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Why We Made vorlon.js and How to Use it to Debug your JavaScript Remotely

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Why We Made vorlon.js and How to Use it to Debug your JavaScript Remotely

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[This article was written by David Catuhe]

Recently at //BUILD/ 2015 we announced vorlon.js – an open source, extensible, platform-agnostic tool for remotely debugging and testing your JavaScript. I had the opportunity to create vorlon.JS with the help of some talented engineers and tech evangelists at Microsoft. (The same guys that brought you http://www.babylonjs.com)

Vorlon.js is powered by node.JS, socket.io, and late-night coffee. I would like to share with you why we made it, how to incorporate it into your own testing workflow, and also share some more details into the art of building a JS library like it.

Why Vorlon.js?

Vorlon.js helps you remotely load, inspect, test and debug JavaScript code running on any device with a web browser. Whether it is a game console, mobile device, or even an IoT- connected refrigerator, you can remotely connect up to 50 devices and execute JavaScript in each or all of them. The idea here is that dev teams can also debug together – each person can write code and the results are visible to all. We had a simple motto in this project: No native codeno dependency to a specific browser, only JavaScript, HTML and CSS running on the devices of your choice.

Vorlon.js itself is a small web server you can run from your local machine, or install on a server for your team to access, that serves the Vorlon.js dashboard (your command center) and communicates with the remote devices. Installing the Vorlon.js client in your web site or app is as easy as adding a single script tag. It's also extensible where devs can write plug-ins that add features to both the client and the dashboard, for example: feature detection, logging, and exception tracking.

So why the name? There are actually two reasons. The first one is because I am just crazy about Babylon 5 (The TV show). Based on this, the second reason is because the Vorlons are one of the wisest and ancient race of the universe and thus, they are helpful as diplomats between younger races. Their helpfulness is what inspired us: for web devs, it's still just too hard to write JavaScript that works reliably in the various devices and browsers. Vorlon.js seeks to make it just a little easier.

You mentioned Vorlon.js has plug-ins?

Vorlon.js has been designed so that you can extend the dashboard and client application easily by writing or installing additional plugins. You can resize or add extra panes to the dashboard which can communicate bidirectionally with the client application. There are three plug-ins to begin with:

Logging: The console tab will stream console messages from the client to the dashboard that you can use for debugging. Anything logged withconsole.log(), console.warn() or console.error() will appear in the dashboard. Like the F12 Dev Tool DOM explorer, you can see the DOM tree, select a node (which will be highlighted on the device, and update or add new CSS properties).

Interactivity: You can also interact with the remote webpage by typing code into the input. Code entered will be evaluated in the context of the page.

DOM ExplorerThe DOM inspector shows you the DOM of the remote webpage. You can inspect the DOM, clicking on nodes will highlight them in the host webpage, and if you select one you can also view and modify its css properties.

ModernizrThe Modernizr tab will show you the supported browser features as reported by Modernizr. You can use this to determine what features are actually available. This might be particularly useful on unusual mobile devices, or things like games consoles.


How do I use it?

From you node command line, just execute this:

$ npm i -g vorlon
$ vorlon

Now you have a server running on your localhost on port 1337.
To get access to the dashboard, just navigate to http://localhost:1337/dashboard/SESSIONID. Where SESSIONID is the id for the current dashboard session. This can be any string you want.

You have then to add a single reference in your client project:

<script src="http://localhost:1337/vorlon.js?SESSIONID"></script> 

Please note that SESSIONID can be omitted and in this case, it will be automatically replaced by "default"
And that's it! Now your client will send debug information to your dashboard seamlessly. Let's now have a look at an example using a real site. 

Debugging babylonjs.com using vorlon.js

Let's use www.babylonjs.com for our example. First, I have to launch my server (using node start.js inside the /server folder). Then, I have just have to add this line to my client site:

<script src="http://localhost:1337/vorlon.js"></script>

Because I am not defining a SESSIONID, I can just go to http://localhost:1337/dashboard
The dashboard looks like this:

Sidenote: The browser shown above is Project Spartan, Microsoft's new browser for Windows 10. YO can also test your web apps for it remotely on your Mac, iOS, Android, or Windows device @ http://modern.IE. Or try vorlon.js too.Back to it: I can see console messages for instance, which is useful when I debug babylon.js on mobile devices (like iOS, Android or Windows Phone).
I can click on any node on the DOM Explorer to get info about CSS properties:


On the client side, the selected node is highlighted with a red border:


Moreover, I can switch to Modernizr tab to see capabilities of my specific device:


On the left side, you can see the list of currently connected clients and you can use the [Identify a client] button to display a number on every connected devices.

A little more on how we built vorlon.js

From the very beginning, we wanted to be sure that vorlon.js remains as mobile-first and platform-agnostic as possible. So we decided to use open source tech that worked across the broader number of environments.

Our dev environment was Visual Studio Community which you can get for free now. We used the Node.JS tools for Visual Studio and Azure for the back-end. Our front-end was JavaScript and TypeScript. If you're not familiar with TypeScript, you can learn why we've built babylon.js with it here. Recently Angular 2 has been built with TypeScript. But you don't have to know it to use vorlon.js.

Here's a global schema of how it works:


Here's are the parts with built with:

  • node.js server is hosting a dashboard page (served using express) and a service
  • The service is using socket.io to establish a direct connection with both the dashboard and the various devices
  • Devices have to reference a simple vorlon.js page served by the server. It contains all the plugins client code which interact with the client device and communicate with the dashboard through the server.
  • Every plug-in is split in two parts:
    • The client side, used to capture information and to interact with the device
    • The dashboard side, used to generate a command panel for the plugin inside the dashboard

For instance, the console plugin works this way:

  • The client side generates a hook on top of console.log(), console.warn() or console.error(). This hook is used to send the parameters of these functions to the dashboard. It can also receive orders from the dashboard side that it will evaluate
  • The dashboard side gathers these parameters and display them on the dashboard

The result is simply a remote console:


You can get an even better understanding of vorlon.js extensibility including how to build your own plug-ins here.

What's next?

Vorlon.js is built on the idea of extensibility. We encourage you to contribute! And we're already about how we might integrate vorlonJS into browser dev tools as well as Web Audio debugging.

If you want to try it, you are just one click away: vorlonjs.com
And the more technical docs are here on our GitHub.

And before closing this article, I just want to give credits to all the core team:

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