Sunday, December 18th, 2022
Wednesday, October 19th, 2022
But just because it’s the same language doesn’t mean you should treat it the same in both circumstance. As Remy puts it:
One for the server - where you can go wild.
One for the client - that should be thoughtful and careful.
To me it seems obvious that there should an entirely different mindset for writing code intended for a web browser. But nothing’s ever really obvious.
I remember when Node was getting really popular and
npm came along as a way to manage all the bundles of code that people were assembling in their Node programmes. Makes total sense. But then I thought I heard about people using
npm to do the same thing for client-side code. “That can’t be right!” I thought. I must’ve misunderstood. So I talked to someone from
npm and explained how I must be misunderstanding something.
Tuesday, May 26th, 2020
Note that John is a computer scientist that knows a fair bit about the Web: He had Node & npm installed, he knew what MIME types are, he could start a localhost when needed. What hope do actual novices have?
I think it’s even worse than that. Not only are potential new devs being put off ever getting started, I know plenty of devs with experience who have pushed out by the overwhelming and needless complexity of the modern web’s toolchain. It’s like a constant gaslighting where any expression of unease is summarily dismissed as being the whinings of “the old guard” who just won’t get with the programme.
John gives up. Concludes never to touch Node, npm, or ES6 modules with a barge pole.
(Just watch as Lea’s post gets written off as an edge case.)
Tuesday, November 19th, 2019
I’ve found that the older I get, the less I care about looking stupid. This is remarkably freeing. I no longer have any hesitancy about raising my hand in a meeting to ask “What’s that acronym you just mentioned?” This sometimes has the added benefit of clarifying something for others in the room who might have been to shy to ask.
I remember a few years back being really confused about
npm. Fortunately, someone who was working at
npm at the time came to Brighton for FFConf, so I asked them to explain it to me.
As I understood it,
npm was intended to be used for managing packages of code for Node. Wasn’t it actually called “Node Package Manager” at one point, or did I imagine that?
Anyway, the mental model I had of
npm is to Node as PEAR is to PHP. A central repository of open source code projects that you could easily add to your codebase …for your server-side code.
But then I saw people talking about using
It turns out that my confusion was somewhat warranted. The
npm project had indeed started life as a repo for server-side code but had since expanded to encompass client-side code too.
I understand how it happened, but it confirmed a worrying trend I had noticed. Developers were writing front-end code as though it were back-end code.
On the other hand, it makes no sense at all! If your code’s run-time is on the server, then the size of the codebase doesn’t matter that much. Whether it’s hundreds or thousands of lines of code, the execution happens more or less independentally of the network. But that’s not how front-end development works. Every byte matters. The more code you write that needs to be executed on the user’s device, the worse the experience is for that user. You need to limit how much you’re using the network. That means leaning on what the browser gives you by default (that’s your run-time environment) and keeping your code as lean as possible.
Dave echoes my concerns in his end-of-the-year piece called The Kind of Development I Like:
I now think about npm and wonder if it’s somewhat responsible for some of the pain points of modern web development today. Fact is, npm is a server-side technology that we’ve co-opted on the client and I think we’re feeling those repercussions in the browser.
The Unix Philosophy encourages us to write small micro libraries that do one thing and do it well. The Node.js Ecosystem did this in spades. This works great on the server where importing a small file has a very small cost. On the client, however, this has enormous costs.
In a funny way, this situation reminds me of something I saw happening over twenty years ago. Print designers were starting to do web design. They had a wealth of experience and knowledge around colour theory, typography, hierarchy and contrast. That was all very valuable to bring to the world of the web. But the web also has fundamental differences to print design. In print, you can use as many typefaces as you want, whereas on the web, to this day, you need to be judicious in the range of fonts you use. But in print, you might have to limit your colour palette for cost reasons (depending on the printing process), whereas on the web, colours are basically free. And then there’s the biggest difference of all: working within known dimensions of a fixed page in print compared to working within the unknowable dimensions of flexible viewports on the web.
Fast forward to today and we’ve got a lot of Computer Science graduates moving into front-end development. They’re bringing with them a treasure trove of experience in writing robust scalable code. But web browsers aren’t like web servers. If your back-end code is getting so big that it’s starting to run noticably slowly, you can throw more computing power at it by scaling up your server. That’s not an option on the front-end where you don’t really have one run-time environment—your end users have their own run-time environment with its own constraints around computing power and network connectivity.
That’s a very, very challenging world to get your head around. The safer option is to stick to the mental model you’re familiar with, whether you’re a print designer or a Computer Science graduate. But that does a disservice to end users who are relying on you to deliver a good experience on the World Wide Web.
Friday, June 7th, 2019
Tuesday, March 5th, 2019
Hui-Jing talks through her process of building a to-do app on Glitch using a progressive enhancement mindset:
Saturday, February 23rd, 2019
Tuesday, May 29th, 2018
Push notifications explained using astrology. But don’t worry, there’s also some code, just in case you prefer your explanations to also include models that actually work.
Friday, May 18th, 2018
I had some problems with my bouzouki recently. Now, I know my bouzouki pretty well. I can navigate the strings and frets to make music. But this was a problem with the pickup under the saddle of the bouzouki’s bridge. So it wasn’t so much a musical problem as it was an electronics problem. I know nothing about electronics.
I found it incredibly frustrating. Not only did I have no idea how to fix the problem, but I also had no idea of the scope of the problem. Would it take five minutes or five days? Who knows? Not me.
My solution to a problem like this is to pay someone else to fix it. Even then I have to go through the process of having the problem explained to me by someone who understands and cares about electronics much more than me. I nod my head and try my best to look like I’m taking it all in, even though the truth is I have no particular desire to get to grips with the inner workings of pickups—I just want to make some music.
That feeling of frustration I get from having wiring issues with a musical instrument is the same feeling I get whenever something goes awry with my web server. I know just enough about servers to be dangerous. When something goes wrong, I feel very out of my depth, and again, I have no idea how long it will take the fix the problem: minutes, hours, days, or weeks.
I had a very bad day yesterday. I wanted to make a small change to the Clearleft website—one extra line of CSS. But the build process for the website is quite convoluted (and clever), automatically pulling in components from the site’s pattern library. Something somewhere in the pipeline went wrong—I still haven’t figured out what—and for a while there, the Clearleft website was down, thanks to me. (Luckily for me, Danielle saved the day …again. I’d be lost without her.)
I was feeling pretty down after that stressful day. I felt like an idiot for not knowing or understanding the wiring beneath the site.
But, on the other hand, considering I was only trying to edit a little bit of CSS, maybe the problem didn’t lie entirely with me.
choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.
Still, most of the time, the build process isn’t a hindrance, it’s a help: concatenation, minification, linting and all that good stuff. Most of my frustration when something in the wiring goes wrong is because of how it makes me feel …just like with the pickup in my bouzouki, or the server powering my website. It’s not just that I find this stuff hard, but that I also feel like it’s stuff I’m supposed to know, rather than stuff I want to know.
On that note…
Friday, February 9th, 2018
I still find the landscape of build tools completely overwhelming, but I found this distinction to be a useful way of categorising the different kinds of build tools:
Build tools do two things:
- Install things
- Do things
So bower, npm and yarn install things, whereas grunt, gulp, and webpack do things.
Monday, September 11th, 2017
This blog post saved my ass—the Huffduffer server was b0rked and after much Duck-Duck-Going I found the answer here.
I’m filing this away for my future self because, as per Murphy’s Law, I’m pretty sure I’ll be needing this again at some point
Monday, August 7th, 2017
Paul goes into detail describing how he built a progressive web app that’s actually progressive (in the sense of “enhancement”). Most of the stuff about sharing code between server and client goes over my head, but I understood enough to get these points:
- the “app shell” model is not the only—or even the best—way of building a progressive web app, and
- always, always, always render from the server first.
Thursday, March 30th, 2017
Charlotte’s step-by-step account of setting up a Node server is going to be invaluable if and when I get around to dipping my toes in those waters.
Thursday, March 23rd, 2017
Speaking as an ancient web developer myself, this account by Gina of her journey into Node.js is really insightful. But I can’t help but get exhausted just contemplating the yak-shaving involved in the tooling set-up:
The sheer number of tools and plugins and packages and dependencies and editor setup and build configurations required to do it “the right way” is enough to stall you before you even get started.
Friday, October 28th, 2016
Saturday, August 6th, 2016
Sunday, April 10th, 2016
One of these days I’m going to step outside of my PHP comfort zone and actually build something in Node. One of these days. When I do, this book looks like a good place to start (and the online version is free).
Saturday, December 5th, 2015
I have no hands-on experience with React, but this tutorial by Jack Franklin looks like a great place to start. Before the tutorial begins he succinctly and clearly outlines the perfect architecture for building on the web today:
- The next time a user clicks, rather than being sent to the server, the client-side app is in control.
Y’know, I had a chance to chat briefly with Jack at the Edge conference in London and I congratulated him on the launch of a Go Cardless site that used exactly this technique. He told me that the decision to flip the switch and make it act as a single page app came right at the end of the project. I think that points to a crucial mindset that’s reiterated here:
Saturday, December 20th, 2014
Monday, November 3rd, 2014