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Node.js has been taking the world by storm since 2009 - with hundreds of thousands of systems built using Node.js, having the developers community dubbing “JavaScript is eating software”. One of the major contributing factors to Node.js’ success is npm - its sidekick package manager, allowing JavaScript developers sharing useful packages like lodash, moment in a breeze. As of the moment I’m writing this post, npm has facilitated the publications of over 1.3 million packages with a weekly download rate of over 16 billion!! These numbers look fantastic for any software tools, so what exactly is npm?

NPM in essence

NPM - “Node Package Manager”, also known as “Ninja Pumpkin Mutants”, “Nonprofit Pizza Makers” (and a host of other random names that you can explore and probably contribute to over at npm-expansions), is the default package manager for JavaScript’s runtime Node.js. NPM consists of two main parts:

  • a CLI (Command-line interface) tool for publishing and downloading of packages
  • an online repository that hosts JavaScript packages

For a more visual explanation, we can think of the repository npmjs.com as a fulfilment center that receives packages of goods from sellers (npm package authors) and distributes these goods to buyers (npm package users). To facilitate this process, npmjs.com fulfilment center employs an army of hardworking wombats (npm CLI) who will be assigned as personal assistants to each individual npmjs.com customers. So dependencies would be delivered to JavaScript developers like npm Wombat deliver package to user and the process of publishing a package for your JS mates would be something like npm Wombat deliver package to fulfilment center Let’s look at how this army of wombats help developers who are looking to use JavaScripts packages in their projects, and open-source wizards get their cool libraries around the world.

package.json

Every project in JavaScript - be it Node.js or browser application - can be scoped as an npm package with its own package information and it’s package.json job to describe the project. We can think of package.json as stamped labels on them npm good boxes that our army of Wombats deliver around.

package.json will be generated when npm init is ran to initialise a JavaScript/Node.js project, with these basic metadata provided by us developers:

  • name: the name of your JavaScript library/project
  • version: the version of your project. Often times, for application development, this field is often neglected as there’s no apparent need for versioning like opensource libraies, however, it can come handy as a source of deployment’s version.
  • description: the project’s description
  • license: the project’s license

npm scripts

package.json also supports a scripts property that can be defined to run command-line tools that are installed in the project’s local context. For example, the scripts portion of an npm project can look something like

{
  "scripts": {
    "build": "tsc",
    "format": "prettier --write **/*.ts",
    "format-check": "prettier --check **/*.ts",
    "lint": "eslint src/**/*.ts",
    "pack": "ncc build",
    "test": "jest",
    "all": "npm run build && npm run format && npm run lint && npm run pack && npm test"
  }
}

with eslint, prettier, ncc, jest not necessarily installed as global executables but rather local to your project inside node_modules/.bin/.

A recent introduction of npx allows us to run these node_modules project-scoped commands just like a globally installed program by prefixing npx ... (i.e. npx prettier --write **/*.ts)

dependencies vs devDependencies

These 2 comes in form of key-value objects with npm libraries’ names as key and their semantic-formatted versions as value. This is an example from Github’s TypeScript Action template

{
  "dependencies": {
    "@actions/core": "^1.2.3",
    "@actions/github": "^2.1.1"
  },
  "devDependencies": {
    "@types/jest": "^25.1.4",
    "@types/node": "^13.9.0",
    "@typescript-eslint/parser": "^2.22.0",
    "@zeit/ncc": "^0.21.1",
    "eslint": "^6.8.0",
    "eslint-plugin-github": "^3.4.1",
    "eslint-plugin-jest": "^23.8.2",
    "jest": "^25.1.0",
    "jest-circus": "^25.1.0",
    "js-yaml": "^3.13.1",
    "prettier": "^1.19.1",
    "ts-jest": "^25.2.1",
    "typescript": "^3.8.3"
  }
}

These dependencies are installed via npm install command with --save and --save-dev flags, and meant to be used for production and development/test environments respectively. We will drill deeper into the installation of these packages in the next section. Meanwhile, it’s important to understand the possible signs that come before the semantic versions (assuming you have read up on major.minor.patch model of semver):

  • ^: latest minor release. For example, a ^1.0.4 specification might install version 1.3.0 if that’s the latest minor version in the 1 major series.
  • ~: latest patch release. In the same way as ^ for minor releases, ~1.0.4 specification might install version 1.0.7 if that’s the latest minor version in the 1.0 minor series.

All of these exact package versions will be documented down in a generated package-lock.json file.

package-lock.json

This file describe the exact versions of the dependencies used in an npm JavaScript project. If package.json is a generic descriptive label, package-lock.json is an ingredient tables. And just like how we don’t read the ingredient table of a product (unless you are too bored or too free), package-lock.json is not meant to be read line-by-line by developers (unless we’re desperate to resolve “works in my machine” issues). package-lock.json is usually generated by npm install command, and also read by our NPM CLI tool to ensure reproduction of build environments for the project with npm ci.

Guide to effectively command NPM Wombats as a “buyer”

As inferred from 1.3m published packages vs 16b downloads statistic mentioned earlier, majority of npm users use npm in this direction. So it’s good to offer a quick guide on the important concepts to wield this powerful tool.

npm install

This is the most used command as we developer JavaScript/Node.js applications nowadays. By default, npm install <package-name> will install the latest version of a package with ^ version sign. An npm install within the context of an npm project will download packages into the project’s node_modules folder according to package.json specifications, upgrading package version (and in turn regenerate package-lock.json) wherever it can based on ^ and ~ version matching. A global flag -g can also be specified if you want to install a package in the global context which can be used anywhere across your machine and commonly for command-line tooling package like live-server. npm has made installing JavaScript packages so easy that this command is often used incorrectly, resulting in npm being the butt of a lot of programmers’ jokes like these

Jokes about NPM

--production flag comes to the rescue! In the previous section, we discussed dependencies and devDependencies meant for usage in production and development/test environment respectively. This --production flag is how the differences in node_modules are made. By attaching this flag to npm install command, we will only install packages from dependencies, and thus drastically reduce the size of our node_modules to whatever that is absolutely necessary for our applications to be up and running. Just like how as boy and girl scouts we didn’t bring lemon squeezers to our lemonade booth, we shouldn’t bring devDependencies to production!

npm ci

So if npm install --production is optimal for production environment, must there be a command that’s optimal for my local development, testing setup?

The answer is npm ci.

As package-lock.json, if doesn’t already exists in the project, is generated whenver npm install is called, npm ci consume this file to download the exact version of each individual package that the project depends on. This is how we can make sure that the our project’s context stays exactly the same across different machines, be it our laptops used for development, or CI (Continuous Integration) build environments like Github Actions.

npm audit

With the humongous amount of packages published and easily installed, npm packages are susceptible to bad authors with malicious intentions like these. Realising this issue in the ecosystem, npmjs organisation came up with npm audit idea with them maintaining a list of security loopholes that developers can audit their dependencies against using npm audit command. npm audit gives developers information about the vulnerabilities and whether there’re versions with remediations to upgrade to. For example,

npm audit result

If the remediations are available in the next non-breaking version upgrades, npm audit fix can be used to upgrade the affected dependencies’ versions automatically.

Guide to effectively command NPM wombats as “seller”

We have gone through how to wield NPM CLI tool as a consumer, how about effectively use it as an author (and potentially become a JavaScript opensource wizard 🥳)?

npm publish

Sending a package to our npmjs.com fulfilment center is super easy as we only need to run npm publish. The tricky part, which is not specific to npm package authors, is determining the version of my package. The rule of thumb according to semver.org:

  1. MAJOR version when you make incompatible API changes,
  2. MINOR version when you add functionality in a backwards compatible manner, and
  3. PATCH version when you make backwards compatible bug fixes.

It’s even more important to follow the above rule when publishing your packages to ensure that we’re not breaking anyone’s code as the default version matching in npm is ^ (aka next minor version).

❤️ npm ❤️ JavaScript ❤️ Node.js ❤️

That’s all we need to know to start wielding npm effectively and command our lovely army of wombats!

npm wombats