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Node: Up and Running

Cover of Node: Up and Running by Tom Hughes-Croucher... Published by O'Reilly Media, Inc.
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Why Node?

In writing this book, we’ve been acutely aware of how new Node.js is. Many platforms take years to find adoption, and yet there’s a level of excitement around Node.js that we’ve never seen before in such a young platform. We hope that by looking at the reasons other people are getting so excited about Node.js, you will find features that also resonate with you. By looking at Node.js’s strengths, we can find the places where it is most applicable. This section looks at the factors that have come together to create a space for Node.js and discusses the reasons why it’s become so popular in such a short time.

High-Performance Web Servers

When we first started writing web applications more than 10 years ago, the Web was much smaller. Sure, we had the dot-com bubble, but the sheer volume of people on the Internet was considerably lower, and the sites we made were much less ambitious. Fast-forward to today, and we have the advent of Web 2.0 and widely available Internet connections on cell phones. So much more is expected of us as developers. Not only are the features we need to deliver more complex, more interactive, and more real, but there are also many more people using them more often and from more devices than ever before. This is a pretty steep challenge. While hardware continues to improve, we also need to make improvements to our software development practices to support such demands. If we kept just buying hardware to support ever-increasing features or users, it wouldn’t be very cost-effective.

Node is an attempt to solve this problem by introducing the architecture called event-driven computing to the programming space for web servers. As it turns out, Node isn’t the first platform to do this, but it is by far the most successful, and we would argue that it is the easiest to use. We are going to talk about event-driven programming in a lot more detail later in this book, but let’s go through a quick intro here. Imagine you connect to a web server to get a web page. The time to reach that web server is probably 100ms or so over a reasonable DSL connection. When you connect to a typical web server, it creates a new instance of a program on the server that represents your request. That program runs from the top to the bottom (following all of the function calls) to provide your web page. This means that the server has to allocate a fixed amount of memory to that request until it is totally finished, including the 100ms+ to send the data back to you. Node doesn’t work that way. Instead, Node keeps all users in a single program. Whenever Node has to do something slow, like wait for a confirmation that you got your data (so it can mark your request as finished), it simply moves on to another user. We’re glossing over the details a bit, but this means Node is much more efficient with memory than traditional servers and can keep providing a very fast response time with lots and lots of concurrent users. This is a huge win. This approach is one of the main reasons people like Node.

Professionalism in JavaScript

Another reason people like Node is JavaScript. JavaScript was created by Brendan Eich in 1995 to be a simple scripting language for use in web pages on the Netscape browser platform. Surprisingly, almost since its inception JavaScript has been used in nonbrowser settings. Some of the early Netscape server products supported JavaScript (known then as LiveScript) as a server-side scripting language. Although server-side JavaScript didn’t really catch on then, that certainly wasn’t true for the exploding browser market. On the Web, JavaScript competed with Microsoft’s VBScript to provide programming functionality in web pages. It’s hard to say why JavaScript won, but perhaps Microsoft allowing JavaScript in Internet Explorer did it,[1] or perhaps it was the JavaScript language itself, but win it did. This meant by the early 2000s, JavaScript had emerged as the web language—not just the first choice, but the only choice for programming with HTML in browsers.

What does this have to do with Node.js? Well, the important thing to remember is that when the AJAX revolution happened and the Web became big business (think Yahoo!, Amazon, Google, etc.), the only choice for the “J” in AJAX was JavaScript. There simply wasn’t an alternative. As a result, a whole industry needed an awful lot of JavaScript programmers, and really good ones at that, rather fast. The emergence of the Web as a serious platform and JavaScript as its programming language meant that we, as JavaScript programmers, needed to shape up. We can equate the change in JavaScript as the second or third programming language of a programmer to the change in perception of its importance. We started to get emerging experts who led the charge in making JavaScript respectable.

Arguably at the head of this movement was Douglas Crockford. His popular articles and videos on JavaScript have helped many programmers discover that inside this much-maligned language there is a lot of beauty. Most programmers working with JavaScript spent the majority of their time working with the browser implementation of the W3C DOM API for manipulating HTML or XML documents. Unfortunately, the DOM is probably not the prettiest API ever conceived, but worse, its various implementations in the browsers are inconsistent and incomplete. No wonder that for a decade after its release JavaScript was not thought of as a “proper” language by so many programmers. More recently, Douglas’s work on “the good parts” of JavaScript have helped create a movement of advocates of the language who recognize that it has a lot going for it, despite the warts.

In 2012, we now have a proliferation of JavaScript experts advocating well-written, performant, maintainable JavaScript code. People such as Douglas Crockford, Dion Almaer, Peter Paul Koch (PPK), John Resig, Alex Russell, Thomas Fuchs, and many more have provided research, advice, tools, and primarily libraries that have allowed thousands of professional JavaScript programmers worldwide to practice their trade with a spirit of excellence. Libraries such as jQuery, YUI, Dojo, Prototype, Mootools, Sencha, and many others are now used daily by thousands of people and deployed on millions of websites. It is in this environment—where JavaScript is not only accepted, but widely used and celebrated—that a platform larger than the Web makes sense. When so many programmers know JavaScript, its ubiquity is a distinct advantage.

When a roomful of web programmers is asked what languages they use, Java and PHP are very popular, Ruby is probably the next most popular these days (or at least closely tied with Python), and Perl still has a huge following. However, almost without exception, anyone who does any programming for the Web has programmed in JavaScript. Although backend languages are fractured in-browser, programming is united by the necessities of deployment. Various browsers and browser plug-ins allow the use of other languages, but they simply aren’t universal enough for the Web. So here we are with a single, universal web language. How can we get it on the server?

Browser Wars 2.0

Fairly early in the days of the Web, we had the infamous browser wars. Internet Explorer and Netscape competed viciously on web features, adding various incompatible programmatic features to their own browser and not supporting the features in the other browser. For those of us who programmed for the Web, this was the cause of much anguish because it made web programming really tiresome. Internet Explorer more or less emerged as the winner of that round and became the dominant browser. Fast-forward a few years, and Internet Explorer has been languishing at version 6, and a new contender, Firefox, emerges from the remnants of Netscape. Firefox kicks off a resurgence in browsers, followed by WebKit (Safari) and then Chrome. Most interesting about this current trend is the resurgence of competition in the browser market.

Unlike the first iteration of the browser wars, today’s browsers compete on two fronts: adhering to the standards that emerged after the previous browser war, and performance. As websites have become more complex, users want the fastest experience possible. This has meant that browsers not only need to support the web standards well, allowing developers to optimize, but also to do a little optimization of their own. With JavaScript as a core component of Web 2.0, AJAX websites have become part of the battleground.

Each browser has its own JavaScript runtime: Spider Monkey for Firefox, Squirrel Fish Extreme for Safari, Karakan for Opera, and finally V8 for Chrome. As these runtimes compete on performance, it creates an environment of innovation for JavaScript. And in order to differentiate their browsers, vendors are going to great lengths to make them as fast as possible.



[1] Internet Explorer doesn’t actually support JavaScript or ECMAScript; it supports a language variety called JScript. In recent years, JScript has fully supported the ECMAScript 3 standard and has some ECMAScript 5 support. However, JScript also implements proprietary extensions in the same way that Mozilla JavaScript does and has features that ECMAScript does not.

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