Jens Rantil's blog

Posted Tor 23 Maj 2013

Refreshable AngularjS service

Lately I've been working a lot in AngularJS. This is my second project with the framework, and the more time I spend in it, the more I like it.

But as with most things, AngularJS has some rough corners. Its documentation still has a long way to go, although it has improved since last time I used it over a year ago. Common use cases and "Angular-y" was of doing things is another thing that I also feel is lacking out there. I guess it could be considered documentation depending on how you look at it.

My intention with this blog post is to go through one such use case, namely dealing with complex dependencies. The clientside application that I've been working with lately has a bunch of quite complicated dependencies and these JSFiddles turned out to be the perfect way for me to flesh out how to deal with the dependencies in an structured fashion. Specifically, this post will talk about:

The level of this tutorial is intermediate. I expect you to know basic AngularJS; state injection, controllers, about $timeout and services.

A slow service

Let's say you have some data you would like to present to your user and you prepare some data in your controller. In our case, a list:

This is very basic AngularJS and I expect you to have no problems understanding the mapping done here.

But in the real world, we rarely hardcode things. We are usually interested in dynamic data. There are two (major) alternatives to get dynamic data into an AngularJS browser application - either generating the data into your JS code, or you make an API call to your backend after your AngularJS application has loaded. The latter is better if your data takes some time to generate. If you have multiple dependencies, fetching them asynchronously using multiple HTTP calls usually also tend to decrease page loading times.

Now, let's create a service that simulates a slower API call. It uses a promise to return an handler that deals with handling asynchronous result. Here's the code:

Notice that it takes a couple of seconds before the result is presented on the screen when you click "Result".

Also, it's worth making a mental note that we are storing a promise to the scope. This is not the same as the actual list. AngularJS automatically resolves this as the actual returned list and presents it in the generated HTML. One issue with saving a promises directly to the scope is that you don't handle how to deal with errors if the promise could not be resolved. Errors do happen, and in most cases you are better off explicitly dealing with then. Maybe you can simply ignore it? Present an error message? Revert to the previous message? This why I nowadays usually resolve all my promises like this:

Obviously, we are not generating any errors here, but you never know! ;)

Refreshable data between controllers

Let's say we would like share state between controllers. This can be done by nesting controllers. Here's a basic example:

Now, let's say that we would like this state to to refresh ones in a while. Let's simulate an element added:

If you click "Result", you'll notice that the two child controllers are not being updated after 3 seconds. That's because their $scope members only are set when the child controllers are being created. What we want is to watch changes made to the list:

If you try the code above, you'll notice that it still doesn't work. The reason is subtle; $scope.$watch compares object by reference by default. This means that it will check to see if $scope.mylist is a different array than previously. It is not -- it's simply a modified version of that same array. What we want is to compare for object equality. We do that by setting the third parameter to true when calling $scope.$watch:

Finally, it works! But, as in the previous example, we want to avoid sharing data between controllers through a parent controller. Instead, we want to use a service:

All good in the hood so far. Now, let's say we would like to support refreshing data from our slow API endpoint. Maybe the user has a little refresh button, or you'd like the controller to issue a refresh. This is where things get a little messy.

My first take on this:

For simplicity, I've only included a single controller.

Notice that my service now returns an object with the function refresh() bound to it. The refresh() member function returns a new promise every time it's called.

Looking at the result we notice that the result is presented correctly. However, what's interesting is that $scope.watchCallbackCalls eventually gets the value 4. This is because our promise returned from refresh() actually is modified twice; first when it's returned by refresh() and secondly when the promise is resolved. Since we call refresh() twice, our watcher gets called four times. The expected number of watch callback calls are obviously 2 calls.

How do we overcome this? Instead of using watchers on promises, we can use events when our promises are resolved:

Each event is triggered with newly fetched list as event argument.

Since the service can't access the controller that uses it, we trigger events from $rootScope. For bigger applications you might want to use the calling controller as a parameter to refresh() to avoid bloating the $rootScope with too many events (and possibly get conflicting event names).

Another nice property of using events is that also other services could have MySimulatedSlowHTTPService as a dependency and automatically get triggered when a new result would have been fetched. Making multiple HTTP API calls to fetch the same resource would be both a waste of time and bandwidth.

You can also choose not to refresh certain controller scopes on refresh. See MyListLengthController here:

A reason why you would want to do this would be if DOM generation is slow and the resource being updated is a large one.

One issue with the above solution is that we can't handle the case when a refresh fails. A way to remedy this is to use the refresh() call's promise instead of the actual resolved result. This moves the responsibility of error handling from the service to each dependent service/controller/component:

Another issue with the above solution is we are partially back to the issue we had with watch callback being called multiple times. In this example it's because the newList event is triggered twice on initialization. This can be overcome by not triggering it on the first refresh() call:

I know this became quite a lot of code. It all grew out of being a simple example, but I think this journey is necessary to fully understand what considerations goes into making reusable, refreshable, services in Angular.

Last, but not least, don't just rip my example. Many times you are totally fine with a service that simply fetches resource once per page load!

Can I do this much simpler? Tell me in the comments.

Category: misc
Tags: AngularJS JavaScript
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