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Rich declarative API extensions for Ruby Deferrables.
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Deferrable Gratification

Deferrable Gratification (DG) facilitates asynchronous programming in Ruby, by helping create abstractions around complex operations built up from simpler ones. It helps make asynchronous code less error-prone and easier to compose. It also provides some enhancements to the Deferrable API.


Asynchronous programming, as supported in Ruby by EventMachine, offers the benefits of (limited) concurrency without the complexity of threads. However, it requires a style of code that fits awkwardly into Ruby's synchronous semantics.

A method that performs an asynchronous operation cannot simply return a result: instead it must take a callback, which it calls with the eventual result of the operation. That method's caller must also now take a callback, and so on up the call chain. This means replacing a synchronous library such as Net::HTTP with an asynchronous library such as em-http-request can require rewriting a surprisingly large part of a codebase.

Ruby's block syntax initially seems to support this callback-passing style well.

asynchronously_fetch_page do |page|
  # do something with 'page'...

The first problem is that, unlike regular method parameters, Ruby doesn't check that the caller remembered to provide a block, making it easy to create bugs by forgetting a callback.

page = asynchronously_fetch_page
# returns immediately with no error.  'page' is probably nil.

Similarly the method implementer may forget to pass the callback down to nested calls, which can render the whole chain of asynchronous methods unable to return a result. (The asynchronous operation might itself check that a callback was given, but asynchronous libraries will often not require a callback, in case they were invoked only for their side-effects.)

def first_thing(&callback)
def second_thing(&callback)
  third_thing    # oops! no error though.
def third_thing(&callback)
  yield 42 if block_given?

first_thing {|answer| puts answer }     # never runs

This is a symptom of a more general problem: only the outermost caller really cares about the callback being run, yet every method in the chain must be aware of it, which is poor encapsulation.

This style also breaks down when the asynchronous operation needs to communicate failure: we want to pass in some code to be called on error, but Ruby's syntax only allows passing a single block to a method, so callers now need to pass in lambdas or hashes of Procs, the syntax becomes inconsistent and noisy, and readability and maintainability suffer:

def first_thing(errback, &callback)
  yield if block_given? # as declared, callback is implicitly optional
rescue => e       # as declared, errback is mandatory

# Excessive punctuation alert!
first_thing(lambda {|error| handle_error }) {|result| use_result(result) }

EventMachine offers the Deferrable pattern to communicate results of asynchronous operations in an object-oriented style more natural to Ruby. Rather than taking a callback which it must remember to call, the method simply returns a Deferrable object which encapsulates the status of the operation, and promises to update that object at a later date. Callers can register callbacks and errbacks on the Deferrable, which takes care of calling them when the operation succeeds or fails. Intermediate methods in the chain can simply pass the Deferrable on, and only code which cares about callbacks need know about them.

However, asynchronous programming with Deferrables still suffers from two key problems: it is difficult to compose multiple operations, and to build up complex operations from simpler ones. Below is a method which performs three synchronous operations in sequence, each depending on the result of the previous, and returns the result of the last operation to the caller:

def complex_operation
  first_result = do_first_thing
  second_result = do_second_thing(first_result)
  third_result = do_third_thing(second_result)
rescue => e
  # ...

When the operations are asynchronous, the same sequence is typically implemented using nested callbacks:

def complex_operation
  result =
  first_deferrable = do_first_thing
  first_deferrable.callback do |first_result|
    second_deferrable = do_second_thing(first_result)
    second_deferrable.callback do |second_result|
      third_deferrable = do_third_thing(second_result)
      third_deferrable.callback do |third_result|
      third_deferrable.errback do |third_error|
    second_deferrable.errback do |second_error|
  first_deferrable.errback do |first_error|

Like the synchronous version, this method abstracts the multiple operations away from the caller and presents only the result the caller was interested in (or details of what went wrong). However, the line count has tripled. Worse, the program flow is confusing: the logic of 'do these operations in sequence' is obscured; the errbacks read in reverse order; and the way the final result makes its way back to the caller is almost invisible. There are also a lot of opportunities to create bugs: all of the callbacks must be manually and repetitively "wired together", or the method will not work.

Deferrable Gratification aims to solve these problems by providing a library of composition operators - combinators - which abstract away the boilerplate callback wiring and reveal the logic of the code.


Fluent callback syntax: because it feels right

The return value of Deferrable#callback isn't useful, which means if you want to set a callback on a Deferrable and then return it, you have to name the Deferrable first, so you can return it explicitly. You also have to mention the name again to set another callback, which leads to a lot of noisy repetition:

def google_homepage
  request ='').get(:redirects => 1)
  request.callback {|http| puts http.response }
  request.callback { $call_count = ($call_count || 0) + 1 }
  request.errback { puts "Oh noes!" }
end { r = google_homepage; r.callback { EM.stop }; r.errback { EM.stop } }
# prints a lot of HTML

DG lets you chain callbacks and errbacks using "fluent syntax" familiar from JQuery:

DG.enhance! EM::HttpClient

def google_homepage'').get(:redirects => 1).
    callback {|http| puts http.response }.
    callback { $call_count = ($call_count || 0) + 1 }.
    errback { puts "Oh noes!" }
end { google_homepage.callback { EM.stop }.errback { EM.stop } }
# prints a lot of HTML

bothback: when you absolutely, positively got to...

Sometimes you need to do something after an asynchronous action completes, whether it succeeded or failed: e.g. release a lock, or as in the example above, call EM.stop to break out of the block. It's annoying to have to write that code twice, to make sure it's called both on success and failure.

bothback to the rescue: { google_homepage.bothback { EM.stop } }
# prints a lot of HTML

transform: receive the callbacks that make sense for you

The em-http-request library is great, but it's a bit fiddly to use, because it passes the whole EM::HttpClient instance to its callbacks and errbacks. That means your callbacks can check the response code and headers, but it also makes it harder if you just want quick access to the response body. do
  request ='').get(:redirects => 1)
    callback do |http|
      # Have to write this code once for each different request
      if http.response_header.status == 200
        puts http.response
      else   # triggers the errback as if the request had failed
    end.errback {|http| handle_error(http) }.
    bothback { EM.stop }
# prints lots of HTML

Wouldn't it be great if we could encapsulate the logic of "just give me the response if the request was successful", and have callbacks that just act on the response body?

def fetch_page(url)
  request = => 1)
  request.transform do |http|
    if http.response_header.status == 200
end do
    callback {|html| puts html }.
    errback {|http| puts "Oh dear!" }.
    bothback { EM.stop }
# prints lots of HTML

That looks a lot cleaner. It would be even cooler if instead of passing the raw HTML to callbacks, we could parse the HTML using Hpricot and pass the parsed document instead. No problem:

require 'hpricot'

def fetchpricot(url)
  fetch_page(url).transform {|html| Hpricot(html) }
end do
    callback {|doc| puts }.
    errback {|http| puts "Oh dear!" }.
    bothback { EM.stop }
# prints <title>Google</title>

transform_error: receive the errbacks that make sense to you

That's cool, but it's a bit annoying that those errbacks receive a HttpClient object - we have to turn that into a useful error message every time. Let's encapsulate that too:

def fetchpricot2(url)
  fetchpricot(url).transform_error do |http|
    if http.response_header.status > 0
      "Unexpected response code: #{http.response_header.status}"
      "Unknown error!"
end do
    callback {|doc| puts }.
    errback {|error| puts "Error: #{error}" }.
    bothback { EM.stop }
# prints "Error: Unexpected response code: 404"

bind!: for when one thing leads to another

Say we want to do a simple web crawling task: find the first search result for 'deferrable_gratification', follow that link (which should be its Github page), and pull down the project website listed on that page. Normally this would require some messy nesting of callbacks and errbacks: do
  fetchpricot2('').callback do |doc1|
    fetchpricot2((doc1 / 'ol' / 'li' / 'a')[0][:href]).callback do |doc2|
      fetchpricot2((doc2 / '#repository_homepage').at(:a)[:href]).callback do |doc3|
        # I could also have mistyped 'doc3' as 'doc2' and got the wrong
        # behaviour, but no exception to flag it
      end.errback do |error|
        puts "Error finding homepage link: #{error}"
      end.bothback { EM.stop }
    end.errback do |error|
      puts "Error loading first search result: #{error}"
  end.errback do |error|
    puts "Error retrieving search results: #{error}"
# prints "Deferrable Gratification"

With Deferrable#bind! we can remove the nesting and write something that looks more like the straight-line sequential flow: do
  fetchpricot2('').bind! do |doc|
    fetchpricot2((doc / 'ol' / 'li' / 'a')[0][:href])
  end.bind! do |doc|
    fetchpricot2((doc / '#repository_homepage').at(:a)[:href])
  end.callback do |doc|
    # now the previous 'doc's aren't in scope, so I can't accidentally
    # refer to them
  end.errback do |error|
    puts "Error: #{error}"
  end.bothback { EM.stop }
# prints "Deferrable Gratification"

bind! also wires up the errbacks so we can just write a single errback that will fire if any step in the sequence fails; similarly we don't have to write EM.stop three times.

Getting started

Install the gem:

gem install deferrable_gratification

In your code:

require 'eventmachine'
require 'deferrable_gratification'

Make sure that the call to DG.enhance_all_deferrables! comes before you require any library that uses Deferrable (e.g. em-http-request).

Temporary workaround because enhance_all_deferrables! is broken

You actually need to call DG.enhance! on each Deferrable class you'll be dealing with. This call needs to come after that class is defined.


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