JSApps 101: Introduction To JavaScript Applications

Introduction

So, JavaScript… Again! After some months away from this blog, I am back with a new series of articles related to the incredible, magical and mysterious world of JavaScript. More specifically, JavaScript applications. Have you ever heard of AngularJS, Backbone, Knockout JS, LESS and such things? Read on, this might interest you.

We have used, at some point of our Internet life, some awesome websites, such as Facebook, Github, Spotify, and others; where everything is asynchronous, the user interface is super-responsive and couldn’t be closer to a desktop application in matters of functionality, all of this right in our browser. Less that some people imagine is that these sites owe their slickness mainly to our good old friend in battle: JavaScript; oh so many developers underestimate JavaScript. This article series will dive you into the basis of how these kind of powerful JavaScript applications are built and over what technologies and frameworks, so let’s move forward into some basic concepts.

Server-side v.s. Client-side

So, what in the world is a JavaScript application anyways? Well, as you might know, the traditional way a web application works is that you have a set of specialized frameworks and tools (name it ASP.NET, PHP, Spring Framework) running server-side; when someone requests a page from the server, it responds with an HTML document, usually resulting of the parsing of a server-side template (a PHP, ASPX or the alike) and then bound to data coming from the database. Those templates being processed by the server usually contain special syntax and directives that instructs the server’s templating engine how to bind data to it and produce a valid HTML document; some might recall these as the dreaded “server tags.”

Standard Server Request/Response

 

Some server-side technologies like ASP.NET use “controls” or helpers that assist in the rendering of complex user interface components into HTML like grids, forms and charts bound to dynamic data coming from the database. Each time these components need to be refreshed, they do it through asynchronous AJAX requests or a full-page refresh (known as a server post-back, which all users love, or not). While these are handy for speed-building of web solutions, is not as efficient as pure-JavaScript graphical components.

ASP.NET WebControls

Often, JavaScript is used to manipulate the structure of the resulting HTML document, get the value of a field, and other simple tasks dynamically on the browser (better known as “the client side”) without the need of refreshing the page. But as popularity of JavaScript arise (let’s thank jQuery for that), it is being delegated with more and more complex stuff like rendering templates into HTML, so it is done client-side and not server-side; binding of server data, validation of user input and controlling page flow. This being said, a JavaScript application is basically a “client” that runs on the browser, thanks to the leverage of technologies such as JavaScript, HTML5 and CSS3. All of the UI logic is controlled client-side, right there in the browser.

Structure of a JavaScript App

Before moving on, it is true that this requires a paradigm shift if you have been working on traditional web applications for a while, specially if you have never used a Model-View-Controller approach. If you have never heard of, or used Model-View-Controller, I’m afraid there is some reading to be done before continuing. But hey! You can start here, or else you can continue reading this incredibly sexy article.

As mentioned before, a JavaScript application, or JS App (patent pending), usually follows an MVC approach. It is composed of several “views”, which are usually HTML documents or templates; “controllers” that handles validation, logic flow and communications with the server; and “models” that contains the data to be displayed and bind on the views. As you might notice, is a pretty similar model to server-side technologies like ASP.NET MVC and Spring MVC, just that the entire presentation layer is being moved to the browser, specifically into JavaScript components. We’ll analyze advantages of this later on.

With all the presentation logic being handled by the browser, where does the data we see on the UI coming from? It comes from the server; that is the real use we have for it. The controller at the browser is the one responsible for this channel of communication; it retrieves data from the server each time the user pages through a data grid and sends data to it whenever the user needs to create or edit information. JS Apps work in a similar way to smartphone apps, in which a client runs on the phone locally and it uses data coming from a remote server. In fact, there are specialized build tools, like PhoneGap, that creates applications to be installed on a smartphone from HTML/JS/CSS3 sources.

JS App Structure

Pros & Cons

While JS Apps goes far off any conventional use of a browser, it offers several advantages:

  • Rendering of pages and templates is done by the browser in the client computer, taking advantage of the client computer’s processing power and leaving less workload on the server.
  • Better user interface responsiveness, since all calls to the server are asynchronously and JavaScript UI components are usually lightweight.
  • Completely decoupled from the server logic.
  • Less calls to the server, since it is only accessed to get data and not pages in every possible display state it might have.
  • High separation of concerns, since the server ONLY handles business logic and not UI-related validation and such.
  • Easy unit testing of the user interface and UI logic.

Also, it might represent some disadvantages:

  • Lots, lots and LOTS of JavaScript to be written; we all know it can be a pain to maintain if not properly done.
  • The learning curve is quite step, since most people is used to jQuery and DOM manipulation but not to JavaScript controllers, models and pseudo-classes; let alone advanced concepts like JavaScript dependency injection.
  • Data incoming to the server needs to be double-checked in order to prevent bad information sent by tampered JavaScript components.

Sounds Kind of Interesting, Now What?

OK, now that you might get the picture of what a JS App might look like and its advantages, so the next step would be to analyze the technologies and frameworks you could use, getting your hands dirty along the way so you can start developing this kind of applications.

In the following articles we will move into learning JavaScript libraries like AngularJS, for client-side Model-View-Controller; RequireJS, a library that allows asynchronous loading of JavaScript files on-demand; usage of Twitter Bootstrap, to build nice HTML5-compliant user interfaces; and ultimately how to structure your server application as a solid data provider for your JavaScript application.

So, stay tuned for more articles! 😀

 

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One thought on “JSApps 101: Introduction To JavaScript Applications

  1. Pingback: JSApps 101: Using Angular JS | Informatech CR Blog

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