Dillion Megida I'm a Frontend Engineer and Technical Writer based in Nigeria.

A deep dive into queues in Node.js

6 min read 1909

The Node.js logo over a white background.

Queueing is an important technique in Node.js used for effectively handling asynchronous operations.

In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into queues in Node.js: what they are, how they work (with the event loop), and their various types.

What are queues in Node.js?

A queue is a data structure used in Node.js to appropriately organize asynchronous operations. These operations exist in different forms, including HTTP requests, read or write file operations, streams, and more.

Handling asynchronous operations in Node.js can be challenging.

There can be unpredictable delays (or at worse, no results) during HTTP requests depending on network strength. There may also be delays while trying to read or write a file with Node.js depending on the size of the file.

Similar to timers and many other operations, there can also be an indefinite duration for an asynchronous operation to be completed.

With these different durations, Node.js needs to be able to handle all these operations effectively.

Node.js cannot handle operations based on first-start-first-handle or first-finish-first-handle.

One reason why this may not be a good choice is because an asynchronous operation might contain another asynchronous operation.

Leaving room for the first asynchronous process means that the inner asynchronous process would have to be completed before the other asynchronous operations in the queue can be considered.

We made a custom demo for .
No really. Click here to check it out.

There are many scenarios to consider, so the best option is to have a rule. This rule influences how the event loop and queues work in Node.js.

Let’s briefly look at how Node.js handles asynchronous operations.

The call stack, event loop, and callback queues

The call stack keeps track of the function currently being executed and where it is run from. A function is added to the call stack when it is about to be executed.

This helps JavaScript retrace its steps after executing a function.

The callback queues are queues that hold callback functions to asynchronous operations when they have been completed in the background.

They work in a first-in-first-out (FIFO) manner. We’ll look at different types of callback queues later in this article.

Note that Node.js is responsible for every asynchronous activity, because JavaScript can block the thread with its single-threaded nature.

It is also responsible for adding functions to the callback queues after completing the background operations. JavaScript has nothing to do with the callback queue.

Meanwhile, the event loop continually checks the call stack if it’s empty so it can pick up a function from the callback queue and add to the call stack. The event loop only checks the queues when all synchronous operations have been executed.

So, what order does the event loop follow to select callback functions from the queues?

First, let’s look at the five main types of callback queues.

Types of callback queues

IO queue

IO operations refer to operations that involve external devices like the computer’s internals. Common operations include read and write file operations, network operations, and so on.

These operations should be asynchronous because they are left for Node.js to handle. JavaScript does not have access to the computer’s internals.

When such operations are to be carried out, JavaScript transfers them to Node.js to handle in the background.

Upon completion, they are transferred to the IO callback queue for the event loop to transfer to the call stack for execution.

Timer queue

Every operation involving the timer feature of Node.js (like setTimeout() and setInterval()) are added to the timer queue.

Note that JavaScript does not have a timer feature by itself.

It uses the timer API (which includes setTimeout) provided by Node.js to perform time-related operations. For this reason, timer operations are asynchronous.

Be it a duration of 2 or 0 seconds, JavaScript hands over time-related operations to Node.js, which are then completed and added to the timer queue.

For example:

setTimeout(function() {
        console.log('setTimeout');
    }, 0)
    console.log('yeah')


    # result
    yeah
    setTimeout

JavaScript proceeds with other operations while the asynchronous operation is being processed. The event loop goes to the callback queues only when all synchronous operations have been handled.

Microtask queue

This queue is broken down into two queues:

Each iteration performed by an event loop is called a tick.

process.nextTick is a function that executes a function at the next tick (a.k.a, the next iteration of the event loop). The microtask queue stores such functions so that they can be executed at the next tick.

This means that the event loop would have to keep checking the microtask queue for such functions before proceeding to other queues.

  • The second queue holds functions delayed by promises.

In the IO and Timer queue, as we’ve seen, everything concerning the asynchronous operation is handed over to the asynchronous function

Promises are different. In promises, an initial variable is stored in JavaScript memory (which you may have seen, <Pending>).

Node.js places that function (attached to the promise) in the microtask queue when the asynchronous operation is completed. Simultaneously, it updates the variable in JavaScript memory with the result gotten so that the function is not run with <Pending>.

The following codes explains how promises work:

let prom = new Promise(function (resolve, reject) {
        // delay execution
        setTimeout(function () {
            return resolve("hello");
        }, 2000);
    });
    console.log(prom);
    // Promise { <pending> }
    
    prom.then(function (response) {
        console.log(response);
    });
    // after 2000ms,
    // hello

One important feature to note about the microtask queue is that the event loop repeatedly checks and executes functions in the microtask queue before attending to other queues.

For instance, when the microtask queue is completed, and, say, a timer operation performs a promise operation, the event loop would attend to that promise operation before moving on to the other functions in the timer queue.

Therefore, the microtask qeuue takes the highest priority over other queues.

Check queue (also known as immediate queue)

The callback functions in this queue are executed immediately after all callback functions in the IO queue have been executed.

setImmediate is the function used to add functions to this queue.

For example:

const fs = require('fs');
setImmediate(function() {
    console.log('setImmediate');
})
// assume this operation takes 1ms
fs.readFile('path-to-file', function() {
    console.log('readFile')
})
// assume this operation takes 3ms
do...while...

When this program is executed, Node.js adds the callback function of setImmediate to the check queue. Since the whole program has not been completed, the event loop does not check any of the queues.

The readFile operation is asynchronous, so it’s handed over to Node.js, and the program continues execution.

The do while operation lasts for 3ms. During this time, the readFile operation completes and is pushed to the IO queue. After completing this operation, the event loop begins to check the queues.

Although the check queue got populated first, it is only considered after the IO queue is empty. Hence, readFile is logged to the console before setImmediate.

Close queue

This queue stores functions that are associated with close event operations.

Examples include the following:

  • The stream close event, which is emitted when the stream has been closed. It signifies that no more events will be emitted.
  • The http close event, which is emitted when the server closes.

These are considered the least-prioritized queues because the operations here happen at a later time.

You wouldn’t want to execute a callback function in a close event before a promise’s function is handled. What would that promise function do when the server is closed already?

Order of the queues

The microtask queue is given top priority, followed by the timer queue, the I/O queue, the check queue, and, lastly, the close queue.

An example of callback queues

Let’s look at a bigger example to illustrate the types and order of the queues:

const fs = require("fs");

// assume this operation takes a 2ms
fs.writeFile('./new-file.json', '...', function() {
    console.log('writeFile')
})

// assume this takes 10ms to complete
fs.readFile("./file.json", function(err, data) {
    console.log("readFile");
});

// don't assume, this actually takes 1ms
setTimeout(function() {
    console.log("setTimeout");
}, 1000);

// assume this operation takes 3ms
while(...) {
    ...
}

setImmediate(function() {
    console.log("setImmediate");
});

// promise that takes 4ms to resolve
let promise = new Promise(function (resolve, reject) {
    setTimeout(function () {
        return resolve("promise");
    }, 4000);
});
promise.then(function(response) {
    console.log(response)
})

console.log("last line");

Here’s the program flow:

At 0ms, the program begins.

fs.writeFile takes 2ms at the background before Node.js adds the callback function to the IO queue.

fs.readFile takes 10ms at the background before Node.js adds the callback function to the IO queue.

setTimeout takes 1ms at the background before Node.js adds the callback function to the timer queue.

Now, the while operation (which is synchronous) takes 3ms. During this time, the thread is blocked (remember that JavaScript is single-threaded).

Also during this time, the setTimeout and fs.writeFile operations are completed and their callback functions are added to the timer and IO queues, respectively.

Now the queues are:

// queues
Timer = [
    function () {
        console.log("setTimeout");
    },
];
IO = [
    function () {
        console.log("writeFile");
    },
];

setImmediate adds the callback function to the Check queue:

js
// queues
Timer...
IO...
Check = [
    function() {console.log("setImmediate")}
]

The promise operation takes 4ms to resolve (in the background) before it is added to the microtask queue.

The last line is synchronous, so it is immediately executed:

# results
"last line"

All synchronous activities are done, so the event loop starts checking the queues. It starts from the timer queue since the microtask queue is empty:

// queues
Timer = [] // now empty
IO...
Check...


# results
"last line"
"setTimeout"

While the event loop continues executing the callback functions in the queue, the promise operation finishes and is added to the microtask queue:

// queues
    Timer = [];
    Microtask = [
        function (response) {
            console.log(response);
        },
    ];
    IO = []; // now empty
    Check = []; // now empty immediately after IO


    # results
    "last line"
    "setTimeout"
    "writeFile"
    "setImmediate"

A few seconds later, the readFile operation finishes and is added to the IO queue:

// queues
    Timer = [];
    Microtask = []; // now empty
    IO = [
        function () {
            console.log("readFile");
        },
    ];
    Check = [];


    # results
    "last line"
    "setTimeout"
    "writeFile"
    "setImmediate"
    "promise"

Finally, all callback functions are executed:

// queues
    Timer = []
    Microtask = []
    IO = [] // now empty again
    Check = [];


    # results
    "last line"
    "setTimeout"
    "writeFile"
    "setImmediate"
    "promise"
    "readFile"

Three things to note here:

  • The asynchronous operations depend on their duration before they are added to the queues. They do not depend on the order in which they are placed in the program.
  • The event loop continually checks the microtask queues before proceeding with other queues at every iteration.
  • The event loop executed the functions in the check queue even when there was another IO operation (readFile) in the background. It did so because, at that point, the IO queue was empty. Remember that the check queue callbacks are run immediately after all the functions in the IO queue have been executed.

Conclusion

JavaScript is single-threaded. Every asynchronous function is handled by Node.js working with the internal features of the computer.

Node.js is responsible for adding callback functions (attached to an asynchronous operation by JavaScript) to the callback queues. The event loop determines the callback function that would be executed next at every iteration.

Understanding how queues work in Node.js gives you a better understanding of it, since queues are one of the core features of the environment. The most popular definition of Node.js is non-blocking, meaning asynchronous operations are properly handled.

This feature is made effective by the event loop and the callback queues.

200’s only Monitor failed and slow network requests in production

Deploying a Node-based web app or website is the easy part. Making sure your Node instance continues to serve resources to your app is where things get tougher. If you’re interested in ensuring requests to the backend or third party services are successful, try LogRocket. https://logrocket.com/signup/

LogRocket is like a DVR for web apps, recording literally everything that happens on your site. Instead of guessing why problems happen, you can aggregate and report on problematic network requests to quickly understand the root cause.

LogRocket instruments your app to record baseline performance timings such as page load time, time to first byte, slow network requests, and also logs Redux, NgRx, and Vuex actions/state. .
Dillion Megida I'm a Frontend Engineer and Technical Writer based in Nigeria.

3 Replies to “A deep dive into queues in Node.js”

  1. One of the best blog post on nodejs core feature simple to understand and digestible code clear the concept. Thanks..

  2. Truly one the best post i have read explaining the inner workings of node … well worth the read . Thanks Dillion

Leave a Reply