Code Review: Tim Caswell's Step

2011-11-07 00:00:00 +0000 by Alex R. Young
*Code Review* is a series on DailyJS where I take a look at an open source project to see how it's built. Along the way we'll learn patterns and techniques by JavaScript masters. If you're looking for tips to write better apps, or just want to see how they're structured in established projects, then this is the tutorial series for you.

Step (GitHub: creationix / step,
License: MIT, npm: step) by Tim Caswell is a flow control library
for Node that helps manage parallel and serial execution, as well as
assisting with error handling.


Serial usage works by passing this as the callback argument
to asynchronous functions, or by simply returning a value for
synchronous code. Tim's example neatly illustrates this:

  function readSelf() {
    // `this` will be the next callback
    fs.readFile(__filename, this);
  function capitalize(err, text) {
    // This code is synchronous
    if (err) throw err;
    return text.toUpperCase();
  function showIt(err, newText) {
    if (err) throw err;

Just like Node's libraries, the callback signature is err,
. Step will catch exceptions and pass them as

Parallel functions are also supported:

  // Loads two files in parallel
  function loadStuff() {
    fs.readFile(__filename, this.parallel());
    fs.readFile("/etc/passwd", this.parallel());
  // Show the result when done
  function showStuff(err, code, users) {
    if (err) throw err;

By using this.parallel(), Step will keep track of the
number of callbacks so it can call them in the right order.


Step comes with a detailed README, a package.json file, a single file
for the main library, and tests split into files that address each main
feature of the library.

The CommonJS module support is conditional, so this library should be
usable outside Node:

// Hook into commonJS module systems
if (typeof module !== 'undefined' && "exports" in module) {
  module.exports = Step;

The basic structure of the main Step function is easy to

function Step() {
  var steps = Array.prototype.slice.call(arguments),
      pending, counter, results, lock;

  // Define the main callback that's given as `this` to the steps.
  function next() {
    // ...

  // Add a special callback generator `this.parallel()` that groups stuff.
  next.parallel = function () {
    // ...

  // Generates a callback generator for grouped results
  next.group = function () {
    // ...

  // Start the engine an pass nothing to the first step.

The next function is called at the end of Step
which starts everything running. This function also gets the
parallel and group calls that can be accessed
from this in your callbacks.

Execution Management

The core of the library is the next function. Let's walk
through each main part of it.

Counters and return values are used to determine what should run next.
The counter is used by parallel and group.
These values are set up when next is called:

  // Define the main callback that's given as `this` to the steps.
  function next() {
    counter = pending = 0;

The array of functions passed to Step is executed in order
by calling shift on the array. If there are no steps, then
any errors are thrown, else execution is complete:

    // Check if there are no steps left
    if (steps.length === 0) {
      // Throw uncaught errors
      if (arguments[0]) {
        throw arguments[0];

    // Get the next step to execute
    var fn = steps.shift();
    results = [];

Each "step" is called using apply so this in
the supplied functions will be next:

    // Run the step in a try..catch block so exceptions don't get out of hand.
    try {
      lock = true;
      var result = fn.apply(next, arguments);
    } catch (e) {
      // Pass any exceptions on through the next callback

Errors are caught and passed to the next step. The lock
variable is used by the parallel and grouping functionality. The return
value of the passed-in step function is saved. Next the return value
will be used to determine if a synchronous return has been used, and if
so next is called again with the result:

    if (counter > 0 && pending == 0) {
      // If parallel() was called, and all parallel branches executed
      // syncronously, go on to the next step immediately.
      next.apply(null, results);
    } else if (result !== undefined) {
      // If a syncronous return is used, pass it to the callback
      next(undefined, result);
    lock = false;

Parallel Execution

The parallel method returns a function that wraps around
callbacks to maintain counters, and execute the next step. An array of
results is used to capture the return values of parallel functions:

next.parallel = function () {
  var index = 1 + counter++;

  return function () {
    // Compress the error from any result to the first argument
    if (arguments[0]) {
      results[0] = arguments[0];
    // Send the other results as arguments
    results[index] = arguments[1];
    if (!lock && pending === 0) {
      // When all parallel branches done, call the callback
      next.apply(null, results);

Bonus: Step.fn

I also found the undocumented Step.fn method that creates
function factories out of step calls. It's used like this:

var myfn = Step.fn(
  function (name) {
    fs.readFile(name, 'utf8', this);
  function capitalize(err, text) {
    if (err) throw err;
    return text.toUpperCase();

var selfText = fs.readFileSync(__filename, 'utf8');

myfn(__filename, function (err, result) {
  if (err) throw err;
  assert.equal(selfText.toUpperCase(), result, "It should work");

This is from Tim's tests.


The tests are written using the basic CommonJS assert
module, with an expect function defined in

The expect function is used to define an expectation that
must be satisfied by calling fulfill with the expected
values. The unit tests set up these expectations at the top level, then
satisfy them within potentially asynchronous callbacks.

For example:

  // Loads two files in parallel
  function loadStuff() {


Step's actually been around for a while, but Tim has been actively
working on it. It's a small library but solves a common problem found
when writing heavily asynchronous Node apps. Over 35 libraries depend on
Step according to NPM, which goes to show how popular it is.