Promise composition

In the last article on promises, we focused on the Promises/A+ specification and the ES6 implementation of promises. We learned the benefits of using promises over raw callbacks. We also learned some terminology to help wrap our minds around the concepts. If you run into any terms that are unfamiliar, please review the first article as this builds on top of it.

Now, we’re going to take it up a notch and focus on promise composition, which we’ll define as functional programming and asynchronous control flow using promises.

Promise chaining

The then method allows us to chain promises (see 3.2.6 in Promises/A+ spec). The value returned from a chain of promises is itself a promise. This returned promise will resolve to the value returned from the last onFulfilled or onRejected handler in the chain. Let’s look at some examples:

let chainPromise = getActiveUser()
chainPromise.then(console.log, console.error)

Here, chainPromise could either be:

  1. Fulfilled with a list of parsed subscriptions for the active user since that is the last onFulfilled handler in the chain or
  2. Rejected at any point of the chain since there are no onRejected handlers

The same is true for nesting; this accomplishes the same task as above:

let nestedPromise = getActiveUser().then(userJson => {
  let user = JSON.parse(userJson)
  return getSubscriptionsForUser(user).then(subJson => {
    return JSON.parse(subJson)
nestedPromise.then(console.log, console.error)

Armed with this knowledge, we can create a recursive chain that calls a function forever until an error occurs.

function forever(fn) {
  return fn().then(function() {
    return forever(fn) // Re-execute if successful
// If an error occurs, log and done

Won’t this blow the stack? No, because Promises/A+ requires the onFulfilled and onRejected handlers to trigger on a future turn in the event loop after the stack unwinds (3.2.4 in Promises/A+).

Starting chains and grouping

Promises provide some tools out of the box to aid in composition. We’ll focus on two of them: Promise.resolve and Promise.all.

Promise.resolve(value) converts a value into a promise that is automatically fulfilled with that value. This is useful for a couple reasons:

Here is an example:

Promise.resolve('monkeys').then(console.log) // Will log 'monkeys'

The second tool is Promise.all. It takes an array of promises and returns a new promise, which we’ll call a “group” promise. The group promise will either be:

  1. Resolved when all the promises resolve or
  2. Rejected when any reject.

Promise.all is helpful for grouping the fulfillment values from promises, regardless if the execution is in series or parallel:

let groupPromise = Promise.all([doThis(), doThat()])
groupPromise.then(([resultOfThis, resultOfThat]) => {}, console.error)

Promise.all maintains the ordering of the results array, so the result of doThis() would be index 0 and so on. If either promise rejects, then the groupPromise also rejects and we’d log it with console.error.

Working with collections

Concurrent maps

Let’s look at iterating through collections of data that require asynchronous action per element. Like, which synchronously deals with each element in an array, we can write a function that performs an asynchronous action on each element using promises.

function promiseMap(xs, fn) {
  // Execute the function for each element in the array and collect the results
  let promises = {
    return fn(x)
  return Promise.all(promises) // Return the group promise

We can shorten this useful utility down to one line:

let promiseMap = (xs, fn) => Promise.all( => fn(x)))

We then can use this function as such:

const fs = require('fs')
let stat = util.promisify(fs.stat)
promiseMap(['list', 'of', 'files'], stat).then(console.log, console.error)

The beauty of this approach is that even non-promise-returning functions will work. For example, let’s say we wanted to stat the files we do not already have in our cache:

let cache = Object.create(null)
function statCache(file) {
  if (cache[file]) return cache[file] // If exists, return cache.
  let promise = stat(file)

  // Here we introduce a promise side-effect, we cache the stat.
  promise.then(stat => (cache[file] = stat))
  return promise
promiseMap(['list', 'of', 'files'], statCache).then(console.log, console.error)

Here, statCache returns a value or a promise. Regardless of what’s returned, we can group it and provide the results with Promise.all. Sweet!

How can this work? Promise.all internally transforms all values returned into promises.

Serial maps

We talked about iterating through a collection with promises concurrently, but what about iterations in series? To do this, we programmatically create a promise chain:

let promiseMapSeries = (xs, fn) => {
  // Create a empty promise to start our chain.
  let chain = Promise.resolve()

  let promises =
    // Execute the next function after the previous has resolved.
    x => (chain = chain.then(() => fn(x)))
  // Group the results and return the group promise.
  return Promise.all(promises)

In the above example, we used Promise.all to group operations done in series and Promise.resolve to start our promise chain. Each time through, we built a larger chain and returned a promise for that point in the chain until we reached the end of the array. If we unraveled this code, it would look something like this:

let promises = []
let series1 = Promise.resolve().then(first)
let series2 = series1.then(second)
let series3 = series2.then(third)
// ... etc

When structured this way, we maintain the order in our results and the serial execution.

Combining recursion and composition

Let’s write a program that uses some of the skills we acquired earlier to recursively traverse a directory tree asynchronously providing the caller with a list of file paths. The program will execute as so:

node traverse.js [STARTING DIRECTORY]

Here is the implementation:

const fs = require('fs')
const {promisify} = require('util')

let readdir = promisify(fs.readdir)
let stat = promisify(fs.stat)

// Create our helper function.
let promiseMap = (xs, fn) => Promise.all( => fn(x)))

function readTree(path) {
  return (
    readdir(path) // Read directory at path.
      .then(files =>
        promiseMap(files, file => {
          let fpath = path + '/' + file

          // Get file stats.
          return stat(fpath).then(stat => {
            // If we have a directory, recurse into it.
            if (stat.isDirectory()) return readTree(fpath)
            return fpath
      // Flatten any nested arrays and sort.
      .then(paths => paths.flat().sort())

readTree(process.argv[2]).then(console.log, console.error)

If we wanted to execute this serially, we swap out promiseMap with promiseMapSeries. Nice!

Going further with promises

Your best grasp of these concepts will come by playing around with them. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Try implementing promiseMap where it limits the number of items it handles concurrently. Then, try implementing it for promiseMapSeries.
  2. Turn setTimeout into a promise-returning function called delay. Then, use delay to create a new promiseMapSeries function that adds a delay between calls.

For more examples of chaining, grouping, and using recursion with promises, this gist implements other functional concepts.

This article originally was published on the IBM Developer blog.

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Marc is the co-author of Node.js in Action and Node.js in Practice. He enjoys learning and writes technical stuff here and for IBM. Currently plays around with Go, TypeScript and Rust. Works as a full-stack engineer for @applieddataconsultants.