Asynchronous web requests with R and curl

One of my recent projects at DWR has focused on revamping our data pipelines. We have over 60 water quality stations spread across the marsh, all of which are telemetered to broadcast continuous water quality to our internal database (and also to CDEC) and all of which require regular maintenance, calibration, and quality control and assurance. We recently adopted a more rigorous QAQC process which requires our technicians to enter a lot more field visit data into our database and perform more complex calculations to determine quality ratings (in addition to the manual inspections they were already doing). I’ve been working to streamline our data pipeline and reduce the amount of data transcription and manual calculations our technicians need to do. The pipeline I’ve developed consists of a few steps, starting with moving our field visit data entry to electronic data sheets (using Excel, since that is what our technicians are familiar with) and using our agency’s OneDrive to allow offline data entry when in the field and automatic uploading to our servers when they get back to the office. Most of my efforts have focused on what happens after that, and my pipeline for writing the field data to the database and calculating the QAQC ratings relies on new web services functionality for our database that I’ve been implementing and testing. These web services allow me to query, insert, and update data programmatically (i.e. with R).

The web services on the server-side are implemented in C#, but my data pipeline is mostly in R. The curl package provides a lot of neat functionality for making web requests. A lot of R users recommend httr for this, but curl provides one important feature that httr does not (yet) support: the ability to make asynchronous web requests. Using asynchronous requests allows me to do multiple web requests simultaneously, which significantly speeds up my process.

Making asynchronous requests with curl isn’t much harder than making synchronous requests. Compare the following two functions for performing GET requests:

# synchronous request - single URL
basic_get = function(service.url) {
  # perform the request
  result = curl_fetch_memory(service.url, handle = wqpr_handle())
  # process the result
# asynchronous request - vector of URLs
multi_get = function(service.urls) {
  # container to store the results
  results = list()
  # callback function to capture the result of each request
  cb = function(res) {
    results <<- append(results, list(res))
  # create the request pool
  pool = new_pool()
  # add the requests to the pool
  lapply(service.urls, curl_fetch_multi, pool = pool, done = cb,
    fail = cb, handle = new_handle())
  # make the requests
  out = multi_run(pool = pool)
  # process the results
  lapply(results, function(x) rawToChar(x$content))

These functions are pretty barebones (I removed the error handling code for simplicity) but they demonstrate the difference between the two approaches. The most important thing to note here is that when requests are performed asynchronously, it’s very likely that the requests will complete in a different order than you provided. This is usually fine with a GET request, since the information you retrieve will (probably) have some identifying information that you can use to link it back to the original request. However, can be a serious issue with POST requests, because the data you are sending out is contained in the request body and web service response might not contain ANY identifying information. So if you make 5 POST requests and two of them fail, how can you determine which requests failed?

My solution to this takes advantage of R’ as a functional programming language. Instead of creating a single callback function like above, I create a unique callback function for each request that captures information that would not otherwise be returned by the web service request. In the case below, each callback function assigns a specific name to the request, which can then be matched back to the originating request.

# asynchronous request - with identifiers
multi_get2 = function(service.urls) {
  # container to store the results
  results = list()
  # callback function generator - returns a callback function with ID
  cb_gen = function(id) {
    function(res) {
      # assign names to added results
      results[[id]] <<- res
  # define the IDs
  ids = paste0("request_", seq_along(service.urls))
  define the callback functions
  cbs = lapply(ids, cb_gen)
  # create the request pool
  pool = new_pool()
  # add the requests to the pool - use specific callback function for 
  # each request
  lapply(seq_along(service.urls), function(i)
    curl_fetch_multi(service.urls[i], pool = pool,
      done = cbs[[i]], fail = cbs[[i]],
      handle = new_handle())	
  # make the requests
  out = multi_run(pool = pool)
  # process the results in the same order that the URLs were given
  lapply(results[ids], function(x) rawToChar(x$content))

And that’s it! By using the IDs I generated to order the list of results, I’m guaranteed to get the output of my requests in the same order as the service URLs I provided, making it trivial to identify the response (e.g. success or failure) of each request.

Implementing asynchronous requests massively sped up my pipeline, and I’m getting ready to move the web services over to our production database. The next question is—can I convince our technicians to adopt the new process?