  .then(result => { 
    foo = result; 
    doSomethingWith(foo);
    return fetch("bar");
  })
  .then(() => { 
    doSomethingElse();
    return fetch("baz");
  });
  .then(result => { 
    baz = result; 
    doSomethingWith(foo, baz);
  })

Yes, it’s (relatively) flat, but the mutable variables at the top aren’t very nice.

Ideally, you would be able to write asynchronous calls in a flat way, like you would with synchronous code. For example, with some fictional syntax, you would be able to write:

async-do {
  let foo <- fetch("foo");
  doSomethingWith(foo);
  let bar <- fetch("bar");
  doSomethingElse();
  let baz <- fetch("baz");
  doSomethingWith(foo, baz);
}

Languages that have cooperative multithreading support (such as coroutines) tend to use this to mimic synchronous code structure for asynchronous code, optionally by adding some syntactic sugar around it to make it even more convenient. Examples include C#’s async/await, Clojure’s core.async, and Go’s goroutines. However, this introduces an entirely different model of computation, usually not as easy to understand as a simple callback mechanism.

So, I wanted to play with syntactic sugar to manage callbacks. Experimenting with syntax is something that sounded like a nice job for a Lisp, so I used this as an excuse to pick up Scheme and play around with this (well, Racket to be honest, but close enough). The actual code used in this post can be found here.

Asyncs

Although we could use the same mechanism for callbacks as in JavaScript (where the callback is passed as the final parameter of a function), we use a slightly different system: asynchronous functions return an async, a function that takes a callback as parameter, executes the asynchronous logic, and then feeds the result value (or error) to its callback parameter.

For example, suppose that we have a fetch procedure that does an asynchronous request for data. We let fetch return an async, such that we can call it with a callback to print out the value:

; Create an async (i.e. a function) that will deliver the value of 
; "foo" to its callback argument
(define fetch-foo (fetch "foo"))

; Execute the request by passing a callback to the returned async; 
; the callback just prints out the result.
; We're ignoring errors for now.
(fetch-foo (λ (error value) 
             (display value) (newline)))

By using a make-async procedure that, similarly to JavaScript, returns an async for a piece of code, we can create a dummy definition of a fetch function:

; Dummy version of a `fetch` procedure that returns an async for
; the value "<request>-value" (available after a few seconds)
(define (fetch key)
  ; The `make-async` argument is a piece of code that is executed, 
  ; and calls `resolve` or `reject` when the answer is ready or 
  ; has failed respectively.
  (make-async (λ (resolve reject)
                  (thread 
                    (λ ()
                      (sleep 2)
                      (resolve (string-append key "-value")))))))

Like with JavaScript, we can chain fetch calls into a lovely callback pyramid:

((fetch "foo") (λ (_ foo)
                 (do-something-with foo)
                 ((fetch "bar") (λ (_ bar)
                                  ; Don't need the value of bar
                                  (do-something-else)
                                  ((fetch "baz") (λ (_ baz)
                                                   (do-something-with foo baz)))))))

The pyramid looks even worse in Scheme than it does in JavaScript, so let’s try to get rid of it.

The Async Monad

It turns out our async is actually a monad, a composable structure of computations. If you’re unfamiliar with monads, you could have a look at the WikiPedia page or the Haskell page, but that probably won’t help you. Getting your head around monads is a challenge, so I won’t attempt to explain them here (I probably couldn’t if I wanted to anyway). Instead, if you have time, you should read the excellent Learn You a Haskell for Great Good! (more specifically, Chapters 11 and onwards), which does a great job at explaining them step by step. If you don’t have time, that’s fine too, you should be able to read on without understanding anything about them.

Monads need to have 2 operations defined on them, return and bind, which we’ll define for our asyncs:

  • return creates an async out of an ordinary value. Defining this one is easy: it just creates an async that immediately resolves to the given value:

    (define (async-return value)
      (make-async 
        (λ (resolve reject) (resolve value))))
  • bind creates a new async by feeding the succesful result of one async into a function returning another async. It may help to look at the type definition of this operation in Haskell (where bind is called >>=):

    (>>=) :: Monad m => m a -> (a -> m b) -> m b

    If we substitute the monad type m for a (fictional) Async type, this becomes:

    (>>=) :: Async a -> (a -> Async b) -> Async b

    So, bind for asyncs is a function that takes an async of one type and a function that maps a value of that type onto another async, and returns a new combined async. Here is the definition of async-bind:

    (define (async-bind async f)
      (make-async 
        (λ (resolve reject)
          (async (λ (async-error async-value)
                   (if async-error
                       (reject async-error)
                       ((f async-value) (λ (f-error f-value) 
                                          (if f-error 
                                              (reject f-error)
                                              (resolve f-error))))))))))

If we use the async-return and async-bind operations, we can rewrite the example above like this:

(define fetch-foo-bar
  (async-bind (fetch "foo")
              (λ (foo)
                (async-bind (fetch "bar")
                            (λ (bar)
                              (async-return (do-something-with foo bar)))))))

Notice that:

  • The callback doesn’t have an error parameter anymore. The async-bind operation shortcuts the other callbacks when a failure occurs, and propagates the error to whoever uses the resulting async.
  • We need to end the chain with a async-return call, because do-something-with returns a regular value, whereas the second parameter of async-bind needs to be a function that returns a new async.

Using these operations doesn’t look very practical in itself, it just creates even more pyramids. However, by copying some syntactic monad combining sugar from Haskell, we can get a much nicer result.

Do-notation

Because Haskell relies heavily on monads (mostly because you need it to do I/O or model other side-effects), it has a special syntactic sugar to work with monads, called the do-notation. In Haskell, do-notation allows you to rewrite

action1 >>= \x1 -> 
  action2 >>= \x2 ->
    action3 x1 x2

as

do
  x1 <- action1
  x2 <- action2
  action3 x1 x2

We can introduce the same notation for our asyncs, flattening our fetch-foo-bar pyramid of async-bind calls into the following:

(async-do
  (<- foo (fetch "foo"))
  (<- bar (fetch "bar"))
  (async-return (do-something-with foo bar)))

Each argument of async-do is a call that creates an async, optionally embedded in an <- arrow operator call to receive the value from the async and put it in a variable (for use at a later statement in the async-do). Because this is just syntactic sugar for combining asyncs, each line is only executed after the previous async has been resolved.

Thanks to the power of Lisp, introducing the async-do syntactic sugar in Scheme can be done with a simple macro:

(define-syntax async-do
  (syntax-rules (<-)
    ; The final statement is left as is
    [(_ e) e]

    ; A `var <- e` statement is rewritten into 
    ; `(async-bind e (λ (var) ...))`.
    [(_ (<- var e1) e2 ...)
     (async-bind e1 (λ (var) (async-do e2 ...)))]

    ; A regular statement `e` is rewritten into
    ; `(async-bind e (λ (_) ...))` (i.e. the value of the 
    ; async is ignored).
    [(_ e1 e2 ...) 
     (async-bind e1 (λ (_) (async-do e2 ...)))]))

This macro describes exactly how the do-notation is defined in Haskell.

Flattening the big pyramid from the beginning of this section with async-do becomes:

(define fetch-foo-bar-baz
  (async-do
    (<- foo (fetch "foo"))
    (async-return (do-something-with foo))
    (<- bar (fetch "bar"))
    (async-return (do-something-else))
    (<- baz (fetch "baz"))
    (async-return (do-something-with foo baz))))

The async-return calls, which ensure that every line in the async-do block is a async, are still a bit annoying. Since we’re in a dynamically typed language, we can actually get rid of those by slightly changing the definition of the async-do macro to automatically convert values into asyncs if necessary.

(define-syntax async-do
  (syntax-rules (<-)
    [(_ e)
     (->async e)]
    [(_ (<- var e1) e2 ...)
     (async-bind (->async e1) (λ (var) (async-do e2 ...)))]
    [(_ e1 e2 ...)
     (async-bind (->async e1) (λ (_) (async-do e2 ...)))]))

; Convert a value to an async if it isn't one
(define-syntax ->async
  (syntax-rules ()
    [(_ e) 
     (let ([e-result e])
       (if (async? e-result)
          e-result
          (async-return e-result)))]))

The result of the pyramid above then finally becomes the clean, flat chain of callbacks we set out to create:

(define fetch-foo-bar-baz
  (async-do
    (<- foo (fetch "foo"))
    (do-something-with foo)
    (<- bar (fetch "bar"))
    (do-something-else)
    (<- baz (fetch "baz"))
    (do-something-with foo baz)))

Back to JavaScript?

So, we have a pretty clean way of doing asynchronous calls in Scheme, all based on the well-understood foundations of monads. It would be useful if we would be able to bring this do-syntax into JavaScript too, for example using the Sweet.js macro language. I haven’t had the courage to do this myself yet, because creating macros for JavaScript is obviously more work due to the more complex syntactic structure of JavaScript. Maybe something for a follow-up post?

In the next post, we’ll go beyond the async monad with the do-notation.

Published by

Remko Tronçon

Software Engineer · Hobby musician · BookWidgets