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My first impressions of Node.js

Node.js is an interesting platform for running JavaScript in the server-side of your web applications, with a significant amount of growth in the last years. In this blog post I'll share some of my initial feelings about using it with Express.js

"What, you haven't used Node.js until now?" some of you might ask. Well, not really. But that's not entirely the truth either.

As far as backend work is concerned, Ruby (MRI and JRuby) is the language I use the most. It works so well that there has been little reason from a business perspective to consider switching to something else - be it Node.js, C# or whatever.

For the web frontend build pipelines though, to orchestrate our Ember.js apps, I have gotten in contact with Node.js a bit - first with our Gulp.js-based pipeline and later with ember-cli. However, this has only been involved in building the artifacts for the apps - once the artifacts has been generated, they are running in browser (with browser-JS) and the backends are typically written in Ruby. So I've clearly used node.js a bit, but only a very limited subset of it.

This time, however, I had the need for a new backend which I was playing around with on my spare time and I decided to give Node.js a try.

As experienced readers of this blog are already well aware of, TypeScript is one of my favourite languages. Thus far, I've only used it (in a very limited amount) for some web & Electron programming. Why not combine these two into a "dynamic duo" - write a backend in Node.js, using Express.js and TypeScript, to get a feeling for it?

And that's what I did. It's only a little proof-of-concept for now, and the point of this blog post is not to talk about that project so much, but instead go into some of the "initial reactions of Node.js and Express.js".

Asynchrony - the big difference

One can easily claim, without exaggerating, that the fact that Node.js is (almost) completely asynchronous is definitely the biggest difference when comparing it to virtually any other programming environment (except the web browser...) I mean, other languages often support asynchronous programming (TPL and async/await in .NET, concurrent-ruby in Ruby and last but not least Rayon in Rust) but it's from my experience very rare that they force you to write all your code in an asynchronous manner. This is what Node.js does.

Well, "force" is the wrong word perhaps but at least "strongly encourage". Since the JavaScript execution engine in Node.js is essentially single-threaded you really want to write your code in an asynchronous fashion to get decent performance.

Traditionally, it has worked like this:

MongoClient.connect(url, function(db) {
    db.collection('timesheets').count(function(c) {
        // TODO: do something here with the result

The connect method takes a callback, and the count method takes yet another callback, and so on. You don't have to be a very experienced programmer to realize that this is horrible from a code maintainability point of view, especially if you are dealing with multiple queries and have to aggregate together multiple results...

Compare this with the equivalent (but synchronous) Ruby code and you'll easily see what I mean:

client =
db = client.database
c = db.collection('timesheets').count

Much cleaner and easier to follow.

Promises - one step in the right direction

The good people in the JavaScript community came up with promises as a way to make it easier and more pleasant to write asynchronous code. So the code above (the JavaScript example) then becomes something like this:

MongoClient.connect(url).then((db) =>
    db.collection('timesheets').count().then((c) =>
        // TODO: do something here with the result

Slightly easier to write (especially when using niceties like Promise.all), but still, not great.

Enter async and await

Microsoft is a great company with a lot of great engineers and other people working on improving their products and platforms. One of the advantages they had over the open web is that it was easier for them to innovate and make improvements to the core language and runtime. No TC39 to take care of, no other vendors that you have to have endless, perhaps painful discussions with. With good people like Anders Hejlsberg, what else do you need? :wink:

Of course I'm a bit sarcastic here, but there is a also a point in what I'm saying - when they went alone they were able to go significantly faster than what the JavaScript community is now doing.

So, in 2012 Microsoft added async and await to the C# language (in version 5.0, released with Visual Studio 2012.) I'm sure there were other languages that had it before also, but still, Microsoft was pretty early with this. And now we have it in JavaScript and TypeScript also. Here is the async-aware version of the above:

async function someFunction() {
    const db = await MongoClient.connect(url);
    const c = await db.collection('timesheets').count();

Do note the async function stuff - this is actually critical; you're not allowed to use await in a non-async function.

The runtime (or compiler, if you are writing TypeScript and are targetting pre-ES2017 runtimes) will do the rest for you; it will compile the code above to a callback/promise-form. (Node.js 7 and newer supports async/await right in the runtime, so the emitted code from tsc or babel can use async and await all the way and the runtime will take care of figuring out what to do.)

I hope we can all agree that things are clearly moving in the right direction. The introduction of async and await into the JavaScript and TypeScript family of languages is a great thing, and the future for Node.js and JavaScript is looking brighter than ever before.

Further reading

(Some of these don't really relate to what I wrote about above, but they are still an interesting read.)