I’ve done reasonable research on different web stacks and combinations of stacks to find out what would be the most useful for me. I ended up using the SWARM stack, which, as far as I know, is a term nobody uses (yet), but is short for Sails + Waterlock + Angular + Restangular + Material. In all follow up articles I will show more code on the different topics, but below you can find the complete “why” I choose these technologies.
First of all, useful for me can be different than it is for somebody else, but here are my criteria for “useful”:
- As platform independent as possible, for both development and running the application in production.
- Front and back separated by a REST interface. You never know whether you will have to make another front-end one day (e.g. an app for iOS or Android), and REST keeps these options open
- Front and back should work with a well documented, easy to understand framework so I can add functionality very fast without worrying about the technical details, nor the implementation of too much GUI
- I don’t want to worry about the DB that is used… because I’m not sure on that part yet
- Open source, preferably MIT License or alike, and well supported by the community. I don’t want to end up with a component somebody wrote “half” or abandoned long time ago.
For the first item on the list, I’m convinced NodeJS is an ideal candidate for the back-end, since it avoids the need of a compiler, heave duty webserver and alike… it’s pretty straightforward, runs on Windows boxes, Macbook,… just have to share the files. Also, all reasonable cloud providers are able to run this, so we’re safe with this choice.
Continuing on the backend, writing a REST application from scratch in NodeJS is still a reasonable amount of work, and reinventing the wheel has helped no one ever, so a web stack that enables this would come in handy. I started with the Express stack, which is pretty basic but already nice to work with, it still required me to do a lot of work. I looked at Loopback framework, where there is a pretty Arc frontend, but this isn’t completely open source (as in free), and for one reason or another I couldn’t find my way in it, so I didn’t stick to it. After checking out a few alternatives (Koa, Hapi, …), I stumbled upon SailsJS, and I’m a fan ever since! Though SailsJS is actually an MVC framework, it creates a REST API by default for all the model/controllers, and you do not need to use the views at all, but can still profit from all the other goodies it offers: policies, nice structure, clear config files,… all very simple to learn. Equally great and a fantastic advantage is the use of the Waterline ORM, which doesn’t force you in the SQL or NoSQL corner, but supports both of them, and even combinations. In development, it works in local files, so you can postpone your choice if you’re not sure yet, but still develop. For a REST backend, I could not find any better solution that leaves me with so many options, and is so easy to learn.
Note: Waterline ORM can also be used outside of the SailsJS framework, and I would advise it in any way since it make DB development really easy and relieves developers from the actually database dependent stuff.
One item left for the back-end was user authentication, since SailsJS doesn’t provide this out-of-the-box (for good reasons). If your requirements are front and back-end separated by a REST interface to support other apps in the future, you must be consistent and the only way to go is web tokens. Cookies are not done (anymore, for authentication), and session authentication will bring you into trouble if you ever want to scale up, or work with apps that do not support this. SailsJS is based on express and all express modules are reusable, so by default people tend to move to Passport for this task. Truth be told, I’m not a fan of Passport… just couldn’t find my way in it (as you might have noticed, I rely on “feelings” for my selection of components, so this is pretty subjective I guess). As an alternative I found Waterlock, which is specifically designed for JWT authentication on Sails, and it does the job just fine!
So with the back-end covered, time to go to the front-end. I’m a fan of AngularJS since the day I met it, and if I see the community around it, I’m not the only one. It has a clean (MVC) structure that makes it really easy to make single page applications, and though “single page application” was not really one of my requirements, it makes life simpler. With AngularJS however, I have two issues:
- Absence of nice HTML controls. The nice controls are not provided, since it is no concern of an MVC framework, but, nobody wants the default HTML controls today
- Calling REST functions is not easy enough, even if there is something like ngResource available
On the HTML controls part, I started with bootstrap, and even though it is nice to work with, it sometimes doesn’t fit into the AngularJS modus operandi. There is an Angular Bootstrap component, but this wasn’t satisfying either. After that, I encountered Angular Material library:
The Angular Material project is an implementation of Material Design in Angular.js. This project provides a set of reusable, well-tested, and accessible UI components based on the Material Design system…. Material Design is a specification for a unified system of visual, motion, and interaction design that adapts across different devices and different screen sizes.
Nothing more to say on that one. Library works great and delivers nice controls. So only part left is call the REST API from within AngularJS. After looking at some generators and alike, I came across Restangular:
AngularJS service to handle Rest API Restful Resources properly and easily
Restangular really delivers what it promises, works nice in AngularJS and calls SailsJS API without any problems, has a good documentation and is well supported.