What’s the deal with async and await in C#? Why should a .Net developer in 2018 need to know what it is and how to use it?

Perhaps you’ve used async/await but find yourself having to go back and figure it out again? It’s OK - I’m admittedly not an async/await guru either.

I’ve had to figure out the hard way that, for example, using ConfigureAwait(false).GetResult() (as many might suggest) doesn’t magically make your async method “work” synchronously.

But this isn’t an in-depth look at the internals of async/await and how to get fancy with async/await.

This is “Async/await for the rest of us”. Who are the rest of us?

We:

  • Might have never used async/await
  • Are not Microsoft gurus
  • Are not C# gurus
  • Admittedly forget how to use async/await properly at times.
  • Might have to go back to Google and figure out why a method can return a Task but not use the async keyword.
  • Might wonder why a method that’s not marked as async can be awaited by it’s caller

This - I hope - is an article for “the rest of us” that’s to the point and practical.

P.S. If you do want to dig into this topic more the best starting point is I’d suggest starting with this article.

Why Async?

What’s the benefit of using async/await?

For Web Developers

If you build web apps using .Net technologies - the answer is simple: Scalability.

When you make IO calls - database queries, file reading, reading from HTTP requests, etc. - the thread that is handling the current HTTP request is just waiting.

That’s it. It’s just waiting for a result to come back from the operating system.

Performing a database query, for example, ultimately asks the operating system to connect to the database, send a message and get a message in return. But that is the OS making these requests - not your app.

IO takes time. Time where the waiting thread (in your app) could be used to do other stuff - especially handling other HTTP requests.

Using async/await allows your .Net web apps to be able to handle more HTTP requests while waiting for IO to complete.

For Desktop/App Developers

But desktop apps don’t handle HTTP requests…

Well, desktop apps do handle user input (keyboard, mouse, etc.), animations, etc. And there’s only one UI thread to do that.

User Input Is User Input

If we consider that HTTP requests in a web app are just user input, and desktop (or app) keyboard and mouse events are just user input - then it’s actually worse for desktop/app developers! They only get one thread to handle user input!

The IO issues and fixes still apply.

However, the issue of CPU intensive tasks is another concern. In a nutshell, these types of tasks should not be done on the UI thread.

The types of tasks would include:

  • Processing a large number of items in a loop
  • Computing aggregations for reporting

If your app does this (on the main/UI thread), then there’s nothing to handle user input and UI stuff like animations, etc.

This leads to freezing and laggy apps.

The solution is to offload CPU intensive tasks to a background task/thread. This starts to get into queuing up new threads/tasks, how to use ConfigureAwait(false) to keep asynchronous branches of your code on a non-UI context, etc. All things beyond the scope of our article.

The Async Keyword

Let’s start looking at the async/await keywords and how they are to be used.

There’s confusion over the async keyword. Why? Because it looks like it makes your method asynchronous. But, it doesn’t.

That’s confusing. The async keyword doesn’t make my method asynchronous? Yep.

What Does it Do Then?

All the async keyword does is enable the await keyword. That’s it. That’s all. It does nothing else.

So, just think of the async keyword as the enableAwait keyword.

The Await Keyword

The await keyword is where the magic happens. It basically says (to the reader of the code):

I (the thread) will make sure if something asynchronous happens under here, that I’ll go do something else (like handle HTTP requests). Some thread in the future will come back here once the asynchronous stuff is done.

Generally, the most common usage of await is when you are doing IO - like getting results from a database query or getting contents from a file.

When you await a method that does IO, it’s not your app that does the IO - it’s ultimately the operating system. So your thread is just sitting there…waiting…

await will tell the current thread to just go away and do something useful. Let the operating system and the .Net framework get another thread later - whenever it needs one.

Consider this as a visual guide:

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var result1 = await SomeAsyncIO1(); // OS is doing IO while thread will go do something else.
// A thread gets the results.

var result2 = await SomeAsyncIO2(result1); // Thread goes to do something else.
// One comes back...

await SomeAsyncIO3(result2); // Goes away again...
// Comes back to finish the method.

You might ask yourself at this point:

If the async keyword doesn’t make a method asynchronous then what does?

What Makes A Method Asynchronous Then?

Well - it’s not the async keyword as we learned. Go figure.

Any method that returns an “awaitable” - Task or Task<T> can be awaited using the await keyword.

There are actually other awaitables types. And, an “awaitable” method doesn’t strictly have to be an asynchronous method. But ignore that - this is meant to be for “the rest of us.”

For the purpose of this article, we’ll assume that an “asynchronous method” is a method that returns Task or Task<T>.

When Does This Happen?

When will we ever need to return a Task from a method? It’s usually when doing IO. Most IO libraries or built-in .Net APIs will have an “Async” version of a method.

For example, the SqlConnection class has an Open method that will begin the connection. But, it also has an OpenAsync method. It also has an ExecuteNonQueryAsync method.

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public async Task<int> IssueSqlCommandAsync() {
using(var con = new SqlConnection(_connectionString))
{
// Some code to create an sql command "sqlCommand" would be here...
await con.OpenAsync();
return await sqlCommand.ExecuteNonQueryAsync();
}
}

What makes the OpenAsync and ExecuteNonQueryAsync methods asynchronous is not the async keyword, but it is that they return a Task or Task<T>.

Async All The Way Down

It is possible to do something like this (notice the lack of async and await):

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public Task<int> GetSomeData() {
return DoSomethingAsync();
}

And then await that method:

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// Inside some other method....
await GetSomeData();

GetSomeData doesn’t await the call to DoSomethingAsync - it just returns the Task. Remember that await doesn’t care if a method is using the async keyword - it just requires that the method return a Task.

It is possible to do this - create a method that calls an asynchronous method but doesn’t await.

It’s A Best Practice

However, this is considered a bad practice. Why?

Since this article is supposed to be to the point and practical:

Using async/await “all the way down” simply captures exceptions in asynchronous methods better.

If you mark every method that returns a Task with the async keyword - which in turn enables the await keyword - it handles exceptions better and makes them understandable when looking at the exception’s message and stack trace.

Conclusion

To summarize briefly:

  • The async keyword doesn’t make methods asynchronous - it simply enables the await keyword.

  • If a method returns a Task or Task<T> then it can be used by the await keyword to manage the asynchronous details of our code.

  • Doing IO always results in blocking threads. This means your web apps can’t process as many HTTP requests in parallel and freezing and laggy apps.

  • Using async/await helps us create code that will allow our threads to stop blocking and do useful work while performing IO.

  • This leads to web apps that can handle more requests per second and apps that are more responsive for their users.

I hope this is an understandable introduction to async/await. It’s not an easy topic - and as always - gaining experience by using this feature will, over time, help us to understand what’s going on.

There’s so much more to be said and so many more concepts surrounding async/await. Some include:

  • What is a SynchronizationContext? When should I be aware of this?
  • What about .Net Core vs .Net Framework - is there a difference I should be aware of?
  • Why can I mark a method as async void? What does this do? Should I do this?
  • How do I offload CPU intensive work to a background thread/task?
  • Is it possible to do work on a background thread and return to the UI thread at the very end?
  • How do I call a method marked with the async keyword from synchronous code? What happens when I do this?

Let me know what you think - or if I’ve missed something etc. Thanks!

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P.S.

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