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Async

Async is a free-to-use framework of functions and types that I have found incredibly useful in working with Grand Central Dispatch, although the work horses of the library, Future and its coresponding Promise, are useful in a wider variety of contexts. I've been using these in my own code for a long time, and have always meant to share them, so now I finally am. I have other types and functions I have found useful that I may add later, but these form the core functionality I use nearly every time I use GCD.

Even though Future is really the central feature, the library is called Async because it provides global async free functions and adds coresponding methods on DispatchQueue that return a Future, so I almost never need to explictly create a Promise , and often the Future itself just disappears behind fluid completion handler syntax, so that it almost seems as though the library is about async. But actually Future is the hero, and it's more flexible than most Future implementations I've seen.

I often try an idea by using writing a command line tool rather than an actual AppKit/UIKit application, so this package is specifically designed to be independent of those. It uses only GCD and Foundation.

What's Included

async

There are a few variations of a global async free function that immediately return a Future, asynchronously executing your closure, which can safely throw an error, on a global default concurrent DispatchQueue. You don't need to create a queue explictly yourself, unless you just need it for some other reason.

I provide a few variations, because I find it annoying that it's necessary to specify a deadline in GCD's asyncAfter as a DispatchTime. I almost always want my code to run either as soon as possible or after a specified delay from the moment I called async, and nearly never need it to run at a specific point in time. So I provide variations on my async function that allow you specify a deadline as a DispatchTime, as with GCD's native version, or a delay as DispatchTimeInterval or TimeInterval.

sync

There are synchronous versons of the global async free functions. They merely run your closure immediately in the current thread as though you had called it directly yourself. This is useful for several reasons:

• It allows an intermediate step in refactoring synchronous code into asynchronous during which you are still executing a closure synchronously while getting a Future from it. In that case, the Future is ready immediately when your closure returns, and if you added handlers, they are called immediately. Then by simply changing sync to async, it becomes truly asynchronous.

• It is sometimes helpful for debugging to use sync instead of async temporarily, and it is a simple one-letter code change.

• It returns a Future, so you can use it inside of your own code as an easy way to return a Future without worrying about how to use Promise, although Promise is pretty easy to use directly.

DispatchQueue extension

async and sync methods have been added to DispatchQueue to corespond to their global versions, but you get the Future returning behavior on the queue of your choice instead of the default global concurrent queue.

Mutex

Mutex is a class that simplifies guarding shared data for thread safety by providing a withLock method to automate locking and unlocking the mutex, which is what should be used most of the time; however, recognizing that sometimes it's necesary to interleave locking and unlocking different mutexes in ways that aren't always conveniently nestable, it also provides explicit lock, unlock methods as well as a failable tryLock method that allows you to specify a time-out.

Future

This implementation allows you use the typical fluid style you see in most libraries, but it also allows you to use the Future as a genuine place-holder for a value, similar to C++'s std::future, that you can store away and query when you need it. It also allows you to specify a timeout for both usages.

Promise

Promise is the necessary but usually hidden counterpart of Future. Even though its interface is really simple, if you mainly just need to get a Future from async, you'll never need to create a Promise yourself. On the other hand, you can use Promise to return a Future from any code you like, for example your own wrapper around a third party asynchronous library.

Basic Usage

Although each function and type is fully documented with markup comments, so in Xcode you can easily get a reference with QuickLook, it is helpful to see at least basic examples as a starting point. I'll present these in the order I think most people will use them.

Future and async

Future doesn't make a lot of sense in isolation, so I'll describe it in conjuntion with async, but understand that fundamentally the only way to obtain a Future directly is from a Promise, which will be described later. async uses Promise internally to return a Future. There's nothing special about this, and you can do that yourself to use Future in other contexts.

You can think of a Future in several ways, and they are all simultaneously true:

  • It is the receiver side of a one-shot, one-way communicaton channel for the result of a closure. Promise is the sender end of that channel.
  • It is a placeholder for some result to be set by some other code in the future, possibly in another thread of execution.
  • It is a means of specifying completion handlers to be executed when a closure returns or throws, possibly in another thread of execution.

Attaching handlers (callbacks) to a Future is the easiest and safest way to keep your code from blocking on a result, since you can just continue on doing something else after attaching them, and your handlers will be called automatically when your asynchronous code completes. In terms of ease of use and safety, handlers are normally the way to go.

They do have some drawbacks though. If you're combining the results of several asynchronous tasks that must all complete before progress can be made, handlers can be awkward. For example, in a computation graph, all input computations must complete before the current node can be evaluated. In that case the current computation should block until the inputs are ready. Of course, you could force the square peg of handlers into this round hole, but that's not a good use case for handlers. You'd need to update some counter for inputs, ensure that updates to that counter from multiple handlers happen atomicly, and block on that counter. It's not that hard, but what a needless, inefficient and error-prone mess! By comparison, it's ideal for using collection of Futures as placeholders. Just iteratively wait on each of them. When the loop completes they're all ready, and you can proceed to evaluate the current node. This is exactly why I provide that alternative.

On the other hand, fetching data from a network or responding to events, very common cases, are usually ideal uses of handlers, and keeping a Future for a placeholder becomes the awkward one, because it requires you either to block until it's ready, or to write some kind of loop or other scheme to continually check when it's ready while your code continues.

Having said that completion handlers are a good fit for callbacks, such as for HTTP requests, using them as placeholders is a good way to avoid deeply nested callbacks when the results of one request require spawning another request, and another.

The implementation of async in this package, differs from GCD's native async and asyncAfter methods in two ways. The first is that it returns a Future, and the second is that there are global free function variants that use a default concurrent DispatchQueue, in addition to methods on DispatchQueue itself.

When you call async, it schedules your closure for execution, using GCD's native async, but it also immediately returns a Future for the value your closure will return, or the error it will throw. You can hold on to this Future as a means for querying for your closure's eventual result, or you can use it to attach handlers... or both. The two ways of using it can be used together, if that makes sense for your application.

Future handler attachment

.onSuccess and .onFailure

As a basic example, let's say we have a long-running function, foo() throws -> Int. We can schedule foo with async, and attach handlers to the returned Future like so:

async { return try foo() }.onSuccess {
    print("foo returned \($0)")
}.onFailure {
    print("foo threw exception, \($0.localizedDescription)")
}

foo will run concurrently, and if it eventually returns a value, the closure passed to .onSuccess will be called with that value. If on the other hand, foo throws, the closure passed to .onFailure is called with the error.

Notice how the Future doesn't explicitly appear in the above code, but it's there. It's what async returns, in this case, Future<Int>, and it's that Future's .onSuccess method that we're calling to specify the success handler. .onSuccess returns the same Future, which allows us to chain a .onFailure method call to schedule our failure handler. It is equivalent to:

let future = async { return try foo() }

future.onSuccess {
    print("foo returned \($0)")
}

future.onFailure {
    print("foo threw exception, \($0.localizedDescription)")
}

You can attach handlers in any order, if you prefer to put the failure handler first.

.onCompletion

If you prefer to use Swift's Result type, you can use a more general .onCompletion handler:

async { return try foo() }.onCompletion {
    switch $0 {
        case let .success(value): 
            print("foo returned \(value)")
        case let .failure(error): 
            print("foo threw exception, \(error.localizedDescription)")
    }
}

You can specify as many handlers as you like, mixing and matching, completion handlers, success handlers, and failure handlers. All applicable handlers will be called concurrently. This allows you to return the future you got from async so that code further up the call chain can attach their own handlers.

.timeout

You can also specify a time-out for the Future using the same fluid style. If the specified time-out elapses before the closure completes, an error is set in the Future and its .onFailure and .onCompletion handlers are called. See the comment documentation for Future for more information on that.

Future as a placeholder

As an alternative to the fluid, functional-like, usage above, you can use Future in a more traditionally imperative way, as a placeholder for a yet to be determined value. Used this way, it's much more like C++'s std::future. This is especially useful when you use async to subdivide a larger task into to a number of concurrent subtasks, which must be combined into a final result before continuing.

When using Future as a placeholder, you store it away as you might store the actual value returned by the asynchronous code or the error thrown by it, if it had been called synchronously, and then query the Future for the value or error some time later when you need it. To support this, Future provides blocking properties and methods to query the future and wait for it to be ready, as well as a non-blocking property to query its ready state.

Any handlers that have been attached will still be run, whether or not you use Future as a placeholder. The two styles of use can be used together.

Blocking methods and properties

Be aware that in an AppKit/UIKit application, using blocking methods and properties in the main thread can make your app unresponsive while they block. Either use them in separate thread that can safely block, use .isReady to do something else when the Future is not ready, ensure that all asynchronous calls will complete quickly, or just avoid blocking methods and properties altogether by attaching handlers instead.

.value and .error:

You can obtain the value or error from the future with its .value and .error properties. We'll use the same foo from the previous examples:

let future = async { return try foo() }

// future.value and future.error will block until the foo returns or throws
if let value = future.value {
    print("foo returned \(value)")
}
else if let error = future.error {
    print("foo threw exception, \(error.localizedDescription)")
}

These properties only return when the future is ready, meaning that foo has either returned a value or thrown an error. Until then, they just block, waiting for foo to complete. When foo does complete, one of the following will be true:

  • If it returns a value, .value will contain that value, and .error will be nil.
  • If it throws an error, .value will be nil, and .error will contain the error.

The Future will never have both an error and a value.

Note that if a timeout modifer was set as mentioned above, and the specified time-out elapses before the closure completes, .error will contain FutureError.timedOut.

.result

If you prefer to use Swift's Result type, you can access the .result property instead of .value and .error:

let future = async { return try foo() }

// future.result will block until future is ready
switch future.result {
    case let .success(value): 
        print("foo returned \(value)")
    case let .failure(error): 
        print("foo threw exception, \(error.localizedDescription)")
}

.result will block in exactly the same way as .value and .error.

If a timeout modifer was set as mentioned above, and the specified time-out elapses before the closure completes, .result will be .failure(FutureError.timedOut).

.getValue()

If you prefer to use do {...} catch {...} blocks for error handling, Future provides a throwing .getValue() method:

let future = async { return try foo() }

// future.getValue() will block until the foo returns or throws
do 
{
    let value = try future.getValue()
    print("foo returned \(value)")
}
catch { print("foo threw exception, \(error.localizedDescription)") }
.wait()

If you don't need the actual result (perhaps your closure returns Void), you can simply call the .wait() method

let future = async { let _ = try foo() }

future.wait() // block until future is ready

// Now the future is ready, so do other stuff

.wait() also has a time-out variant. It is different from the timeout modifier mentioned above in that it does not set an error in the Future when it times out. It merely stops waiting for the Future to be ready, throwing an error itself when it times out. Refer to Future's comment documentation for more information.

Non-blocking methods and properties
.isReady

The blocking behavior of .wait(), .value , .error and .result is useful if the code following them depends on the value returned or error thrown by foo, but it can be a problem if you could do other work while you wait for the Future to be ready, because it stops your current thread in its tracks until foo is done, in which case, you don't get much value from using async. For this reason, the ability to determine if the Future is ready without blocking is essential. You can do this with the .isReady property:

let future = async { return try foo() }

while !future.isReady {
    // Do some other work while we wait
}

if let value = future.value {
    print("foo returned \(value)")
}
else if let error = future.error {
    print("foo threw exception, \(error.localizedDescription)")
}

If you're not going to do other work while you wait for the Future to be ready, it's far more efficient to call .wait() rather than looping on .isReady, because all of Future's blocking methods and properties, including .wait(), use DispatchSemaphore under the hood, which can truly suspend the thread, whereas spinning on .isReady will consume CPU cycles unnecessarily.

async variations

All of the async variants allow you to specify quality of service (qos), and flags just as the GCD native async and asyncAfter do, and use the same default values when you don't specify them.

The following examples use the global async free functions, but the DispatchQueue extension provides equivalent instance methods with the same signatures as the global functions, so you can call them on a specific DispatchQueue.

.async()

If you want your closure to be executed as soon as possible, you can call it as the previous examples with no deadline or delay interval.

let future = async { return try foo() }
.async(afterDeadline:)

If you need to delay execution of your closure until a specific point in time, you can use the afterDeadline variant to specify a DispatchTime or Date

let deadline: DispatchTime = .now() + .milliseconds(1000)

// Some time later...
let future = async(afterDeadline: deadline) {
    return try foo()
}
.async(afterInterval:)

To specify a delay interval using just DispatchTimeInterval, you can use the afterInterval variant

let future = async(afterInterval: .milliseconds(1000)) {
    return try foo()
}
.async(afterSeconds:)

Alternatively, you can specify the delay as a TimeInterval in seconds, using the afterSeconds variant

let future = async(afterSeconds: 1) { return try foo() }

sync

sync is the synchronous dual of async. It runs the closure passed to it in the current thread before returning.

If no deadline or delay is specified, it will execute the closure immediately. If a deadline or delay is specified, it will block until the deadline, or delay has elapsed, and then execute the closure. Because sync doesn't return until the closure has been executed, any handlers attached to the Future it returns will be executed as soon as they are attached, if they apply.

Otherwise everything said for async applies to sync.

Mutex

One unfortunate side effect of concurrent code, such as that executed by async, is that any mutable shared data that could be accessed by multiple tasks simultaneously must be guarded to avoid data races. That's what Mutex is for. You create a Mutex to guard some data, and then lock it before accessing the shared data, and unlock it afterwards. Explicitly having to lock and unlock the Mutex is error prone, so the preferred way to use this implementation of Mutex is through its withLock method. As an example, here's a simple implemenation of a SharedStack:

class SharedStack<T>
{
    private var data = [T](https://raw.github.com/chipjarred/Async/master/)
    private var mutex = Mutex()
    
    public var isEmpty: Bool {
        return mutex.withLock { data.isEmpty }
    }
    
    public init() {}
    
    public func push(_ value: T) {
        mutex.withLock { data.append(value) }
    }
    
    public func pop() -> T? {
        return mutex.withLock { 
            return data.isEmpty ? nil : data.removeLast() 
        }
    }
}

withLock blocks until the a lock can be obtained, and once obtained, it executes the closure passed to it, and unlocks before returning. The unlock happens immediately after the closure completes, regardless of whether it returns or throws.

Mutex also provides a failable withAttemptedLock method that allows you specify a time-out, possibly none, after which it will stop waiting for a lock and throws MutexError.lockFailed. If it fails, the lock is not obtained and the closure is not run.

Although explicitly locking and unlocking the Mutex is error-prone, there are circumstances when neither withLock nor withAttemptedLock will do the job, such as interleaving locking and unlocking multiple mutexes in ways that are neither exclusive to one another, nor cleanly nestable. For those cases, Mutex also provides lock(), tryLock(), and unlock() methods. Prefer withLock and withAttemptedLock when you can use them. If you must explicitly lock and unlock the mutex yourself, it is your responsibility to ensure that each lock() or successful tryLock() is balanced by exactly one unlock(), otherwise, you'll deadlock, or crash when the Mutex is deinitialized. This crashing behavior is one that is inherited by its being implemented in terms of DispatchSemaphore which crashes when deinitialized with a negative value, which it will have if the Mutex is still locked. This is actually a good thing because it tells you unambiguously that you have a bug. To paraphrase Apple's documentation on the subject: Don't do that!

Refer to comment documentation for more information on these other methods.

Promise

Promise is the sender of the Promise/Future team. It's how you obtain a Future to return from your own code, and how you set the value in the Future from code that may be executed far removed from the code receiving the Future, possibly in a completely different thread.

.set(from:)

If you wish to return a Future in your own custom code, you do so by creating a Promise and returning its .future property in the immediate context, while passing the closure that returns the value, possibly throwing an error, to the .set(from:) method in the dispatched context.

As an example, let's suppose you want to wrap URLSession's .dataTask to return a Future to the resulting Data.

extension URLSession
{
    func dataFuture(with url: URL) -> Future<Data>
    {
        let promise = Promise<Data>()
        
        let task = self.dataTask(with: url) {
            (data, response, error) in
        
            // ignoring response for this example
            promise.set {
                if let error = error {
                    throw error
                }
                return data ?? Data()
            }
        }
        task.resume()
        return promise.future
    }
}

The .set(from:) method will set the Future according to whether the closure returns or throws, which in this case depends on whether dataTask calls its completion handler with an error:

  • If .dataTask calls its completion handler with a non-nil error, the closure passed to .set(from:) will throw, causing the Promise to set the Future's .error.
  • If .dataTask calls its completion handler with a nil error, the closure passed to .set(from:) will return data causing the Promise to set the Future's value to data.

In this example, we ignore response, and since we return a Future instead of a URLSessionDataTask, so we also resume the task returned from dataTask before returning.

.setResult(from:)

Promise also provides a setResult(from:) method that takes a non-throwing closure that returns a Swift Result:

extension URLSession
{
    func dataFuture(with url: URL) -> Future<Data>
    {
        let promise = Promise<Data>()
        
        let task = self.dataTask(with: url) {
            (data, response, error) in
        
            // ignoring response for this example
            promise.setResult { () -> Result<Data, Error> in
                if let error = error {
                    return .failure(error)
                }
                return .success(data ?? Data())
            }
        }
        task.resume()
        return promise.future
    }
}

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