Web Development in 2017 – A Journey part I

A few weeks ago, after publishing my Collatz calculator, I decided I was going to develop a small web application to practice modern web development. And along the way I quickly discovered that a WebApp in 2017 is not nearly the same as that same WebApp in 2007, or even 2015.

Please note: work in progress. This article will be updated to reflect new insights.

Choices, choices… and Firebase

Web Development in 2017 is not your father’s web development anymore. For one thing, it’s now completely dominated by JavaScript. There are applications where even the static HTML and CSS are rendered through three different frameworks. This even extends to the backend with Node.js – even thought it may not be optimal for your needs.

But that’s just the beginning. There are a ton of choices to be made – we are drowning in tools and frameworks, a surfeit of riches in fact. So we have to make choices fast and be prepared to change things around as we gain experience with the choices we made. The important part is to try and not paint ourselves into a corner. But… there are some choices that will have quite an impact.

The biggest impact is created by something I wanted to try for a while now, which is having my back-end not only hosted by another party, but developed and maintained as well: this is called Backend-As-A-Service (BaaS). With BaaS you don’t host your own back-end. You don’t even host it somewhere else. No, someone else is hosting a back-end for you somewhere, and you are allowed to use its standard functionality. This will usually include authorization and storage.


Facebook used to have a very nice BaaS-solution called Parse, but that one has been shut down because it was no longer part of Facebook’s strategy. They did offer a migration path to the open-sourced version though, and you can deploy that server on AWS or Heroku, so it is still a viable option. But I chose to go with a different platform.

Google is still in the BaaS business, with an offering called Firebase. I’m not going to detail Firebase, because extensive documentation is available on the Firebase website. I will however say that, just like Parse, it has (amongst others) the following functions:

  • Authentication
  • Database (with authorization rules)
  • Filestore
  • Message queues
  • Events

In the beginning I will limit myself to the use of Authentication and the Database.

Having made the choice for Firebase, we are now stuck with some others as well. Developing for the web in 2017 needs suitable tooling. And you cannot just buy Visual Studio and expect it to work. Firebase is based on Node.js, JavaScript and Web API’s. You need suitable tooling for that.

JavaScript, Typescript and ES6 compliancy

Funny as it sounds, we have to discuss the language we use first. We can chose TypeScript or JavaScript, and in JS we can choose ES6/ES2015 or ES5. The ES stands for ECMAScript, which is the actual name of JavaScript but noone calls it ECMASCript. If that sounds confusing it’s because it is, but here is a good explanation.

Typescript?

Typescript is nice. It checks your datatypes at compile time which prevents bugs. If you do back-end development in JavaScript, you should probably do TypeScript. But it also adds another compiler to an already unholy mess of libraries and supporting crutches. And it opens the door for things like the aptly named Babel. Before you know it, you start targeting ES6 JavaScript and you need *another* compiler, Babel, just because you wanted to use templating and arrow functions. But you have a lot of work to do before you can actually display “Hello, world!” on a page now. Getting that investment back is pretty hard on small applications. So I avoid TypeScript for now.

ES6/ES2015?

ES6 gives us all kinds of nice things like arrow functions, templating, and a whole array of syntactic sugar. But using it means using Babel to first compile the ES6 JavaScript into ES5, which can be understood by browsers and Node.js. It’s a dependency I can do without.

So my choice is standard ES5 JavaScript. Having settled that, we move on to the tooling to support this choice.

Mandatory tooling

Some tools are so important, doing without them means drastically reducing or even completely negating your development speed or ability to even develop anything at all. These are what I call the mandatory tools. Like a compiler and IDE for C++ development.

Text editor

So, you’re going to write a webpage. VI, notepad or notepad++ is what I used back in 1997. Actually, in 2015 as well. For application development in 2017 the choices are different though. It will be either Visual Studio Code, Atom or Sublime (paid software). Sure, you can try alternatives (try typing “code text editor” in Google for a pretty neat custom list), but chances are it’s one of those three. They all have integrated support for Git, syntax checking and coloring, starting terminals and debuggers from the editor, and extensive customization and plug-ins. I believe VS Code has about 12000 plugins and the other two are not far behind.

Node.js

You may not consider this a tool, but once you install Node.js you also get Node Package Manager and access to a gazillion extremely useful other packages. Like CSS precompilers, plugins, Firebase deployment software, task managers, source control software, and of course Node.js itself: a pretty powerful backend webserver. Install it, because frontend development in 2017 is impossible without it. And all web development is made easier once you have it.

Source Code Control System

Once you develop, you need source code control. You literally can’t do without. And while I do not particularly *like* Git, it’s so ubiquitous and integrated in almost any toolset nowadays, you have to have a really pressing argument to use something like Mercurial (which I like a lot better than Git, but sadly had to let go along with my teddybear when I grew up). Let’s not discuss TFS or Subversion – they’re dead except for special use cases. Web development is not a special use case. So, install Git.

Front-End JavaScript Development Libraries

One word: jQuery. Whatever you do, you probably want to include this. A lot of frameworks include this out of the box, but if they don’t you’d still want this. Tons of utility functions, loads of functions for manipulating the DOM and they work as fast as the current browser will allow, without having to worry about what browser you run on. Absolutely essential for fast development.

CSS Framework

To make page layout easier, you can use a library that will give you easy ways of making a page responsive to where it runs and on what media it runs. This might look like an optional choice, but given the amount of different browsers and mobile media nowadays, it is quite impossible to handcode everything for every platform yourself. That’s why choosing one of these frameworks is a must.

The classic package for this was bootstrap.js, but you can also choose foundation.js. They both provide widgets such as buttons, sliders, cards, dropdowns, tabs etcetera but also responsive and columnar layout, and often styling as well. Bootstrap is the most used and best supported library, but Foundation is a strong contender. Currently I will go with Foundation.

Noteworthy is that both options support Google’s new vision on how to design for the new internet, called Material Design. Material Design is a design philosophy that ties the styling for all components you can use on the web together in one design philosophy. Google has changed all its applications over to this design, and also has its own implementation to showcase how this works, called Material Design Lite. This can be used as a lightweight layout framework, but is limited in application and styles. Since it is simple to use and looks very good, however, this is becoming quite popular. You can see it in action on the standard login-screen of Firebase applications that use the default UI. For now, I go with Foundation when I need layout, because Material Design Lite is a bit *too* simple.

Optional tooling

There are also some tools you can live without, but have the potential to make your life a lot easier.

CSS precompiler

A CSS pre-compiler gives you the ability to write CSS in a slightly different language, that gives you smaller CSS that’s easier to understand. If you have just one small stylesheet, you can do without. But once your styles get more complex, a CSS precompiler is very helpful. They provide loops, conditionals, functions for cross-browser compatibility and usually a more readable CSS. Choices here are Less, SASS and Stylus. All can be installed using NPM. Personally, I think Stylus provides the best and cleanest syntax, so I have chosen Stylus.

Task runner

A task runner is software that can take care of the precompiler step, then combines files as needed, minifies them, uglifies them, uploads them to the server and opens and refreshes a browser window. While this can be done with (Gnu)Make or Node Package Manager scripts, it’s easier to do in tools like Grunt and Gulp. Tools like Bower and Webpack also serve slightly different purposes, like combining files into one big JS include, but with HTTP/2 this may actually hurt performance more than it helps. This means there is a whole zoo of task managers and no clear winner in sight.

At the moment I use Gnu Make (from the Cygwin project) to compile stylus files and deploy and run Firebase. NPM Scripting wasn’t powerful enough without serious JavaScript coding, so I can’t recommend it. And yes, what I do could all be done by just starting the tools with the right options, but I find Make easier to use. Should I disover that I need something more powerful, I’ll try that and update this section.

Even more optionally optional tooling

And then we have the section with tools you don’t want or need to install unless you suddenly have a pressing need. And even then you should reconsider this until you have run out of alternatives. For most applications these are overkill. Come back when you are supporting something as complex as Facebook.

JavaScript libraries

jQuery is often combined with Underscore.js or Lodash.js for utility functions. Lodash seems to be faster and more agile. However, I consider it an optional library and you can chose whichever you like.

Another potentially useful library is Immutable.js. This provides you with enforced immutable datastructures, that eliminate accidental side effects from functions, preventing errors and improving performance. However, I don’t use it currently.

Testing Frameworks

Mocha and Chai are frameworks that provide you with the ability to do easy unit and integration testing, with good reporting. However, I’m not developing a library used by dozens of people. And neither is my game in any way going to be mission critical for anyone. So while breaking things while fixing others does look unprofessional, I can live with that for now. My application will likely remain small and easy to bugfix, so I am not going to invest in these frameworks at this time.

Templating Libraries

Templating libraries help us with HTML-templates that we can fill with data. Very useful if you want to display a list, for instance. However, I will skip this subject for now. Mustache.js and Handlebar.js are great libraries for this, but we already have templating in jQuery. If we ever get to a framework like Angular2.js, React.js or Vue.js, things will have to change again anyway. For now, I think jQuery will be fine. For more information, you may want to look into this overview.

JavaScript Frameworks

I haven’t yet discussed the elephant(s) in the room: Angular2.js, React.js and Vue.js. These are very popular frameworks that bring you everything from design to state machines, and the kitchen sink as well. The choice however, can be difficult. I have not yet decided whether to actually use one, because it’s probably overkill for my needs. I do not currently intend to build a Single Page Application. However, it may well turn out to be a better option than building a lot of separate pages. In that case I intend to go with Vue.js. This is because Angular2.js has a Model-View-Controller architecture I don’t think meshes particularly well with my application or Firebase. I’m much happier with a Model-View-ViewController type of architecture with one-way databinding (updates flow from the model to the view, not vice versa). This would mean either React or Vue since both support the Flux architecture with Redux and VueX. React is a bit heavier than Vue and renders the HTML from JavaScript, which is something I’m not particularly fond of, so if it comes down to it, I’ll go with Vue. For now though, I will stick with Foundation and jQuery for layout and templating.

My choices

As this is a journey, I’m going to travel a bit. Currently I have packed the following tools for my journey:

  • Development environment: Node.js (+ Node Package Manager) + Cygwin on windows
  • Language: JavaScript/ES5
  • Text editor: Visual Studio Code
  • Back-end: Firebase
  • Source code control system: Git
  • Front-End JavaScript Library: jQuery
  • CSS pre-compiler: Stylus
  • CSS layout framework: Foundation.js
  • Task runner: Make

That concludes my first post in the journey for now. My second post will detail my setup, including installation and configuration.

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