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Promise Pipelines in JavaScript

Updated 2013-01-30 (originally posted )JavaScript, functional programming6 min read

Promises, also know as deferreds or futures, are a wonderful abstraction for manipulating asynchronous actions. Dojo has had Deferreds for some time. jQuery introduced its own Deferreds in version 1.5 based on the CommonJS Promises/A specification. I'm going to show you some recipes for working with jQuery Deferreds. Use these techniques to turn callback-based spaghetti code into elegant declarative code.

The basics of jQuery Deferreds

A Deferred is an object that represents some future outcome. Eventually it will either resolve with one or more values if that outcome was successful; or it will fail with one or more values if the outcome was not successful. You can get at those resolved or failed values by adding callbacks to the Deferred.

In jQuery's terms a promise is a read-only view of a deferred.

Here is a simple example of creating and then resolving a promise:

Callbacks can be added to a deferred or a promise using the .then() method. The first callback is called on success, the second on failure:

For more information see the jQuery Deferred documentation.

Note that if you are using a version of jQuery prior to 1.8 you will have to use .pipe() instead of .then(). That goes for all references to .then() in this article.

Sequential operations

Actions, such as HTTP requests, need to be sequential if input to one action depends on the output of another; or if you just want to make sure that actions are performed in a particular order.

Consider a scenario where you have a post id and you want to display information about the author of that post. Your web services don't support embedding author information in a post resource. So you will have to download data on the post, get the author id, and then make another request to get data for the author. To start with you will want functions for downloading a post and a user:

In jQuery 1.5 and later all ajax methods return a promise that, on a successful request, resolves with the data in the response, the response status, and the XHR object representing the request.

The .then() method produces a new promise that transforms the resolved value of its input. I used .then() here just because using $.when() is simpler if each promise resolves to a single value. We will get back to that in parallel operations. Since only one argument is provided to .then() in these cases the new promises will have the same error values as the originals if an error occurs.

The result is that getUser() returns a promise that should resolve to data representing the user profile for a given id. And getPost() works the same way for posts and post ids.

Now, to fetch that author information:

When authorForPost() is called it returns a new promise that resolves with author information after both the post and author requests complete successfully. This is a straightforward way to get the job done. Though it does not implement error handling; and it could be more DRY. More on that in a bit.

Parallel operations

Let's say that you want to fetch two user profiles to display side-by-side. Using the getUser() function from the previous section:

The requests for userA and userB's profiles will be made in parallel so that you can get the results back as quickly as possible. This function uses $.when() to synchronize the promises for each profile so that getTwoUsers() returns one promise that resolves with the data for both profiles when both responses come back. If either request fails, the promise that getTwoUsers() returns will fail with information about the first failed request.

You might use getTwoUsers() like this:

The getTwoUsers() promise resolves with two values, one for each profile.

We now have several well-defined functions that operate on asynchronous actions. Isn't this nicer than the big mess of nested callbacks one might otherwise see?

I mentioned above that using $.when() is simpler when each of its input promises resolves to a single value. That is because if an input promise resolves to multiple values then the corresponding value in the new promise that $.when() creates will be an array instead of a single value.

Performing an arbitrary number of actions in parallel is similar:

This code fetches any number of posts in parallel. I used apply to pass the post promises to $.when() as though they are each a separate argument. The resulting promise resolves with a separate value for each post. It would be nicer if it resolved with an array of posts as one value. The use of .then() here takes those post values and transforms them into an array.

Combining sequential and parallel operations

Let's take the previous examples to their logical conclusion by creating a function that, given two post ids, will download information about the authors of each post to display them side-by-side. No problem!

From the perspective of a function that calls authorForPost(), it does not matter that two sequential requests are made. Because authorForPost() returns a promise that represents the eventual result of both requests, that detail is encapsulated.

Generalizing sequential operations

There are a couple of problems with the implementation of authorForPost() as presented above. We had to create a deferred by hand, which should not be necessary. And the promise that is returned does not fail if any of the requests involved fail.

These issues are not present in the parallel examples because $.when() does a nice job of generalizing synchronizing multiple promises. What we need is a function that does a similar job of generalizing flattening nested promises. Meet flatMap:

This function takes a promise and a callback that returns another promise. When the first promise resolves, $.flatMap() invokes the callback with the resolved values as arguments, which produces a new promise. When that new promise resolves, the promise that $.flatMap() returns also resolves with the same values. On top of that, $.flatMap() forwards errors to the promise that it returns. If either the input promise or the promise returned by the callback fails then the promise that $.flatMap() returns will fail with the same values.

Using $.flatMap() it is possible to write a function like authorForPost() a bit more succinctly:

By using $.flatMap() you also get error handling for free. If the request to fetch a post fails or the request to fetch the post's author fails the promise that this version of authorForPost() returns will also fail with the appropriate failure values.

Another potential problem is that authorForPost() does not give you access to any of the information on the posts that it downloads. You can combine $.flatMap() and .then() to create a slightly different function that exposes both the post and the author:

The promise that postWithAuthor() returns resolves to a post object with an added author property containing author information.

It turns out that .then() leads a double life. If the return value of its callback is a promise, .then() behaves exactly like $.flatMap()! This is the sort of thing that only a dynamic language like JavaScript can do. So if you want to skip the custom function, you could write postWithAuthor() like this:

Other uses for promises

The examples above focus on HTTP requests. But promises can be used in any kind of asynchronous code. They even come in handy in synchronous code from time to time.

Here is an example of a promise used to represent the outcome of a series of user interactions:

I suggest considering using promises anywhere you would otherwise pass a callback as an argument.


The promise transformations .then(), $.when(), and $.flatMap() work together to build promise pipelines. Using these functions you can define arbitrary parallel and sequential operations with nice declarative code. Furthermore, small promise pipelines can be encapsulated in helper functions which can be composed to form longer pipelines. This promotes reusability and maintainability in your code.

Use .then() to transform individual promises.

Use $.when() to synchronize parallel operations.

Use $.flatMap() or .then() to create chains of sequential operations.

Mix and match as desired.

I would like to thank Ryan Munro for coming up with the "pipeline" analogy.

Update 2012-08-01: .pipe() was added in jQuery 1.6. And it turns out that it behaves like $.flatMap() when its callback returns a promise. In jQuery 1.8 .then() will be updated to behave exactly like .pipe(), and .pipe() will be deprecated. So there is actually no need to add a custom method - you can just use .pipe() or .then() instead of $.flatMap().

Update 2013-01-30: jQuery 1.8 has been released, so I replaced references to .pipe() with .then(). I also included a more prominent explanation that .then() can do the same thing that $.flatMap() does.

Promises and Category theory

Good news! If you are able to follow the examples in this post then you have a working understanding of Monads. Specifically, $.flatMap() is a monad transformation, .then() with one argument is a functor transformation, and $.when() is almost a monoid transformation.

Monads, monoids, and functors are concepts from category theory that can be applied to functional programming. Really they are just generalizations of this idea of creating pipelines to transform values.

I bring this up because category theory can be useful, but is difficult to explain. My hope is that seeing examples of category theory in action will help programmers to get a feel for the patterns involved.

For more information on category theory in programming I recommend a series of blog posts titled Monads are Elephants. If you have read that and want to go further, I found the the book Learn You a Haskell for Great Good! to be very informative. And as a bonus it teaches you Haskell.

Those who are already into category theory will note that $.flatMap() could also be defined in terms of .then() and a $.join() function:

Except that this won't actually work because .then() will join the inner and outer promises before the result is passed to $.join().

Revision history

Added note that a custom flatMap method is no longer necessary.
Updates for the release of jQuery 1.8.