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Application Components with AngularJS

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Application Components with AngularJS

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This post is about self-contained business components with AngularJS that can be instantiated at arbitrary places in one's application. 
With AnuglarJS, one writes the HTML plainly and then implements behavior in JavaScript via controllers and directives. The controllers are about the model of which the HTML is the view, while directives are about extra tags and attributes that you can extend the HTML with. You are supposed to implement business logic in controllers and UI logic in directives. Good. But there are situations where the distinction is not so clear cut, in particular when you are building a UI by reusing business functionality in multiple places.
In a large applications, it often happens that the same piece of functionality has to be available in different contexts, in different flows of the user interaction. So it helps to be able to easily package that functionality and plug it whenever it's needed. For example, a certain domain object should be editable in place, or we need the ability to select among a list of dynamically generated domain objects. Those types of components are application components because they encapsulate reusable business logic and they are even tied to a specific backend, as opposed to, say, UI components which are to be (re)used in different applications and have much wider applicability. Because application components are not instantiated that often (as opposed to UI components which are much more universal), it is frequently tempting to copy&paste code rather than create a reusable software entity. Unless the componentization is really easy and requires almost no extra work.
If you are using AngularJS, here is a way to easily achieve this sort of encapsulation: 
  1. Put the HTML in a file as a self-contained template "partial" (i.e. without the top-level document HTML tags). 
  2. Have its controller JavaScript be somehow included in the main HTML page.
  3. Plug it in any other part of the application, like other HTML templates for example. 
This last part cannot be done with AngularJS's API. We have to write to gluing code. Since we will be plugging by referring to our component in an HTML template, we have to write a custom directive. Instead of writing a separate directive for each component as AngularJS documentation recommends, we will write one directive that will handle all our components. To be sure, there is generic directive to include HTML partials in AngularJS, the ng-view directive, but it's limited to swapping the main content of a page, too coarse grained that is. By contrast, our directive can be used anywhere, nested recursively etc. Here is an example of its usage:

<be-plug name="shippingAddressList">
  <be-model-link from-child-scope="currentSelection" 
This little snippet assumes we have an HTML template file called shippingAddressList.ht that lets the user select one among several addresses to ship the shopping cart contents to. We have a top-level tag called be-plug and nested tag called be-model-link. The be-model-link tag associates attributes of the component's model to attributes of the model (i.e. scope in AngularJS's terms) of the enclosing HTML. More on that below. Here is the implementation:

app.directive('bePlug', function($compile, $http) {
  return {
    scope : {},
    link:function(scope, element, attrs, ctrl) {
      var template = attrs.name + ".ht";
      $http.get(template).then(function(x) {
        $.each(scope.modelLinks, function(atParent, atChild) {
          // Find a parent scope that has 'atParent' property
          var parentScope = scope;
          while (parentScope != null && 
            parentScope = parentScope.$parent;
          if (parentScope == null) 
            throw "No scope with property " + atParent + 
                  ", be-plug can't link models";
          scope.$childHead.$watch(atChild, function(newValue) {
            parentScope[atParent] = newValue;
          parentScope.$watch(atParent, function(newValue) {
            scope.$childHead[atChild] = newValue;
Let's deconstruct the above code. First, make sure you are familiar with how to write directives in AngularJS and you understand what AngularJS scopes are. Next, note that we are creating a scope for our directive by declaring a scope:{} object. The purpose is twofold: (1) don't pollute the parent scope and (2) make sure we have a single child in our scope so we have a handle on the scope of the component we are including.

Good. Now, let's look at the gist of the directive, its link method. (I'm sure there is some valid reason that method is named "link". Perhaps because we are "linking" an HTML template to its containing element. Or to a model via the scope? Something like that.) In any case, that's were DOM manipulation is done. So here's what's happening in our implementation:
  • We fetch the HTML template from the server. By naming convention, we expect the file to have extension .ht. The rest of the relative path of the template file is given in the name attribute.
  • Once the template is loaded, we set it as the HTML content of the directive's element. So the resulting DOM will have a be-plug DOMnode which the browser will happily ignore and inside that node there will be our component's HTML template.
  • Then we "compile" the HTML content using AngularJS's $compile service. This method call is essentially the whole point of the exercise. This is what allows AngularJS to bind model to view, to process any nested directives recursively etc. In short, this is what makes our textual content inclusion into a "runtime component instance". Well, this and also the following:
  • ...the binding of scope attributes between our enclosing element and the component we are including. This binding is achieved in the following for loop by observing variable changes in the scopes of interest.
That last point needs a bit more explaining. The HTML code that includes our component presumably has some associated model scope with attributes pertaining to business logic. On the other hand, the included component acquires its own scope with its own set of attributes as defined by its own controller. The two scopes end up in a parent-child relationship with the directive's scope (a third one) in between. From an application point of view, we probably have one or several chained parent scopes holding relevant model attributes and we'd want to somehow connect the data in our component model to the data in the enclosing scope. In the example above, we are connecting the shippingAddress attribute of our main application scope to the currentSelection attribute of the address selection component. In the context of the enclosing logic, we are dealing with a "shipping address", but in the context of the address selection component which simply displays a choice of addresses to pick from we are dealing with a "current selection". So we are binding the two otherwise independent concepts.

To implement this sort of binding of a given pair of model attributes, we need to know: the parent scope, the child scope, the name of the attribute in the parent scope and the name of the attribute in the child scope. To collect the pairs of attributes, we rely on a nested tag called be-model-link implemented as follows:

app.directive('beModelLink', function() {
  return {
    link:function(scope, element, attrs, ctrl) {
      if (!scope.modelLinks)
        scope.modelLinks = {};
      scope.modelLinks[attrs.fromParentScope] = attrs.fromChildScope;
Because we have not declared a private scope for the be-model-link directive, the scope we get is the one of the parent directive. This gives us the chance to put some data in it. And the data we put is the mapping from parent to child model attributes in the form of a modelLinks object. Note that we refer to this modelLink object in the setup of variable watching in the be-plug directive where we loop over all its properties and use AngularJS' $watch mechanism to monitor changes on either side and affect the same change to the linked attributes. To find the correct parent scope, we walk up the chain and get the first one which has the stated from-parent-scope attribute, throwing an error if we can't find it. The child scope is easy because there is only one child scope to our directive.

That's about it. We are essentially doing server-side includes like in the good (err..bad) old days, except because of the interactive nature of the "thing" with AJAX and all, and the whole runtime environment created by AngularJS, we have a fairly dynamic component. Hope you find this useful.

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