Is JavaScript guaranteed to be single-threaded?

Is JavaScript guaranteed to be single-threaded?

JavaScript is known to be single-threaded in all modern browser implementations, but is that specified in any standard or is it just by tradition? Is it totally safe to assume that JavaScript is always single-threaded?


Solution 1:

That’s a good question. I’d love to say “yes”. I can’t.

JavaScript is usually considered to have a single thread of execution visible to scripts(*), so that when your inline script, event listener or timeout is entered, you remain completely in control until you return from the end of your block or function.

(*: ignoring the question of whether browsers really implement their JS engines using one OS-thread, or whether other limited threads-of-execution are introduced by WebWorkers.)

However, in reality this isn’t quite true, in sneaky nasty ways.

The most common case is immediate events. Browsers will fire these right away when your code does something to cause them:

var l= document.getElementById('log');
var i= document.getElementById('inp');
i.onblur= function() {
    l.value+= 'blur\n';
setTimeout(function() {
    l.value+= 'log in\n';
    l.value+= 'log out\n';
}, 100);
<textarea id="log" rows="20" cols="40"></textarea>
<input id="inp">

Results in log in, blur, log out on all except IE. These events don’t just fire because you called focus() directly, they could happen because you called alert(), or opened a pop-up window, or anything else that moves the focus.

This can also result in other events. For example add an i.onchange listener and type something in the input before the focus() call unfocuses it, and the log order is log in, change, blur, log out, except in Opera where it’s log in, blur, log out, change and IE where it’s (even less explicably) log in, change, log out, blur.

Similarly calling click() on an element that provides it calls the onclick handler immediately in all browsers (at least this is consistent!).

(I’m using the direct on... event handler properties here, but the same happens with addEventListener and attachEvent.)

There’s also a bunch of circumstances in which events can fire whilst your code is threaded in, despite you having done nothing to provoke it. An example:

var l= document.getElementById('log');
document.getElementById('act').onclick= function() {
    l.value+= 'alert in\n';
    l.value+= 'alert out\n';
window.onresize= function() {
    l.value+= 'resize\n';
<textarea id="log" rows="20" cols="40"></textarea>
<button id="act">alert</button>

Hit alert and you’ll get a modal dialogue box. No more script executes until you dismiss that dialogue, yes? Nope. Resize the main window and you will get alert in, resize, alert out in the textarea.

You might think it’s impossible to resize a window whilst a modal dialogue box is up, but not so: in Linux, you can resize the window as much as you like; on Windows it’s not so easy, but you can do it by changing the screen resolution from a larger to a smaller one where the window doesn’t fit, causing it to get resized.

You might think, well, it’s only resize (and probably a few more like scroll) that can fire when the user doesn’t have active interaction with the browser because script is threaded. And for single windows you might be right. But that all goes to pot as soon as you’re doing cross-window scripting. For all browsers other than Safari, which blocks all windows/tabs/frames when any one of them is busy, you can interact with a document from the code of another document, running in a separate thread of execution and causing any related event handlers to fire.

Places where events that you can cause to be generated can be raised whilst script is still threaded:

  • when the modal popups (alert, confirm, prompt) are open, in all browsers but Opera;

  • during showModalDialog on browsers that support it;

  • the “A script on this page may be busy…” dialogue box, even if you choose to let the script continue to run, allows events like resize and blur to fire and be handled even whilst the script is in the middle of a busy-loop, except in Opera.

  • a while ago for me, in IE with the Sun Java Plugin, calling any method on an applet could allow events to fire and script to be re-entered. This was always a timing-sensitive bug, and it’s possible Sun have fixed it since (I certainly hope so).

  • probably more. It’s been a while since I tested this and browsers have gained complexity since.

In summary, JavaScript appears to most users, most of the time, to have a strict event-driven single thread of execution. In reality, it has no such thing. It is not clear how much of this is simply a bug and how much deliberate design, but if you’re writing complex applications, especially cross-window/frame-scripting ones, there is every chance it could bite you — and in intermittent, hard-to-debug ways.

If the worst comes to the worst, you can solve concurrency problems by indirecting all event responses. When an event comes in, drop it in a queue and deal with the queue in order later, in a setInterval function. If you are writing a framework that you intend to be used by complex applications, doing this could be a good move. postMessage will also hopefully soothe the pain of cross-document scripting in the future.

Solution 2:

I’d say yes – because virtually all existing (at least all non-trivial) javascript code would break if a browser’s javascript engine were to run it asynchronously.

Add to that the fact that HTML5 already specifies Web Workers (an explicit, standardized API for multi-threading javascript code) introducing multi-threading into the basic Javascript would be mostly pointless.

(Note to others commenters: Even though setTimeout/setInterval, HTTP-request onload events (XHR), and UI events (click, focus, etc.) provide a crude impression of multi-threadedness – they are still all executed along a single timeline – one at a time – so even if we don’t know their execution order beforehand, there’s no need to worry about external conditions changing during the execution of an event handler, timed function or XHR callback.)

Solution 3:

Yes, although you can still suffer some of the issues of concurrent programming (mainly race conditions) when using any of the asynchronous APIs such as setInterval and xmlhttp callbacks.

Solution 4:

Yes, although Internet Explorer 9 will compile your Javascript on a separate thread in preparation for execution on the main thread. This doesn’t change anything for you as a programmer, though.

Solution 5:

JavaScript/ECMAScript is designed to live within a host environment. That is, JavaScript doesn’t actually do anything unless the host environment decides to parse and execute a given script, and provide environment objects that let JavaScript actually be useful (such as the DOM in browsers).

I think a given function or script block will execute line-by-line and that is guaranteed for JavaScript. However, perhaps a host environment could execute multiple scripts at the same time. Or, a host environment could always provide an object that provides multi-threading. setTimeout and setInterval are examples, or at least pseudo-examples, of a host environment providing a way to do some concurrency (even if it’s not exactly concurrency).

Solution 6:

Actually, a parent window can communicate with child or sibling windows or frames that have their own execution threads running.