Tag Archives: JavaScript

A couple of alternative ways of data preloading in AngularJS

Gabe Scholz recently wrote the blog post: Frictionless data preloading in AngularJS If you want to skip my explanation and go straight to the code, here’s my version of the same idea: http://plnkr.co/edit/23u3BI?p=preview I’ll be honest, I wasn’t in love with the solution presented in the blog post. We don’t actually do preloading for our work at my current employer, we just load the page and do one (or many) calls to populate the page. But even so, I’ve still given the idea of preloading some thought and all of the solutions which were presented in this article left me thinking that they didn’t make good enough use of the built in object creation and injection capabilities built into AngularJS itself. So, if you check out my solution you’ll see that I create an AngularJS constant object (with examples of that created in either the index.html file or one of the JavaScript files, depending upon your preference) or I create an AngularJS service which returns a promise which is resolved with the data immediately. The latter solution has the advantage of working well if you find yourself wanting to sometimes pull from a service, sometimes use canned data, or even sometimes pull from a cache like localStorage in the browser. By separating it out to another object which is simply injected into the controller, you’ll have lots of options of how you want to inject your data and you don’t have to create any new directives to do it.

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Why we abandoned server generated web pages

1. You’re constantly transporting state back and forth between client and server (and often neglecting to do so).

The next time you’re in GMail, notice something interesting about selecting emails. If you check several emails for a mass operation and then realize you’re not altogether sure about one email, so you click to read it, then you come back out to the list, the same emails are still checked. Now do the same test in an app written in any of the classic Java, PHP, Python, etc. frameworks. In those, when the user clicks on the email to view it:

  1. In all likelihood it was just a link so all of the client-side state (the checked and unchecked checkboxes) is immediately discarded by the browser.
  2. Some “clever” frameworks make that link not really a link, instead, they generate JavaScript client side which invokes a POST (as if a form was submitted), the checkboxes do get submitted to the server, stored somewhere in the user’s session, and then hopefully sent back down with the next request for the page that had the original list of checkboxes. Our links aren’t really links, there’s lots of JavaScript magic going on behind the scenes that most people you work with don’t even begin to understand and, trust me, trust me when I say this… It breaks. And it breaks badly.

2. It’s slow, slow, and did I mention slow?

  1. The development cycle itself is slower. I can throw up a temporary API using a variety of tools (or mock it client side using something like $httpBackend) and start work on the UI immediately. As I make each change I just have to refresh the browser to see my change in place. In fact, if I use tools like the Grunt server the browser refresh is automatically triggered when I save a changed file so I can just glance over at it and evaluate the results without leaving my code.

    Most server side frameworks involve a compilation step of some type (for example, Java’s JSPs are translated to servlets and then those are compiled to a byte code for the VM). Thus I have a longer wait to view each change I make.

  2. If my UI is built client-side with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript then it’s way more efficient because the only data which is being transported back and forth is that sent via the API calls to the server. I don’t have to ship a complete list of all the products wrapped in HTML layout one minute, and then minutes later what is effectively the exact same list (minus one or two and plus one or two) again wrapped in a bunch of HTML formatting. Note: Some of this can carry over to content delivery networks as well because an all static files front-end works really well around the world.
  3. Users get tired of every thing they click upon meaning another trip to the server. If they just looked at that data a minute ago, it may well be in memory locally so showing it again is free. But if I have to go to the server again to get it re-rendered for re-display, I can get really old fast. I think we can all point to a site where we are frequently frustrated by the slow performance.
  4. And why is it slow? Well, because it’s not just persisting data and performing queries on it, it’s also combining that data with HTML templates of some flavor to generate full pages and doing so over and over and over again. More work for the server means more servers needed, more time spent on performance tuning, etc.

3. It’s a more complicated programming model.

  1. If you do a lot of web applications where the pages don’t use any JavaScript to pull data on the fly, validate user’s forms in real time, etc. then that’s great. But if you are then you’ve got a wonderful hybrid going where sometimes you work in one language server side but you also use JavaScript client-side and you’ve got two different models just for one UI.
  2. For many frameworks, lots of middle tier complexity can leak into the pages, making them way more complicated than HTML and thus much harder for designers (and programmers) to work on. I’ve seen this most often in frameworks where designers are expected not to use standard HTML. Instead they’re supposed to use perfect XML where every tag perfectly matches a closing tag and not a bracket is out of place, or they can’t use the <a>, <form>, <input>, etc. tags, instead each has some replacement which is supposed to be used which typically functions about 70% or so the same as the regular tag.
  3. I loved this recent quote about JSF, a technology that I rejected at a previous employer because it was very clear that it was designed by committee and not extracted from real projects (like say Ruby on Rails):

4. Debugging is much more complicated.

Something as simple as how some HTML is rendering may require me to setup a debugger on a server on a remote machine because it is being generated from an intermediate file and data on the server.

With AngularJS or similar JavaScript frameworks, I can first look to see if the data came to the browser without problems. That involves just looking at the JSON I received from my API calls. If that’s good then I can set breakpoints in the JavaScript in the browser to see how the JavaScript code flow is going awry. On data flowing from client to server I can usually just consult the browser to see what was sent and I again know whether I’m looking at a client or server problem.

Software Rants

Mine is not a real software rant, I wrote it tongue-in-cheek after reading one just this week which spun up a bunch of people. Like most of the others, I skipped gracefully past some problems:

  • I still have non-API uses for servers. If I need a CSV or XLS file for download, it’s still way easier to have that generated on the server than to try and craft it client side with JavaScript.
  • I glossed over areas where the server generated web pages have advantages (for example, if your users are developmentally disabled and insist on staying on IE 7 or keeping JavaScript turned off).
  • I also skipped over the fact that there are browsers like older versions of IE where the debuggers are very poor and debugging can be just as painful client-side as it is for server-side.

Every framework that has achieved some level of popularity or notoriety has had its share of famous rants (Rails is a Ghetto, Node.js is stupid, and if you use it, so are you!, Why we left AngularJS which has since been renamed to 5 surprisingly painful things about client-side JS). Somebody doesn’t like the language, the framework, the community which goes with it and in frustration they vent. Sometimes they’re right about their complaints and sometimes they’re wrong, often it’s somewhere in between. Just relax and try to read it with an eye to whether the points being made are good ones and ignore the vitriol.

“selfhelp” – a self-upgrading Node.js application

I have a strange little project I’ve been working on over the last few weeks. It’s an example app I wrote using Node.js which is capable of self-upgrading itself to new versions. Thus you could use it as the basis of a cross-platform application with a browser based UI like SABnzbd+, the Plex Media Server, Couch Potato, and Sick Beard. All of which work on different operating systems (Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux) and which offer the same UI across all of them. So, this isn’t really intended for use on servers as much as it is intended for use on desktop machines so you can build apps using Node.js and whatever front-end technologies you happen to fancy (my particular flavor is AngularJS, though there is none in the example application).

I got it to where it works well on Mac OS X so I thought I’d write about it and maybe someone else would find it interesting enough to see if they could add a Windows batch file to it, maybe test it on Linux, or see if it suits a project they have been wanting to build. It’s called “selfhelp” and it’s available over on Github:

https://github.com/JohnMunsch/selfhelp

6 Tips for building JavaScript apps

I’ve actually built a few JavaScript applications in the new style (AngularJS, Backbone.js, or other front-end JavaScript framework on the front-end and only APIs on the back-end) over the last couple of years. Here are some tips on what I think has worked well on those projects:

  1. Understand this, above all else, the front-end code is not real security! If you’re an American you can understand this via an analogy. The JavaScript code running in the browser is the TSA, it is security theater which exists just to make some user’s experience better. For example, it might hide buttons which the user is not allowed to click. But that doesn’t mean that the user cannot hack the JavaScript to turn on the forbidden button anyway. All of the real security in your application exists at the API layer. It must check every single value passed to it and confirm that the user has the permissions to perform the action he/she is trying to perform before actually doing anything. Likewise, it must not return any information which the logged in user should not have access to. Relying on the JavaScript code to hide part of the data will not work. Put all of your security focus on having a bulletproof API and you will never have real security problems.
  2. People use HTTP error codes to communicate back data for their APIs. In my opinion that’s a really bad idea and often not very adaptable to the actual errors you’re having. Instead use the JSend protocol for all the JSON you return. It’s the same objects you would probably send back today except that it is wrapped with an object that tells you status (‘success’, ‘fail’, or ‘error’) and messages/codes when appropriate because there were errors. Going this route will simplify your JavaScript service calling code and help you differentiate API errors from actual transport layer problems like servers being down or problems on the network.
  3. Don’t try to sequence operations from the front-end. I once answered a question on Stack Overflow where the asker wanted to know about how to sequence a seven step process for paying for something. I answered it once telling how to do it and then again to say never to do that. You should not have your front-end be the conductor and the back-end be the orchestra. If you do, you will be sorry because eventually someone will lose their web connection, close their laptop, or just shut down their browser in the middle of your carefully choreographed sequence. Instead, always try to make API calls from front to back that provide complete units of work, complete transactions with all the information needed for multi-step operations so you won’t end up with only part of an operation completing.
  4. Please, please, please, please don’t do things that break basic conventions in your apps. There’s no reason the user shouldn’t be able to hit the back button or the forward button. It requires very little thought to support (especially if you use modern JavaScript frameworks). Ditto bookmarks and multiple tabs. There shouldn’t be any reason I can’t copy a URL and send it to somebody else or make a bookmark of my location so I can get back to the same spot. Nevertheless, I’ve worked on so many apps over the years where these basic operations acted weird or wouldn’t work at all. Don’t be one of those apps.
  5. Spend some time thinking about what happens when the user sits on a page so long his/her session expires on the server. If you’re following suggestion two above then you can send back a standard error in your JSend and catch it in your JavaScript code. Then just prompt the user to login without ever leaving the page. Likewise, think about what happens when the user clicks on a bookmark in the browser or an email and goes to the site but is not yet logged in.
  6. Please, don’t be afraid to reject some ancient browsers. There’s good code out there to help you do it and make it look nice, but ultimately you’re doing yourself, your users, and everybody else a service if you refuse service for IE 6/7/8 and maybe more than that depending upon your needs.

A post-mortem on my first AngularJS project

Before I started my current employer down the road to AngularJS I decided to do a small (but complete) project using it just to see what it felt like. I had a colleague from my previous job who needed a website at precisely this point in time when I needed a project to do. It was small, self-contained, downloaded all of the data it needed at the time it initialized (so I wouldn’t have to start using AJAX with AngularJS and come up with a service layer when he didn’t already have one in place). In other words, it was almost like it had been designed for what I needed to learn.

It was to quote prices for custom t-shirts and it had some fairly complicated calculations it needed to do based upon shirt cost, shirt color, number of colors printed front and back, quantity of shirts, and surcharges for large shirts. Here’s the finished UI:

The interface as the user first sees it.

The interface as the user first sees it.

His original design called for buttons the user clicked to get a quote generated and to clear out a quote when the user wanted to get a new one. I wanted to see if I could use AngularJS to generate two versions of the same website using the same controller; one would have the buttons of the original design, the other would simply update all of the prices in real-time as the user selected colors, sizes, etc.

When I was done I had a couple of functions and flags the “quote button” version of the site used that the real-time update version of the page didn’t need but otherwise the same controller worked quite happily with two different versions of the UI (the original and my design). Needless to say, the real-time quote updates version of the site was much less clunky to use and is the only version of the source code I’ve made available on Github. My colleague (who also provided me with the web design) preferred it as well.

Prices and the quantity discounts update in real-time as the user changes colors, printing colors front and back, quantities, etc.

Prices and the quantity discounts update in real-time as the user changes colors, printing colors front and back, quantities, etc.

If you want to download the source code to an AngularJS app that isn’t another To-Do List or something to pull down Twitter tweets then feel free to check out this project here: https://github.com/JohnMunsch/airquotes

Now for the retrospective part of the blog. Surprisingly, there aren’t a huge number of things about the code that stand out as glaring mistakes almost five months later, despite spending hundreds of hours working with AngularJS since. Given how much I’ve learned in other parts of the framework, I think that speaks well to how much I could learn in a short time to get the project done and done fairly well. But that’s not to say that it’s perfect. Three changes I could pinpoint off the top of my head were:

  1. All of the shirt data and pricing data were just dumped as JSON into a file and used as global variables by the controller I built. Now I know that I could put them into an AngularJS service and inject them into the controller. That would be cleaner, but you won’t see it that way in the current code.
  2. I need to do another view to demonstrate how the user could flip over to a catalog of shirts in order to pick a different type of short-sleeved shirt, long-sleeved shirt, crop-top, etc. and then that would change the route to pick a different shirt. The routing for a selected shirt is in place, but the picking page isn’t. The fellow I was working with said he could provide that, but I think my example would be better if I went ahead and put one in.
  3. I do a lot of calculations and sub-calculations to bfigure the price and to figure the price at different price-break levels for the display. That code should really be unit tested. I actually did something about this recently, read on for details.

So I recently returned to the project with an eye to fixing a few things and the largest change I made was to use it to figure out how to do both unit tests and figure out how to know how much of my code was covered by the tests. The coverage report was, let’s just say highly motivating, when there were only a few tests in place so I spent a few hours writing a simple suite of tests to get me to 100% coverage.

So, if you’re interested, I can show you what was involved in getting unit tests and a coverage report added to an existing AngularJS project. First, if you haven’t already installed Node.js onto your machine, you should do so from the big green install button over here. Then run:

sudo npm install -g karma

The sudo won’t be necessary on Windows systems but on Mac OS X and Linux you’ll want it because we’re trying to install Karma, our unit test runner, globally so you can use it from any of your projects. Once you’ve done this once, you shouldn’t have to do it for each project.

npm install karma-coverage --save-dev

This gives us a Karma component which can check the percentage of our code which our tests reach. It’s uses the Istanbul project and it will show you at the line level exactly which lines are getting hit by your unit tests. The –save-dev adds it to the dev-dependencies part of your package.json file so npm knows it’s only a development dependency and not a runtime dependency.

bower install angular-mocks --save-dev

They’re different tools but both bower and npm recognize the –save-dev flag and use it the same way. In this case angular-mocks becomes a development dependency in your bower.json file. It will help us when we’re building our unit tests for AngularJS code.

karma init

The installation parts are done, now it’s time to add unit testing to a particular project. This will get Karma to ask you a series of questions and generate a configuration file. With a few tweaks to that file you’ll be ready to run unit tests and get code coverage information for your tests.

Karma init options.

Karma init options.

This screenshot shows me setting up a configuration file the same way I set up mine for this project. I picked Jasmine for writing the tests (other choices are Mocha and QUnit), I don’t use RequireJS, and you’ll notice it gave me an error message for no matching JavaScript files. That happened in this case because I was doing this test run in an empty directory, you wouldn’t see that normally.

If you actually open up the config file Karma generated at this point you’ll find it pretty easy to read. It has nice comments so you can tell where it wants you to put library files, the files you want to test, the browsers in which you want to test, etc.

You’re going to make two edits to the file at this point to get some things we want in there. This should be a one-time thing again.

There’s a files array part way down the page. Make sure you add the path to the angular-mocks.js in there.

And you’ll need to add a preprocessors section like you see below so the code coverage tool knows exactly which source it’s checking for test coverage and add ‘coverage’ to the list of reporters to turn on the coverage checker.

preprocessors: { 'app/scripts/**/*.js': 'coverage' },
reporters: ['progress', 'coverage'],

Note: If you use the latest angular-generator together with the latest Yeoman it seems like the generator now creates a Karma config file (karma.conf.js) and installs the angular-mocks so you can skip those two steps for your new project if you’re using Yeoman to generate it.

Finally there’s the writing of the tests themselves and the checking your coverage to see where else you need to craft tests.

To kick off this process, run “karma start” at the command line and Karma should now kick into gear, start up the browser or browsers you wanted your tests to run in, and start watching all of your source files for changes. This is super handy because you can save a change to a source file or a test file, Karma will notice that and rerun your tests so you get immediate feedback on whether everything is passing or not.

When I had only one test completed, this is what the coverage report looked like. Look for it in a subdirectory under the coverage directory after you've run some tests through Karma.

When I had only one test completed, this is what the coverage report looked like. Look for it in a subdirectory under the coverage directory after you’ve run some tests through Karma.

I’m not going to give instructions on writing Jasmine tests or even the specifics of writing them for AngularJS. There’s good examples for Jasmine on their website and I have to confess that most of the tests I’ve written so far focused on testing JavaScript rather than AngularJS specific items like services and directives. So I still have some learning yet to do. But for basic tests, if you look at the test/spec/airquoteSpec.js you can see 20+ tests I wrote for my code to achieve complete coverage of my main.js file.

With tests written for all the code in main.js there's lots of green and 100% coverage indicators at the top of the page.

With tests written for all the code in main.js there’s lots of green and 100% coverage indicators at the top of the page.

Good luck, I hope some of my code is helpful to you in your own projects, and feel free to ask questions about any of it.

Just enough server (and no more)

I’ve reached a point where I actually want very little from my app server. My requirements for a web server are the antithesis of the hulking monoliths that dominate the Java EE world because all I want is:

  • Something that delivers my static files (HTML, CSS, JavaScript, images, maybe later things like video/audio).
  • Something that can handle HTTPS encryption. Compression is nice to have too, but not an actual requirement.
  • It would be a huge help if it offered some way of handling authentication and then validated it on a variety of paths (somehow this usually gets skipped in the big app servers as very important).
  • It can support my building of an API so my client (which at the moment is AngularJS but could just as easily be Ember.js or Backbone.js) has a back-end to which it can connect.
  • Offers some way for the API to be able to connect to some form of storage to retrieve and persist data, probably by connecting to a database or NoSQL solution.

If you give me just that from a server you’ve given me enough to build a lot of different kinds of applications. Not all of them, but probably a majority.

Note that the first two requirements I mentioned above aren’t even strict requirements. If I put Apache’s web server in front of the app server then I can handle serving up the static files or HTTPS encryption and the app server is needed even less. But for the purposes of easy setup for software development it’s nice if the app server can stand alone for a while without requiring Apache.

That’s why I’m pretty excited about Node.js at the moment. It’s an example of “just enough server” because you can configure a server, seemingly very simply, that will do just that handful of things and no more. Now, this is the classic example of having read about something but not having actually done it yet. I haven’t built anything of any real size with Node.js yet so once I really get in there I may completely change my mind about it. But I’m keen to see if I’m right and it can be that for me.

Follow Up

I’m just so clever I’m pretty much a complete idiot. More than a week ago a friend of mine at work pointed out a new course on MongoDB and said, “You should take that, you’ve been talking about that and it’s free.” Since having a JSON document based storage to go with Node.js is a pretty natural fit, I promptly signed up for 10gen’s course M101JS MongoDB for Node.js Developers and then I equally promptly… forgot all about it. But writing this entry yesterday jogged my memory a little and I thought, “Hey, I should go check out that course, I can start watching the lectures and maybe catch up to everybody else.”

So I went to check it out and discovered that there were lectures I hadn’t watched but better than that, it was a course with a grade, and it was a course with homework too. Yay. Fortunately, while the lectures took a while the homework took only 15 minutes or so for the first one and I’m all caught up. So maybe once this course is done, you can join their next one if they offer it again for free. But try to remember your homework.

AngularJS Services and Promises

Promises, Deferred, Futures

Call it what you will, promises are another mechanism for dealing with the asynchronous nature of some things you’ll do within JavaScript. For example, calling remote services, timers, animations completing, etc. In each case you could just have a callback, but what if you wanted to attach several callbacks to the completion or failure of a single asynchronous job? That’s difficult with callbacks, but promises make it easy.

Promises make it easy to tie together several asynchronous actions and treat them as one. This makes it easy to react only when all have completed or one of them had a problem. This is a much better solution than the nesting of callbacks you often see done in JavaScript code. Nested callbacks are often written in a way that forces requests to be made serially when they could be executed in parallel and perform better as a result.

Promises can simplify code in another way because a promise which has already resolved and one which has yet to resolve are treated are both used in exactly the same way.

Promises in AngularJS

AngularJS offers promises via a service called $q. It is modeled after a promise library called (not surprisingly) Q. You’ll see promises returned from several of AngularJS’s services, including $http (for service calls), $timeout, and $route (though I admit I’m not sure how it’s being used in the latter case).

AngularJS even has support for promises being assigned directly to $scope variables. So you can take the promise you get back from a remote service call and assign it directly to a variable knowing that when the service call finally returns, the variable will be updated and any binding attached to the variable will redisplay. That’s significantly easier than other frameworks I’ve used in the past.

Service Calls

I thought I’d give three examples of calling a service with $http and show how the promise it returns may be used directly, and examples of how caching and aggregation can be made easier thanks to promises.

For these examples I’m just calling the OpenKeyval service to store and retrieve some JSON data. It’s simple, it’s free, and I know I can count on any code I give you being able to access it without any special API key.

Source code for all of the following and more is here: https://github.com/JohnMunsch/AngularJSExamples, in particular look at the app/scripts/controllers/promises.js and app/view/promises.html to see the code specific to these examples.

Click here to see all of the following as running examples on Github

    • Example 1: Store and retrieve some values. Promises returned from $http are assigned directly to $scope variables and AngularJS dereferences them automatically.
    • Example 2: Make multiple calls to different services aggregating the results of all the calls and merging the results into a single returned value.
    • Example 3: A common pattern for services is to be able to satisfy requests from a local cache when appropriate. Promises can make that an easy upgrade for an existing service.

A Shortcoming

$q is not as full featured as Q is. That’s not surprising because AngularJS is only trying to provide as much functionality as it needs without requiring you to load up another library. AngularJS does the same kind of thing when it comes to jQuery. It has a minimal subset of functionality built in (called jQLite) that it uses if jQuery wasn’t loaded prior to loading AngularJS.

However, this is where things suddenly differ. If you do load jQuery prior to loading AngularJS then it won’t use it’s own built in version, but will instead use the more full-featured jQuery implementation. However, as far as I know, loading up the Q library or jQuery before you load up AngularJS doesn’t cause AngularJS to use Q promises or jQuery Deferred objects instead of its own subset implementation. That seems to me like an oversight or shortcoming to their implementation.

Nevertheless, I hope I’ve shown with the examples above that you can still do some really interesting things even with the limited set of functionality $q provides.

Follow Up

After a few weeks I realized that something I didn’t really cover is how assigning a promise to a variable in $scope can hinder access of that same variable in the controller. For example, if you do something like this:

$scope.someValue = $http.get(someURL);

You’ve assigned a promise to the variable and from the standpoint of code in your view, nothing really changed. You can still do {{someValue.someSubValue}} and act blissfully unaware that someValue is a promise rather than a JavaScript object. But, try the same thing from the controller code and you’ll have all kinds of problems. $scope.someValue.someSubValue isn’t anything you can access in the controller because $scope.someValue is actually a promise and will always stay a promise, even once it’s resolved. The only thing that changes once it’s resolved is that any .then() function you call on it will immediately call the closure you pass into it with the value the promise now caches. Thus you will forever more have to use it within the controller like so:

$scope.someValue.then(function (value) { $log.info(value.someSubValue); });

If you have some values you’re getting via AJAX calls or via some other mechanism that returns a promise and you need to access them as much or more from a controller as from view code then only assign the resolved value into the scope and not the promise. For example:

$http.get(someURL).then(function (value) { $scope.someValue = value; });

In that case you’re waiting until the promise resolves and only assigning the final returned value into the scope. Now both the view code and the controller can directly access $scope.someValue.someSubValue freely.

Reference

Yeoman, Grunt, and Bower

Aside from being a top end legal team, Yeoman, Grunt, and Bower are also the names of some front-end development tools I use when working on new projects these days or whenever it’s going to be easier to throw together some code and test it out in a testbed rather than embedded in a larger project. First I’ll go over what role each of these has in the development of a modern website front-end. Then I’ll take a brief side trip into a tool (Node.js) which isn’t directly relevant to any of them, but one which is required in order to install them. Then we’ll get into some specifics for all three as I demonstrate using them to get started on an AngularJS project.

Yeoman is the code generator, it fulfills a role similar to that filled by the Rails app if you’ve ever used Ruby on Rails because it can be used to generate whole projects or individual pieces of code depending upon the specific code generators it has installed. It gives you a quick shell from which to start a project.

Grunt is the builder and utility tool. As with Yeoman it’s modular in nature and as a result it can fulfill a huge variety of roles. Typical things you might call upon Grunt to perform would be concatenating multiple CSS or JavaScript files together for faster download, minifying CSS or JavaScript files (again for faster download), running a small local server to make developing your website easier, looking for errors in your JavaScript, running JavaScript unit tests, running compilation tools for CoffeeScript, LESS, or Sass, and the list goes on and on. If you have a Java background you might think of Ant as the closest analogy for Grunt.

Finally, Bower is your web component installer. If you find yourself needing to install a JavaScript library or a CSS/JavaScript framework, Bower can handle that and even make sure that any other components upon which it depends (for example, Backbone.js requires Underscore.js) are also automatically installed. Java tools like Maven and Ivy offer similar functionality so that each developer can get the libraries he/she needs installed without having to check all of them into version control systems with the code being developed.

That side trip I mentioned

As strange as it might seem to require an installation utility (npm) in order to install an installation utility (Bower), that’s exactly what I’m going to tell you to do. These days any JavaScript software worth its salt seems to be installed in much the same way. First you go get the latest version of Node.js (there’s a big green install button on the middle of the http://nodejs.org/ page). When you install that you’ll also pick up a nifty little utility known as the Node Package Manager or npm for short. With npm installed you can then install all three of the aforementioned tools Yeoman, Grunt, and Bower.

As I mentioned earlier, you use the npm tool you just installed to install the other three by running “npm install -g yo” (the details are covered on Yeoman’s website: http://yeoman.io/ but that’s actually all you have to do). You’ll see npm download, compile, and install tons of stuff but you won’t actually be involved in the process. In that respect it’s much like other package managers like Yum or RPM.

Finally you’ll need some kind of Yeoman generator installed in order in order to generate our starting shell: “npm install -g generator-angular”

Yeoman

With all the installation out of the way, let’s create a directory for a new project (“mkdir TestApp”), change directory into the newly created directory, and just type “yo” at the command line and see what we see.

YeomanPick “Run the Angular generator” and hit enter, then answer the various yes or no questions it asks in order to generate the shell you want for your app. At the end it will also run npm to install the local copies of tools you may need and Bower to install the various libraries you need for your shell (for example, AngularJS and jQuery).

Yeoman has now fulfilled most of its mission but I want to look at some files it generated and then come back to using it as a tool even after we have our shell. There are many files worth noting which Yeoman generated but three in particular are:

  • package.json – This file tells npm which Node.js packages need to be installed in this particular project. Most of what you’ll find in here are packages Grunt needs to do its job. Rather than installing these globally, they are instead installed on a project by project basis so you can have different versions of the tools used by different projects.
  • bower.json – This file tells Bower which components to install in the app/bower_components directory. These are JavaScript and CSS components which you’ll use within the website you’re building.
  • Gruntfile.js – This file is task instructions for Grunt so it knows how to perform a set of different tasks for a given project. If you look near the bottom of the file you’ll see that the Angular generator has created a file with the tasks “server”, “test”, and “build” which in turn call many other sub-tasks to perform their work.

Finally it’s worth noting that that’s not the final use that Yeoman can have in our development. Just as a Rails user can continue to use the Rails command to generate new models, migrations, etc. within an already constructed project, the Angular generator can be used to generate services, routes, directives, filters, etc. as detailed here: https://github.com/yeoman/generator-angular

Grunt

Running Grunt from the command line with “grunt” should perform a default sequence where the JavaScript code is checked for errors, unit tests are run, and finally a “distribution” version of the application is built into the “dist” directory. Grunt will have concatenated CSS files and JavaScript files into common chunks like 7d151330.main.css, bd6ce9e3.plugins.js, c2ac0a01.scripts.js and the references to the original names within the HTML will have been replaced with the new file names. When you update some of your scripts and recompile, the file names will be different and there will be no need to worry about browsers continuing to use old cached versions of your scripts. You never have to perform this task, all of the files within the app directory may be deployed as soon as you are ready to do so, but Grunt performs a variety of optimization tasks which can make for a more performant site if you like.

One of the handiest things Grunt offers via the Gruntfile.js which was created is “grunt server”. Running that will compile files which you might have that need compiling (for example, if you use CoffeeScript rather than JavaScript or you’re using Sass), start up a server running the application, launch the index.html page in your default browser, and then watch for any changes to the files as you edit the CSS, HTML, and JavaScript and re-run compiles as needed and reload the page within the browser as you work on the website. I just love this feature because of how easy it makes it for me to work on features and immediately see the results in my browser, often I don’t even have to lift my fingers from the keyboard or switch apps to my browser because I can see if my changes accomplished what I want simply by looking at the automatically refreshed page.

At this point you would be forgiven for thinking that there was little point in installing Node.js except that it gave us the npm tool we needed to install all our other software, but actually Node.js is also being used behind the scenes by Grunt to run the local server I mentioned above.

Bower

Last but not least is Bower. It offers the opportunity to search for packages you may need in your project (for example, “bower search underscore” to find Underscore.js) and install them in your project (for example, “bower install –save underscore” to install the aforementioned package and add it to the list of dependencies in the bower.json file). Bower is also capable of understanding the difference between packages needed for development (for example, unit testing tools) and those needed for both development and runtime.

Since the .gitignore for the project will normally list both the app/bower_components and the node_packages directory, you won’t be checking in those pieces with your code (assuming you use Git as a version control mechanism). Instead, whenever checking out the project onto a new machine, just run “npm install” and “bower install” within the project directory and the tools will use the package.json and bower.json files to make sure all the needed pieces are installed.

But that’s not all

Keeping these tools up-to-date might prove difficult if not for the fact that the Node Package Manager is capable of doing so automatically via “npm update -g” for all your global software like Yeoman, Bower, etc. or “npm update” within the project directory to update Grunt packages, etc. I’m not going to contend that it always goes flawlessly, lots of this software is still beta and undergoing lots of changes so there have been days when I needed to remove it all and reinstall; but that’s rare and usually takes only a few minutes.

Changeable vector graphics with SVG and AngularJS

I’ve long been a fan of using SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) to do images that I can change easily on the fly. When I say “long been a fan” I mean that when I first started doing it I hand wrote some SVG as XML to show a donation bar we needed for GameDev.net and I had a program that would change the amount thus far donated on the bar and run it through an early version of the Java Batik library to spit out a JPEG file we could put on the website. It was crude, but it sure beat making a new graphic two or three times a day.

Years later things have gotten a lot easier. Modern browsers have advanced to the point where you can include an SVG image in the page as easily as referring to them in an img tag like so, <img src=”something.svg”/>, or just dumping some SVG code straight into the middle of the HTML for your page like this <svg>…lots of vector graphics…</svg>. And editing? Why would you edit by hand anymore when Adobe Illustrator can generate SVG files of your drawings for you, or if you have no budget for such nice tools, Inkscape does a pretty good job and costs nothing.

So it occurred to me the other day that it would be interesting to see if I could use AngularJS and its ability to rewrite HTML on the fly and combine that with SVG in the browser to rewrite SVG on the fly. The answer is, it not only works, it’s downright easy to do so. I’ve provided a couple of different examples to show just how easy it is to so.

Example 1: Have a SVG graphic where I change text within the graphic automatically because it’s tied to a value in an AngularJS model.

Getting an image to start with was pretty easy. I went to The Noun Project and grabbed an icon of the sun I liked. It was provided by an unknown author in this case. The icon came in SVG format so all I did with it in Inkscape was add a little color and some text that showed the temperature. Then I saved that as a “Plain SVG” file rather than an “Inkscape SVG” file. It might have worked as well with the latter but I didn’t want any surprises.

Inkscape editing SVG icon

I then popped over to an HTML file I had generated and imported it with an image link like this:

<img alt="" src="images/sunshine_plus_temp.svg" />

I then hand edited the SVG file and found where the text for the temperature and replaced it with an AngularJS model variable reference. So:

<tspan sodipodi:role="line" id="tspan4542" x="97.124313" y="52.063747">87°</tspan>

became:

<tspan sodipodi:role="line" id="tspan4542" x="97.124313" y="52.063747">{{temp}}°</tspan>

The <img> way of loading the SVG had to change because AngularJS wasn’t going to replace a variable inside an image for me. So I simply pasted the contents of the sunshine_plus_temp.svg right into the middle of a page already setup for AngularJS and put the temp variable into my $scope. It worked like a charm. With an input field tied to the model variable, as I typed, the SVG graphic was automatically updated with the new value.

My final touch was to externalize the SVG file. Nobody wants to edit an HTML file with half a dozen or more embedded lumps of SVG in there. It could quickly turn into an unreadable mess. And, as I already observed, <img> won’t work either. Ah, but AngularJS jumps to the fore again because it has it’s ng-include directive. All I had to do was this:

<span ng-include="'images/sunshine_plus_temp.svg'"></span>

and AngularJS was including the image where I needed it and binding the variable to the model for real-time update. Here’s the final version of the code I came up with for my first example, note the second set of quotes inside the ng-include to tell it not to interpret the string inside there, it’s just a string to use directly:

  <div>
    <p>Example 1: Text updated on the fly in an SVG graphic via AngularJS.</p>
    <span ng-include="'images/sunshine_plus_temp.svg'"></span>
  </div>
  <label>Temperature</label> <input type="text" ng-model="temp"/>

It’s worth noting that Inkscape is still perfectly capable of editing the SVG file even after the change I made and I guess I could have just made the change within Inkscape in the first place and never bothered opening up the file to manually change it with a text editor.

Inkscape editing modified SVG icon

Example 2: Have an SVG graphic that incorporates an image (just because it’s vector doesn’t mean it has to be all vector, SVG is great with images too) and use AngularJS to swap out the images on the fly.

We don’t really need a second example here, the first one showed pretty much everything but I wanted to show how easily images incorporate into SVG and help you achieve results that would be much much harder to do with other techniques. In this example I took a slides icon by Diego Naive, from The Noun Project, overlaid an image on top of it, and then overlaid a glossy reflection on top of half the slide, just to show that the image is fully incorporated by the graphic and can easily be rotated, have graphics on top of it, underneath it, etc. Stuff that would require a lot of work to do with many other techniques.

Again, I tested it out and edited the final SVG file to add a variable reference, in this case to {{slide_image}} instead of the specific file reference that I had added with Inkscape. This time, I will say that it does not edit nearly as well in Inkscape after the edit because it doesn’t know where to find an image named “{{slide_image}}”. Within the Inkscape editor you just see an error box where the image should be. Not perfect, but not debilitating either.

Here’s a page with links to both examples and to the Github repository with all the code for both: http://johnmunsch.github.io/AngularJSExamples/

Can you do JavaScript development with just an iPad at hand?

I recently headed off on a five day vacation and though I do have my priorities in order (eat, see the sights, take photos, walk a lot, read a lot) there is inevitably some downtime as the days go on. I didn’t want to lug along a laptop on this vacation so I resolved to see if there was any practical way to play with AngularJS and Ember.js (two frameworks I’ve been interested in recently) using only my iPad and an inexpensive Bluetooth keyboard.*

iPad and Bluetooth keyboard

For those who wish to skip ahead, the short answer is that it is possible, but it’s not much fun figuring it out so I’ll tell you later how I did it. As for whether it’s practical, I don’t think I’d consider it for anything except a small test project and the reason why comes down to one simple thing: debugging. If you’re a modern JavaScript developer you’re used to wonderful tools like Firebug and the Chrome Developer Tools for debugging and while Safari on iOS once had access to some basics like the JavaScript console those have been removed from iOS 6 in favor of a new remote debugging method. The new solution relies on a remote connection to Safari on Mac OS X. I’m sure it’s a much more sophisticated solution but why did we need to lose all JavaScript debugging support on iOS to get it? If I have to have my Mac along to do debugging I might as well do the JavaScript work on OS X in the first place…

That leaves your only debugging option as Firebug Lite 1.4, a project which has basically been abandoned due to lack of funds or interest or something and when I tried to combine it with AngularJS I was never able to get it to appear within the browser. I had more success with Ember.js because it both appeared and showed all the console messages from Ember, however the script tab was unable to show me the contents of any of the JavaScript files I was including locally. Due to the slow performance of the wi-fi at my hotel I pulled firebug-lite.js, jquery, handlebars, ember, etc. all down to my iPad and put them in the same location as the index.html file and the main.js file I was editing. Due to some form of security restriction with how the files were being loaded into the local browser Firebug Lite was unable to show any of them to me.

Ow.

That means that you’re going to be flying completely blind with AngularJS unless you’re prepared to handle logging via some other mechanism and even on Ember.js, are we really looking forward to something that’s reduced us to debugging entirely via log messages?


Textastic

I promised that I would say what I found worked best for development work and it was Textastic. It will let you create directories, fill them with files, edit them, and then view them with a built in instance of the iOS browser. It’s simple and straightforward and I was able to paste in sample AngularJS and Ember.js pages and they worked just great. I just couldn’t ever debug them properly. It does cost a few dollars but if you’re just looking for some easy way to play with HTML, CSS, or some simple JavaScript when all you have is an iPad (and hopefully a paired keyboard) then it’ll do in a pinch.

BTW, Cloud9 IDE looks like it would be an even better solution to this problem but they use the Ace editor and for whatever reason, it doesn’t work well on an iPad. I had problems with cursor position being one place while actual editing was another, it didn’t want to work well with my keyboard, it seemed slow, etc. There needs to be some work done on either the editor itself or on the iPad browser (or perhaps both) to make that a more viable solution.

Textastic - Ember.js plus Firebug LiteP.S. Most of this blog entry was written on the self same iPad/keyboard so don’t think the iPad is useless for any form of content creation, it just doesn’t do software development well at this time.

* Specifically a third generation iPad and the AmazonBasics Bluetooth Keyboard.