Deep dive into rx SelectMany

Nov 28, 2016  

Let’s say we have an observable source of events (obs1). Every time an event gets fired, some asynchronous method (SomeAsyncMethod()) must be applied to it. The result of the asynchronous operation must be observable too (obs2).

SelectMany() provides exactly what is needed to do the job:

var obs1 = ...
var obs2 = obs1.SelectMany (x => SomeAsyncMethod (x));

with SomeAsyncMethod() returning a Task<T>.

Where does this pattern come from?

Paul Betts published this advice back in January 2014, which I’ve been applying ever since:

Paul Betts’ async SelectMany example

SelectMany has a super useful overload where you can write an awaitable method as a selector:

var listOfUrls = new[] {  

    .SelectMany(async x => {
        var wc = new WebClient();
        return await wc.DownloadStringTaskAsync(x);

But what’s going on behind the scenes?

Let’s try an experiment

I was wondering what was going on as the observable source pushes an event down the observer chain, calling into SelectMany’s provided OnNext() implementation, tunneling into SomeAsyncMethod()… Would the original producer of the event remain blocked until the asynchronous operation completes?

Building rx from source

The source code for SelectMany can be found on GitHub. I cloned the full rx repository and built just enough of it to be able to step through the code:

git clone
cd Rx.NET
cd Rx.NET
cd Source

Setting up a test bed

I then created a small console application which would allow me to experiment with SelectMany. In order to control exactly what is going on, I used a custom event producer (the Pump class) to push two values and then complete the observable sequence. I added references to the rx assemblies built from the source.

var pump = new Pump ();
var obs1 = pump as System.IObservable<int>;
var obs2 = obs1.SelectMany (x => Program.AsyncWork (x));

using (var subs = obs2.Subscribe (
    x => System.Console.WriteLine ($"Observer.OnNext({x})"),
    () => System.Console.WriteLine ("Observer.OnCompleted()")))
    pump.Push (1);
    pump.Push (2);
    pump.Done ();
    System.Console.WriteLine ("Press RETURN when done");
    System.Console.ReadLine ();

And here is the asynchronous method:

static async Task<int> AsyncWork(int value)
    System.Console.WriteLine ($"AsyncWork({value}): begin");
    await Task.Delay (100*value);
    System.Console.WriteLine ($"AsyncWork({value}): done");
    return value * 2;

Running this code prints this sequence of messages (without pressing any key):

AsyncWork(1): begin
AsyncWork(2): begin
Press RETURN when done
AsyncWork(1): done
AsyncWork(2): done

Stepping through the code

Stepping into SelectMany leads us quickly into the internals of the System.Reactive.Linq, into class QueryLanguage which simply returns an observable:

return new SelectMany<TSource, TResult>(source, (x, token) => selector(x));

The source references my event pump and the selector maps to my asynchronous method. Nothing else of interest is going on here.

Next, let’s step into Subscribe(). We finally reach the implementation of the SelectMany<TSource, TResult> class:

var sink = new SelectManyImpl(this, observer, cancel);
return sink.Run();

sink.Run() sets up a composite disposable which will be used both to manage the potential cancellation of the operation and the disposal of the chained subscription, as my Pump.Subscribe() method gets invoked. An internal counter (_count) gets set to 1.

Next, we’ll push an event. This will trigger SelectMany.OnNext():

  • It increments _count.
  • It executes the selector (i.e. starts my async method) and stores the returned task for further processing.
  • It checks if the task executed synchronously. If so, it calls its internal OnCompleted() method. If not, it queues the completion with task.ContinueWith(OnCompletedTask).

Method OnNext() returns while the asynchronous method is still running. And thus, the second call to Push() will get executed, as will my call to Pump.Done() which notifies the observer that the sequence has completed.

Stepping into Pump.Done() will eventually reach SelectMany.OnCompleted() which decrements _count and verifies if it has reached zero. As this is not the case (it started as 1 and was incremented twice by the calls to OnNext(), and got decremented by OnCompleted(), its value is now 2), the method returns without any further work.

After the await

As soon as the asynchronous method returns a value, the configured continuation gets triggered (SelectMany.OnCompletedTask()). It then calls the next observer (OnNext()) and calls its own OnCompleted() in order to decrement _count.

When the 2nd asynchronous method returns its result, we finally get _count back to zero again in OnCompleted(), which will trigger the call to the next observer’s OnCompleted() method, followed by the disposal of the ressources.

Observations (about the experiment)

So, what did I learn?

SelectMany() is a smart beast. It effectively decouples the event producer (the input stream), the asynchronous projection method and the production of new events in the output stream.

  • The output stream is decoupled from the input stream.
    Many events can happen on the input stream before anything appears on the output stream.
  • The input stream can be completed without having any direct and immediate effect on the output stream. Pending asynchronous operations will have to be completed first.
  • Ordering of events is not preserved.
    The events appear sequentially on the output stream (i.e. the observer’s OnNext() implementation will be called without any overlapping), but not necessarily in the same order as the input events.

Note: To mitigate the ordering issue, SelectMany() comes with an overload which takes a selector with signature Func<TSource, int, Task<TResult>>.