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Promises Context-Passing Pattern Thing (posted 25 Dec 2016)

Since I wrote my promises vs async article, I’ve learned quite a bit about promises by using them to do non-trivial work in production, and there’s a lot of good bits and pieces I missed. A lot of them are covered by other people well enough, but this is one I learned somewhere along the way that I don’t see people talk a lot.

For the sake of argument, let’s say we want to refactor this code I just totally made up:

getPost().then((post) => {
  return post.getContributor().then((contributor) => {
    return contributor.getPhoto().then((photo) => {
      return post.doCoolThingWith(contributor, photo);

What this code actually accomplishes isn’t too important (I certainly hope you don’t hold me to that standard here!) but the important thing is this: In order to do line 4 in the middle, you have to have a handle on the post, contributor, and photo! Starting out with promises, it’s really easy to run into this situation and wonder why callback hell didn’t go away.

When I learned this it was called a “context”. I think this comes from the idea of an execution context a la threads. Not to be confused with this! If you have a better suggestion for what this should be called do let me know in the comments! :v

Because this case is pretty simple, the gains of this refactor might seem a wash at best but here we go:

Promise.resolve({}).then((ctx) => {
  return getPost().then((post) => { = post;
    return ctx;
}).then((ctx) => {
  return => {
    ctx.contributor = contributor;
    return ctx;
}).then((ctx) => {
  return ctx.contributor.getPhoto().then((photo) => { = photo;
    return ctx;
}).then((ctx) => {

“Now there are even more callbacks!” you say. It’s true. But notice a few kinda cool properties:

  1. For cases where you need 3 or more collected Things, this leads to less indentation–as far as I can tell this creates exactly 2 levels of indentation regardless of what’s being refactored.
  2. There’s now this cool object that can be used to represent different states of a process, including methods.

This latter point is particularly cool. For an example, I once worked on an endpoint that would run through a batch process, logging results both to our internal logs and to the response body of the endpoint. It looked something like this:

const ctx = {
  _log: [],
  log: (data) => { _log.push(data);; }

  .then(doThing) // these functions call ctx.log internally
  .then((ctx) => {
      result: ctx.result,
      log: ctx._log

It works well! It’s probably my number one trick for reducing nesting in promise code, possibly ahead of using named functions.