Tuesday 7 August 2012

jQuery - Cleaning up when elements go away

(Updated 08/08/2012.)

Have you ever wanted to get a notification when an element is removed from the DOM so you could clean up? For instance, maybe you have events hooked on a different object (like resize on window) that you want to unhook when the element goes away.

Recently I wanted to, and since I know that jQuery does cleanup when elements are removed (so it can clear out event handlers and its cache for data), I wondered if it triggers an event for us.

It doesn't, but we can still get what we want quite cleanly. I'll describe what I'm hoping we'll be able to do tomorrow, and what we can do today.

Tomorrow (I hope)

We can enhance jQuery to give us an event on cleanup — with just three lines of code and virtually no overhead. Inside jQuery's internal cleanData function, just after the line that currently reads if ( data && data.events ) {, we add this:

if ( data.events.jqdestroy ) {

Boom, that's it. Now if we need notification when an element is going away, we just hook up the event:

$("selector_for_the_element").on("jqdestroy", function() {
  // Do your cleanup

We use triggerHandler rather than trigger because we don't want bubbling (there's another way we can avoid bubbling, but it requires a couple more lines of code, and triggerHandler is more efficient anyway — thanks to Dave Methvin for that!).

Here's a copy of jQuery 1.8rc1 with the patch, you can play with it here — that latter link is a test page that generates 10,000 elements, 5,000 of which we hook the click event on (so that they have something in data.events), and two of which we hook the jqdestroy event on. Then we call html on the container element to destroy them all and time how long it takes. You can compare that with this version using an unmodified version of 1.8rc1. For me, the times are much of a muchness (on Firefox 14, both versions average ~142ms when the jqdestroy event isn't hooked, and when it is [on two elements] the version that fires it averages ~163ms).

What I like about this is that if nothing has hooked the event, the overhead is at most one extra property check (the if ( data.events.jqdestroy )) per element destroyed (zero overhead for elements that haven't had any events hooked at all), but it enables a completely familiar and straight-forward way to get notifications.

Well, okay, but is there really a need for it? It would seem so: jQuery UI duck-punches cleanData so they can clean up; TinyMCE goes further, monkey-patching several API calls (empty, replaceWith, and others) so it can clean up an editor attached to an element. And of course, I wanted it for my plug-in that needs to unhook window.resize if there are no more active copies of it.

Now, let me clear about something: To my mind, using this event is a last resort. It's a big hammer, and if you used it on a lot of elements, removing those from the DOM could lag a bit. Consider this example which hooks jqdestroy on 5,000 of the 10,000 elements. For me, the elapsed times go from ~163ms when firing it on just two elements to ~450ms firing on 5,000 (again Firefox 14). Now, 5,000 is a lot of elements to hook this event (or any other) on, and anything can be abused, the point is just...don't abuse it. :-) The best use cases for this will be things like TinyMCE's editors, or grid plug-ins that need to handle resize in code, that sort of thing — where there will be only a few elements with the event hooked.

I've opened an enhancement request on the jQuery Trac database for this, offering to do the patch and send a pull request if the idea has legs. If you think this is a good idea, your support would be welcome! I'm not saying we have to do it the specific way I've outlined in this post, I'm totally open to other ways to get there. Three lines of code, near-zero overhead, and a familiar paradigm seems pretty good to me, though.


But what if that enhancement doesn't get adopted? Or if we need to do this right now, today, with the current version of jQuery? Do we have to hack the jQuery file, or resort to monkey-patching?

Nope. In the linked Trac ticket, Dave Methvin showed how we can do it today, by adding our own "special" event and watching for the teardown on it. This uses the event system, but we'll never actually receive the event in the normal way. Here's how it works:

First, we create a "special" event:

$.event.special.ourowndestroy = {
  teardown: function() {
    // Handle it here, `this` is the element being clean up
    console.log(this.id + " being destroyed");

Then we force that to occur by hooking the event on the element, even though our handler will never get called:

$("selector_for_the_element").on("ourowndestroy", function() {
  // This is never called

Here it is in action using jQuery 1.7.2.

I've put a function there to make the point that the handler is never called (the action is in the teardown function); in reality I'd probably use $.noop or just false (shorthand for a handler that does return false) instead.

Now, when an element is being cleaned up, our teardown function will get called with this pointing at the element in question. Note that if we didn't hook the event on the element, we wouldn't force the teardown, so even though our handler isn't called, that's required.

Note: You'll also get the teardown call if you remove the event handler from the element (and then not when it's cleaned up, as it's not on there anymore), so if you're using this mechanism, either never remove the handler or handle the fact you get the call if you do.

So that's not an ideal way to do it, and it's not the way this stuff is normally done, but it's a passable workaround in the short term — and much better than monkey-patching jQuery's API on the fly.

Happy coding!


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