While I had seen promises before, I didn’t really understand their significance until I read Domenic Denicola’s You’re Missing the Point of Promises. Its an enlightening essay and I highly recommend reading it. Ever since, I have looked to use promises where possible. I have also thought a bit about how one might use these constructs in Common Lisp.

Contents

The point of promises

Here’s a brief summary: a promise is an object that acts as a proxy for a result that is initially unknown, usually because the computation of its value is yet incomplete.1 In other words, they allow you to transform an async program from continuation passing style:2

getTweetsFor("domenic", function (err, results) {
  // the rest of your code goes here.
});

to one where your functions return an object which represents the eventual results of that operation:

var promiseForTweets = getTweetsFor("domenic");
promiseForTweets.then(function (results) {
  // success handler
}, function (error) {
  // error handler
});
Source: [You're Missing the Point of Promises][domenic-promises]

The function then allows you to add a success and an error handler to a promise. When the promise is fulfilled (i.e. the computation completes successfully), the result is passed to the success handler. And if the promise fails (the computation errors out), the error is sent to the error handler.

There’s more though. then returns a new promise. That promise is fulfilled when the relevant handler returns successfully and gets rejected when it errors out. In addition, if the handler itself returns a promise, the state of the promise returned by then depends on this new promise.

All of this allows you to write asynchronous code:

getTweetsFor("domenic") // promise-returning function
  .then(function (tweets) {
    var shortUrls = parseTweetsForUrls(tweets);
    var mostRecentShortUrl = shortUrls[0];
    return expandUrlUsingTwitterApi(mostRecentShortUrl); // promise-returning function
  })
  .then(httpGet) // promise-returning function
  .then(
    function (responseBody) {
      console.log("Most recent link text:", responseBody);
    },
    function (error) {
      console.error("Error with the twitterverse:", error);
    }
  );

that parallels the synchronous code:

try {
  var tweets = getTweetsFor("domenic"); // blocking
  var shortUrls = parseTweetsForUrls(tweets);
  var mostRecentShortUrl = shortUrls[0];
  var responseBody = httpGet(expandUrlUsingTwitterApi(mostRecentShortUrl)); // blocking x 2
  console.log("Most recent link text:", responseBody);
} catch (error) {
  console.error("Error with the twitterverse: ", error);
}
Source: [You're Missing the Point of Promises][domenic-promises]

which is much nicer than the callback hell that you get otherwise.

What I have summarized here doesn’t really do justice to the subject, so if all of this is not very clear, do go through Domenic’s post to get a better idea.

Promises in Lisp

Before we look at promises in Lisp, its worth seeing what a synchronous version of the Javascript code above might look like in Common Lisp:

(handler-case
    (let* ((tweets (get-tweets-for user))
           (short-urls (parse-tweets-for-urls tweets))
           (expanded-url (expand-url-using-twitter-api (elt short-urls 0)))
           (response-body (http-get expanded-url)))
      (format t "Most recent link text: ~A~%" response-body))
  (error (c) (format t "Got error: ~A~%" c)))

Assume that we have an implementation of promises like the one described above3, how would our promises based code look?

(then (then (then (get-tweets-for user)
                  (lambda (tweets)
                    (let ((short-urls (parse-tweets-for-urls tweets)))
                      (expand-url-using-twitter-api (elt short-urls 0)))))
            #'http-get)
      (lambda (body)
        (format t "Most recent link text: ~A~%" body))
      (lambda (error)
        (format t "Got an error: ~A~%" error)))

Certainly not as good as Javascript. We could do a little better by binding the promises in a LET*:

(let* ((tweets-promise (get-tweets-for user))
       (short-urls-promise (then tweets-promise (lambda (tweets)
                                                  (parse-tweets-for-urls tweets))))
       (expanded-url-promise (then short-urls-promise
                                   (lambda (short-urls)
                                     (expand-url-using-twitter-api (elt short-urls 0)))))
       (response-body-promise (then expanded-url-promise #'http-get)))
  (then response-body-promise
        (lambda (response-body)
          (format t "Most recent link text: ~A~%" response-body))
        (lambda (error)
          (format t "Got an error: ~A~%" error))))

But the result still leaves a lot to be desired. If only Lisp had the dot notation like Javascript…

Macros

Lisp doesn’t have the dot notation, but it does have another trick up its sleeve – macros. Can macros help us bridge the gap between the synchronous and async variants?

Let’s start with a simple macro, PROMISE-VALUES-BIND:

(defmacro promise-values-bind (var-list form &body body)
  (let ((values (gensym "VALUES-")))
    `(multiple-value-call
         (lambda (&rest ,values)
           (if (promisep (first ,values))
               (then (first ,values)
                           (lambda ,var-list
                             ,@body))
               (destructuring-bind ,var-list
                   ,values
                 ,@body)))
       ,form)))

This macro is quite similar to MULTIPLE-VALUE-BIND. It evalues the given form, and binds its values to the variables in var-list. If the form returned a promise as its first value, then instead of binding immediately, it waits for the promise to be fulfilled and binds var-list to the resolved values.

(promise-values-bind (quotient remainder)
    (values 10 3)
  (format t "First: ~A, Second: ~A~%" quotient remainder))
;; =>
; First: 10, Second: 3
NIL


(let ((promise (make-promise)))
  (promise-values-bind (quotient remainder)
      promise
    (format t "First: ~A, Second: ~A~%" quotient remainder))
  promise)
;; =>
#<PROMISE Un {1004F93643}>

(fulfill * 10 3)
;; =>
; First: 10, Second: 3
NIL

Using PROMISE-VALUES-BIND, we write a promise based variant of PROGN. We will give it the same name but define it in a new package, PCL.

(defmacro pcl:progn (&body forms)
  (cond ((null forms) nil)
        ((null (rest forms)) (first forms))
        (t (let ((x (gensym "X-")))
             `(promise-values-bind (&rest ,x)
                  ,(first forms)
                (declare (ignore ,x))
                (pcl:progn ,@(rest forms)))))))

Just like its CL counterpart, PCL:PROGN evaluates the given forms sequentially. However if any of the forms returns a promise, this macro waits for the promise to be resolved before evaluating the next form.

(let ((start (get-universal-time)))
  (flet ((delta-now () 
           (format t "~&t + ~A sec~%" (- (get-universal-time) start))))
    (pcl:progn (princ 1)
               (delta-now)
               (pcl:sleep 2)
               (princ 2)
               (delta-now)
               (princ 3))))
; 1
; t + 0 sec
; 2
; t + 2 sec
; 3

The function PCL:SLEEP schedules a timer on a runloop and returns a promise that is resolved when the timer expires. In this example, the last two forms are executed only after the promise returned by PCL:SLEEP is resolved.

Moreover, if any form signals an error, or any promise is rejected, the remaining forms are not evaluated.

(let ((start (get-universal-time)))
  (flet ((delta-now () 
           (format t "~&t + ~A sec~%" (- (get-universal-time) start))))
    (pcl:progn (princ 1)
               (delta-now)
               (pcl:sleep 2)
               (princ 2)
               (error "foo")
               (delta-now)
               (princ 3))))
; 1
; t + 0 sec
; 2
;; At this point, the debugger is invoked with #<SIMPLE-ERROR "foo" {1007381233}>

Next up is PCL:LET*, our variant of LET*. Bindings are performed sequentially, and if an init-form returns a promise, the binding is delayed until the promise is resolved. Also, the body of PCL:LET* is evaluated within the context of PCL:PROGN instead of PROGN.4

(defmacro pcl:let* (bindings &body body)
  (if (null bindings)
      `(pcl:progn ,@body)
      (let ((binding (first bindings)))
        `(promise-values-bind (,(first binding))
             ,(second binding)
           (pcl:let* ,(rest bindings)
             ,@body)))))

(pcl:let* ((a (pcl:progn (pcl:sleep 1) 10))
           (b (pcl:progn (pcl:sleep 2) 20)))
  (print (+ a b)))
; 30

And PCL:HANDLER-CASE is the promised counterpart of HANDLER-CASE.

(defmacro pcl:handler-case (expression &rest clauses)
  (let ((values (gensym "VALUES-"))
        (c (gensym "C-"))
        (clauses (mapcar (lambda (clause)
                           (destructuring-bind (type (&rest vars) &body body)
                               clause
                             `(,type ,vars (pcl:progn ,@body))))
                         clauses)))
    `(handler-case
         (multiple-value-call
             (lambda (&rest ,values)
               (if (promisep (first ,values))
                   (then (first ,values)
                         nil
                         (lambda (,c)
                           (handler-case (signal ,c)
                             ,@clauses)))
                   (values-list ,values)))
           ,expression)
       ,@clauses)))

Putting things together

With these macros in place, its time to see the result. Our promise based async code looks like this:

(pcl:handler-case
    (pcl:let* ((tweets (get-tweets-for user))
               (short-urls (parse-tweets-for-urls tweets))
               (expanded-url (expand-url-using-twitter-api (elt short-urls 0)))
               (response-body (http-get expanded-url)))
      (format t "Most recent link text: ~A~%" response-body))
  (error (c) (format t "Got error: ~A~%" c)))

Except for the change in symbol packages, our async code looks identical to the synchronous code. While the rest of the world waits for the language gods to provide the right syntactic tools, Lispers can just write macros 😄

These were just three forms, we can go a lot further than this. Add promised counterparts for a few more special forms and macros like UNWIND-PROTECT, LAMBDA, DEFUN, IF, etc. and you end up with a set that starts to become useful.

Add promised variants of blocking I/O functions like READ-CHAR, WRITE-CHAR, READ-BYTES, etc. and you end up with a nice little async I/O framework.5

Debugging is a bit of a challenge with promises. Backtraces become pretty much useless, although that’s usually the case with callback hell too. Its also not as convenient to step through an async program as it is with synchronous code.

However, all said and done, the combination of macros and promises still holds great promise 😉

Source code to accompany this post is available on github. It contains a working implementation of promises, though you shouldn’t use it to write any serious code (try Blackbird if you want a practical implementation of promises).

Discuss on Hacker News or /r/lisp.

  1. Definition from Wikipedia

  2. Source for the Javascript code examples and most of the content in the first section is Domenic’s aforementioned post.

  3. Since Lisp functions can return multiple values, the success handler for the THEN block in Lisp could be sent multiple arguments instead of just one.

  4. Handling of the body in PCL:LET* is incomplete here. LET/LET* allow optional DECLARE forms to precede the body, so PCL:LET* should too. I have chosen to ignore this but it shouldn’t be very hard to do.

  5. Not sure if such a framework exists in CL today. cl-async seems to do some of it but not all.