Deep dive into pipe function in RxJS

Version 5 of RxJS introduced the concept of lettable (also known as pipeable) operators. Version 6 went one step further and deprecated the old way of calling operators (method chaining).

You might have already used the pipe function. But do you really understand what it does?

Composing functions

RxJS is often called a functional-reactive programming library. It should not come as a surprise that you will find many functional programming inspirations in it. One of them is the pipe function.

Take a look at the below piece of code:

const getElement = 
    (id) => document.getElementById(id);

const getValue = 
    (element) => element.value;

function logElementValue(id) {
  const el = getElement(id);
  const value = getValue(el);
  console.log(value);
}

The logElementValue function takes an id and logs to the console the value of the element with provided id.

Can you see a pattern in this function’s implementation? Firstly, it calls getElement with id and stores the result in el. Next, the result is passed to getValue which produces a new result, el. Finally, el is passed to console.log.

What this function does is simply taking the result of a function and passing it as an argument to another function.

Is there a better, more concise way to implement this function?

Let’s say we just have two functions (getElement and getValue). We will implement a generic function called compose that will pass the result of getElement to getValue.

const compose = (f, g) => x => g(f(x));

The definition is very simple but may take a moment to parse. We’ve defined a function that takes two functions f and g (that would be getElement and getValue in our case) and returns a new function. This new function will take an argument, pass it to f and then pass the result to g.

That’s exactly what we need! Now I can rewrite logElementValue:

function logElementValue(id) {
  const getValueFromId = compose(getElement, getValue);
  const value = getValueFromId(id);
  console.log(value);
}

How about more than two functions?

But, wait! Once we have the result of calling getValueFromId we immediately pass it to console.log. So it’s the same pattern here. We could write it like this:

function logElementValue(id) {
  const getValueFromId = compose(getElement, getValue);
  const logValue = compose(getValueFromId, console.log);
  logValue(id);
}

But life would be much simpler if compose could take any number of functions. Can we do this? Sure:

const composeMany = (...args) => args.reduce(compose);

Another brain teaser! composeMany takes any number of functions. They are stored in args array. We reduce over args composing every function with the result of composing previous functions.

Anyway, the results is a function that takes any number of functions and will pass the result of N-th function to (N+1)-th function.

But what have we achieved by that?

function logElementValue(id) {  
  const logValue = composeMany(getElement, getValue, console.log);
  logValue(id);
}

Which can be simplified even more:

const logElementValue = composeMany(getElement, getValue, console.log);

Isn’t that cool? We have significantly simplified the code. It’s now very clear what logElementValue does.

And by the way – composeMany is just a name a came up with. The official name is pipe!

const logElementValue = pipe(getElement, getValue, console.log);

Back to RxJS

Let’s take an example of pipe usage in RxJS.

number$.pipe(
    map(n => n * n),
    filter(n => n % 2 === 0)
);

We can also write it in a different way:

const { pipe } = rxjs;

const transformNumbers = pipe(
     map(x => x * x),
     filter(x => x % 2 === 0),
);

transformNumbers(number$).subscribe(console.log);

And the result is exactly the same! As you can see, the pipe function in RxJS behaves in exactly the same way that the pipe function that we’ve defined in the first part of the article. It takes a number of functions and composes them by passing the result of a function as an argument to another function.

You might say that this is different than the previous example because here we’re invoking map and filter and not simply passing them. Actually, both map and filter will return functions. We’re not composing map and filter themselves but rather the functions returned by invoking them.

You can check out how RxJS implements pipe function here.

Pipeline operator

Our function is such a useful concept that it might be added as a separate operator to the JavaScript language!

It would mean that the example from the previous article can be written in an even simpler way:

const logElementValue = getElement |> getValue |> console.log;

You can see the details of the proposal here.

Summary

I hope this article helped you understand what pipe function is all about. You should now feel more comfortable using it!

The fact that RxJS migrated from the traditional, object-oriented approach of applying operators to the pipeline approach shows how strong the influence of functional programming is nowadays. I think that’s great!

Let me know in comments if you prefer pipe function to traditional method chaining.

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