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Bartosz Wiśniewski
Bartosz Wiśniewski

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Fix your Express error handling now

Express is probably one of the most influential packages in the Node.js world. It gave us an extremely easy-to-use interface for building REST APIs. It’s so popular that whatever can be put into middleware has probably one made for express already. Talk pino, jwt, validator, fileupload, basic-auth, http-proxy, and countless others. No wonder why people like to use it.

Promises, async, await

Promises are now the standard for async operations, especially since we also got async functions and await keyword, which totally removed the need for callbacks, thus preventing so-called callback hells.

Now you would think that one of the most popular packages in the world would just work with them, right? Well, not exactly.

When Express was initially developed Promises were not really a standard yet so instead, everyone was using callbacks. While the JS world evolved there is still a lot of callback-based APIs, especially in Node itself, like in the fs module. Luckily there is either a version with Promise API as well or we can actually use a utility called promisify.

Express kind of sucks

Express is not actively developed, which is understandable - in the end, it was meant to be unopinionated and minimalist. If something is great why bother changing that?

Except that there is actually version 5 of Express in “development”. It’s been like that for over 7 YEARS - 5.0.0-alpha1 was released in 2014 and it actually does improve a couple of things including the main problem of this post - error handling of Promises.

Yeah, if you read the documentation for error handling you would learn that error handling of promises is not done by Express - you have to do it yourself unless you are running Express 5.

So what happens when you ignore the docs? You will get the greatest exception in Node.js - unhandled promise rejection, which by default makes your process crash if you are using newer Node.js. Your Express error handler definitely will not be called and even the response will not be sent out to the client, so you won’t even see a 500 Internal Server Error. Just a timeout.

An example of how not to handle async errors:

const express = require("express");

const app = express();

app.get("/boom", (req, res) => {
  throw "This will be handled";
});

app.get("/boomasync", async (req, res) => {
  throw "This will not be handled";
});

app.use((err, req, res, next) => {
  if (res.headersSent) {
    return next(err);
  }
  console.error(err);
  res.status(500).send("Oh no!");
});

app.listen(3000, () => console.log("Listening on 3000!"));
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Funny enough for a long time, I believe Node.js 14 was still like that, this unhandled promise rejection would only make an ugly log in the console. The default was not changed for a long time because people were afraid it wasn’t very user-friendly. I encourage you to check out the PR and post about it.

GitHub comment: trigger BSOD to teach users

A brilliantly evil idea 😈

Fix

There is a lot of ways to fix this issue. You can just put .catch after every handler. You can use Express 5, the alpha version. You can use a custom router or middleware that handles this. You can use some magic patching package like express-async-errors. You can also not use Express.

All of these have some trade-offs, but I was happy with patching the express internals in existing codebases. For new projects, I rather use something better than Express.

TypeScript

Another problem I have with Express is in its TypeScript support. The definitions assume that the Request object is always the same, but the reality is completely different. Adding new fields to req is a common method for dependency injection. Take a look at how pino integrates with Express. It is adding a req.log object that you can use in your handler. However, since the definitions are constant TypeScript will scream at your code when you’ll try to use it.

Of course, you can just always declare the type yourself or you can use module augmentation, but that is not da wae.

Final words

There are many alternatives for Express - Koa, Hapi, Fastify, Hono, Nest.js are just a small sample of them. I personally like Koa. On the surface, it is very much like Express with some little modifications, but the ecosystem is much smaller. Definitely worth checking out.

I have found many senior developers not knowing about this problem so do ask your colleagues, this might be an interesting interview question. I even feel a bit stupid to post about it so late.

Happy coding!

Top comments (9)

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gerardolima profile image
Gerardo Lima • Edited

Thank you for your article. I appreciate you took the time to write about an annoying aspect of express. Yes, its 2023 already and still ExpressJs 5, that will bring async route handers is yet to be released.

Your paragraph about Typescript, though is not correct. Differently from many usual languages, you can extend any interface in Typescript, making it trivial to add support to any arbitrary new members introduced by middleware. Please, refer to the official documentation, for a full explanation.

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pr0gramista profile image
Bartosz Wiśniewski

Thank you for your comment!

I am aware of interface merging, but looking at related SO question I get a feeling it is not a great solution.
stackoverflow.com/questions/373777...
Seems like people, and I have personally experienced that, have issues with getting it working properly with specific versions.

Though in general I think this aspect of TypeScript is interesting. The way the Hono framework is using it in some places had definetely suprised me.

Have a nice day!

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orimdominic profile image
Orim Dominic Adah

I never knew about this.
Thanks!

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tiru5 profile image
Tyrus Malmström

Such an a awesome, informative post -- cheers!

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juniovitorino profile image
Junio Vitorino

I assume that your suggestions handle this better than Express, right?

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pr0gramista profile image
Bartosz Wiśniewski

I was about to say yes, but after verifiying turns out Restify will handle it better in the next version. I've replaced it. All other mentioned are cool.

Thanks!

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romeerez profile image
Roman K

I agree to all what article says, want to add one more fix: custom wrapper for request handlers, it requires no patching, and it's customizable.

Simple wrapper:

app.get('/path', wrapper(async (req) => {
  await forSomething()
  return { value: 123 }
})
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the wrapper will handle async error if it happens and do res.json of returned value

More complex to write wrapper:

const { get, post } = customRouter

get('/path', async (req) => {
  await forSomething()
  return { value: 123 }
})
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Looks cleaner, isn't it? More complex to write because perfectly it also should handle passed in middlewares.

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tshallenberger profile image
Thomas Shallenberger

I find the way NestJS implements error handling (using pipes, middleware, etc) very intuitive. Had bad experiences with Koa, never tried Hapi or Fastify (but I'm aware that Nest can use Fastify under the hood).

Our particular use case (a startup that is constantly evolving and discovering domains/services) involves simplifying backend development with a strong, opinionated framework built on Node.js, so that we can use Typescript front to back to speed up development. YMMV

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gerardolima profile image
Gerardo Lima

Hapi is a great framework