19 July 2013

Angular: The Component Orientedness It Makes Me Happy And Why

Being a geezer programmer ain’t all bad. True, sometimes it’s incredibly annoying to those around us: “Back in my day we had a trash 80, a cassette player, and some duct tape AND WE LIKED IT!”. But other times, we get to look back over decades of programming with some valuable perspective.

I’ve been doing web development in some form since about the time there was a web, let’s say mid to early nineties. I’ve recounted all the phases we went through in other posts and I won’t bore you with that now. What I’d like to focus on today is a particular dichotomy in server side development: MVC vs component oriented frameworks. I felt a very strong echo from this in my recent experience with angular lately.

First, I want to describe very briefly the examples of each type of server side framework that I had the most experience with at the time: Struts and Tapestry. Struts was the big gorilla at the time (sadly, it’s likely still in widespread use). Struts was classic server side MVC: it was all about mapping URLs to java controller classes at it’s heart. It was certainly possible to build complicated web apps this way, but it was not a lot of fun. The best description I ever heard was that it felt like “sewing with buttered boxing gloves”.

Tapestry, on the other hand, takes a completely different approach. Rather than being chiefly concerned with mapping urls to actions, Tapestry is all about modeling a web page as a nested structure of components (hence the term component-oriented). Text fields, radio buttons, anything from a simple span of dynamic text to as complex as a sorted and paginated table, are represented as server side components. Components can contain and re-use other components. It was really easy (and fun!) to make your own components. For a server side framework in the mid-2000s this was really radical. Building interactive web applications rather than page-oriented web sites felt incredibly more productive. The awkward dance of URLs and parameters and http requests was abstracted away (with great effort on Tapestry’s part mind you) and you were free to focus on the bits of your app that mattered. Incredibly powerful high-level components evolved that made it that much easier.

Tapestry also takes what at the time was a novel approach to templating: instead of embedding java code in your web page a la jsp, you marked which sections of the page should be handled by a tapestry component by adding attributes to your html. This made the process of integrating design and development really enjoyable. Instead of having to turn a designer’s original html into java method calls or taglibs, you could work directly with the original markup. You simply added a few attributes here and there and let your designer know what they were doing and why they were needed. If there were tweaks, the designer could continue to make changes to the html without a painful reconversion process. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had doing web development.

What got me reminiscing about all of this was some experiences working with Angular recently. If you’ve worked with Angular my description of Tapestry is already sounding very familiar, in particular the similarity between Tapestry components and angular directives. Angular directives let you add application behavior via html elements, attributes and css classes. There are a large set of built in directives that you’ll end up using as soon as you start working with Angular. This also means there is not separate template language: the html/css we build initially doesn’t have to be translated into some other template language by developers. You can work with and continue to iterate on the original static html and css that you started the project with.

The component approach of angular also has also resulted in a similarly ecosystem of reusable components. Take a look at the angular-ui project to see what I mean. Though I’ve heard developers scoff at the idea of a component library being needed, as a wise friend once remarked: “No code is faster than no code”. Though he was talking about performance, it applies to development as well: nothing is faster to develop that something I don’t have to write at all. My experience so far working with angular directives has been very productive.

I’m still pretty new to angular, so it may be I’m in that “honeymoon period” where everything is new and bright and shiny. But so far the experience has really been enjoyable. I’m looking forward to more.

Heads up! This article may make reference to the Gaslight team—that's still us! We go by Launch Scout now, this article was just written before we re-introduced ourselves. Find out more here.

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