pmuellr is Patrick Mueller

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

AMD - the good parts

Based my blog post yesterday "More on why AMD is Not the Answer", you might guess I'm an AMD-hater. I strive to not be negative, but sometimes I fail. Mea culpa.

I do have a number of issues with AMD. But I think it's also fair to point out "the good parts".

my background

I've only really played with a few AMD libraries/runtimes. I've been more fiddling around with ways of taking node/CommonJS-style modules, and making them consumable by AMD runtimes. The AMD runtimes I've played with the most are almond and (my own) modjewel. My focus has been on just the raw require() and define() functions.

But I follow a lot of the AMD chatter around the web, and have done at least reading and perusing through other AMD implementations. To find implementations of AMD, look at this list and search for "async". The ones I hear the most about are require.js, Dojo, PINF, and curl.

And now, "the good parts".

the code

Browsing the source repositories and web sites, you'll note that folks have spent a lot of time on the libraries - the code itself, documentation, test suites, support, etc. Great jobs, all. I know a lot of these libraries have been battle-tested by folks in positions to do pretty good battle-testing with them.

the evangelism

Special mention here to James Burke (not this one), who has done a spectacular job leading and evangelizing the AMD cause, both within the "JavaScript Module" community, and outside. In particular, he's been trying to get AMD support into popular libraries like jQuery, backbone, underscore and node.js. Sometimes with success, sometimes not. James has been cool and collected when dealing with jerks like me, pestering him with complaints, questions, requests and bug reports. Some open source communities can be cold and bitter places, but the AMD community is not one of those, and I'm sure that's in part due to James.

Thanks for all your hard work James!

the async support

AMD is an acronym for Asynchronous Module Definition. That first word, Asynchronous, is key. For the most part, if you're using JavaScript, you're living in a world of single-threaded processing, where long-running functions are implemented as asynchronous calls that take callback functions as arguments. It makes sense, at least in some cases, to extend this to the function of loading JavaScript code.

If you need to load JavaScript in an async fashion, AMD is designed for you, and uses existing async function patterns that JavaScript programmers should already be familiar with.

support for CommonJS

This is a touchy subject, because when you ask 10 people what "CommonJS" is, you'll get 15 different answers. For the purposes here, and really whenever I use the phrase "CommonJS", I'm technically referring to one of the Modules/1.x specifications, and more specifically, the general definitions of the require() function and the exports and module variables used in the body of a module. These general definitions are also applicable, with some differences, in node.js.

When I use the phrase "CommonJS", I am NEVER referring to the other specifications in the CommonJS specs stable (linked to above).

AMD supports this general definition of "CommonJS", in my book. Super double plus one good!

Aside: I'm looking for another 'name' to call my simplistic notion of CommonJS. So far, things like simple require()y support, seem to capture my intent. But you know how bad I am with naming.

the design for quick edit-debug cycles

One of the goals of AMD is to facilitate a quick edit-debug cycle while you are working on your JavaScript. To do this, AMD specifies that you wrap the body of your module in a specific type of function wrapper when you author it. Because of the way it's designed, these JavaScript files can be loaded directly with a <script src=> element in your HTML file, or via <script src=> elements injected into your live web page dynamically, by a library. This means that as soon as you save the JavaScript you're editing in your text editor/IDE, you can refresh the page in your browser without an intervening "build step" or special server processing - the same files you are editing are loaded directly in the browser.

the resources

Beyond just loading JavaScript code, AMD supports the notion of loading other things. The things you can load are determined by what Loader Plugins you have available. Examples include:

Coming from the Java world, this is familiar territory; see: Class.getResource*() methods. For the most part, I consider this to be amongst the core bits of functionality that a programming library should provide. It's a common pattern to ship data with your code, and you need some way to access it. And, of course, this resource loading is available in an async manner with AMD.

Aside: I'm not sure what the analog of this is in the node.js world. You can certainly do it by hand, making use of the __dirname global, and then performing i/o yourself. I'm just not sure if someone has wrapped this up nicely in a library yet.

the build

At the end of the day, hopefully, your web application is going to be available to some audience, who will be using it for realz. It's unlikely that you will want to continue to load your JavaScript code (and resources) as individual pieces as you do in development; instead, you'll want to concatenate and minimize your wads of goo to keep load time to a minimum for your customers.

And it seems like most AMD implementations provide a mechanism to do this.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

More on why AMD is Not the Answer

Follow-on to Tom Dale's blog post "AMD is Not the Answer" and James Burke's response "Reply to Tom on AMD". I pretty much concur with everything Tom said. Here are some points brought up by James:

need an alternative

James says:

what is missing is a solid alternative to AMD. In particular, "use build tools to wrap up CommonJS modules" is not a generic solution. It does not allow for generic dynamic loading of resources, particularly from CDNs. Dynamic loading is needed for big sites that still do builds but want to stage loading of the site as the user uses it.

I don't think using build tools precludes you from building wads of modules that can be loaded dynamically. Generic solutions bother me. See: J2EE.


James says:

On his concern about too much ceremony -- this is the minimum amount of ceremony:

    define(function(require) {
        //Module code in here

On the other hand, here's some code pulled from dijit.Calendar.js:

        "dojo/_base/array", //
        "dojo/_base/declare", // declare
        "dojo/dom-attr", // domAttr.get
        "dojo/dom-class", // domClass.add domClass.contains domClass.remove domClass.toggle
        "dojo/_base/event", // event.stop
        "dojo/_base/kernel", // kernel.deprecated
        "dojo/keys", // keys
        "dojo/_base/lang", // lang.hitch
        "dojo/sniff", // has("ie")
    ], function(array, date, local, declare, domAttr, domClass, event, kernel, keys, lang, has,
                CalendarLite, _Widget, _CssStateMixin, _TemplatedMixin, DropDownButton){
        //Module code in here

This isn't just ceremony. It's ugly ceremony of the sort that's difficult to debug when you screw up.

module consumption

James says:

the alternative he mentions does not handle the breadth of JS module consumption

The simple require()y story of npm modules seems to handle the JS module consumption pretty well, for node.js. For the browser, you can use npm modules with Browserify or other "build tools". Where is the equivalent of npm for AMD? Or maybe npm already contains AMD modules? Or let's say I want to just use a single module out of Dojo in my app. How do I do that?