Asynchrony in C# 5 (Part I)

I’ve been playing around with the new Async CTP preview available for download from Microsoft. It’s amazing how language trends are influencing the evolution of Microsoft’s developing platform. Much effort is being done at language level today than previous versions of .NET.

In these post series I’ll review some major features contained in this release:

  1. Asynchronous functions
  2. TPL Dataflow
  3. Task based asynchronous Pattern

Part I: Asynchronous Functions

This is a mean of expressing asynchronous operations. This kind of functions must return void or Task/Task<> (functions returning void let us implement Fire & Forget asynchronous operations). The two new keywords introduced are async and await.

  • async: marks a function as asynchronous, indicating that some part of its execution may take place some time later (after the method call has returned). Thus, all async functions must include some kind of asynchronous operations. This keyword on its own does not make a function asynchronous thought, its nature depends on its implementation.
  • await: allows us to define operations inside a function that will be awaited for continuation (more on this later).

Async function sample:

Async/Await Sample
async void ShowDateTimeAsync()
    while (true)
        var client = new ServiceReference1.Service1Client();
        var dt = await client.GetDateTimeTaskAsync();
        Console.WriteLine("Current DateTime is: {0}", dt);
        await TaskEx.Delay(1000);

The previous sample is a typical usage scenario for these new features. Suppose we query some external Web Service to get data (in this case the current DateTime) and we do so at regular intervals in order to refresh user’s UI. Note the async and await functions working together.

The ShowDateTimeAsync method indicate its asynchronous nature to the caller using the keyword async (that it may complete after returning control to its caller). The await keyword indicates the flow control of the method will continue executing asynchronously after client.GetDateTimeTaskAsync returns. The latter is the most important thing to understand about the behavior of this method and how this actually works.

The flow control of the method will be reconstructed after any asynchronous operation completes (specified with the keyword await). This reconstruction of flow control is the real magic behind the scene and it is done by C#/VB compilers. Note how we didn’t use any of the regular existing async patterns and we’ve defined the method very much like a synchronous one.

Now, compare the following code snippet  in contrast to the previuous async/await:

Traditional UI Async
void ComplicatedShowDateTime()
    var client = new ServiceReference1.Service1Client();
    client.GetDateTimeCompleted += (s, e) =>
        Console.WriteLine("Current DateTime is: {0}", e.Result);

The previous implementation is somehow similar to the first shown, but more complicated. Note how the while loop is implemented as a chained callback to the same method (client.GetDateTimeAsync) inside the event handler (please, do not do this in your own application, this is just an example). 

How it works? Using an state workflow (or jump table actually), the compiler expands our code and create the necessary steps to execute it, resuming pending operations after any asynchronous one.

The intention of the new Async/Await pattern is to let us think and code as we normally do when designing and algorithm. It also allows us to preserve the logical flow control of the program (without using any tricky coding patterns to accomplish this). The compiler will then create the necessary workflow to execute operations as the happen in time.

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