The Node.js Concurrency Paradigm: Asynchronous I/O

Node.js relies on asynchronous Input and Output (I/O) in order to increase the computing efficiency and speed of an application. This article will take a basic look at what asynchronous programming actually means, and why asynchronous I/O is important in a language like Node.js.


For Node.js performance to be actualized, a certain programming paradigm must be followed. Node.js is an event-driven architecture, and relies on asynchronous (non-blocking) input/output calls, along with the Node.js event loop to gain performance. This means that calls made in Node.js to the file system, event loop, or any resource, must be done asynchronously.


Asynchronous programming, informally, means code that is not waiting for a call to return. This is done using callbacks and registering them with an event-listener.


Let’s take a look at the difference between a simple asynchronous (non-blocking) call versus a synchronous (blocking) call.


Simple Synchronous Example:


// synchronous (blocking)
var request = prepareData();

// twiddle thumbs waiting for response
// from remote web service
var response = getRemoteData(request);

// display results
console.log(response);


First, notice the getRemoteData(request) call. If we’re on the client-side, and we make a synchronous call, the user’s browser is in a waiting state and frozen until the call is completed. The rest of the code cannot be executed until this call has returned.


If we’re on the server-side, and in Node.js we have an incoming request added to the event loop, but this request is a synchronous call, then we have a problem. If this synchronous call is to read or write to the file system, when executed, the entire event queue will be blocked and in a waiting state. No other calls in the event queue can be performed, because the server is halted and waiting for the blocking call to finish.

The speed and through-put of our application ultimately depends on how fast each synchronous call is completed. Since Node.js is single threaded the entire application will be blocked and waiting, which is obviously very bad.


Now let’s take a look at the same simple calls, but this time performed asynchronously.


Simple Asynchronous Example:


// Asynchronous (non-blocking)
var request = prepareData();

// call getRemoteData and continue to 
// execute next line of code
getRemoteData(request, function(response){ // pass a callback
  // display results when done
  console.log(response);
};


We begin here again by passing the request to getRemoteData(request, callback), but we also pass a callback as the second parameter. Remember we can do this because JavaScript supports functions as “first class citizens”.

Our inline anonymous callback function will fire, and the response will be passed as a dynamic argument when getRemoteData() returns.

What is important is our code continues to execute the line after getRemoteData() immediately. It does not wait for the call response to return. This is referred to as an asynchronous (non-blocking) call.


Programming in a purely asynchronous fashion is what makes Node.js so powerful.


Now, it is true that many mainstream languages support concurrency. And it is also true, that they also have asynchronous I/O support. However, the problem is that the majority of these languages have only concurrency and asynchronous “features”. In most languages, concurrency support was added long after the language’s release.


Node.js nearly only supports asynchronous programming and was developed purely with the asynchronous paradigm as a fore-front of its design.


And that’s it!
Happy asynch coding and JavaScript all the things!
😀

The Responsibility of the Node.js Event Loop

Everyone always talks about the Node.js event loop and how its important, but what exactly is it responsible for?

Well… Let’s take a look! 😀

The event loop (event queue) in Node.js is a loop that is responsible for processesing incoming requests. This loop “contains” a queue of requests, and each request in the event loop is a callback.


Node.js Event Loop

The Node.js Event Loop

Since the Node.js event loop contains a queue, it processes the requests like a traditional queue First-In-First-Out (FIFO) fashion. Node.js will continue processing each callback in the event loop until there are no more callbacks left to process.


In order to do this, Node.js registers with the Operating System. When an request arrives, Node.js is alerted, and the event loop processes the request. Any other subsequent connections that are made are queued until Node.js has finished with the current request.


The event loop allows Node.js to scale efficiently by accepting (queueing) many requests at once. Efficient scaling is one of the benefits that Node.js (with the event loop) has over traditional web servers. The event loop is single-threaded. This allows Node.js (when used properly) to require far less computational resources than traditional web servers.

Traditional web servers like Apache or Nginx are multi-threaded. Multi-threaded web servers typically cannot scale to the magnitude that Node.js can without greatly increasing the system’s computing resources. Since multi-threaded web servers create a new thread for each incoming request, this increases both CPU and RAM requirements of the system for the same amount of traffic. This increase can be either positive or negative (depending on your application), but the amount of computing resources for multi-threaded web servers will be greater than the requirement for single-threaded ones.


And that’s it on the Node.js event loop for now!

Happy coding! 😀

Review of JavaScript Invocation Patterns

JavaScript Invocation patterns can be tricky for developers new to the language. This tutorial will take a look and review the four different invocation patterns that JavaScript offers, and the behavior that is expected when using them.

A function invocation in JavaScript refers to passing control and parameters to another function during execution. This may not seem very interesting at first, but the functional ability that the developer can gain can be powerful.

If you have programmed in other languages, especially in many of the popular Object Oriented languages that contain the this parameter, you will quickly find that in JavaScript, the context execution of a function can change the functionality of a function in ways that are typically not expected.

Let’s dive into this in detail. Each function in JavaScript contains two implicit parameters, the this parameter that you use to call object properties with, and another parameter called the arguments parameter.

Along with these two implicit parameters, JavaScript also contains four different invocation patterns.


Let’s take a look.


The Four JavaScript Invocation Patterns:

  1. Constructor Invocation
  2. Function Invocation
  3. Method Invocation
  4. Apply Invocation


**Note: Each invocation pattern in JavaScript changes the initialization context of the this parameter.


Let’s take a look at how each pattern works.


The Constructor Invocation Pattern


Again, JavaScript is classless, prototypal inheritance language, but some of the syntax JavaScript uses camouflages its true nature. Some of JavaScript’s syntax makes the language appear to have classical inheritance, but it doesn’t.

When a function object in JavaScript is invoked with the new keyword, then that object is created with a “hidden link” to that function’s prototype member, and the this parameter will be bound to that new object.


Let’s take a look at an example.


Constructor Invocation Example:


// create a constructor function
// called HelloName
var HelloName = function(name) {
  this.say = name
};
// Give all instances of HelloName
// a public method called getSay
HelloName.prototype.getSay = function() {
  return this.say;
};
// create an instance of HelloName
var helloNameObj = new HelloName("Daryl");
// hello Daryl
console.log('hello' + helloNameObj.getSay());

When functions in JavaScript are created with the new keyword, they are called constructors. We add functionality to constructor functions by adding properties to the functions prototype.


**Note: By convention, the first letter of a constructor function is always capitalized.


Constructor functions in JavaScript can be very useful; however, using the “constructor style” method for creating functions is not recommended. JavaScript contains a better method built into the language, that accomplishes the same behavior. This method is to use Object.create, and we will look at why this is a better option later in another tutorial.


The Function Invocation Pattern


A function is not a property of an object when the function is invoked using the Function Invocation Pattern. If the function is invoked with this pattern, the this parameter becomes bound to the global object, and this can become a problem.


**Note: This was considered a design flaw when the language was developed, because binding to the global object is bad. We won’t go into complete detail of why it is bad in this tutorial, but we will look at a commonly used example of why. There are a lot of reasons, so just trust me (or Google it), binding globally is a nightmare waiting to happen.. 😛


OK, let’s first take a look at the Function Invocation Pattern, and then since binding to the global object is bad, we’ll take a look at how a standardized work around is implemented when a function is invoked inside a method.

Function Invocation Example:


// invoked as a function
var addTogether = add(1, 2); // 3
// using our helloNameObj object
// modify helloNameObj to contain a
// moneyMakerAlgorithm method
var helloNameObj.moneyMakerAlgorithm = function() { 
  var that = this; // work around
  var extraMathProcessing = function() {
    // "that" holds the correct "this" value now
    that.value = add(that.value, that.value);
  }
  // invoke as a function
  extraMathProcessing(); // "this" is now bound to global object
}
// invoke moneyMakerAlgorithm as a method
helloNameObj.moneyMakerAlgorithm();
// output result of value
console.log(helloNameObj.value);


The Method Invocation Pattern


As mentioned, when a function is stored as a property of an object, that property is called a method. When a method is invoked, the this parameter is bound to that method, and that method is a function object.


Let’s take a look at an example.


Method Invocation Example:


// create an object literal with 
// a method. The input param is
// optional, but there should be
// validation checking for if input
// is actually of data type number
var helloNameObj = { 
  value: 1,
  increase: function(num){
    this.value += num;
  }
};
helloNameObj.increase(1); // value = 2
helloNameObj.increase(3); // value = 5


The Apply Invocation Pattern


Since JavaScript supports a functional programming paradigm, then functions can be “first-class citizens”, and since functions are objects, then functions can contain other functions, called methods.

The implications of these features are that JavaScript contains an “Apply Invocation pattern”. This pattern, enables the creation of an array of arguments that can be invoked on a function directly. When doing this, we can apply the context of the this parameter to the context of our choosing.


Let’s take a look at some examples.


Apply Invocation Example:


// apply takes two parameters
// first - is the this parameter
// second - is the array of arguments
// to apply on the function
var helloNameArr = [2, 3];
var addTogether = add.apply(null, helloNameArr); // 5

Apply Invocation Example:


// create an object literal with a 
// say property like in the constructor
// invocation pattern
var helloNameObj {
  say: 'hello Daryl'
};
// Unlike above in the constructor
// invocation pattern, helloNameObj
// does not inherit from 
// HelloName.prototype, so
// we do not have a getSay method
// on helloNameObj, but we can
// invoke getSay on helloNameObj
// by using the apply keyword again
var say = HelloName.prototype.getSay.apply(helloNameObj);
// hello Daryl



Now that we went through all the invocation patterns, let’s take a look at an interesting array parameter that JavaScript makes available.


JavaScript Arguments Parameter



JavaScript contains an array parameter, that is implicitly available to functions when they are invoked. The arguments array allows functions to be invoked with extra arguments. This includes ones that are not already defined as the functions parameters. The implications of this, is that functions can be invoked with an unspecified number of arguments.

Let’s take a look.

Arguments Parameter Example:


// invoked as a function
var addStuff = function() {
  var result=0; 
  for(var i=0; i < arguments.length; i++) {
    result += arguments[i];
  }
  return result;
}
console.log(addStuff(1,2,3); // 6


And that's it for the JavaScript invocation review.
Happy coding 😀