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0.3.6 • Public • Published

Redux Pixies

The magical Redux side-effects library

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Example
  3. Writing Pixies
  4. Managing pixies
  5. Testing pixies
  6. Pixie enhancers
  7. Implementation Details


Pixies are little processes that run in the background, monitoring your Redux store and handling asynchronous side-effects. Pixies are a lot like React components, but instead of managing the DOM, pixies manage everything else.

Pixies are state-based, rather than action-based. A pixie's job is to compare the state of the Redux store with the real world and fix anything that is out of sync. For example, a pixie might notice when the user is on a search page but has no search results, so it fetches results from the server in response. If the user leaves the search page before the results come in, the pixie can notice that too and cancel the request.

This is much easier than action-based side-effect approaches like redux-thunk or redux-saga. In the example above, no matter what Redux actions cause the user to enter the search page, the pixie will always notice the missing results and perform the fetch. With the traditional approach, the programmer must manually wire side effects into any action that might enter or leave the search page. This is a lot more work, and far more error-prone.


import { attachPixie } from 'redux-pixies'
const searchPixie = () => async (props) => {
  // If the user is on the search page, but has no search results,
  // go ahead and fetch those:
  if (props.state.onSearchPage && !props.state.hasSearchResults) {
    const results = await fetchSearchResults(props.state.searchTerm)
    props.dispatch({ type: 'SEARCH_FETCHED', payload: results })
// Attach the pixie to the Redux store, causing it to run each time
// the state changes (unless the pixie is already doing a fetch):
const destroy = attachPixie(redux, searchPixie)

Writing Pixies

A pixie is just a function that returns an update function and a destroy function:

function examplePixie (input) {
  return {
    update (props) {},
    destroy () {}

The update function receives props, which change along with the app's state. The pixie's job is to examine the props and perform any work that needs to happen in response. If this function returns a promise, the runtime will wait for the promise to resolve before calling update again. This ensures that pixie won't accidentally start the same work twice.

Pixies can be destroyed at any time, even while their async update function is still running. The pixie can use the destroy function to free resources or to cancel any work that update is doing.

If the destroy function isn't needed, the pixie can just return the update function directly. Combined with ES2015 arrow functions, this allows pixies to be very compact:

const examplePixie = ({ onError, onOutput }) => props => {
  // Do the update here...

The input parameter is an object with the following properties:

  • onError
  • onOutput
  • props
  • nextProps
  • waitFor

Reporting errors

If a pixie encounters an error, it should call input.onError. Pixies can call this function at any time, including from within timers and event handlers. If a pixie function throws an exception, or if update returns a rejected promise, that error will also be captured and passed along to onError.

Calling onError shuts down the pixie, calling its destroy method and preventing it from receiving further update calls. The next time the props change, a new pixie will be created in the destroyed pixie's place. If a pixie does not want this behavior, it should handle the error gracefully itself instead of calling onError.

Sharing data

Sometimes pixies create resources that they would like to share with others. For example, one pixie might maintain a WebGL context that several other pixies might need to draw on.

To do this, a pixie can call input.onOutput at any time to share some data. The latest value passed to onOutput becomes the pixie's output, and other pixies can see it via the props.output structure.

Accessing props from event handlers

Sometimes a pixie will create & manage a long-running resource with callbacks. For example, a pixie might open a WebSocket, which periodically calls the pixie back with incoming messages. To access the current props within these contexts, every pixie receives three additional helpers:

  • input.props - This property stays in-sync with the latest props, regardless of when update has been called.
  • input.nextProps() - Returns a promise that resolves when the props change, or rejects when the pixie is destroyed.
  • input.waitFor(props => result) - Returns a promise that resolves when the provided result is non-null, or rejects when the pixie is destroyed. This can be used to wait for outside resources to become available.

Pixies can pass the rejected error to isPixieShutdownError to determine if the promise was rejected because the pixie was destroyed.

Managing pixies

Starting pixies

To actually use a pixie, attach it to a Redux store using attachPixie. This function accepts a Redux store as its first parameter and a pixie as its second parameter:

const destroy = attachPixie(reduxStore, pixieFunction)

Now the pixie's update function will be called every time the Redux store changes. The pixie will receive a props object with state and dispatch taken from the Redux store.

The attachPixie function returns a destroy function, which destroys the pixie and disconnects it from the Redux store.

For extra control, you can optionally pass your own onError and onOutput callbacks to attachPixie:

const destroy = attachPixie(
  error => console.error('Pixie error:', error),
  output => console.info('Pixie output:', output)

If you would like to use pixies without a Redux store, such as for unit-testing, use startPixie:

const instance = startPixie(pixie)

The startPixie function filters the update calls, so you can call the returned update function as often as you like. As with attachPixie, you can also provide your own onError and onOutput callbacks.

Customizing props

The redux-pixies library provides a filterPixie function, which makes it possible to customize the props going into a pixie:

const FilteredPixie = filterPixie(
  props => ({ login: props.output.login })

In this example, the subsystem pixie receives just the login object from the outside world; the other props are filtered out. Since redux-pixies avoids unnecessary update calls when the props are identical, filtering the props down to the bare minimum can avoid unnecessary update calls for unrelated state changes.

If the props are undefined, filterPixie will shut down the inner pixie. Once the props exist again, filterPixie will restart the pixie. This provides a declarative way to control a pixie's lifetime.

Combining pixies

The redux-pixies library provides a combinePixies function. This function works a lot like the combineReducers function from Redux. It accepts an object where the keys are the names of each pixie, and the values are the pixie functions.

const appPixie = combinePixies({
  search: searchPixie,
  login: loginPixie

The props passed into the combined pixie will be passed along to the child pixies unchanged.

If any of the child pixies produce output, it will be available in props.output under the pixie's name. So, if the login pixie in this example calls onOutput, the search pixie can see that data as props.output.login.

Replicating pixies

For managing lists of things, redux-pixies provides a mapPixie function. This function creates a pixie for each item in a list of id's. As the list changes, this function will automatically start and stop pixies in response, so every id has its own pixie.

const chatListPixie = mapPixie(
  // Grabs the id list from the props:
  props => props.state.activeChatIds,
  // Each item pixie receives its own custom props:
  (props, id) => ({ ...props, id, avatar: props.state.avatars[id] })

Testing pixies

Since pixies are directly responsible for talking to the outside world, the best way to test them is using mocks. To do this, write your pixies to only use IO resources passed in through props. For example, the following code passes the browser's fetch function into a pixie:

const injectedPixie = filterPixie(
  props => { ...props, fetch: window.fetch }

Now, when the time comes to unit-test this code, just pass a mock fetch function into the props instead:

const testPixie = startPixie(serverFetchPixie)
testPixie.update({ fetch: fetchMock, dispatch: done })

Pixie enhancers

Adding output to props

To intercept a pixie's onOutput callback, making the output available to the pixie as props.output, pass the pixie through the reflectPixieOutput function. You can use this enhancer at any point in your pixie tree to limit the scope at which output becomes visible to child pixies.

Catching pixie errors

To intercept a pixie's onError callback, pass the pixie through the catchPixieError function. This will shut down the child pixie and give you a chance to handle the error. The next time the props change, catchPixieError will create a new pixie in the destroyed pixie's place:

const safePixie = catchPixieErrors(
  // Called whenever there is an error:
  (error, props) => props.dispatch({
    payload: error,
    error: true

Using this enhancer throughout your tree of pixies can limit a failed pixie's destruction to just the affected subsystem.

Implementation details

Since pixies are just functions that return other functions, there is nothing preventing you from calling them directly yourself. Although this will produce a working pixie instance, many features will be missing compared to using startPixie. Specifically, startPixie passes the pixies through the reflectPixieOutput and catchPixieError enhancers to get the default onOutput and onError behavior.

Wild vs. Tame Pixies

There are actually two types of pixies - wild pixies and tame pixies. A wild pixie is the kind you write directly. It has the following behaviors and expectations:

  • The pixie can either return an object with update and destroy functions, or a bare update function.
  • If update returns a promise, it will not be called again until the promise resolves.
  • Any pixie function can throw an exception, and they will all be captured and passed to onError.

A tame pixie, on the other hand, has the following behaviors and expectations:

  • The pixie will always return an object with update and destroy functions.
  • Pixie functions will never throw exceptions or return promises.

Wild pixies are obviously a lot easier to create, while tame pixies are a lot easier to use. To turn a wild pixie into a tame pixie, pass it through the tamePixie function. All the functions in this library automatically call tamePixie on their inputs, so this is not something you would normally do yourself.

Recursion rules

To make things run smoothly, pixies must follow some rules. These apply to both tame and wild pixies:

  • The update function must never call itself recursively. If update calls onOutput, which changes the props, update must not be called again until the previous update returns.
  • Once destroy is called, no further calls to destroy or update may occur, even if destroy calls onError or onOutput.
  • The destroy function can be called at any time, even while update is running. This is because update can call onError.

Functional purity

The functions for deriving the props must be pure, meaning they don't produce any side-effects or modify any data. This allows the pixie system to avoid calls to update when things haven't actually changed. Besides being a nice optimization, this prevents some infinite loop scenarios where update calls onOutput which calls update again.


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