Flows of energy

by Marijn Haverbeke (license)

My JavaScript Build Setup

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 javascript tooling

I am looking forward to the time where my node.js and browser can natively run ECMAScript 6 code. Build steps are a pain, and one of the reasons I like JavaScript in the first place is the (traditional) absence of “waiting for the compiler” from my work-flow.

You can question whether ECMAScript 6 is worth incurring the inconvenience of a build step. I think it is. The various syntactic niceties provided by that dialect, mostly arrow functions and class syntax, make my code feel cleaner.

And even without ECMAScript 6, to run modularly-written things in a browser we'd still traditionally require a bundling step.

Let's do away with that first.

Unbundled code in the browser

Bundling tends to be the thing at the very end of the pipeline. You have a “root” script, and your bundler follows all its dependencies, dumps them into a single big file, with some magic glue that makes the right module pop up in the right place. You then refer to this bundle from a <script> tag.

One thing about bundling is that it is monolithic. It requires the whole bundle file to be rewritten every time one of your modules changes. This can be slow.

For development, do we need a bundler? If we're using AMD-style modules, we don't. But I don't like the cruft created by AMD-style modules and very little NPM modules are written in that style. If we have a directory of CommonJS-style modules, possibly using some NPM-installed dependencies, what would it take to run those directly in the browser?

Enter moduleserve, a small web server shim that does the node-style module resolution, serves up a client-side CommonJS implementation, and does a good job caching modules (and helping the browser cache them).

You say moduleserve mydir, and it'll serve up the content of the mydir directory on localhost:8080. You can have an HTML file in that that includes...

<script src="/moduleserve/load.js" data-module="./root"></script>

... and it will load up moduleserve's CommonJS implementation, and run the equivalent of require("./root") in it.

The implementation uses synchronous HTTP requests to fetch modules.

[stunned silence]

Browsers will show a warning in the console, but it's okay, as long as you're testing from the same machine. I can reload ProseMirror's test suite (150 modules) in 800 milliseconds (when they are cached).

So now, for a project that doesn't need any further compilation steps, we have a completely compilation-less way to try it out and run its tests during development. And it's not even slow.

You can set up moduleserve to compile your sources using Babel (and cache the compiled results), but there's a better way.

The amazing compiling file system

I find that I don't just need my compiled source files in one context. I need them to run my tests in the browser, to run them in node, as input for my bundler when building for production, as dependency code for other modules that I'm developing in sync, and so on.

And I don't want to set up a different compilation pipeline for each of these uses. That's a lot of duplicate work, both from me to set it up, and from the computer that is compiling everything ten times.

So I can set up a canonical dist/ directory where the compiled files go, and have Babel, or whichever compiler, watch my source files and constantly recompile when they change. That works relatively well, but annoyed me for two reasons:

So I wrote distfs, another small helper module. This one “mounts” a source directory, using a userspace file system to expose it as a normal-looking compilation output directory. Every time you try to read a file from that directory, the actual source is compiled, and you get the compiled output. This is cached, of course.

The advantage is that this is pull-based. Files are only compiled as needed, and when you access a file that isn't ready yet, your read blocks until it is, so that you're always sure you have the up-to-date content.

Putting those two together, I'm a much happier ECMAScript 6 developer than I was before.


Let's make a project. A simple one, consisting of two ECMAScript 6 files, an HTML file, and a single dependency. It'll show a simple form into which you can type JavaScript code, after which it will tell you whether that code is valid.

mkdir project
cd project
mkdir src dist www
# development tools
npm install babel-core babel-preset-es2015 moduleserve distfs
# actual dependency, a JavaScript parser
npm install acorn
# configure Babel
echo '{"presets": ["es2015"]}' > .babelrc

The www/ dir will be the one we mount with moduleserve. We put an index.html file like this in it:

<!doctype html>
  <textarea name=code>1 + 1</textarea>
  <button type=submit>Check</button>
<pre id=output></pre>
<script src="/moduleserve/load.js" data-module="../dist/main"></script>

We'll put the scripts in src/. This is src/main.js:

import {checkCode} from "./check-code"

document.querySelector("form").addEventListener("submit", e => {
  document.querySelector("#output").textContent =

And this is its dependency, check-code.js, which in turn uses our installed acorn module:

import {parse} from "acorn"

export function checkCode(code) {
  try { parse(code); return "OK" }
  catch (e) { return e.toString() }

Now, let's fire up out helper processes.

node_modules/.bin/distfs src dist &
node_modules/.bin/moduleserve www --port 8090 &

At this point, localhost:8090 shows our test page. When you edit one of the scripts and reload, you get the updated (compiled) code. When something crashes, you get a source-mapped stack trace pointing at the correct line numbers in the actual files.