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Jon Stødle
Jon Stødle

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Beware Observable.Return() and it’s scheduler

This was originally posted on my blog

I love Reactive Extensions. It makes async so much easier and it makes handling continuous flows of data or event easy to handle.

While Reactive Extensions (Rx) is single threaded by default, it is very easy to move between threads when needed. If you need to do some heavy work you can easily tell Rx to move that work to a thread on the task pool, and then move back to the UI thread in time to update the UI.

Some of the operators in Rx accept a so-called scheduler, which tells Rx where to do the work of the operator. These operators often do work that might block the thread an can therefore easily move their work to another thread.

Observable.Return() also accepts a scheduler, which tells it on which thread to return the object. While it does do that, there’s something it doesn’t do: It doesn’t move the returned object to the requested thread until after it has retrieved it.

This means it will block the thread you’re currently on if you fetch the value to return the through a blocking function or method call.

Here’s an example. First we print the id of the current thread we’re on:

Console.WriteLine("Starting on thread ".PadLeft(26) + Thread.CurrentThread.ManagedThreadId.ToString());

Then we create a simple Func which prints the thread it’s run on and then returns a Unit, which is just an empty value. We will run this in the Observable.Return to check which thread it’s on.

Func writeLineAndReturnUnit = () =>
    Console.WriteLine($"Inside Return on thread ".PadLeft(26) + Thread.CurrentThread.ManagedThreadId.ToString());
    return Unit.Default;

We call Observable.Return and specify that it should return on a task pool thread. We check the thread we’re on right after the Observable.Return has given us a value, and then again in the subscribe when we receive the value.

Observable.Return(writeLineAndReturnUnit(), TaskPoolScheduler.Default)
    .Do(_ => Console.WriteLine("Passing through on thread ".PadLeft(26) + Thread.CurrentThread.ManagedThreadId.ToString()))
    .Subscribe(_ => Console.WriteLine($"Received on thread ".PadLeft(26) + Thread.CurrentThread.ManagedThreadId));

This will output the following (the thread ids will, of course, vary).

       Starting on thread 11
  Inside Return on thread 11
Passing through on thread 10
       Received on thread 10

As you can see, the code inside the Return is executed on the same thread that calls it. If you call a function or method which blocks the thread inside Return, like a file which might take some time to load from disk, you will block the current thread. This might not be what you want if you’re calling it from the UI thread.

Lesson is: don’t do any heavy lifting inside Observable.Return, it only moves to the correct thread after it’s fetched the value to be returned. Preferably you should only return “simple” values like string or int literals.

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