For Loops in Node

Plague Sketch

As of late, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time writing Node.js code. While I’m not a huge Node.js fan (yey Python + Go!), I find myself liking some parts of the language quite a lot.

Over the past few months I’ve been working on a really awesome authentication library for Node.js: express-stormpath, and have learned quite a lot about Node as I’ve been working on it more and more.

Today I’d like to share a short, personal story with you, about my frustrating experience trying to do something simple.

The Story

Here’s how it started: two weeks ago I was writing a web scraper for thepiratebay. My idea was simple: I wanted to get a JSON dump of all torrent information available, so that I could later use it for some simple data analysis.

After taking a look at the site, I realized that the simplest way to scrape all the existing torrents would be to just loop through all integers, querying each one sequentially – this is because TPB allows you to access torrents via their integer ID (which is always increasing):

The rules are simple: if you get a 404 skip it – if you get a 200, the torrent exists and can be scraped!

So, I sat down and wrote a first version that looked something like this:

var request = require('request');

for (var i = 0; i < 10000000; i++) {
  request('http://thepiratebay.se/' + i, ...);

This is some pretty basic stuff:

  • Iterate through numbers? CHECK!
  • Make HTTP requests? CHECK!

But to my dismay, after running for a few minutes I noticed that this small program was eating all the RAM on my laptop! But why?!

I realized that Node.js blocks when running blocking code (eg: a for loop) – but I figured that since I was making async requests from within things would continue to work normally.

I was wrong.

So, being confused about what was happening, I decided to dig a bit deeper. I narrowed my case down to a simpler test:

for (var i = 0; i < 10000000; i++) {
  console.log('hi:', i);

But alas, the same problem. The program simply runs for a few minutes, then crashes as it uses all the RAM on my computer. Bummer.

So then I started Googling around to find potential solutions. Surely this must be a common issue?

Unfortunately, however, I didn’t see much discussion about this, and all the relevant Stack Overflow threads proposed solutions that didn’t require looping at all (not an option in my case).

Next, I turned to async – the really popular flow control library for Node. After looking through the docs, I realized there was something that was seemingly perfect for this! The forever construct!

So I then tried the following:

var async = require('async');

var i = 0;
  function(next) {
    console.log('hi:', i);
  function(err) {
    console.log('All done!');

But again – the same issue. After a few thousand loops: crash.

After writing quite a few different iterations of this simple program, and a significant amount of lost sleep (I can’t really sleep well knowing I don’t understand something – grr) – my coworker Robert proposed a working solution:

var Abstraction = function() {
  this.index = -1;

Abstraction.prototype.getIndex = function getIndex() {
  return this.index;

Abstraction.prototype.isDoneTest = function isDoneTest() {
  return this.index > 10000000;

var list = new Abstraction();

function iterator(){
  var i = list.getIndex();

var interval = setInterval(iterator,1);

Brilliant! I didn’t even think of setInterval for some reason.

Anyhow: after a lot of discussion – we both came to the agreement that using setInterval is essentially the only way to solve this problem.

After thinking about this some more, I decided to write a small abstraction layer to handle this – so I created lupus.

lupus provides simple (albeit, basic) asynchronous looping for Node.js:

var lupus = require('lupus');

lupus(0, 10000000, function(n) {
  console.log("We're on:", n);
}, function() {
  console.log('All done!');

Whatever you end up writing inside of the loop (blocking or not) – lupus doesn’t care.

The Moral

Performing asynchronous for loops in Node.js turned out to be quite a lot harder than I expected. I find it odd that it’s so easy to crash my programs with the simplest of looping examples.

Oh well! Live and learn!