The event loop is a design pattern in computer science. The pattern is as simple as waiting for an event and dispatching an event so services that can handle the event consume it. Then the loop blocks till another event is inbound for processing.

Your Node.js Express server for example, would not exit its process. At that point, it waits for an event (a request). When the event arrives, the event is emitted and picked up by the GET handler in your router for that specific request. This is just on the high level. The moment the event loop stops, i.e the loop breaks, the Node.js process exits and as a sequel, your Express server too.

Ending the Node.js process itself is an event. By hitting Ctrl + C you agree to send a SIGINT (interrupt) signal that terminates the process.

I/O, or simply put, Input/Output, on the other hand, is what makes a computer a computer. A machine incapable of input and output cannot be called a computer. Computers are meant to take instruction, do something with it, and give a result. Do you see any possible way to do that without I/O?

The request sent over HTTP to your Express server is the input and the response to the request is the output.

See! The pieces are coming together.

The Ctrl + C you hit everytime you want a process terminated is input and the termination itself or a "...(Y/N)?" question you get is a response to the input — an output.

Blocking I/O and non-blocking I/O

In blocking I/O, the function that creates an I/O request blocks further execution in the thread till the request completes. The time it takes for any request to complete can vary from few milliseconds to even as long as the user doesn’t supply an input. An example of blocking I/O when reading from the console:

const prompt = require('prompt-sync')({ sigint: true })

// Blocking I/O request
const name = prompt('Enter your name: ')

console.log(`Welcome ${name}, king of the seven kingdoms`)

If the user at the end of the console takes, say, two minutes to type their name and hit the carriage return. The thread blocks for two minutes and when the return key is hit, execution continues and the welcome message is logged.

In the non-blocking I/O mechanism, a request to either read or write to an operating system’s resource immediately returns without actually waiting for the read or write operation to complete. A predefined constant according to the OS is returned which relays the state of the operation to the executing program.

const fs = require('fs')

const code = 'console.log("Smart code")'

// Non-blocking I/O request.
fs.writeFile('/path/to/some/file.js', code, err => {
  if (err) {
    console.error(err)
    return
  }
  console.log('Successfully wrote a code file!')
})

Understanding boundaries between synchrony and asynchrony

A source of confusion for me in earlier times was the word synchronous and asynchronous. The first time I was introduced to really knowing what these words meant was when I started working with XMLHttpRequest in JavaScript. But I didn’t “really know” what they meant. I could have checked my dictionary again and again, but trust me I knew what they meant literally.

Synchrony is the normal flow in your code where every command or line of code continues to execute almost at the same instant, simultaneously. Asynchrony as opposed to synchrony is when the execution of one command or line of code takes longer to complete or doesn’t complete until a specific thing happens and as such could block further execution of following commands or lines.

Synchronous and asynchronous programming

Asynchronous procedure calls normally, are calls to access a blocking resource. If these calls were to be handled synchronously, they would block the thread they are run on. In order to prevent these calls from blocking a thread, many programming languages adopt some constructs called Future and Promises. (Promises should sound familiar, you may know Future from Java). Once a thread is blocked by an operation, further program execution on the thread suspends and is only returned control when the operation completes.

const fs = require('fs')

// Reading a file in a blocking manner.
const file = fs.readFileSync('/path/to/file.js')

// This will never log till the file is ready
console.log('Doing something else...')

To prevent an operation that takes long to complete from blocking a thread, there has to be a way to handle them differently from synchronous operations. When handled differently from synchronous operations, then the event loop can keep processing other events in the queue while it waits for the undeterministic operation to complete. That is, the execution of this operation can be left in a partial state (the result of the operation cannot be determined yet) and when the result can be determined, if there are currently no events in the queue to be processed by the event loop, it can return to complete the operation immediately.

JavaScript is single threaded therefore the only way it can handle asynchronous operations in a non-blocking manner is to have some level of concurrency built in. Multi-threaded languages like Python and Java can easily allow you to create a new thread to run asynchronous operations on, but not with JavaScript. With JavaScript, it’s either a callback or a promise.

Synchronous event demultiplexer

The synchronous event demultiplexer or event notification interface as part of most modern operating systems is a native mechanism to effciently handle concurrent non-blocking resources. Rather than using polling algorithms like the busy waiting technique, which is often a waste of CPU cycles, the operating system provides an event demultiplexer interface.

  • Linux epoll
  • Mac kqueue
  • Windows I/O Completion Port IOCP
const fs = require('fs')

// While this resource is not ready for read
// The Event demultiplexer associates the resource with a read operation
// When the resource is ready and can be read
// The Event demultiplexer pushes a new event to the
// event queue to be processed by the event loop
// This callback is the associated handler for the event
fs.readFile('/path/to/some/file.js', (err, data) => {
  if (!err) {
    // do something with data
  }
})

// This would log before you do something with data
console.log('Doing something else...')

The event demultiplexer takes some resources and calls watch() on them for specific operations, like a read() operation. The call to watch() on the resources is a blocking synchronous call. After a read request on the resources has completed, watch returns some new events and the event demultiplexer pushes these new events to the event queue and control is returned to the event loop since the synchronous blocking call to watch has returned. The event loop processes each event from the event queue and the associated handler for each event is invoked. The event loop gives control to an handler because it trusts it to be non-blocking and in some few milliseconds the handler will return back the control to the event loop (stuff can sometimes go south). The handler can also cause new resources to be added to the event demultiplexer for watch, after which it returns control to the event loop. If there are remaining events in the event queue, the event loop processes these events also as it did with prior ones (the process continues while there are events). When there are no more event to be processed, the control is returned back to the event demultiplexer by the event loop and the event demultiplexer blocks again while waiting for new operations to complete.

watch() is some arbitrary system call defined by me for the purpose of this writing and could be select()in a real life scenario.

With this model, two things are very clear:

  1. Blocking synchronous calls can only take place in the event demultiplexer which is outside of the event loop and,
  2. No blocking call should take place inside the event loop.

When the event loop doesn’t block, it gives the event demultiplexer the opportunity to receive new requests that performs an operation on a system resource. This way, an Express server can receive new request while it’s amid the processing of a prior request. While it is guranteed that the processing of this prior request doesn’t block, control can quickly be returned to the event loop to process the new request. Any request that should normally block while processing should be sent to the event demultiplexer and return.

Stuff can sometimes go south

The purpose of the event demultiplexer is defeated when the handler takes power which was given to it and meant for it to use in due course by the event loop and holds onto it or even plots a coup against the event loop to completely overthrow it from power.

The reactor pattern

Long before JavaScript had promises planned for the future (pun intended), the reactor pattern was what was adopted in handling asynchronous I/O operations. This was the only way to achieve concurrency. The reactor pattern is at the heart of Node.js

The reactor pattern simply associates an handler with each I/O operation. This handler is simply a callback function in JavaScript. The callback function is invoked as soon as an event is produced to the event loop. The event is processed and the associated handler is invoked.

const fs = require('fs')

fs.readFile('/path/to/some/file.js', (err, data) => {
  if (!err) {
    // do something with data
  }
})

The error is more important than the data. Node.js passes the error as the first argument to force the API consumer to always check for error first before reading data. So you don't fall into the trap of accessing an undefined data.

The reactor pattern as a way of achieving concurrency is only made possible in JavaScript by the event loop.