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What is a Promise in JavaScript?

I had had difficulties in understanding promises when I had been learning them back in a few years.

The problem was that most of the tutorials were solely describing the promise object, its methods, etc. But I don't care much about promises, I care about them as long as they make coding easier!

What follows is the post that I had wanted to read to understand promises myself. The post describes why promises make coding asynchronous logic easier, then explains how to use promises properly, including with the async/await syntax.

1. Why promises

JavaScript works well with imperative and synchronous code.

Let's consider a function findPerson(who) that determines whether a person name is contained in a list of persons:

javascript
function getList() {
return ['Joker', 'Batman'];
}
function findPerson(who) {
const list = getList();
const found = list.some(person => person === who);
console.log(found); // logs true
}
findPerson('Joker');

Try the demo.

The snippet above is synchronous and blocking. When JavaScript enters into findPerson() function, it doesn't get out of there until the function is executed.

Getting the list of persons const list = getList() is a synchronous operation too.

Synchronous code is straightforward. But you don't always have the luck to access data instantly: some data, like fetching data over the network, could take a while to be available.

For example, let's say that accessing the list of persons from getList() is an operation that requires, for example, 1 second.

javascript
function getList() {
setTimeout(() => {
['Joker', 'Batman'] // How to return the list?
}, 1000);
}
function findPerson(who) {
const list = /* How to access the list? */;
const found = list.some(person => person === who);
console.log(found);
}
findPerson('Joker'); // logs true

How to return the list of persons from getList() with a delay of 1 second? Same way, how would findPerson(who) access the delayed list?

Unfortunately, now things have become more complicated. Let's see a few solutions how to code the delayed list.

1.1 The callbacks approach

One classic approach would be to introduce callbacks:

javascript
function getList(callback) {
setTimeout(() => callback(['Joker', 'Batman']), 1000);
}
function findPerson(who) {
getList(list => {
const found = list.some(person => person === who);
console.log(found); // logs true
});
}
findPerson('Joker');

Try the demo.

getList(callback) becomes more complex because it needs one more argument: the callback function.

Also, inside findPerson(who) you have to supply a callback getList(list => { ... }) to access the list properly.

The code using callbacks is more difficult to follow because the flow of the computation is hidden in between callbacks. If you'd need to manage many asynchronous operations using callbacks, you could quickly end with the callback hell problem.

While callbacks have their good place in JavaScript, still, let's find a better solution.

1.2 Encapsulating asynchronicity

Synchronous code is easy to understand. You see line by line how the code is executed.

How to code asynchronous operations, while still preserving the readability of synchronous code?

What about returning from getList() a kind-of list of persons?

This kind-of list of persons is then kind-of checked if contains who, and then the boolean value is logged to console. What's great is that these kind-of results can be returned, assigned to variables just like regular objects.

This kind-of result object that encapsulates (aka holds, manages, contains) the result of an asynchronous operation is a promise object.

Promises, wrapping the asynchronous operation result, can be returned synchronously from a function, assigned to variables, or used as arguments. That's the idea of promises: encapsulate the asynchronicity and allow function handling asynchronous operations to still look synchronous.

2. What is a promise

A promise is an object that encapsulates the result of an asynchronous operation.

Each promise has state, which can have one of the following values:

  • Pending
  • Fullfilled with a value
  • Rejected for a reason

The just created promise is in a pending state. The promise maintains the pending state as long as the asynchronous operation behind is in progress.

Then, depending on how the asynchronous operation completes, the promise state changes to either:

A) fulfilled (when the async operation completed successfully)

Promise fulfilled state

B) or rejected (when then async operation failed).

Promise rejected state

In JavaScript, you can create a promise object using a special constructor Promise:

javascript
const promise = new Promise((resolve, reject) => {
// Async operation logic here....
if (asyncOperationSuccess) {
resolve(value); // async operation successful
} else {
reject(error); // async operation error
}
});

Promise constructor accepts a special function that should contain the logic of the asynchronous operation.

In the special function, after the completion of the operation:

  1. If the async operation completes successfully, call resolve(value) — which changes the state of the promise to fulfilled with value
  2. Otherwise, in case of an error, call reject(error) — changing the state of the promise to rejected with the error reason.

Let's make a pause from dry theory and get back to the persons' example.

Like I mentioned before, I want the function getList() to return a kind-of persons — a promise of list of persons:

javascript
function getList() {
return new Promise(resolve => {
setTimeout(() => resolve(['Joker', 'Batman']), 1000);
});
}

getList() creates and returns a promise. Inside of the promise, after passing 1 second, calling resolve(['Joker', 'Batman']) effectively makes the promise fulfill with the list of persons.

While in examples that follow I'm creating promises by hand, usually you won't do this in production. Most of the asynchronous functions of popular libraries (like axios) or web APIs (like fetch()) return already constructed promises.

2.1 Extracting the promise fulfill value

You can access the fulfill value of a promise (in simple words, the result of a successfully completed async operation) using a special method:

javascript
promise
.then(value => {
// use value...
});

Promise then()

Here's how to access the value of the promise returned by getList():

javascript
function getList() {
return new Promise(resolve => {
setTimeout(() => resolve(['Joker', 'Batman']), 1000);
});
}
const promise = getList();
promise
.then(value => {
console.log(value); // logs ['Joker', 'Batman']
});

Try the demo.

Having the knowledge of how to extract a fulfilled value from a promise, let's transform findPerson(who) to extract the list from the promise returned by getList():

javascript
function getList() {
return new Promise(resolve => {
setTimeout(() => resolve(['Joker', 'Batman']), 1000);
});
}
function findPerson(who) {
const listPromise = getList();
listPromise
.then(list => {
const found = list.some(person => person === who);
console.log(found); // logs true
});
}
findPerson('Joker');

Try the demo.

Look closer at const listPromise = getList() statement: you get the promise using a synchronous statement, even if behind it runs an asynchronous operation.

That's the first big benefit of promises (the second big benefit is chaining): you can manipulate encapsulated async operation results in a sync way, without over-complicating the functions like the callbacks approach would do.

2.2 Extracting the promise rejection error

The promise rejects with an error if the operation completes unsuccessfully. You can access the rejection error using a special method:

javascript
promise
.catch(error => {
// check error...
})

Promise catch()

For example, let's imagine that accessing the list of persons ends in an error (note the use of reject(error) function):

javascript
function getList() {
return new Promise((resolve, reject) => {
setTimeout(() => reject(new Error('Nobody here!')), 1000);
});
}
const promise = getList();
promise
.catch(error => {
console.log(error); // logs Error('Nobody here!')
});

Try the demo.

This time promise is rejected with new Error('Nobody here!'). You can access that error in the callback supplied to promise.catch(errorCallback).

2.3 Extracting value and error

You can also extract the fulfill value and the reject reason at once. You can do so in 2 ways:

A) Supply 2 callbacks to promise.then(successCallback, errorCallback) method. The first callback successCallback is called when the promise is fulfilled, while the second errorCallback when rejected:

javascript
promise
.then(value => {
// use value...
}, error => {
// check error...
});

B) or you can use what is called chain of promises (described below) and chain promise.then(successCallback).catch(errorCallback):

javascript
promise
.then(value => {
// use value...
})
.catch(error => {
// check error...
});

Let's look closer at approach B) since it's used more often.

When using promise.then(successCallback).catch(errorCallback) chain, if promise resolves successfully then only successCallback is called:

javascript
function getList() {
return new Promise(resolve => {
setTimeout(() => resolve(['Joker', 'Batman']), 1000);
});
}
const promise = getList();
promise
.then(value => {
console.log(value); // logs ['Joker', 'Batman']
})
.catch(error) => {
console.log(error); // Skipped...
};

Try the demo.

However, in case if promise rejects, then only errorCallback is called:

javascript
function getList() {
return new Promise((resolve, reject) => {
setTimeout(() => reject(new Error('Nobody here!')), 1000);
});
}
const promise = getList();
promise
.then(value => {
console.log(value); // Skipped...
})
.catch(error => {
console.log(error); // logs Error('Nobody here!')
});

Try the demo.

3. Chain of promises

As seen above, a promise encapsulates the result of an asynchronous operation. You can use anyhow you want a promise: return from a function, use as an argument, assign to variables. That's the first benefit.

The second big benefit is that promises can create chains to handle multiple dependent asynchronous operations.

The technical side of chaining consists of the fact that promise.then(successCallback), and even promise.catch(errorCallback) methods by themselves return a promise, to which you can attach .then() or .catch() methods, and so on.

For example, let's create an async function that doubles a number with a delay of 1 second:

javascript
function delayDouble(number) {
return new Promise((resolve, reject) => {
setTimeout(() => resolve(2 * number), 1000);
});
}

Then, let's double 3 times the number 5:

javascript
delayDouble(5)
.then(value1 => {
console.log(value1); // logs 10
return delayDouble(value1);
})
.then(value2 => {
console.log(value2); // logs 20
return delayDouble(value2);
})
.then(value3 => {
console.log(value3); // logs 40
});

Try the demo.

Each double operation requires 1 second. The chain performs 3 double operations, and the result of each operation is used by the next operation.

Chain of promises

In a chain of promises, if any promise in the chain rejects, then the resolving flow jumps to the first .catch(), bypassing all .then() in between:

javascript
delayDouble(5)
.then(value1 => {
console.log(value1); // logs 10
return new Promise((_, reject) => reject(new Error('Oops!')));
})
.then(value2 => {
console.log(value2); // Skipped...
return delayDouble(value2);
})
.then(value3 => {
console.log(value3); // Skipped...
})
.catch(error => {
console.log(error); // logs Error('Oops!')
});

Try the demo.

4. async/await

While looking at the previous code samples that use promises, you might wonder:

Using promises still requires callbacks and relatively lots of boilerplate code like .then(), .catch().

Your observation would be reasonable.

Fortunately, JavaScript has made a step forward in improving, even more, the asynchronous code by providing the async/await syntax — a really useful syntactic sugar on top of promises.

When possible, I highly recommend working with async/await syntax rather than dealing with raw promises.

Applying the async/await syntax on top of promises is relatively easy:

  • Mark the functions that use promises with the async keyword
  • Inside of the async function body, whenever you want to wait for a promise to resolve, use await promiseExpression syntax
  • An async function always returns a promise, which enables calling async functions inside async functions.

4.1 await-ing promise value

If the promise is fulfilled await promise statement evaluates to the fulfill value:

javascript
async function myFunction() {
// ...
const value = await promise;
}

JavaScript async await of promise

When JavaScript encounters await promise, where promise is pending, it's going to pause the function execution until promise gets either fulfilled or rejected.

Now let's use async/await syntax to access the delayed list:

javascript
function getList() {
return new Promise(resolve => {
setTimeout(() => resolve(['Joker', 'Batman']), 1000);
});
}
async function findPerson(who) {
const list = await getList();
const found = list.some(person => person === who);
console.log(found); // logs true
}
findPerson('Joker');

Try the demo.

async findPerson(who) pauses its execution for 1 second at the await getList() statement, until the promise getList() is fulfilled.

After the promise being fulfilled, the expression async findPerson(who) evaluates to the actual list of persons.

Looking at the async findPerson(who) function you would notice how similar it is to the synchronous version of that function from the beginning of the post! That's the goal of promises and async/await syntax.

4.2 catch-ing promise error

If the promise rejects while being awaited, you can easily catch the error by wrapping await promise into a try/catch clause:

javascript
async function myFunction() {
// ...
try {
const value = await promise;
} catch (error) {
// check error
error;
}
}

JavaScript async catch

For example, let's reject the promise that should return the list of persons:

javascript
function getList() {
return new Promise((resolve, reject) => {
setTimeout(() => reject(new Error('Nobody here!')), 1000);
});
}
async function findPerson(who) {
try {
const list = await getList();
const found = list.some(person => person === who);
console.log(found);
} catch (error) {
console.log(error); // logs Error('Nobody here!')
}
}
findPerson('Joker');

Try the demo.

This time the promise await getList() rejects. Right away the execution jumps into catch(error): where error indicates the rejection reason — new Error('Nobody here!').

4.3 await-ing chain

You can use as many await statements as you need inside of an async function. For example, let's transform the example from chain of promises section to async/await syntax:

javascript
function delayDouble(number) {
return new Promise((resolve, reject) => {
setTimeout(() => resolve(2 * number), 1000);
});
}
async function run() {
const value1 = await delayDouble(5);
console.log(value1); // logs 10
const value2 = await delayDouble(value1);
console.log(value2); // logs 20
const value3 = await delayDouble(value2);
console.log(value3); // logs 40
}
run();

Try the demo.

Clearly, async/await greatly simplifies handling multiple dependent async operations.

5. Conclusion

The promise is a placeholder holding the result of an asynchronous operation. If the operation completes successfully, then the promise fulfills with the operation value, but if the operation fails: the promise rejects with the reason of the failure.

Promises can also create chains, which are useful in handling multiple dependent async operations.

If you'd like to read more about promises and async/await from a practical side, I recommend checking How to Use Fetch with async/await.

Challenge: do you know the one important difference between promise.then(fn1, fn2) and promise.then(fn1).catch(fn2)? Please share your opinion in a comment below!

Like the post? Please share!

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Dmitri Pavlutin

About Dmitri Pavlutin

Tech writer and coach. My daily routine consists of (but not limited to) drinking coffee, coding, writing, coaching, overcoming boredom 😉.
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