Addressing a simple yet common C# Async/Await misconception

Standard

Git repository with example code discussed in this article.

Async/await has been part of C# since C# 5.0 yet many developers have yet to explore how it works under the covers, which I would recommend for any syntactic sugar in C#. I won’t be going into that level of detail now, nor will I explore the subtleties of IO and CPU bound operations.

The common misconception

That awaited code executes in parallel to the code that follows.

i.e. in the following code, LongOperation() is called and awaited, and while this is executing, and before it has completed, the code ‘doing other things’ will start being executed.

This is not how it behaves.

In the above code, what actually happens is that the await operator causes WithAwaitAtCallAsync() to suspend at that line and returns control back to DemoAsyncAwait() until the awaited task, LongOperation(), is complete.

When LongOperation() completes, then ‘do other things’ will be executed.

And if we don’t await when we call?

Then you do get that behaviour some developers innocently expect from awaiting the call, where LongOperation() is left to complete in the background while continuing on with  WithoutAwaitAtCallAsync() in parallel, ‘doing other things’:

However, if LongOperation() is not complete when we reach the awaited Task it returned, then it yields control back to DemoAsyncAwait(), as above. It does not continue to complete ‘more things to do’ – not until the awaited task is complete.

Complete Console Application Example

Some notes about this code:

  • Always use await over Task.Wait() to retrieve the result of a background task (outside of this demo) to avoid blocking. I’ve used Task.Wait() it in my demonstrations to force blocking and prevent the two separate demo results overlapping in time.
  • I have intentioinally not used Task.Run() as I don’t want to confuse things with new threads. Let’s just assume LongOperation() is IO-bound.
  • I used Task.Delay() to simulate the long operation. Thread.Sleep() would block the thread

This is what happens when the code is executed (with colouring):

 

Conclusion

If you use the await keyword when calling an async method from inside an async method, execution of the calling method is suspended to avoid blocking the thread and control is passed (or yielded) back up the method chain. If, on its journey up the chain, it reaches a call that was not awaited, then code in that method is able to continue in parallel to the remaining processing in the chain of awaited methods until it runs out of work to do, and then needs to await the result, which is inside the Task object returned by LongOperation().​​​​​​​