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Async Observers

Summary

Add a way to specify whether or not observers should fire synchronously - that is, immediately after the property they are observing has changed - or asynchronously during the next runloop, along with an optional feature to specify whether observers should default to sync or async.

Motivation

Observers have been run synchronously in Ember since before v1.0 was released, and for about as long it has been an intention of the core team to eventually make them asynchronous. There are a two main reasons for why triggering observers asynchronously would be better overall:

  • They promote better programming practices. Synchronous observers can be used in a lot of ways to interact with the code they are observing, which puts more code on the "hot-path" and is prone to create a mess of intertangled, loosely related code filled with spooky action at a distance.
  • It would allow us to clean up a significant chunk of code within Ember itself. There is non-trivial amount of code dedicated to sending change signals synchronously, and that code has been slowly replaced by an alternative system that is lazy. Asynchronous observers would allow us to remove legacy code and tech debt.

We implemented this change behind a feature flag, and several community members tested it out in their applications. In testing, we found that this was unfortunately too much of a breaking change to do all at once - like it or not, the timing semantics of observers are public API.

The proposed solution now is to provide a method for users to specify whether an observer should be sync or async. In existing apps, observers can be converted incrementally to be async, giving them a path forward. In addition, an optional feature will be made which sets observers to be async by default, allowing users to set the default once their whole app has been converted, and allowing new apps to prevent/discourage sync observers in the first place. In the long run, synchronous observers will be deprecated and removed.

Detailed design

New APIs

A new sync boolean argument will be added to both addObserver and removeObserver:

export function addObserver(
  obj: any,
  path: string,
  target: object | Function | null,
  method?: string | Function,
  sync = SYNC_DEFAULT
): void;

export function removeObserver(
  obj: any,
  path: string,
  target: object | Function | null,
  method?: string | Function,
  sync = SYNC_DEFAULT
): void;

The argument needs to be added to both because sync and async observers are tracked separately, so we need to know where to look for the observer when removing it. Attempting to add both a sync and async observer will throw an error.

In addition, a new overloaded form of observer will allow users to specify whether or not the observer should be sync or async:

type ObserverDefinition = {
  dependentKeys: string[];
  fn: Function;
  sync: boolean;
};

export function observer(...args: (string | Function)[]): Function;
export function observer(definition: ObserverDefinition): Function;

Users will have to provide a full ObserverDefinition to set sync, which will prevent us from having to do any more argument munging to figure out what the user wants.

Synchronous Observer Implementation

Since chains are removed, the only way to check if observers should fire is to cycle through all of them. This means that on every notifyPropertyChange, we will cycle through all active synchronous observers and fire any that have dirtied.

In apps that are observer heavy, this could lead to performance impacts. Unfortunately, there isn't much we can do about this. We will try to minimize the impact as much as possible, but in the end it will be up to individual applications to migrate away from synchronous observers over time.

Tracked Properties and @dependentKeyCompat

Tracked properties and @dependentKeyCompat marked getters/setters will not fire observers synchronously, since they do not use notifyPropertyChange or the old change tracking system at all. In this way, they will encourage users to convert to async observers, or away from observers entirely.

Optional Feature

The name of the feature will be default-async-observers. Enabling it will default all observers to be async, but still allow users to set observers to be synchronous manually. This flag will be enabled by default in Ember Octane.

How we teach this

API Docs

(To be added at the end of the current API docs)

sync

By default in new Ember applications, observers are asynchronous. They can be marked as synchronous instead by using the sync option. Synchronous observers will run immediately when the property they are observing changes, instead of being scheduled to run later.

Each synchronous observer has a performance impact for every property change, so you should generally avoid using synchronous observers.

In older applications, observers are synchronous by default. You can use the sync option to make them asynchronous instead and convert them over time. You can also enable the default-async-observers optional feature to make them asynchronous by default, once you are sure that they will continue to function if they are asynchronous.

Guides

Observers are not discussed in the post-Octane guides, since we don't want to encourage their use. It may make sense to include a section on them in the upgrade guide instead.

Upgrade Guides

We should make a note in the Octane upgrade guides that sync observers are discouraged and probably not very performant. We should be up front that this will likely be a performance hit, but that we decided it was worth the benefits of the change.

Drawbacks

The biggest potential drawback is in performance. While we haven't been able to do any testing on apps that have observers, its possible that these changes will have an impact on them, especially apps that have many observers.

In theory, this shouldn't impact the majority of Ember apps since observers have been discouraged so heavily for such a long time. The impact should also decrease in time, as users transition away from observers entirely and toward tracked properties.

Alternatives

  • We could release Ember v4, and ship asynchronous observers as a breaking change. We currently believe this would be a breaking change that would prevent many users from adopting Octane or transitioning forward to tracked properties, which would be problematic and could divide the community.

Unresolved questions

What is the exact performance impact? Can we test it out in an application that represents a typical Ember app that uses observers?

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