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Brian Kirkpatrick
Brian Kirkpatrick

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Single-File JavaScript Modules

Let's talk about development standards for single-file JavaScript modules using the AMD standard (i.e., RequireJS) for reusable, multi-modal software.


I am heavily influenced by the so-called "zero framework manifesto":

And I have significant sympathy with the associated "you have ruined JavaScript" rant:

To be honest, even jQuery was never particularly appealing to me, and is largely irrelevant now that there are a) usable module loaders, and b) querySelector() support in every major browser. But now adays, you have entire development environments and tooling requirements that have sprung up around complex JavaScript projects when all you really need is a nice and self-contained reusable tool. Preferably one that can run from both NodeJS and in-browser using an AMD-compatible loader like RequireJS.

Have you SEEN how much bloat there is in something like Bootstrap, of all things? Seriously. WTF.

I don't want complicated JavaScript builds--that ruins the point. I am happiest when I can just double-click an index.html file to load my project, press "refresh" anytime I want to "rebuild", and directly inspect all my project artifacts within the same developer console. Come join me! Web application programming can be fun again! But seriously, you'd be surprised how much you can get done (and how transparently you can do it) with just HTML+CSS+JS, and a few TRUELY modular (read: self-contained, no-abstraction-buyin-required) tools.

But what about those tools? We need something condensed, because we just want a file we can host in a GitHub Gist or GitLab Snippet--we don't need gigantic package.json-managed mountains of spaghetti for a template engine, or separate classes for a decent numerical math library. Thanks to THREE.js, even a 3d engine can be beautifully encapsulated in a single file! So, there's really no excuse anymore.

Instead, we need a simple way to mark up single-file JavaScript modules (or, as I'm calling them for the time being, SFJMs, or "safe-jams"). We need some of the best metadata attributes from package.json and related project organization, sure, but in a streamlined way where we only use what we need. Is it possible? Sure!

Writing A Module

Write your modules using an AMD-compatible "define()" closure. If also developing for a node.js environment, this can be easily replicated (as demonstrated in the "testmod.js" folder)

if (typeof(define) == "undefined") { function define(callback) { return callback(require, exports, module); }}

At the end, define your exports using an "Object.assign()" operation that will be easily (and transparently) extended

Object.assign(exports, { "square": square, "cube": cube, "AnAwesomeNumber": AnAwesomeNumber});

If you're looking at the GitHub project, you can view the "testmod.js" file as an example. (I might refactor it soon, in order to move it over to a Gist so this concept/example is more self-hosted and less hypocritical.)

Describing A Module

Here's the real magic, and to a degree the whole point of this project. You should attach meta-properties to the conclusion of your module definition. What properties are those, you wonder? Funny you should ask.

Let's start with versions of required fields from package.json formats:

But do we need a name? No, not really. In the interest of avoiding redundant information, and letting AMD loaders like RequireJS do their thing, we'll let the module name be the name of the file itself. This lines up well with Gists/Snippets, too, where we expect to stash these modules.

I'll also add here that we want to borrow the "dunder" style from Python. This helps avoids namespace conflicts and clearly denotes which keys contain module metadata. Speaking of Python, let's also reference the distutils setup() arguments here for completion's sake:

So, let's start by just pointing to the Gist/Snippet to self-identify the SFJM.We'll maintain the requirement for a version field, borrowing from one of my favorite software engineering standards, Semantic Versioning:

But there's other fields we should make sure we include in the single file,which would otherwise be contained in a package's top-level contents. You would pretty much always have (for example) a "LICENSE" file, to control how other people are allowed to use (edit, really) your code. We'll use the handy SPDX identifiers to reference specific licenses by short string values:

Required Fields

So, we have a few strong candidates for "required" fields.

  • __url__, a String value identifying the URL where the Gist/Snippet lives;this should be the argument you pass to a git-clone operation.

  • __semver__, a String representing a Semantic Versioning number for your current module version. This includes three decimal-delimited integers for major, minor, and patch revision numbers.

  • __license__, a String indicating the email address to which inquiries should be made by users and developers.

And honestly? I think that's probably good. I was toying with an "author" field of some kind (e.g., email address point-of-contact), but really, you're either going to manage contact through the Gist/Snippet, or document that in your module docstrings for publication with a JSDoc command anyways. So, yeah; I think we're good!

So, for our "testmod.js" module we're using as an example, the export assignment might be supplemented by something like this

return Object.assign(exports, {
    "__url__": "",
    "__semver__": "1.0.0",
    "__license__": "MIT"
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Extras and Dependencies

What other (optional) fields might we want to support? Here are some ideas of what I think the more useful options might be, largely drawn from package.json and Python's arguments:

  • You could add a "main" field to define an entry point easily invocable from the command line

> node -e "const testmod = require('./testmod'); testmod.main();"

  • A Python-style "classifiers" (or "keywords") list could help identify certain meta-attributes of your tool (it is a numerical algorithm? email parser? etc)

  • Of course, we're missing one hell of an elephant in the room here. What if your package has a set of dependencies--other modules (let's assume SFJMs) it needs to run? How does it import the right resources, and from where?

This last one is a little trickier than it might appear. Let's say we bundle package references directly into a __deps__ Array property. Without a fixed package manager utility, we'll need to know where to get them. Let's assume we can git-clone from a Gist/Snippet URL, like we referenced in the __url__ property. How far does this take us? Let's see

Object.assign(exports, {
   "__deps__": [
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Within our code, the references will probably be something like a standard require() statement, right? Something like this

> let myDep = require("lib/myDep-v1.1.2.min.js");

Technically, we can extract the module name from the file that is git-cloned from the Gist/Snipper URL. The way Gist/Snippet clone works, this will result in the desired file at "[hash]/myDep-v1.1.2.min.js"--assuming that's the filename used by the Gist/Snippet. But we don't know that!

Ah, but we don't need/want to clone it. We want a fixed snapshot, which will help with ensuring consistent behavior against a specific version. And we can grab that with a curl command, using the right URL, so long as we still know what the file destination is (e.g., how the require() call will import it). So,let's use an Object instead and identify the specific name and SemVer in the STDOUT when we write to a "lib" folder. This way, the dependencies will look like this in our SFJM file

Object.assign(exports, {
   "__deps__": {
      "txtloader-v1.0.0.js": "",
     "spheregeo-v0.1.0.js": "",
     "WebThread-v1.0.0.js": ""
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Now, we can iterate over the __deps__ fields and write dependencies to a "lib/" folder (which we'll presumable include within our .gitignore listing)

> set FILES=$(node -e "const testmod = require('./testmod'); console.log(Object.keys(testmod.__deps__).join('\n'));")
> set URLS=$(node -e "const testmod = require('./testmod'); console.log(Object.keys(testmod.__deps__).map(function(key) { return testmod.__deps__[key]; }).join('\n'));")
> curl URLS[0]
> lib/FILES[0]
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That last command is a little hypothetical. You might have to do something from a shell script of some kind to iterate accurately. And it's complicated enough you'd probably want to push it to a script anyway. But nonetheless, very feasible. Who needs npm-install anyways!?

Building A Module

If you want to "build" a SFJM module for release, you're likely looking to do something like a minification and obfuscation/mangling pass. This can be done pretty easily from the command line using Node tools like Teser (which, unlike UglifyJS, supports ES6)

> npm install -g terser
> set SEMVER=$(node -e "const testmod = require('./testmod'); console.log(testmod.__semver__);")
> terser --compress --mangle -- testmod.js > testmod-v%SEMVER%.min.js
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Testing A Module

Single-file JavaScript modules can have a __tests__ property. This should be an Array of functions that accept and invoke an "assert" function for their specific tests. This makes it easy to import and test a SFJM module using a variety of frameworks, from build-in assert (or console.assert() from the browser) to Node Tap and beyond, without any actual dependencies.

What would that look like? Let's use the "testmod.js" example from this project. It might have a "__tests__" property like this

Object.assign(exports, {
   "__tests__": [
      function(assert) { assert(exports.square(1) == 1); },
      function(assert) { assert(exports.cube(2) == 8); },
      function(assert) { assert(exports.cube(3) == 9); }
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Then, you could run it from the command line with a node-eval:

> node -e "const testmod = require('./testmod'); testmod.__tests__.forEach(function(test) { test(assert); });"

I don't know about you, but I think that's pretty cool.

Documenting a Module

We can self-document a module pretty easily with the right doc-strings. We'll use the JSDoc standard here, as it's self-contained and runs nicely from the command line with few extra arguments:

> npm install -g jsdoc> jsdoc testmod.js

By default, the resultant web page can be opened from "out/index.html". Don't forget to include this folder in your .gitignore, of course!

Deploying A Module

I'm not convinced of a specific deployment approach yet. But we'll want someway to support a couple of deployment pathways:

  • Push to an NPM package, so other users could npm-install our module. This would require a significant quantity of additional (automatically-generated)assets, like package.json, that I'm not sure I want to explicitly support right now, but I could see something being done in the future.

  • For the browser, we could build (minify) using the previous example (terser) and publish (upload?) as a semver-marked .min-v{} file. This could readily be included (as I like to do) in a "lib/" folder of a project, to be imported by RequireJS (though I'm really unsure about the specific SemVer extraction syntax in the following example)

> set SEMVER=$(node -e "const testmod = require('./testmod'); console.log(testmod.__semver__);")
> terser --compress --mangle -- testmod.js
> testmod.min-v%SEMVER%.js
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  • We could also upload the build product to a CDN or artifact host (e.g.,Nexus) of some kind. I'll leave it to future iterations to figure, and document examples for, out a robust and consistent approach

> curl -F 'data=@testmod.min-v%SEMVER%.js'

And that's pretty much it! This collects a number of patterns that I've found to be really useful. I hope they help you as much as they help me.

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