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Scaffolding Modern Web Applications

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Scaffolding Modern Web Applications

In this article, author Gary Stafford shows us how to scaffold three full-stack modern web application via examples using Yeoman with npm, Bower, and Grunt.

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Introduction

The capabilities of modern web applications have quickly matched and surpassed those of most traditional desktop applications. However, with the increase in capabilities, comes an increase in architectural complexity of web applications. To help deal with the increase in complexity, developers have benefitted from a plethora of popular support libraries, frameworks, API’s, and similar tooling. Examples of these include AngularJS, React.js, Play!, Node.js, Express, npm, Yeoman, Bower, Grunt, and Gulp.

With so many choices, selecting an optimal toolset to construct a modern web application can be overwhelming. In this post, we will examine three distinct modern web application architectures, predominantly JavaScript-based. The post will discuss how to select and install the required tools, and how to use those tools to scaffold the applications. By the end of the post, we will have three working web applications, ready for further development.

Generators

The post’s examples use Yeoman generators. What is a generator? According to Wikipedia, Yeoman’s generator concept was inspired by Ruby on Rails. Using a generator’s blueprint, Yeoman scaffolds an application’s project directory and file structure, and installs required vendor libraries and dependencies. Yeoman generators run interactively, guiding the developer through a series of configuration questions. The configuration choices determine the project’s physical structure and components installed by Yeoman.

Generators are inherently opinionated. They dictate a particular application architecture they feel represents current best practices. However, good generators also allow developers to select from a range of architectural choices to meet the requirements of a developer’s environment. For example, a generator might allow Grunt or Gulp for task automation, or allow either Less or Sass for styling the UI. Similar to npm, RubyGems, Bower, Docker Hub, and Puppet Forge, Yeoman provides a searchable public repository. This allows developers to choose from a variety of generators to meet their specific needs.

Preparing the Development Environment

The examples in this post were built on Mac OS X. However, all the tools discussed in the post are available on the three major platforms, Linux, Mac, and Windows. Installation and configuration will vary.

An IDE is not required to scaffold the post’s application examples. However, for further development of the applications, I strongly recommend and IDE, such as JetBrain’s WebStorm. According to Slant, WebStorm is a popular, highly rated IDE for building modern web applications. WebStorm is available on all three major platforms. A paid license is required, but well worth the reasonable investment based on the IDE’s rich feature set. WebStorm is integrated with many popular JavaScript frameworks. Additionally, there are hundreds of plug-ins available to extend WebStorm’s functionality.

Each of the post’s examples varies, architecturally. However, each also shares several common components, including:

npm
We will use npm (aka Node Package Manager), a leading server-side package manager, to manage the application’s server-side JavaScript dependencies.

Node.js
We will use Node.js, a JavaScript runtime, to power the JavaScript-based web application examples.

Bower
Similar to npm, Bower, is a popular client-side package manager. We will use Bower to manage the application’s client-side JavaScript dependencies.

Yeoman
We will use Yeoman, a leading web application scaffolding tool, to quickly build the frameworks for the example applications based on best practices and tooling.

Grunt
We will use Grunt, a leading JavaScript task runner, to automate common tasks such as minification, compilation, unit-testing, linting, and packaging of applications for deployment. At least two of the three examples also offer Gulp as an alternative.

Express
We will use Express, a Node.js web application framework that provides a robust set of features for web applications development, to support our example applications.

MongoDB
We will use MongoDB, a leading open-source NoSQL document database, for all three examples. For two of the examples, you can easily substitute alternate databases, such as MySQL, when configuring the application with Yeoman. The choice of database is of secondary importance in this post.

First, install Node.js, which comes packaged with npm. Then, use npm to install Bower, Yeoman, and Grunt. Make sure you run the command to fix the permissions for npm. If permissions are set correctly, you should not have to use sudo with your npm commands.

The global mode option (-g) installs packages globally. Packages are usually installed globally, only if they are used as a command line tool, such as with Bower, Yeoman, and Grunt.

The easiest way to install Node.js and npm on OS X, is with Homebrew:

# install homebrew and confirm
ruby -e "$(curl -fsSL https://raw.githubusercontent.com/Homebrew/install/master/install)"
brew update
brew doctor
export PATH="/usr/local/bin:$PATH"
brew --version

# install node and npm with brew and confirm
brew install node
node --version; npm --version


Alternatively, install Node and npm by downloading the package installer for Mac OS X (x64) from nodejs.org. If you are not a currently a Homebrew user, I suggest this route.

Fix the potential permission problem with npm, so sudo is not required:

sudo chown -R `whoami` $(npm config get prefix)


Then, install Yeoman, Bower, and Grunt, globally:

npm install -g bower yo grunt-cli
bower --version; yo --version; grunt --version


Lastly, install MongoDB. Similar to Node, we can use Homebrew, or download and install MongoDB from the MongoDB website. Review this page for detailed installation and configuration instructions. To install MongoDB with Homebrew, we would issue the following commands:

brew update
brew install mongod
mongod --version
sudo mkdir -p /data/db
sudo chown -R `whoami` /data/db/
mongod


Example #1: Server-Centric Express Application

For our first example, we will scaffold a server-centric JavaScript web application using Pete Cooper’s Express Generator. According to the project’s GitHub site, the Express Generator is ‘An Expressjs generator for Yeoman, based on the express command line tool.’ I suggest reading the project’s documentation before continuing; it describes the generator’s functionality in greater detail.

To install, download the Express Generator with npm, and install with Yeoman, as follows:

npm install -g generator-express
yo express


As part of the Express Generator’s configuration process, Yeoman will ask a series of configuration questions. The Express generator offers several choices for scaffolding the application. For this example, we will choose the following options: MVC, Marko, Sass, MongoDB, and Grunt.

Express-Generator with Yeoman'
Using Express-Generator with Yeoman


For those not as familiar with developing full-stack JavaScript applications, some of the generator’s choices may be unfamiliar, such as view engines, CSS preprocessors, and build tools. For this example, we will select Marko, a highly regarded JavaScript templating engine (aka view engine), for the first application. You can compare different engines on Slant. For CSS preprocessors, you can also refer to Slant for a comparison of leading candidates. We will choose Sass.

Lastly, for a build tool (aka task runner) we will choose Grunt. Grunt and Gulp are the two most popular choices. Either is a proven tool for automation tasks such as minification, compilation, unit-testing, linting, and packaging applications for deployment.

As shown below, Yeoman creates a series of files and directories and installs JavaScript libraries with npm and Bower. Choices are based on best practices, as prescribed by the generator.

Default Express-Generator File Structure
Default Express-Generator File Structure


npm

Yeoman uses npm and bower to install the generator’s required packages. Based on our five configuration choices for the Express Generator, npm installed over 225 packages in the project’s local node_module directory. The directory includes primary and secondary npm package dependencies. For example, Marko, one of the choices, which npm installed, has 24 dependencies it requires. In turn, each of those packages may have more dependencies. You quickly see why npm, and other similar package managers, are invaluable to building and managing a modern web application. The npm dependencies are declared in the package.json file, in the project’s root directory.

Partial List of npm Packages Installed
Partial List of npm Packages Installed


We will still need to install a few more items. We chose Sass as an Express generator option. Sass requires Ruby, which comes preinstalled on Mac OS X. If you wish, you can upgrade your pre-installed version of Ruby with Homebrew, but it is not required. Sass is installed with RubyGems, a package manager for Ruby. To automate the Sass-related tasks with Grunt, we also need to install the Grunt plug-in for Sass, grunt-contrib-sass, using npm:

# optional install updated version of Ruby and confirm
brew install ruby
ruby --version

# install grunt-contrib-sass
npm install grunt-contrib-sass --save-dev

# install sass and confirm
gem install sass
gem list sass


The Express Generator’s test are written in Mocha. Mocha is an asynchronous JavaScript test framework running on Node.js. The website suggests installing Mocha globally with npm. Mocha can be run from the command line:

npm install -g mocha
mocha --version


Up and Running

Simply running the grunt command will start the default Generator-Express MVC application. While in development, I prefer to run Grunt with the debug option (grunt -d) and/or with the verbose option (grunt -v or grunt -dv). These options offer enhanced feedback, especially on which tasks are run by Grunt. Review the terminal output to make sure the application started properly.

Starting the Application with Grunt
Starting the Application with Grunt


To confirm the Express application started correctly, in a second terminal window, curl the application using curl -I localhost:3000. Easier yet, point your web browser to localhost:3000. You should see the following default web page.

Default Express-Generator Application
Default Express-Generator Application


Example #2: Full-Stack MEAN Application

In our second example, we will scaffold a true full-stack JavaScript web application using Tyler Henkel’s popular AngularJS Full-Stack Generator for Yeoman. According to the project’s GitHub site, the generator is a ‘Yeoman generator for creating MEAN stack applications, using MongoDB, Express, AngularJS, and Node – lets you quickly set up a project following best practices.’ As with the earlier example, I suggest you read the project’s documentation before continuing.

To install theAngularJS Full-Stack Generator, download the with npm and install with Yeoman:

npm install -g generator-angular-fullstack
mkdir demo-web-app-2; cd $_
yo angular-fullstack meanapp


Similar to the Express example, Yeoman will ask a series of configuration questions. We will choose the following options: Jade, Less, ngRoute, Bootstrap, UI Bootstrap, and MongoDB with Mongoose. AngularJS, Express, and Grunt are installed by the generator, automatically. For the sake of brevity, we will not include other available options, including Babel for ES6, OAuth authentication, or socket.io.

AngularJS Full-Stack Generator Config Options
AngularJS Full-Stack Generator Config Options


PhantomJS

After generating the AngularJS Full-Stack project, I received errors regarding PhantomJS. According to several sources, this is not uncommon. The AngularJS Full-Stack project uses PhantomJS as the default browser for Karma, the popular test runner, designed by the AngularJS team. Although npm installed PhantomJS locally, as part of the project, Karma complained about missing the path to the PhantomJS binary. To eliminate the issue, I installed PhantomJS globally with npm. I then manually added the PhantomJS binary path to the $PATH environment variable:

npm install -g phantomjs
sudo vi ~/.bash_profile
# add PHANTOMJS_BIN environment variable (next two lines)
export PHANTOMJS_BIN=/usr/local/lib/node_modules/phantomjs/bin
# your file/line may vary
resetexport PATH=${PHANTOMJS_BIN}:$PATH
phantomjs --version


To test Karma, with PhantomJS, run the grunt test command. This should result in error-free output, similar to the following.

Running "karma:unit" (karma) task
Running “karma:unit” (karma) task


Client/Server Architecture

Similar to the previous example, Yeoman creates a series of files and directories, and installs JavaScript packages on the server and client sides with npm and Bower.

AngularJS Full-Stack Generator File Structure
AngularJS Full-Stack Generator File Structure


Both the Express and AngularJS examples share several common files and directories. However, one major difference between the two is the client/server oriented directory structure of the AngularJS generator. Unlike the Express example, the AngularJS example has both a client and a server directory. The server-side of the application (aka back-end) is driven primarily by Express and Node. Mongoose serves as an interface between our application’s domain model and MongoDB, on the server-side. Also, on the server-side, Jade is used for HTML templating. The client-side of the application (aka front-end) is driven primarily by AngularJS. Twitter’s Bootstrap and Bootstrap UI offer a responsive web interface for our example application.

Full-Stack Server/Client File Structure

Full-Stack Server/Client File Structure


Up and Running

Running the grunt serve command will eventually start the default AngularJS Full-Stack application, after running a series of pre-defined Grunt tasks.

AngularJS Full-Stack App Starting with Grunt
AngularJS Full-Stack App Starting with Grunt


Review the terminal output to make sure the application started properly. You may see some warnings, suggesting the installation of several dependencies globally. You may also see warnings about dependency versions being outdated. Outdated versions are one of the challenges with generators that are not constantly kept refreshed and tested with the latest package dependencies. Warnings shouldn’t prevent the application from starting, only Errors.

AngularJS Full-Stack App Started with Grunt
AngularJS Full-Stack App Started with Grunt


To confirm the application started, in a second terminal window, curl the application using curl -I localhost:9000. Easier yet, point your web browser at localhost:9000. The default web page for the AngularJS Full-Stack web application is much more elaborate than the previous Express example. This is thanks to the Bootstrap and AngularJS client-side components.

AngularJS Full-Stack App Running in Browser

AngularJS Full-Stack App Running in Browser


Additional Generator Features

The AngularJS Full-Stack generator is capable of generating more than just the default application project. The AngularJS Full-Stack generator contains a set of generators. Beyond generating the basic application framework, you may use the generator to create boilerplate code for AngularJS and Node.js components for endpoints, services, routes, models, controllers, directives, and filters. The generators also provide the ability to prepare your application for deployment to OpenStack and Heroku.

The best place to review available options for the generators is on the GitHub sites. You can display a high-level list of the generator’s features using the yo --help command. Below are the three generators used in this post.

Below, is an example of generating additional application components using the AngularJS Full-Stack generator. First, scaffold a server-side Express RESTful API endpoint, called ‘user’. The single command generates a server-side directory structure and several boilerplate files, including an Express model, controller, and router, and Mocha tests.

List of Installed Yeoman Generators
List of Installed Yeoman Generators


Next, generate a client-side AngularJS service which connects to the server-side, Express RESTful ‘user’ endpoint above. The command creates a boilerplate AngularJS service and Mocha test. Lastly, create an AngularJS route. This generator command creates a boilerplate AngularJS route and controller, Mocha test, Jade view template, and less file.

AngularJS Full-Stack Component Generators

AngularJS Full-Stack Component Generators


Example #3: Java Hipster Application

In the third and last example, we will scaffold another full-stack web application. However, this time, we will use a generator that relies on Java EE as the primary development platform on the server-side, as opposed to JavaScript. JavaScript will be relegated largely to the client-side.

Again, we will use a Yeoman generator, JHipster, built by Julien Dubois and team, to scaffold the application. According to the project’s GitHub site, JHipster uses a robust server-side Java EE stack with Spring Boot and Maven. JHipster’s mobile-first front-end is enabled with AngularJS and Bootstrap. Being the most complex of the three examples, it’s important to review the project documentation.

JHipster offers three ways to install the application, which is local, Docker container, or a Vagrant VM. We will install the application framework locally as not to introduce additional complexity. To install the generator, download the JHipster generator with npm, and install with Yeoman:

npm install -g generator-jhipster
mkdir demo-web-app-3; cd $_
yo jhipster


Again, Yeoman will ask a series of configuration questions on behalf of JHipster. For this example, we will choose the following options: token-based authentication, MongoDB, Maven, Grunt, LibSass (Sass), and Gatling for testing. AngularJS and Bootstrap are installed automatically. We have chosen not to include other configuration options in this example, such as Angular Translate, WebSockets, and clustered HTTP sessions.

Default JHipster Generator Options

Default JHipster Generator Options


Once Yeoman finishes scaffolding the application, you should see the following output.

JHipster Generator Install Complete

JHipster Generator Install Complete


Maven Project Structure

The file and directory structure of JHipster is very different from the previous two examples. The first two example’s project structure is typical of a JavaScript project. In contrast, the JHipster example’s structure is more typical of a Maven-based Java project. In the JHipster project, the client-side JavaScript files are in the /src/main/webapp/ directory. The presence of the webapp directory is based on part of the project’s reliance on the Spring MVC web framework. Additionally, npm has loaded required server-side JavaScript packages into the node_modules directory, in the project’s root directory.

Default JHipster File Structure
Default JHipster File Structure


Up and Running

Running the mvn command will start the default JHipster application. The URL for the JHipster application is included in the terminal output.

JHipster Application Running with Maven

JHipster Application Running with Maven


To confirm the application has started, curl the application in a second terminal window, using curl -I localhost:8080. Easier yet, point your web browser to localhost:8080. Again, thanks to Bootstrap and AngularJS, the application presents a rich client UI.

Default JHipster Application Running
Default JHipster Application Running


Conclusion

The post’s examples represent a narrow sampling of modern web application stacks, which can be easily scaffolded with generators. The JavaScript space continues to evolve rapidly. Even within the realm of JavaScript-based solutions, we didn’t examine several other popular frameworks, such as Meteor, FaceBook’s ReactJS, Ember, Backbone, and Polymer. They are all worth exploring, along with the hundreds of popular supporting frameworks, libraries, and API’s.

Useful Links

  • Post: JavaScript Frameworks: The Best 10 for Modern Web Apps (link)
  • Post: Best Web Frameworks (link)
  • Post: State Of Web Development 2014 (link)
  • YouTube: Modern Front-end Engineering (link)
  • YouTube: WebStorm – Things You Probably Didn’t Know (link)
  • Website: MEAN Stack (link)
  • Website: Full Stack Python (link)
  • Post: Best Full Stack Web Framework (link)

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Topics:
javascript ,angularjs ,grunt ,yeoman generator ,npm ,full stack ,bower ,scaffolding ,jhipster ,nodejs

Published at DZone with permission of Gary Stafford. See the original article here.

Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.

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