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. 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.

More about 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 be resolved to the value returned from the last onFulfilled or onRejected handlers in the chain. Let’s look at some examples:

var chainPromise = first().then(second).then(third).then(fourth)
chainPromise.then(console.log, console.error)

Here, chainPromise could either be:

  1. Fulfilled with the return value of fourth since it was 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 code will produce the same behavior as the above example:

var nestedPromise = first().then(function (val1) {
  return second(val1).then(function (val2) {
    return third(val2).then(function (val3) {
      return fourth(val3)
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 (like async.forever):

function forever (fn) {
  return fn().then(function () {
    return forever(fn)  // re-execute if successful
// console.error only ever called if an error occurs
forever(doThis).then(undefined, console.error)

Won’t this blow the stack? Unfortunately, JavaScript does not have proper tail call support yet. However, it won’t affect this recursive call because Promises/A+ requires the onFulfilled and onRejected handlers to be called on a future turn in the event loop after the stack unwinds (3.2.4 in Promises/A+).

Starting chains and grouping promises

In addition to the functional programming concepts we enjoy in synchronous programming, ES6 promises provide tools to aid in composition. We’ll focus on two of them: Promise.resolve and Promise.all.

Promise.resolve(value) helps us start promise chains. If no value is provided, a promise is returned fulfilled to undefined. We’ll call this an “empty” promise. If a value is provided, a promise is returned fulfilled to that value:

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 resolved when all the promises have been fulfilled or rejected when any have been rejected.

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

var groupPromise = Promise.all([ doThis(), doThat() ])
groupPromise.then(function (results) { }, 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 doThis() or doThat() had an error, groupPromise would be rejected and we’d log it with console.error.

Working with collections

Let’s look at iterating through collections of data that require asynchronous action per element. First, let’s mimic using promises:

function map (arr, iterator) {
  // execute the func for each element in the array and collect the results
  var promises = (el) { return iterator(el) })
  return Promise.all(promises) // return the group promise

We could then utilize this function as such:

// turn fs.stat into a promise-returning function
var fs = Bluebird.promisifyAll(fs)
map(['list', 'of', 'files'], fs.statAsync).then(console.log, console.error)

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

var cache = Object.create(null) // create empty object
function statCache (file) {
   // return the cached value if exists
  if (cache[file]) return cache[file]
  // generate a promise for the stat call
  var promise = fs_stat(file)
  // if that promise is fulfilled, cache it!
  promise.then(function (stat) { cache[file] = stat })
  return promise // return the promise
map(['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? The Promise.all method also takes in values as arguments which internally it transforms into a promises fulfilled to those values.

However, there is a problem with our map function. What if an exception is thrown in statCache? Right now, the exception wouldn’t be caught since it isn’t in a promise chain. Here is where Promise.resolve comes in:

function map (arr, func) {
  return Promise.resolve().then(function () {
    // inside a `then`, exceptions will be handled in next onRejected
    return (el) { return func(el) })
  }).all() // return group promise

So we talked about iterating through a collection with promises in parallel, but what about iterations in series (like async.mapSeries)? Here is one approach (thanks @domenic):

function mapSeries (arr, iterator) {
  // create a empty promise to start our series (so we can use `then`)
  var currentPromise = Promise.resolve()
  var promises = (el) {
    return currentPromise = currentPromise.then(function () {
      // execute the next function after the previous has resolved successfully
      return iterator(el)
  // 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:

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

When structured this way, we maintain the order (seconds won’t be called until firsts are done) and gain grouping (the last promise fulfillment value in each chain is grouped).

Going further with promises

For more examples of chaining and grouping promises, this gist implements most of the async API. However, your best grasp of these concepts will come by playing around with them. Here are some ideas:

  1. Try implementing map or mapSeries another way
  2. Implement the async API using another promise library
  3. Write a network server (web or otherwise) using promises – for inspiration, check out mach

And from the previous article:

  1. Wrap some basic Node workflows converting callbacks into promises
  2. Rewrite one of the async methods into one that uses promises
  3. Write something recursively using promises (a directory tree might be a good start)
  4. Write a passing Promise A+ implementation. Here is my crude one.

This article originally was published on the Strongloop blog.

What do you think? Submit a change/correction.

Up next:

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.