Antoine Kalmbach

In my previous post, I discussed how web development had become weird. In this post, I will discuss what exactly is it that makes it so weird. I will also present an alternative to JavaScript-based SPAs that look and behave like them, yet at the base are built using standard full-stack frameworks. They can leverage modern JavaScript libraries like React and compilers like Babel while simultaneously avoiding the confusing tooling ecosystem and providing a rich and responsive user experience, all the while retaining an pleasant developer experience.

What exactly is wrong with the tooling ecosystem?

I think, largely, the reason why web development has become weird was that front-end development cannot figure itself out. We are wasting effort and time by building more and more elaborate abstractions that fundamentally exist only because of an unhappy accident: the web is the only cross-platform application container. It is also a very accessible medium. To create a web application, fundamentally, one needs to present the right kind of mark-up to a browser that renders it.

Let’s stop here. Just because the web became what it is by accident, doesn’t make it a bad thing in itself. Everybody loves platform independence. Everybody loves accessibility. The web is easy to develop for and it can reach almost everybody. This is a reality we have to deal with, a reality in which web development is (a) popular, (b) ubiquitous and (c) easy.

The combination of those properties creates an interesting melting pot of rapidly evolving technologies. Rapid progress is a nice thing in itself, but a bad thing to the ecosystem when it evolves blindly. Web development doesn’t evolve blindly, rather, it is myopic.

Progress, progress, progress!

To put this into context, we must understand that currently, most software is disposable. Because software is disposable, we eagerly toss a half-functioning solution into the bin and rewrite it, rather than taking it apart and rebuilding a better version. This leads to programs getting rewritten and rewritten, sometimes doing things differently but most of the time it’s just the same thing under a different layer of paint.

But I digress. That is more of a problem with software development in general. We can review a more concrete example: the JavaScript tooling ecosystem. To develop front-end in JS, you need three different tools;

  • A package manager - npm, bower or yarn
  • A module bundler - webpack, rollup or browserify
  • A task runner - gulp, grunt, brunch

Each of these segments work completely differently. So to get started with, that’s three different tooling systems you have to learn. Better yet, each individual tool inside each system is unique in its configuration syntax. So if you learn how to configure Grunt you will have to learn Gulp and Brunch from scratch. Joy.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. Bower was cool because it built flattened trees when npm didn’t. Gulp had a nicer configuration syntax, and Brunch was easy to get started with. Yarn is more secure and more reliable than npm. Webpack can inline your CSS and images and is more configurable than Browserify.

Not about killing innovation

At this point, you may be wondering that I desire a world in which there is but one alternative to every task. This is not the case. I only ask for reservation: if there are no fundamental ideological differences, if there are no personal incompatibilities between the developing organizations, is there any valid argument for building your own version of a tool, instead of contributing to an existing system?

I don’t think this is the case at this scale — obviously, a world with just one kind of tool or library for one thing is stupid, but the sweet spot does definitely not lie at seven.

So if the answer is no, does that mean JavaScript developers are so strange that they cannot get their heads together and agree on something? Do they really think people enjoy keeping up with the Joneses all the time and learning a new tool every year?

When it comes to the first question, remember Joyent and the io.js schism. Oops. As to the second, I doubt it. Still, this is what we have to live with. A guide for building a modern JS front-end app consists of twelve distinct steps, all of them quite elaborate. I applaud the author for the gargantuan effort in that tutorial: it’s the best I’ve seen so far. But seriously, take a look at it! What the fuck?! I could have just rewritten my previous post with a link to that guide and rested my case!

I remember a book about Windows programming using C, and parts of this guide are arcane enough to evoke memories of that. I think one can enumerate the type system of Scala using less. Or how to write a Scheme interpreter.

The usability of the tooling ecosystem is absolutely disgraceful. No other developer segment has this many hoops to jump through and nobody else has to learn so many different tools just to get a simple web application running.

Why do we put up with this? Why isn’t any effort being put into simplifying the tooling stack, instead of making it more elaborate, powerful, and verbose? Consider webpack. It is a powerful utility that is supposed to combine all your assets — that is, code, CSS, images — into a single module that is used in your application. This is a powerful thing. The only problem is that its configuration is hell. I work with SBT every day, and my goodness, even SBT is easier to configure than Webpack. Ask any Scala developer what it means to say that. You will get funny looks. Even Java folks will consider this crazy, although, in fairness, they’ve moved into the post-framework age, and consider us mortals rather quaint.

SPA development is more than just tools

The problems don’t stop here. A SPA must effectively handle client state entirely in the browser, though in isomoruniversal SPA apps part of the rendering and client state is processed on the server. This requires the use of architectural patterns like Redux and React Router.

These libraries are nice and intelligent, but I feel they are a wasted abstraction. Using the trick below I can create React apps that can approximate the performance of a real SPA app, without having to rely on these complicated architectural patterns.

Caveat lector. This is largely a matter of taste. If you really like Redux and React Router, by all means use them, but I find their usability to be sub-par to the MVC architecture of any full-stack framework. The architectural pattern — Flux — is a message-based event loop. The views generate user actions (button clicks) that are dispatched to stores (state containers) which update themselves (increment a number) then deliver state changes (an incremented number) to the views which re-render themselves. If a request is sent to the server, it must be split into two parts: first, a button click is registered, and its effect is rendered; second, a request is sent to the back-end and when it completes, an action describing a completed request is sent to the message dispatcher. So any interaction with the back-end requires two actions. Sounds complicated? Yeah, this is why I prefer a dumb MVC architecture (or Relay).

In summary

So, to put this argument into a more cogent form, I’ll summarize them below.

Lack of emphasis on usability, a myopic focus on adding features. Why doesn’t anyone integrate dependency management, module bundling and task running under the same program? Why do we have to use three different programs that are getting replaced every year? Tool “monoliths” like SBT may be ugly in parts, but they can do package management, compilation, debugging, testing – even if it’s DSL is garish and confusing, still, once you’re familiar with it, you don’t have to master six other horrifying DSLs. Just one.

Chasing novelty with little care about its impact on maintainability. Babel lets us write JS in eleventy different dialects. While that is a cool thing in itself, it a horror show for developers. You ask, who wouldn’t want to use await, or ES6 classes? Well, how about the person who doesn’t want to learn how to use Babel?

With Babel, you can write in any version of JavaScript you want, since it all gets compiled down to ES5 anyway. This is great for building your flavor-of-the-month hack, but it’s also a terrific way of building unmaintainable software. For this zany hack to work, you need tracompilers that translate your modern code to old code. The requirement of that tool is too high a price to pay for some fancy language features.

Snubbing full-stack frameworks for their want novelty, although they generally feature exemplary usability. Clojure developers have found a way of eschewing frameworks over composable libraries. For some reason, everybody else is really bad at this, so we build frameworks, i.e., sets of libraries that govern the design of your program in a certain way. Monolithic frameworks like Rails or Django are fundamentally dated — though this is easily fixed — but they are usable. Setting up a functional application with these takes a few minutes, and it just works.

A new direction: renovate, not rewrite

In my opinion, front-end development can be done in an alternate, saner way. It doesn’t mean going back to the stone age of Apache or Rails with ActiveRecord. Rather, it means refurbishing these old, battle-tested technologies with modern components without tossing the whole chassis into the bin.

In other words, there is an alternative to the current JavaScript SPA horror show. Using the following technologies, as an example:

A REST API built in a scalable and performant language
Examples: Scala, Haskell, Go, Clojure, Java, Rust, OCaml, Elixir

This gives us a clear advantage when scaling and deploying our application. Data access is made opaque and is in no way tied to the front-end - which is ultimately just presentation and some client state. The language needs the following:

  • A stable library ecosystem, especially for data access, e.g., database drivers
  • A functioning web server and associated libraries
  • Speed, multi-threading, performance

With these properties, you should be quite comfortable in your back-end development.

Client state, presentation and back-end communication handled using a monolithic framework
Examples: Ruby on Rails, Django, Pyramid, MeteorJS, Udash, Play

Rails may be dated in some parts — coupling your front-end with data access is one thing — but as an infrastructure it is functional, mature, easy to understand and stable. The Ruby ecosystem is large and is well documented, even the secondary documentation (StackOverflow etc.) is abundant.

A wrapper that turns ordinary HTTP page requests into XHRs

Examples: Turbolinks (for Ruby on Rails and Django)

Turbolinks is perhaps a hack but it is clever: any HTTP request that would normally cause a page reload, like a link or a form submission, is converted into an XHR. Then, the page redraws itself by swapping out the <body> element from the returned response.

Turbolinks is a “pseudo-SPA” application in that it simply reroutes ordinary page requests (links, form submissions) as XHRs and then from the new page, it merges the <head> element and swaps the <body> element. By using a gem like react-rails you can combine this with react, however, it does not use React’s virtual DOM when redrawing the body content. It only mounts and unmounts the components when the page swaps, retaining the actual DOM bindings.

What?! Your answer is Rails? In 2016?

Just because these frameworks aren’t making headlines doesn’t mean they are stuck in the stone age. These monolithic frameworks still, after years of maturation, possess novelty value in one, unparalleled aspect: usability. These frameworks may not lend themselves to universal applications, but they’re still capable of absorbing new technologies like websockets and GraphQL.

Some parts of them are stuck in the past, of which the most striking one is combining data access with data control and presentation in the same program. This is easily fixed: make your Rails controllers call an external, opaque service to render is data. The job of the full-stack framework is reduced to managing client state and data presentation, which go together.

So, what can be done? Here’s an example.

A REST-backed Rails app with React as the templating engine

react-rails is a Rails gem that gives us React components in the asset pipeline, supporting server-side rendering and Turbolinks (caveat: see above)

Under the hood, when rendering on the server, react-rails uses Babel and ExecJS to prerender the content. Better yet, your content is still rendered by a simple Rails controller like the following.

The controller lives in app/controllers/foos_controller.rb:

class FoosController < ApplicationController
  # maps to GET /foos (on the front-end)
  def index
    # incurs a GET /foos on the back-end
    @foos = Foo.all.to_json
  end 
  
  # maps to POST /foos (on the front-end)
  def create
    # this is a POST /foos on the back-end
    Foo.create(:bar => params['bar'])

    # turbolinks turns this into a XHR
    redirect_to '/foos'
  end
end

The model is just a Her model, an ORM that uses a REST API, which you can customize. In apps/models/foo.rb:

class Foo < Her::Model
  attributes :bar, :id
end

Now Foo.find(1) maps to GET /foos/1 in the back-end, and so forth.

The view is generated by app/views/foos/index.html.erb

<%= 
react_component(
  'Foos', 
  { foos: @foos, token: form_activity_token, action: url_for(action: 'create') }, 
  { prerender: true }
) 
%>

This maps to a React component app/assets/javascripts/components/foos.es6.jsx:

class Foos extends React.Component {
  render() {
    <div>
      <ul>
        {this.props.foos.map((foo) => {
           return <li>{foo.bar}</li>
        })}
      </ul>
      // dataRemote is a Rails trick that makes the form make an XHR
      <form action={this.props.action} method="POST" dataRemote="true">
        <input type="hidden" name="authenticity_token" value={this.props.token} />
        <input type="text" name="bar" value="Blah blah" />
        <input type="submit" value="Add!" />
      </form>
    </div>
  }
}

Try doing that with less code in any JS app! The controller looks like any standard Rails controller. In fact, it is exactly like one, yet the magic of React & Turbolinks lets us wrap this into a SPA-like experience.

Combining these elements, we get an application that can reach nine-tenths of the performance and responsiveness of a 100% JavaScript SPA, while simultaneously avoiding the messy tooling ecosystem.

  • A total absence of extraneous tooling, the framework has these built-in. No need for Webpack or Babel, these are just another gems you add to your dependency list.

  • A boring, but familiar, framework that handles routing, message dispatch and API integration for us. Routing and state management are the worst parts of SPA development. Now our state is just another Rails

  • Responsiveness close enough to that of a real SPA. It will never match a real SPA in speed, since the requests map to Rails controllers, but it will be extremely pleasant to develop in.

  • A scalable back-end without any data access logic in the front-end (the usual front-end back-end split), the framework handles only UI state and presentation logic.

There are some obvious compromises in such a solution, which are both good and bad.

Compromises made

The biggest compromise is in performance, which is due to the following:

  • Does not use React’s DOM to its full power. Turbolinks just swaps the body element. This could be improved by making it use the React virtual DOM. This is the bad part. The good part is that we don’t have to create XHRs ourselves in React components.

  • Forces the user to use JSX, throws ERB/HAML in the bin. It is true that the example application could be indeed built without JSX — just don’t use react-rails — but I find JSX to be a nicer templating syntax than ERB. advantage of React

    But it would be naïve to assume this brings us the whole of React. It brings us the templating syntax and binding mechanisms, but since Turbolinks effectively causes a re-rendering of the whole HTML page, this doesn’t fully leverage the server-side rendering aspect of React.

    So, overall, the good part of this compromise is that we get to use JSX, which has a nicer, functional approach compared to ERB, but the bad part is that we don’t harness the full power of React.

  • Turbolinks effectively reverses React server-side rendering. Whereas in a normal SPA app the server-side rendering is the “base” template, in this case a new server-side rendering is produced on every interaction. In a normal SPA app, one just updates the DOM with new state — i.e., props — not with a new DOM.

    There is a solution: skip Turbolinks and use XHRs in React components. A simple solution in a controller:

    def create
        @f = Foo.create(:bar => params[:bar])
        if request.xhr?
          # send a JSON of all the Foos
          render :json => Foo.all.to_json
        else
          # send HTML with a React component
          redirect_to action: 'index'
        end
    end
    

    If the request is made from a component, it’s can now use setState (or a store) to update its new state. In this paradigm, Rails is acting as the state store.

    A better example would be to make the Rails app support GraphQL and use Relay to communicate with the Rails part, see below.

I think, given the simplicity of the above application, I think it’s fair to say that these compromises are warranted. If the actual set-up were any more complicated I wouldn’t be so certain. But, for the simplicity, we must trade performance.

A functioning example

I’ve created a functioning example and put it into two repositories:

  • Front-end – Rails 5 & react-rails & Her – https://github.com/ane/rails-react-frontend

    A Rails 5 app combining react-rails and Her to talk to the back-end.

    To install, clone the repo, run bundle install, run foreman start. This will start the Rails server and the live re-loader.

  • Back-end – https://github.com/ane/rails-react-backend

    It’s a dead simple Sinatra REST API that uses Sqlite3. This is obviously not suitable for production.

    To install, clone the repo, run bundle install, run rackup.

This application will never match a real SPA. A part of the front-end is not in the browser, so we will rely on a second web-server to run it. So it is an illusion, but as an illusion it is close enough, and it is easy to use.

Conclusion

JavaScript front-end development, as it currently stands, is painful to develop in. One has to master many command line tools that instead of being unified as a single tool, each continue to diverge and grow larger and more powerful. The result is a confusing developer experience.

In this post, I showed that we can scrape the good parts of modern JS developments and use them to modernize an older application stack that mimics the user experience of a SPA, but is not one. The application uses a clever library — Turbolinks — to convert page requests into XHRs, creating an illusion of a single-page application.

The end result is a half stack web framework: we yank data access from a monolithic full-stack framework (Rails) and make it use a REST API and we replace its presentation logic (ERB) with React. The framework is left to handle client state, routing and asset pipelining, which are the painful parts of SPA development, and the UI is rendered using React. So the Model–View–Controller is distributed into three places: Rails for UI state, React for UI rendering, and the REST API is the actual business logic. Effectively, this reduces Rails to a thin SPA-like front-end over a REST API!

Where to go from here? Here are some interesting things that could be explored:

  • Turbolinks with React. Use React to parse the HTML returned by Turbolinks (if rendered on the server) and use the React virtual DOM to update the DOM, instead of blindly swapping the body element.
  • GraphQL. Although Her is nice, we could use GraphQL when communicating with the backend and also use it as a communication method between Rails and React.
  • TypeScript. I like static typing, but currently react-rails doesn’t really work that well with TypeScript.
  • React On Rails. A different kind of React & Rails integration, which lets you use Webpack. React On Rails is more flexible than react-rails: you get the full power of Webpack and NPM here, so this is both good and bad.

All in all, this solution is a compromise.

Compared to a full-stack Rails app, we have to do extra work in creating a REST API backend, but the result is an app that’s easier to manage due to the separation of concerns. With a separate data access layer — the REST API — complex business logic is contained in a single place. It is easy to couple several clients to such a front-end, and our Rails app is just one of these.

But, compared to a full-fledged SPA, this app will never be as quick, it will never be as fluid, and it may not be what cutting-edge front-end development this day represents, but it is is simple, there is one build tool (bundler), and it is fun to develop in.

I might miss fancy things like state hydration and Redux, but the insanity of Webpack, Gulp, Babel and NPM, I will not miss.

Tagged as web, ruby, react, javascript

If you have any comments or questions, feel free to email me. Comments or questions may be posted as updates.