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Asynchronicity in Programming Languages
Computers are asynchronous by design.
Asynchronous means that things can happen independently of the main program flow.
In the current consumer computers, every program runs for a specific time slot and then it stops its execution to let another program continue their execution. This thing runs in a cycle so fast that it's impossible to notice. We think our computers run many programs simultaneously, but this is an illusion (except on multiprocessor machines).
Programs internally use interrupts, a signal that's emitted to the processor to gain the attention of the system.
Let's not go into the internals of this now, but just keep in mind that it's normal for programs to be asynchronous and halt their execution until they need attention, allowing the computer to execute other things in the meantime. When a program is waiting for a response from the network, it cannot halt the processor until the request finishes.
Normally, programming languages are synchronous and some provide a way to manage asynchronicity in the language or through libraries. C, Java, C#, PHP, Go, Ruby, Swift, and Python are all synchronous by default. Some of them handle async operations by using threads, spawning a new process.
Lines of code are executed in series, one after another, for example:
onSubmit and so on. How could it do this with a synchronous programming model?
The answer was in its environment. The browser provides a way to do it by providing a set of APIs that can handle this kind of functionality.
More recently, Node.js introduced a non-blocking I/O environment to extend this concept to file access, network calls and so on.
You can't know when a user is going to click a button. So, you define an event handler for the click event. This event handler accepts a function, which will be called when the event is triggered:
This is the so-called callback.
It's common to wrap all your client code in a
load event listener on the
window object, which runs the callback function only when the page is ready:
Callbacks are used everywhere, not just in DOM events.
One common example is by using timers:
XHR requests also accept a callback, in this example by assigning a function to a property that will be called when a particular event occurs (in this case, the state of the request changes):
Handling errors in callbacks
How do you handle errors with callbacks? One very common strategy is to use what Node.js adopted: the first parameter in any callback function is the error object: error-first callbacks
If there is no error, the object is
null. If there is an error, it contains some description of the error and other information.
The problem with callbacks
Callbacks are great for simple cases!
However every callback adds a level of nesting, and when you have lots of callbacks, the code starts to be complicated very quickly:
This is just a simple 4-levels code, but I've seen much more levels of nesting and it's not fun.
How do we solve this?
Alternatives to callbacks