API support for distributed promise pipelining.

  • Mark S. Miller @erights, Agoric
  • Michael FIG @michaelfig, Agoric
  • Chip Morningstar @FUDCo, Evernote


Presented to TC39 (Javascript standards committee), achieving stage 1. (Note that the actual API has been changed since this talk, to using Promise.delegate and other Promise static methods instead of a new HandledPromise global.)

Presentation to TC39



Promises were invented in the late 1980s, originally as a technique for compensating for roundtrip latency in operations invoked remotely over a network, though promises have since proven valuable for dealing with all manner of asynchronous delays in computational systems.

The fundamental insight behind promises is this: in the classic presentation of object-oriented programming, an object is something that you can send messages to in order to invoke operations on it. If the result of such an operation is another object, that result in turn is something that you can send messages to. If the operation initiated by a message entails an asynchronous delay to get the result, rather than forcing the sender to wait (possibly a long time) for the result to eventually become available, the system can instead immediately return another object - a promise - that can stand in for the result in the meantime. Since, as was just said, an object is something you send messages to, a promise is, in that respect, potentially as good as the object it is a promise for -- you simply send it messages as if it was the actual result.

The promise can't perform the invoked operation directly, since what that means is not yet known, but it can enqueue the request for later processing or relay it to the other end of a network connection where the result will eventually be known. This deferral of operations through enqueuing or relaying can be pipelined an arbitrary number of operations deep; it is only at the point where there is a semantic requirement to actually see the result (such as the need to display it to a human) that the pipeline must stall to await the final outcome. Furthermore, experience with this paradigm has shown that the point at which such waiting is truly required can often be much later in a chain of computational activity than many people's intuitions lead them to expect.

Since network latency is often the largest component of delay in a remotely invoked operation, the overlapping of network transmissions that promise pipelining makes possible can result an enormous overall improvement in throughput in distributed systems. For example, implementations of promise pipelining for remote method invocation in the Xanadu hypertext system and in Microsoft's Midori operating system measured speedups of 10 to 1,000 over traditional synchronous RPC, depending on use case.

Promises in JavaScript were proposed in the 2011 ECMAScript strawman concurrency proposal. These promises descend from the E language via the Waterken Q library and Kris Kowal's Q library. A good early presentation is Tom Van Cutsem's Communicating Event Loops: An exploration in JavaScript. All of these efforts introduced promises as a first step towards distributed computing, with the goal of using promises as asynchronous references to remote objects. However, since the JavaScript language itself does not contain any intrinsic I/O machinery, relying entirely on the host environment for this, Promises as JavaScript currently defines them are not by themselves sufficient to realize the distributed computation vision that originally motivated them.

Kris Kowal's Q-connection library extended Q's promises for distributed computing with promise pipelining, essentially in the way we have in mind. However, in the absence of platform support for Weak References, this approach was not practical. Given weak references, the Midori project and Cap'n Proto, among others, demonstrate that this approach to distributed computing works well at scale.


This proposal adds eventual-send operations to JavaScript Promises, to express invocation of operations on potentially remote objects. We introduce the notion of a delegated Promise, whose handler can provide alternate eventual-send behavior. These mechanisms, together with weak references, enable the creation of remote object communications systems, but without committing to any specific implementation. In particular, this proposal specifies a general mechanism for hooking in whatever host-provided remote communications facilities are at hand, without constraining the nature of those facilities.

This proposal does not mandate any specific usage of the mechanisms it describes. Such usages as are mentioned here are provided as explanatory and motivating examples and as ways testing the adequacy of the design, rather than proposing a particular implementation of remote messaging.

Design Principles

  1. Support promise pipelining to reduce the cost of network latency.
  2. Prevent reentrancy attacks (a form of plan interference).


To specify eventual-send operations and delegated promises, we follow the pattern used to incorporate proxies into JavaScript: That pattern specified...

  • internal methods that all objects must support.
  • static methods on Reflect for invoking these internal methods.
  • invariants that these methods must uphold.
  • default behaviors of these methods for normal (non-exotic) objects.
  • *handler traps. Proxies implement these methods by delegating most of their behaviors to corresponding traps on their handlers.
  • proxy invariant enforcement. The remaining behavior in the proxy methods to guarantee that these invariants are upheld despite arbitrary behavior by the handler.
  • fallback behaviors for absent traps, implemented in terms of the remaining traps.

Following this analogy, this proposal adds internal eventual-send methods to all promises, provides default behaviors for undelegated promises, and introduces delegated promises whose handlers provide traps for these methods.

A new static method, Promise.delegate, enables the creation of delegated promises. The static methods below are static methods of this constructor.

Internal Method Static Method
p.[[EventualGet]](prop) eventualGet(p, prop)
p.[[EventualApply]](args) eventualApply(p, args)
p.[[EventualSend]](prop, args) eventualSend(p, prop, args)

The static methods first do a Promise.resolve on their first argument, to coerce it to a promise with these internal methods. Thus, for example,

Promise.eventualGet(p, prop)

actually does the equivalent of


Via the internal methods, the static methods cause either the default behavior, or, for delegated promises, the behavior that calls the associated handler trap.

Static Method Default Behavior Handler trap
eventualGet(p, prop) p.then(t => t[prop]) h.eventualGet(t, prop)
eventualApply(p, args) p.then(t => t(...args)) h.eventualApply(t, args)
eventualSend(p, prop, args) p.then(t => t[prop](...args)) h.eventualSend(t, prop, args)

To protect against reentrancy, the proxy internal method postpones the execution of the handler trap to a later turn, and immediately returns a promise for what the trap will return. For example, the [[EventualGet]] internal method of a delegated promise is effectively

p.then(t => h.eventualGet(t, prop))

Sometimes, these operations will be used to cause remote effects while ignoring the local promise for the result. For distributed messaging protocols, the extra bookkeeping for these return results are sufficiently expensive that we should be able to avoid it when it is not needed. To support this, we introduce the "SendOnly" variants of these methods.

Internal Method Static Method
p.[[EventualGetOnly]](prop) eventualGetOnly(p, prop)
p.[[EventualApplyOnly]](args) eventualApplyOnly(p, args)
p.[[EventualSendOnly]](prop, args) eventualSendOnly(p, prop, args)
Static Method Handler trap
eventualGetOnly(p, prop) h.eventualGetOnly(t, prop)
eventualApplyOnly(p, args) h.eventualApplyOnly(t, args)
eventualSendOnly(p, prop, args) h.eventualSendOnly(t, prop, args)

No matter what a *Only handler trap returns, the proxy internal [[*Only]] method always immediately returns undefined.

When an "Only" trap is absent, the trap behavior defaults to the corresponding non-Only trap. But again, the proxy internal [[*Only]] method always immediately returns undefined, and so is effectively, for example:

void p.then(t => h.eventualGet(t, prop))

E and E.sendOnly convenience proxies

Probably the most common distributed programming case, invocation of remote methods with or without requiring return results, can be implemented by powerless proxies. All authority needed to enable communication between the peers can be implemented in the delegated promise infrastructure.

The E(target) proxy maker wraps a target (which may or may not be remote) and allows for a single remote method call returning a promise for the result.

E(target).method(arg1, arg2...) // Promise<result>

E.sendOnly(target) is similar, but declares that we do not want the result (or even acknowledgement). It always immediately returns undefined.

Example usage:

import { E } from 'js:eventual-send';

// Invoke pipelined RPCs.
const fileP = E(
// Process the read results after a round trip.
E(fileP).read().then(contents => {
  console.log('file contents', contents);
  // We don't use the result of this send.

Promise.delegate static method

In a manner analogous to Proxy handlers, a delegated promise is associated with a handler object.

new Proxy(target, handler) -> fresh proxy

new Promise((resolve, reject) => {
  resolve(resolution) -> void
  reject(reason) -> void
}) -> fresh undelegated promise

Promise.delegate((resolve, reject, resolveWithPresence) => {
  resolve(resolution) -> void
  reject(reason) -> void
  resolveWithPresence(presenceHandler) -> fresh presence
}, unfulfilledHandler) -> fresh delegated promise

For example,

const executor = async (resolve, reject, resolveWithPresence) => {
  // Do something that may need a delay to complete.
  const { err, presenceHandler, other } = await determineResolution();
  if (presenceHandler) {
    // presence is a freshly-created Object.create(null) whose handler
    // is presenceHandler.  The targetP below will be resolved to this
    // presence.
    const presence = resolveWithPresence(presenceHandler);
    presence.toString = () => 'My Special Presence';
  } else if (err) {
    // Reject targetP with err.
  } else {
    // Resolve targetP to other, using other's handler if there is one.

// Create a delegted promise with initial handler.
// If unfulfilledHandler is not specified (i.e. undefined), it will use
// a builtin queueing handler until targetP is resolved/rejected.
// This default queueing handler would cause too much latency if the
// delegated promise actually triggers network traffic.  An actual
// unfulfilledHandler could speculatively send traffic to remote hosts.
const targetP = Promise.delegate(executor, unfulfilledHandler);
E(E(targetP).remoteMethod(someArg, someArg2)).callOnResult(...otherArgs);

The handlers are not exposed to the user of the delegated promise, so it provides a secure separation between the unprivileged client (which uses the E, E.sendOnly or static Promise methods) and the privileged system which implements the communication mechanism.


Since delegated promises are still Promises, they can be used anyplace a Promise can. However, with the additional semantics of Promise.resolve, it is possible to detect if an object is a presence.

Handler traps

A handler object can provide handler traps (eventualGet, eventualApply, eventualSend) and their associated *Only traps.

  eventualGet        (target, prop):        Promise<result>,
  eventualGetOnly    (target, prop):        void,
  eventualApply      (target, args):        Promise<result>,
  eventualApplyOnly  (target, args):        void,
  eventualSend       (target, prop, args):  Promise<result>,
  eventualSendOnly   (target, prop, args):  void,

If the handler does not provide a *Only trap, its default implementation is the non-send-only trap with a return value of undefined (not a promise).

If the handler omits a non-only trap, invoking the associated operation returns a promise rejection. The only exception to that behaviour is if the handler does not provide the eventualSend optimization trap. Then, its default implementation is

Promise.eventualApply(Promise.eventualGet(p, prop), args)

This expansion requires that the promise for the remote method be unnecessarily reified.

For an unfulfilled handler, the trap's target argument is the unfulfilled delegated promise, so that it can gain control before the promise is resolved. For a presence handler, the trap's target argument is the presence that was created by resolveWithPresence.

New Promise static methods

The methods in this section are used to implement higher-level communication primitives, such as the E proxy maker.

These methods are analogous to the Reflect API, but asynchronously invoke a delegated promise's handler regardless of whether the target has resolved. This is necessary in order to allow pipelining of messages before the exact destination is known (i.e. before the delegated promise is resolved).

Promise.eventualGet(target, prop); // Promise<result>
Promise.eventualGetOnly(target, prop); // undefined
Promise.eventualApply(target, [...args]); // Promise<result>
Promise.eventualApplyOnly(target, [...args]); // undefined

The eventualSend call combines property lookup with function application in order to distinguish them from an eventualGet whose value is separately inspected, and for the handler to be able to bundle the two operations as a single message.

Promise.eventualSend(target, prop, args); // Promise<result>
Promise.eventualSendOnly(target, prop, args); // undefined

Platform Support

All the above behavior, as described so far, is implemented in the Eventual Send Shim (TODO update to proposed API). However, there is one critical behavior that we specify, that can easily be provided by a conforming platform, but is infeasible to emulate on top of current platform promises. Without it, many cases that should pipeline do not, disrupting desired ordering guarantees. Consider:

let pr;
const p = new Promise(r => pr = r);
let qr;
const q = Promise.delegate(r => qr = r,

After p is resolved to q, the delayed foo invocation should be forwarded to q and trap to q's unfulfilledHandler. Although a shim could monkey patch the Promise constructor to provide an altered resolve function which does that, there are plenty of internal resolution steps that would bypass it. There is no way for a shim to detect that unfulfilled undelegated promise p has been resolved to unfulfilled delegated q by one of these. Instead, the foo invocation will languish until a round trip fulfills q, thus

  • losing the benefits of promise pipelining,
  • arriving after messages that should have arrived after it.

Syntactic Support

A separate Wavy Dot Proposal proposes a more convenient syntax for calling the new internal methods proposed here. However, the eventual-send API described here is valuable even without the wavy dot syntax.

Completing the Proxy Analogy

  • internal methods that all promises must support
    • [[EventualGet]], [[EventualGetOnly]],
    • [[EventualApply]], [[EventualApplyOnly]],
    • [[EventualSend]], [[EventualSendOnly]]
  • static methods on Promise for invoking these internal methods.
    • Promise.eventualGet, Promise.eventualGetOnly,
    • Promise.eventualApply, Promise.eventualApplyOnly,
    • Promise.eventualSend, Promise.eventualSendOnly
  • invariants that these methods must uphold.
    • Safety from reentrancy.
    • p === Promise.resolve(t) vs p.then(t => ...)
  • default behaviors of these methods for undelegated promises to normal objects.
    • ==> p.then(t =>
    • p~.(x) ==> p.then(t => t(x))
    • ==> p.then(t =>
  • handler traps. Proxies implement these methods by delegating most of their behaviors to corresponding traps on their handlers.
    • ==> p.then(t => h.eventualGet(t, 'foo'))
    • p~.(x) ==> p.then(t => h.eventualApply(t, [x])
    • ==> p.then(t => h.eventualSend(t, 'foo', [x])
  • promise invariant enforcement.
    • The p.then pattern above
  • fallback behaviors for absent traps, implemented in terms of the remaining traps.
    • *Only(...) defaults to void *(...)
    • h.eventualSend(t, 'foo', [x]) defaults to h.eventualApply(t, h.eventualGet(t, 'foo'), [x])