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Modeling Data and State in Your AngularJS Application

Respect your data. Contain your state.

Data and state are the foundation of your application. These two items should be absolutely respected. As you work through the AngularJS documentation, these two items are generally stored on the controllers. This works OK, but as your app grows beyond the “todo list” it quickly breaks down. Controllers need shared state, data needs to be contained, and it needs to be done in a consistent manner that is easy to comprehend.

I’ve written about this in the past, in the context of ActionScript 3 and the Robotlegs framework. This approach is valid for JavaScript, but requires some translation to build something usable for AngularJS.

What is a Model?

A model notifies its associated views and controllers when there has been a change in its state. This notification allows the views to produce updated output, and the controllers to change the available set of commands. A passive implementation of MVC omits these notifications, because the application does not require them or the software platform does not support them. from Wikipedia

As the “M” in MVC, model classes encapsulate your application’s data and provide an API to access and manipulate that data. The other classes in your application will make requests of models via this API. When data on the model is updated, the model dispatches events that the other classes within your application can react to. Models are appropriate for capturing the domain logic, such as performing calculations or other manipulations.

An example of this might be a shopping cart. When an item is added to the shopping cart model, the new total for all of the items in the cart will be calculated. The new total will then be stored on the model for access by other classes within the application. By placing this logic within your models, you ensure that it isn’t scattered across the entire application and know exactly where to look to see how and when your data is being manipulated.

In addition to controlling access to data, models maintain the state of your application. Consider a list of objects. You want to keep track of which of these objects is selected, so the data model has a selected property which is updated with the currently selected item. Other areas of your application can now access this property to discover which item is selected and react accordingly.

As you can see, data and state are intimately related. State is data, data is state.

Models are portable. There are many common sets of data that can easily transport between one application and the next. Think of, as an example, a UserLoginModel or a ShoppingCartModel. Portability takes a bit more thought and energy, but no more than writing the same code over again for each project. Obviously every model isn’t going to qualify for this, but many will so it is something to watch out for.

The model is the core of your application. The visual components get all the ooos and aaahs, but as a developer you know that data is the man behind the curtain. It is our jobs, as developers, to curate the data and deliver it to those beautiful interface items accurately. This is why isolating domain logic in the model is so important. By isolating it you have made it easier to locate, update, and maintain.

We’ve dug into what a model is, but if you’re like me, you are waiting to see how to actually use models within an AngularJS application, so let’s take a look at that.

Exploring the Code

This is a simple/naive example that has a list of authors with a poignant quote from each. If you explore the example you will quickly notice that all of the data and state is stuffed in the controller. This is OK for a trivial demo, and something more complicated/non-trivial is difficult to present in a blog post. It should be enough to present the concepts and gain some understanding on how using models can reduce the overall cognitive load of more complex applications.

This “everything stuffed in a controller” approach works, but we can do better.

note: I’m using jsFiddle, and it puts obvious restrictions on how you organize your code. I will be adding some thoughts on that in a future post, but a monolithic single JS file isn’t going to scale very well.

If you’d like to see a good write-up on structuring larger Angular apps, my friend Cliff Meyers wrote a great article on the subject.

Introducing a Model to Store Data

In the above example, all of our data is stored within the controller on the $scope. It is all hardcoded in the app as well, but we will talk about service integration in the future. The task we want to accomplish now is a little seperation of data and presentation. This doesn’t mean that we won’t be using $scope. We will. AngularJS uses the $scope as a Presentation Model. This is fine, but we can still provide much nicer separation with a “proper” model for the data.

If you look at the JavaScript above, I think you will agree that it is already starting to look a bit cleaner. While the controller’s $scope is still ultimately supplying the view with the data it craves, the actual data is housed in a model. The model is a ‘singleton’ (of the lowercase ’s’ variety) defined as an Angular service.

I found Angular’s definition of “service” confusing at first. It has nothing directly to do with what I consider a service, but is simply one of the methods for defining dependencies for injection.

This is more like it. Now we have a tiny controller, and all of our data and state is offloaded onto authorListModel. We’ve added the setSelectedAuthor to the model, which dispatches an event. Our controller is listening for the event, so it updates the $scope appropriately and the view displays the information we expect.

This clean separation is going to pay huge dividends as the application grows in scope. We can now easily separate the textarea that contains the quote from the list of available authors.

anti-pattern alert: you might be tempted to add event listeners on your model. Don’t. It makes them harder to test and generally kills models in terms of single-responsibility-principle. Since a model has an event dispatch, which can also listen for events, the temptation is always there. Ignore this warning at your own peril! ;)

This is a bit silly, but shows the flexibility of this approach. The textarea is now driven by its own controller. That controller is also listening for the update event the model dispatches. Instead of inspecting the model, it uses a parameter sent with the event to update $scope.quote and the magical Angular binding does the rest. Nice.

Do I really need to use events like this?

Most definitely not. Instead of the eventing I outlined above, you could simply bind to the model. One of Angular’s greatest strengths is its awesome two-way “.

This is pretty nice, and is arguably cleaner than the eventing approach. In many (most) cases, this approach might be preferred.

Conclusion?

Models provide an excellent way to separate data and display. By migrating your data and state to a model, you have much more flexibility with how that data is presented. Models are also prime candidates for unit testing, as they typically have exactly one dependency (some form of event emitter, in this case the $rootScope) and contain highly testable domain logic.

Hopefully this gets you started down the road of using models in your AngularJS apps. In the near future, I will expand on models to discuss services (the external kind) and how they play with this approach.

If you have any comments, questions, or critique please share. I’d love to hear about how you solve this problem of separating view and data with AngularJS.

If you are looking for nuts & bolts lessons on AngularJS, it is hard for me to express in words how awesome John Lindquist’s egghead.io is. If you haven’t already, go there now.

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