Five Minute Guide to Streams2

2013-04-01 00:00:00 +0100 by Alex R. Young

Node 0.10 is the latest stable branch of Node. It's the branch you should be using for Real Work™. The most significant API changes can be found in the stream module. This is a quick guide to streams2 to get you up to speed.

The Base Classes

There are now five base classes for creating your own streams: Readable, Writable, Duplex, Transform, and PassThrough. These base classes inherit from EventEmitter so you can attach listeners and emit events as you normally would. It's perfectly acceptable to emit custom events -- this might make sense, for example, if you're writing a streaming parser. The parser could emit events like 'headers' to indicate the headers have been parsed, perhaps for a CSV file.

To make your own Readable stream class, inherit from stream.Readable and implement the _read(size) method. The size argument is "advisory" -- a lot of Readable implementations can safely ignore it. Once your _read method has collected data from an underlying I/O source, it can send it by calling this.push(chunk) -- internally data will be placed into a queue so "clients" of your class can deal with it when they're ready.

The Writable class should also be inherited from, but this time a _write(chunk, encoding, callback) method should be implemented. Once you've written data to the underlying I/O source, callback can be called, passing an error if required.

The Duplex class is like a Readable and Writable stream in one -- it allows data sources that transmit and receive data to be modelled. This makes sense when you think about it -- TCP network sockets transmit and receive data. To implement a Duplex stream, inherit from stream.Duplex and implement both the _read and _write methods.

The Transform class is useful for implementing parsers, like the CSV example I mentioned earlier. In general, streams that change data in some way should be implemented using stream.Transform. Although Transform sounds a bit like a Duplex stream, this time you'll need to implement a _transform(chunk, encoding, callback) method. I've noticed several projects in the wild that use Duplex streams with a stubbed _read method, and I wondered if these would be better served by using a Transform class instead.

Finally, the PassThrough stream inherits from Transform to do... nothing. It relays the input to the output. That makes it ideal for sitting inside a pipe chain to spy on streams, and people have been using this to write tests or instrument streams in some way.


Pipes must follow this pattern: readable.pipe(writable). As Duplex and Transform streams can both read and write, they can be placed in either position in the chain. For example, I've been using process.stdin.pipe(csvParser).pipe(process.stdout) where csvParser is a Transform stream.


The general pattern for inheriting from the base classes is as follows:

  1. Create a constructor function that calls the base class using baseClass.call(this, options)
  2. Correctly inherit from the base class using Object.create or util.inherits
  3. Implement the required underscored method, whether it's _read, _write, or _transform

Here's a quick stream.Writable example:

var stream = require('stream');

GreenStream.prototype = Object.create(stream.Writable.prototype, {
  constructor: { value: GreenStream }

function GreenStream(options) {
  stream.Writable.call(this, options);

GreenStream.prototype._write = function(chunk, encoding, callback) {
  process.stdout.write('\u001b[32m' + chunk + '\u001b[39m');

process.stdin.pipe(new GreenStream());

Forwards Compatibility

If you want to use streams2 with Node 0.8 projects, then readable-stream provides access to the newer APIs in an npm-installable module. Since the stream core module is implemented in JavaScript, then it makes sense that the newer API can be used in Node 0.8.

Some open source module authors are including readable-stream as a dependency and then conditionally loading it:

var PassThrough = require('stream').PassThrough;

if (!PassThrough) {
  PassThrough = require('readable-stream/passthrough');

This example is taken from until-stream.

Streams2 in the Wild

There are some interesting open source projects that use the new streaming API that I've been collecting on GitHub. multiparser by Jesse Tane is a stream.Writable HTML form parser. until-stream by Evan Oxfeld will pause a stream when a certain signature is reached.

Hiccup by naomik uses the new streams API to simulate sporadic throughput, and the same author has also released bun which can help combine pipes into composable units, and Burro which can package objects into length-prefixed JSON byte streams. Conrad Pankoff used Burro to write Pillion, which is an RPC system for object streams.

There are also less esoteric modules, like csv-streamify which is a CSV parser.