Lessons Learned: A Year with a Large AngularJS Project
After a year of working with a large AngularJS project, I thought I'd share a few of the lessons that I learned in the process. Firstly, I love AngularJS. It suits my needs exceedingly well, and I expect it will be my goto for the forseeable future when I need a solid framework for "thick client" single page applications. It's awesome. The team working on it is world class, the community is fantastic, and it combines a killer combo of functionality for building web apps.
This one is huge. When I arrived the app basically followed what the angular-seed project represents. Lots of monolithic single files that contained too much code. We migrated from that to using John Resig's "Simple Class Inheritence" to divide up encapsulated pieces of functionality. This approach works well, and as long as you keep the inheritance shallow generally works. We were saddled with a "dirty sock drawer" still, where monolithic folders existed to house various types of classes.
- project -- controllers --- someController.js --- someOtherController.js --- ... --- someController99.js
Which lead to a controllers folder that would twist the eyes. My new rule is that if you hear yourself humming the ABCs in your mind in order to find a specific file, your folders probably have too many files.
Today I'd want to start building my project in a more modular fashion. Each discreet bit of functionality, or functional area, contains the majority of the files/classes/objects that it needs to function. In a perfect world, these modules would be completely modular, and could be extracted and placed in other projects as reusable "meta" components. This is difficult sometimes because you will likely also need a set of common utilities, helpers, or other such files that serve as shared dependencies across your modules. Unless reusability is a requirement, I won't spend a lot of time ensuring absolute seperation, but it is where the bar is raised and something that I keep in mind as I develop.
Cliff Meyers has written a great article on organizing your code in a large Angular app.
Directives are awesome and powerful
I'm of the opinion now that Directives are the killer feature of AngularJS. They are wonderful little packages of contained UI/Presentation logic. They present so much flexibility and power with their ability to extend the grammar of HTML. We definitely use directives, but perhaps not as much as we could.
One of my favorite aspects of Angular Directives is that they are composable. Using them as HTML attributes, we are able to leverage directives to build complex widgets with layered functionality. This can be a double-edge sword at times, when the layered functionality wants to compete, but overall it is awesome.
If I was starting a project today, I would put some serious thought into organizing Directives as visual components and behaviors. There are already several projects that wrap popular UI frameworks with Angular Directives, but it isn't strictly necessary to use a full-blown component set to approach it with this mentality. What are the primary components of the application? How can it be built around directives so that the primary components are shared throughout the application instead of cut-n-paste HTML and CSS sprinkled everywhere. How can I leverage these components for future work?
If you haven't watched them yet, bounce on over to John Lindquist's egghead.io and check out the series on Directives. All of the videos are excellent, but the Directives information is enlightening.
Know thy framework
While I've spent some time with it, this is an area I'd like to get more intimate with. Many things are still black box to me, and while I trust the folks building Angular, I still feel the need to understand what is occuring when I build applications. This is one of my immediate goals right now, so hopefully down the road I might have a thing or two to say about how Angular works uner the hood.
As an aside, I feel compelled to do the same thing with jQuery. So much source, so little time.
Sadly, with this project we are required to use Maven and JAWR for our build. It has been a real struggle and we can't do "proper" builds. We've been able to build some tools that help to mitigate, but I don't recommend using Maven for your front end code.
If I was starting the project today, I would definitely use Yeoman to easily generate templates and make life easier.
This isn't related to Angular directly, but is another important aspect of your AngularJS project so I wanted to spend a little time on it.
I will admit that a year ago my attitude was "f css". It confused and frustrated me to the point of distaste. Obviously this stemmed from ignorance, and I've spent the last year trying to play makeup with CSS. My attitude is no longer "f css" and sounds more like "SCSS!" because I found a happy place where CSS and I can get along.
SCSS syntax takes many of the pain points that put the screws to my brain with vanilla CSS and added a nice level of clarity. On top of that, Compass provides a pile of wicked mixins that eliminate an entirely new level of pain from the stylesheet workflow.
In the future I want to dig into SASS/Compass deeper, combining its expressive styling capabilities with the module and component level AngularJS work outlined above. I'd like to use a more organized approach to my stylesheets with something like SMACSS providing a baseline standard for how the styling is implemented and organized.
At this point, CSS and I have fully made up. I've removed a lot of my ignorance, which was obviously the key to building a solid relationship. We will see how it goes. One day at a time.
If you are building a single-page web application, AngularJS is a solid choice. It is important to decide on and implement structure for your application early. Consider up front how to organize your code into modules and components so that you can harness the power of Directives and maximize reusability potential.
Some good comments on Hacker News if you'd like to join the discussion.
You might also enjoy: AngularJS Directives That Override Standard HTML Tags
or maybe: Learn AngularJS this Weekend