Almost every article I read uses forwardRef in the place where it’s not required. Read this article to learn where to use it appropriately and to avoid introducing unnecessary complexity to your code.

What is it

Let’s start with the official Angular documentation on forwardRef. It says the following:

Allows to refer to references which are not yet defined...
For instance, forwardRef is used when the token which we need to refer to for the purposes of DI is declared, but not yet defined. It is also used when the token which we use when creating a query is not yet defined.

The definition talks about references to a class and mentions tokens that reference a class as an example. In Angular we define a dependency like this:

const dependency = {
    provide: SomeTokenClass,
    useClass: SomeProviderClass
};

There’s a token specified for provide and a recipe — useClass in the above example. So from the definition we know that we can use forwardRef for the token like this:

const dependency = {
    provide: forwardRef(()=>{ SomeTokenClass }),
    useClass: SomeProviderClass
};

But we also have a reference to the class SomeProviderClass in the useClass recipe. Can we use this approach for the providers well? The docs don’t mention that but we know that useClass recipe holds a reference to a class and we learnt that forwardRef can be applied to a reference. So the answer is yes, we can apply this approach to a provider recipe as well:

const dependency = {
    provide: forwardRef(()=>{ SomeTokenClass }),
    useClass: forwardRef(()=>{ SomeProviderClass })
};

However, it can be applied only if the recipe implies a reference to a class, which is the case for the useClass or useExisting like in the following example:

const dependency = {
    provide: forwardRef(()=>{ SomeTokenClass }),
    useExisting: forwardRef(()=>{ SomeOtherClassToken })
};

Also, if you inject a token by class reference using Inject decorator you can apply the function as well:

export class ADirective {
    constructor(@Inject(forwardRef(() => Token)) service) {}
    ...
}

Usage example#

Angular documentation shows the following example:

class Door {
    lock: Lock;

    // Door attempts to inject Lock, 
    // despite it not being defined yet.
    // forwardRef makes this possible.
    constructor(@Inject(forwardRef(() => Lock)) lock: Lock) { 
        this.lock = lock; 
    }
}

// Only at this point Lock is defined.
class Lock {}

But to me this is a bit unnatural example. Although it gets the point across it is hard to understand by looking at it when I would need to use forwardRef in real applications. I could simply put the Lock class above the Door and the problem would be solved. As it happens Angular sources provide a much better real word example of the usage.

As you probably know Angular forms have ngModel and formControl directives that you can use on a form input. Each of these controls define a provider that allows accessing the directive instance through the common token NgModel. So, for example, if you want to access the form directive associated with the input in your custom directive you can do like this:

@Directive({
    selector: '[mycustom]'
})
export class MyCustom {
    constructor(@Inject(NgControl) directive) {
...
<input type="text" ngModel mycustom>

To enable that each both NgModel and formControl directives define a formControlBinding provider and register it in the directive decorator descriptor. Here is how the formControl directive does that:

export const formControlBinding: any = {
  provide: NgControl,
  useExisting: FormControlDirective
};
@Directive({
  selector: '[formControl]',
  providers: [formControlBinding],
  ...
})

export class FormControlDirective { ... }

and NgModel directive:

export const formControlBinding: any = {
  provide: NgControl,
  useExisting: NgModel
};
@Directive({
  selector: '[ngModel]',
  providers: [formControlBinding],
  ...
})
export class NgModel { ... }

The interesting piece of the implementation here is that formControlBinding is defined outside the directive class decorator. So when JS runtime evaluates the code that defines the formControlBinding object, the NgModel class definition is not yet evaluated and if we log the provider object to the console we will see the following:

Object {useExisting: undefined, token: function}

Ah, useExisting points to undefined and so Angular will not be able to resolve the other token. And that is why Angular uses forwardRef here:

export const formControlBinding: any = {
  provide: NgControl,
  useExisting: forwardRef(() => FormControlDirective)
};

export class FormControlDirective { ... }
...
export const formControlBinding: any = {
  provide: NgControl,
  useExisting: forwardRef(() => NgModel)
};

export class NgModel{ ... }

But would it work if we Angular defined the formControlBinding inside the class decorator without the forwardRef like this:

@Directive({
    selector: '[ngModel]',
    providers: [
        {
            provide: NgControl,
            useExisting: NgModel
        }
    ],
    ...
})
export class NgModel { ... }

Well, if you look at the code it seems that NgModel is referenced in the decorator before the class definition. But you should remember that all class decorators are applied to a class after it has been defined. So the implementation above would work even without forwardRef. However, by in-lining the provider inside the decorator we no longer be export it and so it can’t be reused in the application.

Why does forwardRef work?#

Now the question may pop up in your head how the forwardRef works. It actually has to do with how closures in JavaScript work. When you capture a variable inside a closure function it captures the variable reference, not the variable value. Here is the small example to demonstrate that:

let a;
function enclose() {
    console.log(a);
}

enclose(); // undefined

a = 5;
enclose(); // 5

You can see that although the variable a was undefined at the moment the enclose function was created, it captured the variable reference. So when later the variable was updated to the 5 it logged the correct value.

And forwardRef is just a function that captures a class reference into closure and class becomes defined before the function is executed. Angular compiler uses the function resolveForwardRef to unwrap the token or provider type during runtime.