Food Trucks and Async Programming

Eric Damtoft
The Startup
Published in
5 min readAug 16, 2019

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A few days ago, we had “Food Truck Day” at DealerOn. Say Cheese, a grilled cheese food truck set up shop out front of our Rockville office and word spread quickly. As a line formed, one person in the back of the truck took orders, and two cooks worked the griddle. When an order was received, they used a queue of “tickets” to track orders, and both cooks worked simultaneously to prepare a variety of grilled cheeses. For such a confined space, the system was efficient and well-orchestrated. It struck me that this was a perfect example of an asynchronous and parallel system architecture. We’ll look at some concepts of async, parallel, and distributed programming using a hypothetical food truck as an example.

Synchronous

Imagine a food truck with only a single cook who serves burgers. The line forms and they take your order, put the patty on the grill, sit by the grill waiting for it to cook, add a bun and toppings, and serve it. Then they take the order from the next customer and repeat the same process. While this is the simplest setup, it has obvious inefficiencies. Both the cook and the customer spend a lot of time standing around idle while their food is being cooked and the cook can only cook one patty at a time. Taking an order takes some time, so the grill sits empty for a few minutes between each order. However, this is how we write most code. It executes in a single line and everything must sit and wait for any dependent tasks to complete.

Asynchronous

The cook spends lot of time waiting for the food to cook. It must be on the grill for a few minutes, so after putting a patty on the grill, the cook steps away and takes the next order. A dozen patties can fit on the grill at the same time, so the cook can get started on the next order while the first one is cooking. Although the single cook can only actually flip or serve one patty at a time, multiple can be on the grill concurrently. This is now an asynchronous system.

Waiting for HTTP requests, database queries, or any other kind of external system is a opportunity to gain time back instead of blocking while you wait for the task to complete. In many languages, this is done with async/ await syntax to declare that you're letting the worker move on to other tasks until the next step is ready…

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