Isomorphic Apps Part 2: Node, React.js, and Socket.io

Two Heads, 1930, Wikimedia Commons
Two Heads, 1930, Wikimedia Commons

When I was a kid, I went to the movies to watch Mel Brooks’ “History of The World, Part I”. I had a great time and could not wait for the sequel (that featured, among other things, Hitler on ice, a Viking funeral and laser-shooting rabbis in ‘Jews in Space’ teaser). Alas, ‘Part II’ never came. Determined to not subject my faithful readers to such a disappointment, here comes the promised part II of my ‘Isomorphic Apps’ trilogy.

In the first part of this story, we created an isomorphic app by taking advantage of the fact that we can use Dust.js as an Express view engine, and then compile partials into JavaScript and re-use them on the client as needed. In order to compare approaches with only one variable changed, we will switch to React.js for the view.

What’s the deal with React.js

React.js is attracting a lot of attention these days due to the novel approach it has taken to building dynamic Web apps. At the heart of the approach is the notion of a virtual DOM. React.js components manipulate an abstraction of a DOM that is then transformed into the physical DOM in a highly optimized fashion. Even more ingeniously, browser’s DOM is only one of the possible transformations: virtual DOM can be also serialized into plain HTML, which makes it possible to use it on the server. Even more recently, it can be serialized into native code to address mobile (and even desktop) UI components.

I am old enough to remember Java’s “Write once, run anywhere” slogan, and this looks like new generation’s attempt to make a run for this chimera. But even putting React native on a side for a moment, the fact that you can render on the server makes React supremely suitable for isomorphic apps, something Angular.js is lacking.

React.js is also refreshingly simple to figure out. Angular.js has this famous adoption roller coaster, and sometimes when you don’t get an Angular peculiarity, you feel the fault is with you, not Angular. React.js took an approach that life is short, and we can do better things with our time than figure out the maddening quirks of a complex framework. There is no two-way binding (because it has shown to be a double-edged sword – see what I did here). When the model changes, you just naively rebuild the view (sometimes referred to as ‘write pages like it’s the 90s’). Seems massively suboptimal, but remember that you are only rebuilding the virtual DOM – React.js figures out the actual delta and only applies the delta against the real DOM. And since most of the performance (or lack thereof) lies in the physical DOM, React.js promises fast apps without writing a lot of code for smart and surgical updating on model changes.

Configuring React.js as an Express view engine

Alright, I hope this wet your appetite for some coding. We will start by cloning the page from part I and adding another view engine in app.js (because I am cheap/lazy and don’t want to run another app for this). For this we need to install react on the server, as well as the express view adapter.

We will start by installing ‘react’ and ‘express-react-views’ and configuring the jsx view engine:


var react = require('express-react-views');

...

app.engine('jsx', react.createEngine());
app.set('view engine', 'jsx');

The last line above should only be set if you will use JSX as the only view engine for Express. In my case, I had to omit that line because I am already serving some Dust pages, and you can only set one default engine. The only thing I lost this way was the ability to find JSX templates without the extension – they can still be rendered when extension is included.

The controller for our React.js page is almost identical to the one we wrote for Dust.js:


var model = require('../models/todos');

module.exports.get = function(req, res) {
   model.list(req.user, function(err, todos) {
      res.render('isomorphic_react.jsx',
         { title: 'React - Isomorphic', user: req.user, todos: todos });
   });
};

Most of the fun happens in the view, as expected. React.js requires some getting used to. For starters, JSX syntax is actually XML (and not even XHTML), so all elements require termination. Many attribute names require camel case, which is very annoying (I always hated Jade for this mental transformation, and now JSX is doing the same for me). At least the JSX transformer is yelling at you in the console about possible errors you made, so fixing up your JSX is not too hard:

var React = require('react');
var DefaultLayout = require('./rlayout');
var RTodo = require('./rtodo');

var Todos = React.createClass({
  render: function() {
    return (
      <DefaultLayout { ...this.props} selection="react">
        <h1>Using React.js for View</h1>
        <h2>Todos</h2>
        <div className="new">
           <textarea id="new-todo-text" placeholder="New todo"/>
        </div>
        <div className="delete">
           <button type="button" id="delete-all"
              className="btn btn-primary">Delete All</button>
        </div>
        <div id="todos" className="todos">
           {this.props.todos.map(function(todo) {
          	return <RTodo key={todo.id} {...todo} />;
           })}
        </div>
        <script src="/js/prettyDate.js"></script>
        <script src="/js/rtodo.js"></script>
        <script src="/js/rtodos.js"></script>
      </DefaultLayout>
    );
  }
});

module.exports = Todos;

The code above requires some explanation. Unlike with Dust.js, both inclusion into a common layout template and instantiation of partials is done through React.js component model. Notice that we imported DefaultLayout component that is our standard page boilerplate. The payload of the page is simply specified as content of the instantiated component in the ‘render’ method above.

Another important point is that unlike Dust.js, properties are not automatically passed down the component hierarchy – we need to explicitly do it (notice the strange “{ …this.props }” expression in the DefaultLayout declaration – what I am saying is ‘pass all the properties down to the child component’). We can also define new properties, which I am doing by passing ‘selection’ that will be used by the header component (to highlight the ‘React’ link).

Another important section of the template is where I am instantiating RTodo component (a single Todo card). Flow control can be tricky in JSX because the entire template is one giant return statement, so everything needs to evaluate to an expression. Notice the trick with using the array map to iterate over the list of todos and render each child todo component.

This code will produce a page very similar to the one with Dust.js, with identical results. In fact, it is possible to go back and forth because both pages are using the same REST service for the model.

JSX compiler

So far we took care of the server side. As with Dust.js, we can compile components we need on the client side, this time using jsx compiler that comes by installing ‘react-tools’:


#!/bin/bash
node_modules/react-tools/bin/jsx --extension jsx views/ public/js/ rtodo

We can compile any number of components and place them into the JS directory under /public folder so that Express can serve them to the browser.

The client side script is very similar to the one used by the Dust.js page. The only difference is in the ‘Add’ action handler:

var socket = io.connect('/');
socket.on('todos', function (message) {
  if (message.type=='add') {
    var newTodo = document.createElement('div');
    React.render(React.createElement(RTodo, message.state),
              newTodo);
    $(".todos").prepend(newTodo);
  }
  ...

The code is remarkably similar – instead of calling ‘dust.render’ to render the partial using the element we received via the Socket.io message, we ask React to render the compiled element into a new DOM element we created on the fly. We then prepend this element into the parent DIV.

Commentary and comparisons

First off, I would say that this second attempt at writing an isomorphic app was a success because I was able to replicate Dust.js example from part I with identical behaviour. However, it is not as good a fit for React.js. A better example would see us modifying a model and asking React.js to re-render an existing DOM branch. Now that I feel reasonably comfortable around React.js, I think I will create something more dynamic for it in the near future. A true React-y way of doing the list of todos would be to simply re-render the entire list on each Socket.io message. We would let React.js figure out that all it needs to do is insert a new Todo DIV into the parent node. This way we would not need to create DOM elements ourselves, as in the code above.

After spending a year working with Dust.js, JSX took some getting used to. As I said, I hated Jade because it created an additional layer of abstraction between me and HTML, and I never quite knew what final HTML it will produce. JSX evokes the same feelings in me, but the error/correction loop has shortened as I learned it more. In addition, the value I get in return is much higher with JSX than with Jade.

Nevertheless, certain things will not get better with time. JSX is awkward to work with when it comes to logic. Remember, the entire template is an expression, so statements are really hard to fit in. Tertiary conditonals work, and as you saw, it is possible to use tricks with maps to iterate over children in a collection. I still prefer Dust.js for straightforward pages, but I can see how React.js can work with components in a very dynamic app.

I like React.js component model, as well as the fact that code and markup are close to each other – for a developer this is very useful. I also like the fact that, JSX quirks aside, there is much less magic compared to Angular.js. Of course, React.js is really just a View of MVC, so it is not a fair comparison. On the other hand, I am now dying to hook it up into Backbone as a view – it feels like a great combination (and of course, there are already articles on exploiting this exact combination). The more I think and read about it, Backbone models/collections/router and React.js views may just end up being my favorite stack for writing highly dynamic apps with server side bonus for SEO and initial experience.

A word of caution

If your system has elements of both a site and an app, use micro-services and implement site portions with a more straightforward templating solution (as I already covered in the previous blog post). This is going to make content authoring easier and increase the number of content providers with cursory knowledge of HTML that will feel confident authoring and/or modifying something like Dust.js templates. Leave React.js for 10x developers working on the highly dynamic ‘app’ portions of the system. By the way, this is an area where micro-services shine – this kind of partitioning is one of their key selling points. You can easily have micro-services using Dust.js and micro-services using React.js (and as I have already shown, even mixed in the same Node app).

One of the downsides of a mixed system (one using both Dust.js and React.js) is that sometimes content pages have dynamic component sprinkled in them. The challenge is invoking those component without requiring your casual developers to be afraid to touch such pages. Invoking React.js component in a Dust.js page would require inserting JavaScript tags, which is less then ideal. This is where Web Components are much easier to reason about, and there are already attempts to bridge the two worlds – invoking React.js components as custom Web Components.

And that’s a wrap

As before, you can browse the source code as IBM DevOps Services project, and the latest version of the app is running in Bluemix. In the final instalment of this trilogy, I will make our example a bit more dynamic (to let React.js show its true potential), and add some structure using Backbone.js. Until then, React away!

© Dejan Glozic, 2015

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3 thoughts on “Isomorphic Apps Part 2: Node, React.js, and Socket.io

  1. I know this article is a few months old, but perhaps you could answer a little question regarding the two. How do Dust and React compare in terms of speed? I know it’s apples-to-oranges for a straight benchmark, but it feels like React would be a combination of natively slower than dust for discrete changes, but be faster than naive dust with its diff-style dom rewriting.

    In your experience so far, what has a bigger real-world influence and by what kind of margin?

    1. We didn’t really spend a lot of time comparing performance on the server. You are right that client side performance is the reason we went with React – in fact not just performance, but the fact that updating only things that need to change works around nasty problems of rebuilding active controls that users are interacting with, such as text areas. I would say that if I had a lot of content, and very little dynamic behaviour, I would still render the page with Dust because JSX is a bit unwieldy to deal with when the page contains a lot of content.

      Note that I mentioned in the article that you can set up two express engines and use both depending on what you need on a page by page basis – dynamic pages with React and more classic, content heavy pages by using Dust.

      Of course, if the content is fetched from storage and assembled programmatically in JSX elements, there is really no advantage to Dust.

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