Idiot-proof Coding with NodeJs and ExpressJs

NodeJs has become the most popular framework for web development surpassing Ruby on Rails and Django in terms of the popularity.The growing popularity of full stack development along with the performance benefits of asynchronous programming has led to the rise of Node’s popularity. ExpressJs is a minimalistic, unopinionated and the most popular web framework built for Node which has become the de-facto framework for many projects.
Note — This article is about building a Restful API server with ExpressJs . I won’t be delving into a templating library like handlebars to manage the views.

A quick search on google will lead you a ton of articles agreeing with what I just said which could validate the theory. Your next step would be to go through a couple of videos about ExpressJS on Youtube, try hello world with a boilerplate template, choose few recommended middleware for Express (Helmet, Multer etc), an ORM (mongoose if you are using Mongo or Sequelize if you are using relational DB) and start building the APIs. Wow, that was so fast!

The problem starts to appear after a few weeks when your code gets larger and complex and you realise that there is no standard coding practice followed across the client and the server code, refactoring or updating the code breaks something else, versioning of the APIs becomes difficult, call backs have made your life hell (you are smart if you are using Promises but have you heard of async-await ?).

Do you think you your code is not so idiot-proof anymore? Don’t worry! You aren’t the only one who thinks this way after reading this.

Let me break the suspense and list down the technologies and libraries used in our idiot-proof code before you get restless.

  1. Node 8.11.3: This is the latest LTS release from Node. We are using all the ES6 features along with async-await. We have the latest version of ExpressJs (4.16.3).

  2. Typescript: It adds an optional static typing interface to Javascript and also gives us familiar constructs like classes (Es6 also gives provides class as a construct) which makes it easy to maintain a large codebase.

  3. Swagger: It provides a specification to easily design, develop, test and document RESTful interfaces. Swagger also provides many open source tools like codegen and editor that makes it easy to design the app.

  4. TSLint: It performs static code analysis on Typescript for maintainability, readability and functionality errors.

  5. Prettier: It is an opinionated code formatter which maintains a consistent style throughout the project. This only takes care of the styling like the indentation (2 or 4 spaces), should the arguments remain on the same line or go to the next line when the line length exceeds 80 characters etc.

  6. Husky: It allows you to add git hooks (pre-commit, pre-push) which can trigger TSLint, Prettier or Unit tests to automatically format the code and to prevent the push if the lint or the tests fail.

Before you move to the next section I would recommend going through the links to ensure that you have a sound understanding of these tools.

Now I’ll talk about some of the challenges we faced in some of our older projects and how we addressed these issues in the newer projects with the tools/technologies listed above.

Formal API definition

A problem that everyone can relate to is the lack of formal documentation in the project. Swagger addresses a part of this problem with their OpenAPI specification which defines a standard to design REST APIs which can be discovered by both machines and humans. As a practice, we first design the APIs in swagger before writing the code. This has 3 benefits:

  • It helps us to focus only on the design without having to worry about the code, scaffolder, naming conventions etc. Our API designs are consistent with the implementation because of this focussed approach.

  • We can leverage tools like swagger-express-mw to internally wire the routes in the API doc to the controller, validate request and response object from their definitions etc.

  • Collaboration between teams becomes very easy, simple and standardised because of the Swagger specification.

Code Consistency

We wanted our code to look consistent across the stack (UI and Backend)and we use ESlint to enforce this consistency.
Example -
Node traditionally used “require” and the UI based frameworks used “import” based syntax to load the modules. We decided to follow ES6 style across the project and these rules are defined with ESLint.

Note — We have made slight adjustments to the TSlint for the backend and the frontend to make it easy for the developers. For example, we allow upto 120 characters in React as some of our DOM related code gets lengthy very easily.

Code Formatting

This is as important as maintaining the code consistency in the project. It’s easy to read a code which follows a consistent format like indentation, spaces, line breaks etc. Prettier does a great job at this. We have also integrated Prettier with Typescript to highlight the formatting errors along with linting errors. IDE like VS Code also has prettier plugin which supports features like auto-format to make it easy.

Strict Typing

Typescript can be leveraged to the best only if the application follows strict typing. We try to enforce it as much as possible with exceptions made in some cases (mostly when a third party library doesn’t have a type definition). This has the following benefits:

  • Static code analysis works better when your code is strongly typed. We discover about 80–90% of the issues before compilation itself using the plugins mentioned above.

  • Refactoring and enhancements becomes very simple with Typescript. We first update the interface or the function definition and then follow the errors thrown by Typescript compiler to refactor the code.

Git Hooks

Husky’s “pre-push” hook runs TSLint to ensure that we don’t push the code with linting issues. If you follow TDD (in the way it’s supposed to be done), then you can also run unit tests before pushing the code. We decided to go with pre-hooks because
- Not everyone has CI from the very first day. With a git hook, we at least have some code quality checks from the first day.
- Running lint and unit tests on the dev’s system will leave your CI with more resources to run integration and other complex tests which are not possible to do in local environment.
- You force the developer to fix the issues at the earliest which results in better code quality, faster code merges and release.

Async-await

We were using promises in our project for all the asynchronous operations. Promises would often lead to a long chain of then-error blocks which is not very comfortable to read and often result in bugs when it got very long (it goes without saying that Promises are much better than the call back function pattern). Async-await provides a very clean syntax to write asynchronous operations which just looks like sequential code. We have seen a drastic improvement in the code quality, fewer bugs and better readability after moving to async-await.

Hope this article gave you some insights into tools and libraries that you can use to build a scalable ExpressJS app.