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Caching Executing Promises / Locks with Promises

In this post I will show you how to cache executing promises. Caching an executing promise, rather than just caching the result of the promise, is useful when the underlying asynchronous action is expensive, takes a while to finish and is invoked often. The caching will be achieved by using locks implemented using promises, and relying on the properties of the event loop.

The Problem

Assume we have an asynchronous function expensiveOperation which performs a myriad of async actions and takes at least a minute to resolve. Then we have a function cacheExpensiveOperation which calls expensiveOperation, caches its result and returns the cached result on its subsequent calls. As in the following code snippet:

Using null to figure out if we have the result is dangerous, if the expensive operation can itself return null. It would be safer to e.g. create a Symbol representing a value of the (local) bottom type. I am not using this approach to simplify the example.

const expensiveOperation = async (): Promise<number> => {
  // ...

let expensiveOperationResult = null
const cacheExpensiveOperation = async () => {
  if (expensiveOperationResult !== null) {
    return expensiveOperationResult

  expensiveOperationResult = await expensiveOperation() 
  return expensiveOperationResult

Although cacheExpensiveOperation caches the result of expensiveOperation, the cache mechanism won’t be employed till after cacheExpensiveOperation returns for the first time. If we trigger cacheExpensiveOperation multiple times at once and do not wait for the result, we trigger expensiveOperation multiple times as well. As in the following snippet:

In the real world, this would happen if the cache operation is e.g. triggered on a webpage with tons of traffic. First X visitors, who enter the webpage when the cache is empty, trigger the expensive operation X times.

// calls expensiveOperation twice
const [value1, value2] = await Promise.all([

The cache is employed only if we call cacheExpensiveOperation multiple times, as in the following example:

// calls expensiveOperation only once
const value1 = await cacheExpensiveOperation();
const value2 = await cacheExpensiveOperation();

This is the problem we want to address. We want cacheExpensiveOperation to call expensiveOperation at most once, even when there are multiple concurrent calls to the function. Which is where we arrive to locks.

Using Locks

Locks are a fairly standard mechanism used to enforce certain limits on accessing a shared resource (the expensiveOperation). To cut down on the length of this article, I am going to assume that you are familiar with locks and their uses.

High-level Solution

Conceptually, we want to change cacheExpensiveOperation from:

  1. Return a cached result if it exists.
  2. Otherwise, run expensiveOperation and save its result.


  1. Return a cached result if it exists.
  2. If there is a lock, asynchronously wait till it is unlocked/removed.
  3. Otherwise, create a lock, run expensiveOperation, save its result and remove the lock.

However, with JavaScript & promises, we can be less explicit. As JavaScript is single-threaded in its synchronous code, we can achieve behaviour similar to using a lock by using promises.

Implementing a Promise-based Lock

As suggested in the previous section, we are going to use promises to simulate using a lock. Importantly, a promise is an object that we can pass around as we would any other value. This allows us to use the same caching mechanism as we use for caching a result of an asynchronous operation.

On the first call to cacheExpensiveOperation, we store the promise returned by expensiveOperation in a variable. Any subsequent calls to cacheExpensiveOperation can check if the promise has resolved yet, and if it has not, we work with the existing promise instead of constructing a new one. Lo and behold:

As noted by @stekycz, we can also only store the promise and achieve the same caching effect. That is true, and I am not sure which approach is better. I prefer removing the promise, so it can be removed from the memory, but if the footprint of a promise is small, the two approaches are virtually the same.

let expensiveOperationPromise = null
let expensiveOperationResult = null

const cacheExpensiveOperation = async () => {
  if (expensiveOperationResult !== null) {
    return expensiveOperationResult

  if (expensiveOperationPromise !== null) {
    return await expensiveOperationPromise

  expensiveOperationPromise = expensiveOperation() // no await here
    .catch(error => { /* handle as needed, important to prevent floating promises */ })
  expensiveOperationResult = await expensiveOperationPromise
  expensiveOperationPromise = null
  return expensiveOperationResult 

Let’s go through how this works. The caching mechanism used for the result of expensiveOperation has not changed—if we have cached a result, we return it without any waiting.

The caching mechanism for the promise itself relies on how the event loop works: I am likely not using the best terminology here. Please do let me know how to fix it. I also do some very hand-wavy explanations, which are trying to shorten the explanation.

  1. Since JavaScript is single-threaded in its synchronous code, there cannot be multiple “first calls” to a function. Thus, there will always be a single first call to cacheExpensiveOperation that will block till its first asynchronous operation (simplified: till its first await).

  2. The first call to cacheExpensiveOperation:
    1. Calls expensiveOperation, and stores the returned promise in the expensiveOperationPromise variable.
    2. It is “suspended” till the expensiveOperationPromise resolves to a value, as it calls await on that promise.
  3. If, in the meantime, we trigger cacheExpensiveOperation again, expensiveOperationPromise contains a value and thus the call will await on the existing promise and won’t resolve till the underlying promise resolves (or rejects). Without having to call expensiveOperation again.

  4. Once the first call to expensiveOperation resolves:
    1. All promises, which are waiting for this promise to resolve, can now continue execution, using the result.
    2. The first call to cacheExpensiveOperation stores this result in expensiveOperationResult.
  5. Any consequent calls to cacheExpensiveOperation use expensiveOperationResult to return the cached value.

Hopefully that makes sense. But even if it doesn’t, we can test this behaviour.


Although I find this solution working and rather elegant, as with every piece of code, there are some tradeoffs:

  1. Returning the same promise from different calls to cacheExpensiveOperation means that the result of the promise will be referenced from multiple places. This can lead to hard-to-spot bugs since we now introduce shared state.

  2. Understanding this approach requires a fair amount of knowledge about JavaScript’s event loop. As such, it might be hard to understand, and it should be heavily commented. You probably also want to abstract this away into some lock or cachePromise.