Back when I was becoming familiar with the React JSX framework, I came across a number of introductory tutorials which provided examples for development but not production, and others auto-generated the initial application boiler-plate. But there wasn’t that much material that clarified just the bare essentials, especially useful for understanding the nitty-gritty of working with React, starting new apps from scratch, doing both development and production builds, and migrating existing apps. So I cobbled together that information from a variety of sources to use in my work, and presenting it here to be useful to others.
Special Thank You to Jeffrey Carl Faden for teaching an excellent front-end development seminar which included React and Redux, Dana Woodman for conducting an awesome Introduction to React / Redux workshop, to Brian Holt for giving a great talk on Preact, and to Team Treehouse for these wonderful courses.
Since the conventional browsers on which we want to run our web app do not support either JSX or ES6, we will be using a transpiler to translate our code into the supported ES5 as part of deployment for both development and production builds. It is of course possible to completely avoid transpilation by manually writing ES5 from start to finish, but that would entail lots of ugly, repetitive, and unwieldy code that would obscure the intent of the application logic, and in general be very contrary to how the React toolkit was intended to be used, thereby almost defeating the whole purpose of using React at all. React was meant to be used entirely with ES6/JSX.
So the gain with this complete re-render philosophy is that it is no longer necessary to manually write and maintain special cases for partial widget re-renderings, which can require quite a bit of logic, and result in a lot of code-bloat and all sorts of needle-in-a-haystack bugs. So the overall code is much cleaner, quicker to write, less buggy, easier to maintain and understand.
OK, but what about efficiency? And we don’t want our UI to flicker like an analog TV every time it re-renders! And this is where the key React innovation comes in, and it has a name — Virtual DOM.
Virtual DOM is an off-screen internal React in-memory logical representation of what the actual browser DOM should look like after the render, and by being “virtual” it is much faster than the real thing. The fast virtual DOM allows copious renderings and re-renderings without sacrificing efficiency or causing screen flicker. Whenever the virtual DOM changes, React analyses the changes, compares them to the previous state of the virtual DOM, and then updates only what is necessary to the actual browser DOM.
What this means, is that through the wise use of this virtual DOM, React has freed us developers from having to manually implement the nitty-gritty details of partial widget re-renderings. Now all we have to do is declare how our widgets / app components and their data readouts should look like with the JSX markup, and React takes care of the rest, saving us lots of time, and saving our project budgets even more money!
React has essentially eliminated the most mundane, time consuming, and expensive aspect of traditional front-end development.
The most confusing thing about this least confusing thing is that we are actually going to be using not 1 but 2 React toolkits for our front-end development. We’re going to be using (1) the core React toolkit, which implements this wonderful virtual DOM, and we’re also going to be using (2) the distinctly separate React DOM toolkit, which is the comparison and translation logic between the virtual DOM and the browser actual DOM. We’re going to be using React DOM because we’re developing an application that will run in web browsers.
There are also several React Native toolkits for installable UI applications intended to run natively on various operating systems, but that’s beyond the scope of this tutorial. However, the key take-away here is that the core React is not specifically a front-end toolkit, but a platform-agnostic UI toolkit, applications built with which can also be deployed onto the browser front-end.
React was born out of the need to simplify, accelerate, and standardize UI development. The plethora of traditional toolkits before React failed to crack the chronic problem of UI logic exponentially growing in complexity with the size of the application, becoming unwieldy, as developing difficult dilemmas such as circular dependencies and race conditions.
React and JSX simplify front-end development with its declarative (markup) rather than empirical (traditional procedural) approach to building UI components, automating partial re-renderings, the capability to reuse UI logic client-side, server-side, and on numerous operating systems, and maintaining a common set of philosophies and programming conventions that allows large groups of developers to quickly understand each other’s code. React can be used reliably to build very large applications that remain easy to manage. All of this significantly reduces development time and therefore development costs.
Earlier I mentioned that developing with React makes little sense without also developing with JSX and ES6, and that that requires an additional transpilation step for deployment to the traditional ES5-compatible web browsers. So when starting to build a React application, not only must we prepare the basic React boilerplate, but we must also prepare the infrastructure for our transpilation. And this infrastructure actually requires a lot more work than just the React-specific logic, and we must implement it first before we write any React-specific code.
Facilitation of the transpilation of our React logic will require the direct use of 4 additional software tools, which are:
So the take-away here is that not only are we going to be working with React, but we’re also going to be working with these 4 additional systems and all their dependencies, which is just another one of the many things discussed above that can make starting React so disorienting for a beginner. Perhaps no other front-end toolkit out there requires this much additional tools, but on the bright side, all these tools are based on a common language and operating environment.
The Node.js is the runtime environment inside which all of these other tools will be running. So we need to natively install Node.js onto the operating system of the computer on which we’ll be doing our development. The installation instructions for Node.js are here on their website.
I personally am currently running Node.js version 0.10.25 on an Ubuntu 14.04.5 LTS virtual machine which I’m using as my development environment to write this tutorial.
So install Node.js as the first step of this tutorial. This has been documented in the example repo commit
The NPM package manager will be used to install Webpack and Babel, and if you installed Node.js via your OS package manager, then NPM should have also been installed as its dependency. To verify that you have NPM installed, run
npm -v inside your console. I’m personally currently running NPM version 1.3.10. Refer to the installing NPM page if it is somehow missing in your OS environment.
This has been documented in the example repo commit
The Webpack module bundler will manage the whole build process for our app, including running the Babel transpiler, so we need to install Webpack next. This time we’ll be installing with NPM rather than with the native OS package manager. In fact, from this point on we’ll only be using NPM whenever we need to install any additional software. Run the command:
npm install webpack This is documented in the example repo commit
At this point, a new directory
node_modules/ will appear at the root of your project directory, and it will contain the logic for Webpack and all its dependencies. This directory and all its contents currently take up 29 MB on the system I’m using. We don’t have to install Webpack inside our project, in fact, NPM allows installing all packages globally; however, for the purpose of this tutorial we’re installing all packages locally to get a better idea of what we need to install, and also not to mess with the global system configuration.
However, even though we’re going to keep
node_modules/ locally, we’re not going to keep track of its contents with our Git repository, or at least I’m not. So I recommend you create a
node_modules/ in it. This is documented in the example repo commit
Now that we have Webpack installed, we could immediately continue to installing Babel, but not just yet. First, we’re going to introduce some very basic Webpack configuration without Babel, and then when we install Babel, we’re going to add the Babel-specific configuration on top of that initial configuration. This way we’ll get to see only the bare minimum of what Webpack can operate with, and what Babel requires.
So Webpack is a module bundler. What that means is that it takes in several files (modules), and spits out a single file with all those modules combined. Actually the output does not always have to be a single file, but that’s what it will be for the purpose of this tutorial. We bundle several files into 1 to make the logic they contain faster for the browser to download.
By convention, we will keep our Webpack input files in the subdirectory
webpack_in, and our output file will be dumped by Webpack into
So by using this nomenclature, our initial entry file will be
webpack_in/entry.js. For now, all the logic it will contain will be a console log to indicate that it has been interpreted when we test it in the browser. I have prepared this initial logic in the example repo commit
webpack_out/minimalistic_react.js For now we’re processing just 1 file and outputting just 1 file, but that’s just for the sake of this tutorial, to allow us to see the most basic Webpack configuration. Pretty soon we’ll be processing a lot more input files than just one. The output file name
minimalistic_react.js is just an arbitrary name I chose.
We communicate our parameters to Webpack via a special configuration file, which we’re going to call
As you can see, the configuration logic is only 8 lines. First, we import Node.js API
path to be able to join directory names with the host OS directory separation token. Next, we specify our entry file
webpack_in/entry.js, and then specify our output to be
webpack_out/minimalistic_react.js. And that’s all there’s to it for now!
Time to run Webpack with our just-prepared config! This is done with the command:
./node_modules/webpack/bin/webpack.js --config ./webpack.config.js This step has been documented in the example repo commit
--watch command line parameter. To use it, open a separate terminal window in the project directory, and enter the command:
./node_modules/webpack/bin/webpack.js --config ./webpack.config.js --watch The Webpack process will not exit, but will just sit there and wait for new changes. If you’ll be running Webpack in this mode, then make sure to periodically check its output for reports of any syntax errors you might accidentally introduce into your input code.
webpack_out/minimalistic_react.js. This file is currently 1765 bytes on my system, while the input file
webpack_in/entry.js is only 257 bytes. If we open the generated file, we can see that Webpack added a whole bunch of additional lines denoted by commented-out asterisks. This is normal, and since right now we’re working with a development build it is not going to be a problem. Later on in this tutorial, after we actually implement our basic React app, we’re going to experiment with minified production builds, at which time we’ll add additional Webpack configuration to prevent this superfluous generated bloat.
The generated output file is bulky and will keep changing everytime we make a change to our input files. So it makes sense to add it to
.gitignore as well to keep our Git history clean. This step has been documented in the example repo commit
3afefeaaccd784f3ebee96966cfc3e8a776f1be9, and we can try it here.
webpack_out/minimalistic_react.js not inside the
<head> tag as is so common with using
<script> tags, but at the very bottom of the
<script> inside the
Once again we’ll be using NPM, this time to install the package
babel-loader. The command for that is:
npm install babel-loader This is documented in the example repo commit
bba196dd44ac9537fe65e8d2628a4b027f564d36. At this time the size of my
node_modules subdirectory is 88 MB, and previously it was 29.
We have Babel installed, but Webpack does not know about it yet. To tell Webpack to use Babel to transpile ES6/JSX, we need to tell it to do so in that Webpack configuration file we worked with earlier in step 6 —
webpack.config.js. I did this in the example repo commit
If you look at this configuration diff, you’ll see that all we’re saying is that we want Webpack to “load” files with the file extension
.jsx through Babel. Regular
.js files will not be going through Babel. This is the Airbnb nomenclature approach, and contrary to Facebook which likes to reuse the
.js extension for files containing JSX logic.
Alright, so we just told Webpack to load
.jsx files through Babel, but we don’t have any
.jsx files yet! So let’s create
webpack_in/entry.jsx for our future ES6/JSX logic! I just did this in the example repo commit
Whereas I had
entry.jsx emit “JSX entry logic”. When we finally test this in a web browser that’s how we’ll know that our configuration is working.
Now we have told Webpack to use Babel for
.jsx files, we have created our
webpack_in/entry.jsx, but we still need to tell Webpack to actually pack that new file. Just like with
webpack_in/entry.js, we must add
webpack_in/entry.jsx to the
entry array in
webpack.config.js. I just did this in the example repo commit
It’s time to run
./node_modules/webpack/bin/webpack.js --config ./webpack.config.js to pack our JS and JSX files together, deploy the test page, and test it with a web browser! This will verify that everything we did up to now is working. I just deployed it here.
We’re almost ready to work with React, but still not quite there yet. As it turns out, to tell Babel that we actually want to translate ES6 and JSX, we must specify certain “presets“. These
presets are referred to by the tokens
react. The former is for ES6 (as ES6 and ES2015 are synonymous terms), and the later is for JSX. Before we can even specify these presets in the configuration, we have to install their NPM modules, with the commands:
npm install babel-preset-es2015 and
npm install babel-preset-react (These tokens can be combined into a single NPM command, but I’m listing 2 commands for better clarity.) I documented this in the example repo commit
node_modules folder grew from 88 MB to 985 MB and 1.1 GB after completing this step.
And now we need to add the Babel / Webpack configuration to use the presets. I just did this in the example repo commit
1d3b2b61184b590bdcd0f9dc2cfb4e98c026a287. As you can see this is another relatively minor addition of just 3 lines. In fact our whole Webpack configuration file is only 24 lines long, and that’s including the comment header and the blank separator lines. Our configuration is at the minimum it can be, plus now we’ve got our project infrastructure up to the point where we’re ready to work with React!
The first thing we need to do is install the NPM modules
react-dom with the commands:
npm install react and
npm install react-dom I have documented this in the example repo commit
After installing these modules, my
node_modules/ folder grew from 1.1 GB to 1.2, so it appears that it is the Babel presets that are taking up most of the space.
Next, we need to prepare our future React app root container element inside our test page. The container element is nothing but an empty opening and closing tag that we will specify to React DOM to render our app in. The way React DOM works is that it dumps the previously discussed virtual DOM into this container element. Any previous contents of this container element will get deleted when React DOM does this, so that’s why we’re going to just have an opening and a closing tag.
I’m going to specify a tag
id for this container to be able to use the ancient
document.getElementById(...) browser API call to obtain a reference to the element to feed to React DOM. This is how it is normally done when deploying a React app inside a web page. Using the raw DOM API has waned in popularity over the past decade in favor of using the much more flexible and comprehensive jQuery API; however, while still possible, using jQuery is frowned upon in the React community. And this is actually the only direct DOM API call that we will be making.
Using jQuery inside React apps is frowned upon because while jQuery is all about the DOM, React has the completely opposite philosophy of never touching the real DOM except when obtaining the root container element as we’re doing right now, or rendering to it from its virtual DOM. Had we included jQuery into our project, at least for the purposes of this demo, it would end up as mostly dead code, needlessly eating up space and bandwidth. There’s nothing remarkable our test app will be doing to need jQuery.
The container element itself can be any tag, and for this tutorial I’m just going to use a plain
<div> with an
react-app. I implemented this in the example repo commit
The most crucial detail in this step is that the root container element needs to be above the
document.getElementById(...) call to obtain a reference to it. Otherwise there would be no element to obtain a reference to, and therefore nowhere to render our app into. This has been discussed earlier in step 9 of the build infrastructure preparation procedure in which we explicitly placed that
<script> tag just before closing the
<body> of our test page.
And at this point we’re reading to start writing our React app inside
webpack_in/entry.jsx! I just did that in the commit
Staying true to the name of this tutorial, I made the app absolutely as minimalistic as it can be — all it does is render a
<div> containing the text “Hello! I’m a React app!!”, and this is all accomplished using just 3 lines of code.
ReactDOM.render(...)to render the JSX markup for our app into the root container element.
You may be wondering why I did not make it 2 lines rather than 3 by omitting the import of
react, since I don’t actually call its API directly in this initial implementation. It turns out that this import is a necessary dependency for the method
ReactDOM.render(...) to work. In any case, by convention we use that method to render the JSX markup for our root widget, but have that root widget be defined separately using the
react package API, so if we were to continue developing this app we would be working directly with that package as well.
Now that we have the
webpack_in/entry.jsx ES6/JSX logic for our app ready, we need to transpile it to
webpack_out/minimalistic_react.js ES5 logic, deploy it, and test it in a web browser. As before, we build / transpile with the command
./node_modules/webpack/bin/webpack.js --config ./webpack.config.js, and upon deployment our app looks like this.
Upon looking at the app test page we will see the string “Hello! I’m a React app!!” rendered into the DOM into that root container element
You may also see a console message “Download the React DevTools for a better development experience” followed by a URL or similar. Facebook has created an additional in-browser debugging tool for React applications, offers it as browser extensions, and also inserted special logic into the React DOM toolkit to promote it via the console log on non-production builds when the browser extension has not been detected. If you install this extension into your browser this informational message will no longer be emitted, and you will instead get a new “React” tab in the browser’s web inspector when you view pages that use React. This React tab will let you inspect React components of a React app in a similar fashion to the DOM Inspector. You can try it out on the current test page (but you’ll see only its one and only component) and on other web sites currently known to use React DOM directly, such as Instagram and Airbnb.
Another interesting thing worth mentioning is that our
So 749.8 KB raw / 158.6 KB gzipped is a little too much for production, and we need to slim it down. Since we’re building our releases with Webpack, we’ll once again be working with the Webpack configuration file
webpack.config.js to add settings to do a production build.
The required modifications to the Webpack config are relatively minor. We will tell Webpack to (1) define our build environment as “production”, (2) deduplicate any duplicate code, and (3) to minify the output ES5. There are some additional measures that can be taken to slim it down some more, but since this is a minimalistic tutorial we’ll stick to these 3 for now. No additional NPM installs will be required for what we’re doing. And I just committed the
webpack.config.js production configuration changes to
ff37dff57479e3de5644abf82266ef640e8d53dd. As you can see I added 9 lines, and it could have been even less.
Now that we have changed our Webpack configuration for production, it is time to run it again to do our production build. One caveat here is that the console command to do the build has changed. We must now include the
-p parameter. So our new build command looks like this:
./node_modules/webpack/bin/webpack.js -p --config ./webpack.config.js I have documented this in the example repo commit
webpack_out/minimalistic_react.js is now 140.3 KB raw size. That’s still not too small, but over 5 times smaller than what it used to be. Let’s test the new production build here.
So everything still works, the React DevTools promotion is no longer appearing even if the browser plugin is not installed, and, best of all, our downloaded web server auto-gzipped size is now 42.1 KB. That’s pretty efficient!
Preact is just one of many React API clones / drop-in replacements. There’s also another such toolkit called Inferno, but in this tutorial we’re going to be working with Preact to see how much smaller we can get our
The first thing we need to do to get started with Preact is to install its NPM modules
preact-compat. The later is what duplicates the React API to use the former. We’re going to install these modules with the command:
npm install preact preact-compat I’ve documented this in the example repo commit
a568dfc3424f562c8b1e516c154645183919e5ae. Notice that I did not remove the instructions for installing React and React DOM. These are useful to keep in case we run into some weird future problem in the course of our app development, and decide to temporarily to go back to the regular React to check if the problem could be caused by the drop-in replacement. (If we wanted to get really fancy, we could set up automated unit tests to verify the performance of our build under multiple environments.)
The size of the
node_modules/ on my development machine was 1.2 GB before I installed Preact, and it was the same after.
Now that we have installed Preact, we need to tell Webpack to actually use it. So we modify our good old
webpack.config.js to substitute Preact for React. I just did that in the example repo commit
8d0982d784bef591aaa112221d9217f3e5e1a989. As you can see, I “alias”-ed Preact in. Now when Webpack will be trying to get React it will actually be getting Preact. The key take-away here is that I did not have to modify anything in
entry.jsx where the actual React web app lives, and if we ever want to go back, we can just comment-out these 6 lines, and we’ll be back with the plain React. It’s incredibly easy!
OK, time to run
./node_modules/webpack/bin/webpack.js --config ./webpack.config.js to test our app with Preact. We’re doing a regular development build for now. And the output
webpack_out/minimalistic_react.js on my machine is now 61.9 KB raw size. That’s less than 20 KB more than the gzipped plain React production build, and less than half of the plain React raw production build! We can look at the Preact development build test page here to see that everything still works, except that the React DevTools no longer finds our app. Preact eliminated the DevTools linkage for maximum efficiency, but if we need to debug our app again we can just temporarily comment-out that alias in Webpack config.
Our gzipped development build turned out to be 14.6 KB. Who needs production builds! Well, we still do, it’s just that our current minimalistic app only renders a single
Our evaluation of Preact would not be complete without a production build. This is exactly the same as configuring a React production build. Just as before, we need to modify the Webpack config to do the 3 additional steps outlined in step 1 of the React production section, and I just cherry-picked that configuration commit as
Same as for a React production build, we have to modify our
BUILD_INSTRUCTIONS to pass the
-p flag to Webpack. I just cherry-picked that build instructions commit as
21a3028979d0973b9a696bd79d918f50610bd88a. For formality here’s the full command:
./node_modules/webpack/bin/webpack.js -p --config ./webpack.config.js.
And the Preact production output of
webpack_out/minimalistic_react.js on my system is currently 24.2 KB. If we test this build here we can see that our downloaded gzipped size is 8.7 KB !!! As a disclaimer I should mention that I’m not affiliated with either Preact or React and I was not paid to write this blog.
So far I went through everything step by step for the sake of clarity and demonstration, to give you the best idea of all the distinct elements required to get up and running with React; however, not all of the manual steps mentioned are absolutely necessary. This is especially true for manually installing the numerous NPM packages we installed as part of this tutorial. In fact we can list-out or packages in a configuration file called
package.json, and install all of them with a single command of:
Another reason why this is useful is because package names, dependencies, and compatibilities change over time. The NPM packages outlined in this blog will mutate, and sooner or later will accumulate changes that will break the procedure outlined in this tutorial. The NPM configuration file
package.json allows us to lock-in package versions, giving us an immutable reference to a known working state of our dependencies.
We can use the NPM command
node init to generate our
package.json. This utility was initially built to publish NPM packages onto the NPM public repository, and for that reason it prompts the user and includes in its output some additional information that I’m going to cut out for now. And so I’ve added
package.json as git commit
a94eb160725fb9544d834024bed6995bca64c9e1 into the Preact development branch, and modified the
BUILD_INSTRUCTIONS in git commit
In this tutorial blog I started with the fundamental concepts React is based on, the intent behind it, and why it has emerged as the dominant UI framework. Then I went over the vital preliminary steps for setting up the needed infrastructure for developing React apps. I demonstrated implementing a very simple React app on top of that infrastructure, and I covered how to produce both development and production builds. I also talked about how the React API clone drop-in replacement Preact can make production builds even smaller.
I made a pretty detailed tutorial, breaking-down each task as a series of discrete steps, and explaining the purpose of each one. I minimized the number of these steps to just enough to build a minimalistic React app; however, one that can be reliably used as a foundation for building very large apps. I encourage the readers to use the example repo for this tutorial as a starting point for their own React front-end apps. Make sure to also explore the production, Preact, and
package.json branches of the repo.
So enjoy developing your very own React apps! And if you do, make sure to also know how Redux can be used to manage your application state!