Node.js tools: Server-side JavaScript comes of age

Node-inspired development environments and cloud platforms are rapidly remaking the Web application stack

The story of Node.js reads like it came from a Hollywood script assembly line: Some kids are monkeying around with scrap they picked up around the Internet and find a new way to snap it together. The next thing you know, they're lapping the pack at the racetrack and coasting to the winner's circle.

In technical terms, the Node.js team, which is largely led by Ryan Dahl, began looking for a new way to serve up documents from a website without chewing up as much RAM as the traditional tools. They grabbed a copy of the V8 JavaScript engine to speed up their code, then created simple libraries that connected the V8 engine to the TCP/IP ports. Presto change-o, it was answering requests very quickly.

[ Also on InfoWorld: "JavaScript conquers the server" | Node.js is an InfoWorld 2012 Technology of the Year Award Winner. For more insight on software development, subscribe to InfoWorld's Developer World newsletter. ]

Once people noticed the speed, they started actually using the tool and the challenges began. It's easy to make a car by bolting together spare parts that are lying around, but it's an entirely different task to make something that can carry a load or stand up to the daily commute. The first version of Node ran from a command line containing the name of the file where the instructions were stored. That's not a great way to run a big, stable, professional website.

The scruffy, junkyard quality of the Node realm is rapidly disappearing as programmers build extras for Node as quickly as Node itself was born. Now Node is more of an ecosystem, with its own conference and a collection of tools that orbit around it. There are IDEs, deployment tools, and companies looking to offer Node hosting as a service. All are helping to transform Node from science experiment to real contributor in the data center and the cloud.

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These tools aren't luxury goods yet. They're largely the first builds, which means there are rough spots and glitches. They are typically small, simple, and far from full-featured solutions, but they're also a chance for the Node users to rethink what did and didn't work with the previous generation of Web tools. Node is addressing some of the problems people have found with the traditional stack and fixing them.

They're also rediscovering some of the reasons why the previous generation of Web developers did many of the things they did. It's a bit of a stretch to say that Node exists because it can be so costly to allocate the RAM to start up a new thread, but the Nodesters are beginning to understand why the last line of programmers created the threads in the first place. There are already a number of angry posts about Node filled with four-letter words because the JavaScript callback paradigm is too unnerving.

To understand a bit of the excitement coming from this corner of the Net, I spent some time unpacking the Node tools and putting them through simple tasks. The more I experimented, the more I found. The area is growing quickly, and this summary is already incomplete as I file it. The good news is that the ground is incredibly fertile. Node.js has revealed that running a website doesn't need to be that complicated. The tools it is spawning may not be perfect yet or ready for everything an enterprise requires, but they're real and they're beginning to play a role.

Cloud9 IDE is a development environment built into a website or, as the ad copy reads, development-as-a-service. You build your code with the Web app and the optional Chrome plug-in. Then, after testing it locally, Cloud9 will deploy the code into Heroku, the Joyent Cloud, or Microsoft's Azure (more on these clouds below).

The Cloud9 editor is sophisticated, providing more than the basic options available with a <textarea> field. Bolted-in extras include a JavaScript beautifier that will fix white space and clean up indentation. The code is colored, given line numbers, and semiparsed to identify undeclared variables.

Although many of the features won't surprise anyone using an IDE on their desktop, the surprise is that Cloud9 feels like a desktop tool in your browser. My favorite part is the command-line field where you can type in Git commands just as you would in your terminal window.

The service is not just aimed at Node programmers. You can also upload PHP and Ruby. The editor even claims the ability to colorize the syntax of C++, although I'm not sure what would happen to this code.

Everything here is free if you're willing to share your code with the world. If you want private projects and a private environment when it's available, the price is $15 per month. Cloud9 also promises to add collaboration tools.

Node.js tools: Eclipse JavaScript debuggerOn the other end of the spectrum is the Eclipse IDE. There is now an Eclipse plug-in from the Google Chrome team that connects the venerable tool with the back end of the V8 JavaScript engine. If you start Node.js with the <tt>--debug</tt> option, Node will look to talk with any remote debugger. Google's Eclipse plug-in for debugging Chrome seems like just the ticket.

It's a nice idea, but I found it buggy. A decorator function kept clogging the stack of Eclipse, and nothing seemed to communicate as well as it could. While I could pause Node and poke around, I found it easier to debug Node using the output of the command line that started it. The Eclipse interaction was too much trouble.

These glitches are usually cosmetic. It's entirely possible that you won't experience them on your version of Eclipse or your version of Node. (I used Eclipse Indigo EE and 0.6.10.) My problems may also have been caused by all of the other plug-ins littering my Eclipse install.

FeedHenry as just another Node hosting service -- it's much more. It's really a tool for building client/server apps that just happens to use Node underneath. You write your server-side code in JavaScript, and it runs on Node, even if that's not immediately apparent. FeedHenry emphasizes the advantage of using Node by including a shared directory for code that runs on both the client and the server.

There are many ways to construct an IDE for Node, and like Cloud9's, FeedHenry's is built for the browser. The development environment and your code sit in the FeedHenry cloud. You work through your browser, which also pops up an emulator.

The IDE is just the center of the universe because FeedHenry can build your app into stand-alone versions for a long list of mobile platforms. In addition to the most popular (iPhone, Android, RIM), FeedHenry supports other mobile platforms that aren't as well known: Opera WGT, Nokia Web Runtime. This cross-platform magic is possible because FeedHenry builds your application in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Nide is a Web app that lets you browse through files and edit them in your browser. It is, as they say, a perfect example of the Node team eating its own dog food. When you save a file in the right directory, Node will find it and start serving it up. Then you check it in another tab on your browser. Node handles all the compilation -- if that's what you call what V8 does -- and most of the other packaging that IDEs normally do. That leaves Nide to focus on displaying and editing the files.

Debugging is the tricky part. You have to put in code for printing and use local tools like Firebug to watch the traffic move back and forth. The "d" in "Nide" doesn't stand for "debugger." Nide's big nonediting feature is a tool for browsing the packages installed by NPM (Node Package Manager). You can power this indirectly.

Is Nide really "nice"? Yes, but only if you're looking for something simple. If you want to step through your code, it won't help you.

Heroku cloud is another to embrace Node with both arms. Heroku also hosts Java, Scala, Clojure, Python, and Ruby, although Node seems the most ideal for Heroku's approach, which is to put your process in a "Web dyno." This is sort of like a virtual machine, but with a better name that avoids any confusion with a real machine. You choose how many dynos you want, and the virtual stack will spin them up.

It's probably not fair to focus too much on Node when talking about Heroku because the most impressive aspect of the Heroku cloud is the sheer variety of features. There's a big collection of add-on services that range from databases (MySQL, PostgreSQL, Redis, MongoDB) to connections to APIs (Twitter, Amazon). It's a big ecosystem that's getting bigger, and Node is just a part of it.

Joyent offers free development machines for those who want to try out the platform. Just go to no.de, a domain name Joyent bought to show its commitment. Joyent also sells SmartMachines if you want to get an IP address and hang up a shingle in the DNS tables. The "smart" here refers to the flexible structure of the virtualization, which Joyent says makes more RAM and more CPU cycles available to the instances. To back this up, the company offers benchmarks that suggest you get 5 times more CPU computations, 14 times more disk I/O, and 3 times more memory I/O than a similarly priced machine in Amazon's EC2 stack. Naturally, your mileage may vary.

Most newcomers will start and stop their Joyent machines through the Web interface, which offers slick real-time graphs of the loads. If you want to automate the process, there's a JSON-driven API that can handle the configuration through a script.

The machines let you deploy your code via Git, the repository-based version-control mechanism that's becoming more and more standard. If you push your version of server.js, Joyent will do the rest. If you need root access, you can log in with an SSH key, but it's not clear to me that you'll ever need to. It helps to be familiar with Solaris because the Joyent SmartOS is based on this venerable tool. If you don't want a SmartOS machine, you can choose from Fedora, CentOS, Ubuntu, and Windows. The premier database is MongoDB, the latest favorite for Node users, but Riak and MySQL machines are also ready to run.

MongoDB, one of the more popular NoSQL databases. You can install these packages with NPM, then accelerate the development by letting Microsoft's cmdlets massage the XML in the configuration files.

The integration is still fairly preliminary. While all of the Node packages are available through NPM, you'll have to make some connections by hand to important options like SQL Server. Some people use the REST interface to SQL Server that Microsoft makes available. Although MongoDB is a nice option, Azure offers a number of reporting tools that are integrated directly with SQL Server.

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