Javascript - Asynchronously Synchronous

February 24, 2014
javascript nodejs

One of the most powerful features of Javascript is its callback system. While callbacks act similar to threads, they are distinctly different and more powerful.

Callbacks are similar to threads because they act in an asynchronous manner. This means that they may occur at any time and in any order (within reason). This is important because it prevents blocking. For example, other tasks can be performed while a task is reading information from a hard disk. This is absolutely imperative for any high performance software system.

However, callbacks are not truly asynchronous because they only allow one task to be performed at a time. Unlike threads, no two callbacks can be running at the same time.

So what? This means that Javascript callbacks can share variables with little to no headache. Consider the following situation in NodeJS:

var filePaths = ['test.txt', 'test2.txt'];
var fileCount = 0; //Indicates how many files in filePaths exist

for (var i in filePaths) {
    fs.exists(filePaths[i], function(exists) {
        if (exists) {
            fileCount++; //If file exists, increase counter

If this were implemented using threads, there’s a possibility that the file count would become corrupted due to concurrency issues. However, because of callbacks, the system can be efficient, yet avoid (most) threading problems.

All in all, callbacks are hybrids of threads, balancing performance and simplicity. They are asynchronously synchronous because they could be called at any time, yet they cannot run at the same time as other functions.