The capabilities of Node.js

Node.js is a platform for writing JavaScript applications outside web browsers. This is not the JavaScript environment we are familiar with in web browsers! While Node.js executes the same JavaScript language that we use in browsers, it doesn’t have some of the features associated with the browser. For example, there is no HTML DOM built into Node.js.

Beyond its native ability to execute JavaScript, the built-in modules provide capabilities of the following sort:

  • Command-line tools (in shell script style)
  • An interactive-terminal style of program—that is, a read-eval-print loop (REPL)
  • Excellent process control functions to oversee child processes
  • A buffer object to deal with binary data
  • TCP or UDP sockets with comprehensive, event-driven callbacks
  • DNS lookup
  • An HTTP, HTTPS, and HTTP/2-client server layered on top of the TCP library filesystem access
  • Built-in rudimentary unit testing support through assertions

The network layer of Node.js is low level while being simple to use—for example, the HTTP modules allow you to write an HTTP server (or client) using a few lines of code. This is powerful, but it puts you, the programmer, very close to the protocol requests and makes you implement precisely those HTTP headers that you should return in request responses.

Typical web-application developers don’t need to work at a low level of the HTTP or other protocols; instead, we tend to be more productive working with higher-level interfaces—for example, PHP coders assume that Apache/Nginx/and so on are already there providing the HTTP, and that they don’t have to implement the HTTP server portion of the stack. By contrast, a Node.js programmer does implement an HTTP server, to which their application code is attached.

To simplify the situation, the Node.js community has several web application frameworks, such as Express, providing the higher-level interfaces required by typical programmers. You can quickly configure an HTTP server with baked-in capabilities, such as sessions, cookies, serving static files, and logging, letting developers focus on their business logic. Other frameworks provide OAuth 2 support or focus on REST APIs, and so on.

The community of folks using Node.js has built an amazing variety of things on this foundation.

1. What are folks doing with Node.js?

Node.js is not limited to web service application development; the community around Node.js has taken it in many other directions:

  • Build tools: Node.js has become a popular choice for developing command-line tools that are used in software development or communicating with service infrastructure. Grunt, Gulp, and Webpack are widely used by frontend developers to build assets for websites. Babel is widely used for transpiling modern ES-2016 code to run on older browsers. Popular CSS optimizers and processors, such as PostCSS, are written in Node.js. static website generation systems, such as Metalsmith, Punch, and AkashaCMS, run at the command line, and generate website content that you upload to a web server.
  • Web UI testing: Puppeteer gives you control over a headless Chrome web- browser instance. With it, you can develop Node.js scripts by controlling a modern, full-featured web browser. Some typical use cases are web scraping and web application testing.
  • Desktop applications: Both Electron and node-webkit (NW.js) are frameworks for developing desktop applications for Windows, macOS, and Linux. These frameworks utilize a large chunk of Chrome, wrapped by Node.js libraries, to develop desktop applications using web UI technologies. Applications are written with modern HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript, and can utilize leading-edge web frameworks, such as Bootstrap, React, VueJS, and AngularJS. Many popular applications have been built using Electron, including the Slack desktop client application, the Atom, Microsoft Visual Code programming editors, the Postman REST client, the GitKraken GIT client, and Etcher, which makes it incredibly easy to burn OS images to flash drives to run on single-board computers.
  • Mobile applications: The Node.js for Mobile Systems project lets you develop smartphone or tablet computer applications using Node.js for both iOS and Android. Apple’s App Store rules preclude incorporating a JavaScript engine with JIT capabilities, meaning that normal Node.js cannot be used in an iOS application. For iOS application development, the project uses Node.js-on-ChakraCore to skirt around the App Store rules. For Android application development, the project uses regular Node.js on Android. At the time of writing, the project is in an early stage of development, but it looks promising.
  • Internet of things (IoT): Node.js is a very popular language for Internet-of- Things projects, and Node.js runs on most ARM-based, single-board computers. The clearest example is the NodeRED project. It offers a graphical programming environment, letting you draw programs by connecting blocks together. It features hardware-oriented input and output mechanisms—for example, to interact with General Purpose I/O (GPIO) pins on Raspberry Pi or Beaglebone single-board computers.

You may already be using Node.js applications without realizing it! JavaScript has a place outside the web browser, and it’s not just thanks to Node.js.

2. Server-side JavaScript

Quit scratching your head, already! Of course, you’re doing it, scratching your head and mumbling to yourself, “What’s a browser language doing on the server?” In truth, JavaScript has a long and largely unknown history outside the browser. JavaScript is a programming language, just like any other language, and the better question to ask is “Why should JavaScript remain trapped inside web browsers?”

Back in the dawn of the web age, the tools for writing web applications were at a fledgling stage. Some developers were experimenting with Perl or TCL to write CGI scripts, and the PHP and Java languages had just been developed. Even then, JavaScript saw use on the server side. One early web application server was Netscape’s LiveWire server, which used JavaScript. Some versions of Microsoft’s ASP used JScript, their version of JavaScript. A more recent server-side JavaScript project is the RingoJS application framework in the Java universe. Java 6 and Java 7 were both shipped with the Rhino JavaScript engine. In Java 8, Rhino was dropped in favor of the newer Nashorn JavaScript engine.

In other words, JavaScript outside the browser is not a new thing, even if it is uncommon.

You have learned that Node.js is a platform for writing JavaScript applications outside of web browsers. The Node.js community uses this platform for a huge array of application types, far more than was originally conceived for the platform. This proves that Node.js is popular, but we must still consider the technical rationale for using it.

Source: Herron David (2020), Node.js Web Development: Server-side web development made easy with Node 14 using practical examples, Packt Publishing.

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