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Processing each of the items in a collection is a very common operation. JavaScript provides a number of ways of iterating over a collection, from simple for loops to map() and filter(). Iterators and Generators bring the concept of iteration directly into the core language and provide a mechanism for customizing the behavior of for...of loops.

For details, see also:

Iterators

In JavaScript an iterator is an object which defines a sequence and potentially a return value upon its termination. More specifically an iterator is any object which implements the Iterator protocol by having a next() method which returns an object with two properties: value, the next value in the sequence; and done, which is true if the last value in the sequence has already been consumed. If value is present alongside done, it is the iterator's return value.

Once created, an iterator object can be iterated explicitly by repeatedly calling next(). Iterating over an iterator is said to consume the iterator, because it is generally only possible to do once. After a terminating value has been yielded additional calls to next() should simply continue to return {done: true}.

The most common iterator in Javascript is the Array iterator, which simply returns each value in the associated array in sequence. While it is easy to imagine that all iterators could be expressed as arrays, this is not true. Arrays must be allocated in their entirety, but iterators are consumed only as necessary and thus can express sequences of unlimited size, such as the range of integers between 0 and Infinity.

Here is an example which can do just that. It allows creation of a simple range iterator which defines a sequence of integers from start (inclusive) to end (exclusive) spaced step apart. Its final return value is the size of the sequence it created, tracked by the variable iterationCount.

function makeRangeIterator(start = 0, end = Infinity, step = 1) {
    let nextIndex = start;
    let iterationCount = 0;

    const rangeIterator = {
       next: function() {
           let result;
           if (nextIndex <= end) {
               result = { value: nextIndex, done: false }
               nextIndex += step;
               iterationCount++;
               return result;
           }
           return { value: iterationCount, done: true }
       }
    };
    return rangeIterator;
}

Using the iterator then looks like this:

let it = makeRangeIterator(1, 10, 2);

let result = it.next();
while (!result.done) {
 console.log(result.value); // 1 3 5 7 9
 result = it.next();
}

console.log("Iterated over sequence of size: ", result.value); // 5

It is not possible to know reflectively whether a particular object is an iterator. If you need to do this, use Iterables.

Generator functions

While custom iterators are a useful tool, their creation requires careful programming due to the need to explicitly maintain their internal state. Generator functions provide a powerful alternative: they allow you to define an iterative algorithm by writing a single function whose execution is not continuous. Generator functions are written using the function* syntax. When called initially, generator functions do not execute any of their code, instead returning a type of iterator called a Generator. When a value is consumed by calling the generator's next method, the Generator function executes until it encounters the yield keyword.

The function can be called as many times as desired and returns a new Generator each time, however each Generator may only be iterated once.

We can now adapt the example from above. The behavior of this code is identical, but the implementation is much easier to write and read.

function* makeRangeIterator(start = 0, end = Infinity, step = 1) {
    let iterationCount = 0;
    for (let i = start; i < end; i += step) {
        iterationCount++;
        yield i;
    }
    return iterationCount;
}

Iterables

An object is iterable if it defines its iteration behavior, such as what values are looped over in a for...of construct. Some built-in types, such as Array or Map, have a default iteration behavior, while other types (such as Object) do not.

In order to be iterable, an object must implement the @@iterator method, meaning that the object (or one of the objects up its prototype chain) must have a property with a Symbol.iterator key.

It may be possible to iterate over an iterable more than once, or only once. It is up to the programmer to know which is the case. Iterables which can iterate only once (e.g. Generators) customarily return this from their @@iterator method, where those which can be iterated many times must return a new iterator on each invocation of @@iterator.

User-defined iterables

We can make our own iterables like this:

var myIterable = {
    *[Symbol.iterator]() {
        yield 1;
        yield 2;
        yield 3;
    }
}

for (let value of myIterable) { 
    console.log(value); 
}
// 1
// 2
// 3

or

[...myIterable]; // [1, 2, 3]

Built-in iterables

String, Array, TypedArray, Map and Set are all built-in iterables, because their prototype objects all have a Symbol.iterator method.

Syntaxes expecting iterables

Some statements and expressions are expecting iterables, for example the for-of loops, spread syntax, yield*, and destructuring assignment.

for (let value of ['a', 'b', 'c']) {
    console.log(value);
}
// "a"
// "b"
// "c"

[...'abc']; // ["a", "b", "c"]

function* gen() {
  yield* ['a', 'b', 'c'];
}

gen().next(); // { value: "a", done: false }

[a, b, c] = new Set(['a', 'b', 'c']);
a; // "a"

Advanced generators

Generators compute their yielded values on demand, which allows them to efficiently represent sequences that are expensive to compute, or even infinite sequences as demonstrated above.

The next() method also accepts a value which can be used to modify the internal state of the generator. A value passed to next() will be treated as the result of the last yield expression that paused the generator.

Here is the fibonacci generator using next(x) to restart the sequence:

function* fibonacci() {
  var fn1 = 0;
  var fn2 = 1;
  while (true) {  
    var current = fn1;
    fn1 = fn2;
    fn2 = current + fn1;
    var reset = yield current;
    if (reset) {
        fn1 = 0;
        fn2 = 1;
    }
  }
}

var sequence = fibonacci();
console.log(sequence.next().value);     // 0
console.log(sequence.next().value);     // 1
console.log(sequence.next().value);     // 1
console.log(sequence.next().value);     // 2
console.log(sequence.next().value);     // 3
console.log(sequence.next().value);     // 5
console.log(sequence.next().value);     // 8
console.log(sequence.next(true).value); // 0
console.log(sequence.next().value);     // 1
console.log(sequence.next().value);     // 1
console.log(sequence.next().value);     // 2

You can force a generator to throw an exception by calling its throw() method and passing the exception value it should throw. This exception will be thrown from the current suspended context of the generator, as if the yield that is currently suspended were instead a throw value statement.

If the exception is not caught from within the generator,  it will propagate up through the call to throw(), and subsequent calls to next() will result in the done property being true.

Generators have a return(value) method that returns the given value and finishes the generator itself.

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