August 15, 2016

TaskCompletionSource - Bridging the Gap Between Old and New

In the latest versions of the .NET Framework, asynchronous work is represented by the Task class. A task is similar to a future or promise in other languages. You can create one in many ways the most common being Task.Run(). The result of a task is exposed by the Task.Result property. If the work is complete, then the property immediately returns a value; otherwise, it blocks until the operation is finished.

Older Patterns

Tasks are a powerful addition to the .NET Framework especially when used to create awaitables; however, there is still plenty of code out there using older asynchronous patterns. A good example is the ASP.NET interface IHttpAsyncHandler.

IHttpAsyncHandler predates tasks and is used for implementing asynchronous web request handlers for ASP.NET websites. Note the IAsyncResult interface along with the Begin/End methods. This is a variation of a common pattern in early versions of .NET code.


Mixing awaitables and an older asynchronous API can be challenging. In these scenarios we need to create an awaitable that wraps the API. Calling code can then use the async/await keywords.

This is where the TaskCompletionSource class can help. It serves as a wrapper around a Task instance and exposes methods to manipulate the task explicitly. Using TaskCompletionSource, you can set a result or exception on the task or cancel it. It provides an nice way to bridge the gap between older async code and newer code using awaitables.

Asynchronous Calls with IWSTrustChannelContract

An example of an older asynchronous API is the interface IWSTrustChannelContract. It defines a contract for interacting with a security token service. The synchronous method Issue() takes a token request object and returns a security token or raises an exception for an invalid request. The asynchronous equivalent is the method pair BeginIssue() and EndIssue() also defined on the interface. BeginIssue takes three arguments, the request object, a callback, and a state object, and kicks off the work. EndIssue is invoked by the callback to retrieve the results.

I won't go into the details behind issuing tokens. Instead I'll focus on how TaskCompletionSource can be used to wrap the BeginIssue/EndIssue methods with a task. The example below does just that. The method IssueAsync takes four arguments and returns an instance of Task<SecurityToken>. The details of invoking BeginIssue and EndIssue are hidden from the caller.

The first line initializes a new instance of TaskCompletionSource. It will be used later when invoking the Begin/End methods.

TaskCompletionSource<SecurityToken> tcs = new TaskCompletionSource<SecurityToken>();

The last line of the method returns the wrapped Task instance.

return tcs.Task;

All the interesting parts are in between. There are a few lines to set up an instance of IWSTrustChannelContract, but you can skim through those until you get to channel.BeginIssue(). This is where TaskCompletionSource comes into play. BeginIssue is passed the request and a callback to be invoked when the asynchronous work is complete. The state argument isn't relevant in this case so null will suffice.

channel.BeginIssue(requestSecurityToken, asyncResult =>
        RequestSecurityTokenResponse requestSecurityTokenResponse;
        SecurityToken securityToken = channel.EndIssue(asyncResult, out requestSecurityTokenResponse);
    catch (Exception e)
}, null);

Inside the callback lambda expression, the result is obtained by invoking EndIssue. Then the TaskCompletionSource instance is used either to set the result if all goes well, tcs.SetResult(securityToken), or set an exception tcs.SetException(e) if something goes awry. These methods manipulate the wrapped Task instance directly. This is the same instance returned asynchronously by the IssueAsync method.

Now we have a method that exposes the older API as an awaitable. Callers can use the await keyword to invoke it.

SecurityToken securityToken = await IssueAsync(stsAddress, appliesToAddress, httpBinding, clientCredentials);

Event-based APIs

Other uses for TaskCompletionSource include exposing an event-based API as a Task. Below is a contrived yet simple example of a sleep method. It wraps a timer event as a Task.

Wrapping Up

TaskCompletionSource is useful for bridging the gap between a task-based API and a non-task API. In fact, it is used internally throughout the TPL library.

For further reading, check out Creating Tasks by Stephen Cleary and The Nature of TaskCompletionSource in the Microsoft TPL documentation.

© Joe Buschmann 2020