The (Odd) State of Node.js and its Frameworks

Recently I read a Node.JS framework roundup on OCDevel comparing Derby.JS, Meteor, SocketStream, TowerJS, and Express. The author expressed preference for Derby.JS, but I’m not 100% convinced that is really the best choice.

Don’t get me wrong– I think Derby.js is a fantastic (start) of a framework, and I would love to be able to use it, but I can’t for one simple, but big, reason. It’s no where near production ready.

Sadly, that seems to be the story of Node.JS and the frameworks that use it. Derby, Meteor, SocketStream– they all are relatively new and immature, and in some cases, lack critical functionality of a web framework or have serious issues with security. That sort of puts me, as a developer, in an odd position. I’ve determined Node.JS is a good platform for a project, but without reinventing the wheel, what framework do I use to speed up development?

Node.JS itself is still not even 1.0 yet and definitely isn’t API stable, but it does have a sort of maturity that some of the frameworks do not, which is why I have taken the risk to use Node.JS in production.

While I haven’t used TowerJS or SocketStream, I can get into more detail with the other three frameworks–

Derby.js

I want to use Derby so badly. It looks amazing and the demos are impressive. Imagine writing tens of lines of code or less and being able to publish an app that synchronizes a text box, or even an entire chat log, across multiple clients and in real time. With Derby, you can do that.

So, why don’t I use it? Simply because it lacks so many features and documentation. Every time I do a Google search, I get results about the Derby database (unfortunate naming coincidence) unless I remember to search for “Derby.js” instead. StackOverflow tells the same story– you get minimal help and very few questions pertain to Derby.

Anyways, one really cool feature of Derby is its ability to render your page before it serves it to the browser, so there is no “flash” of a blank page before Javascript on the client side kicks in. Oh, and it works with Javascript disabled and for web crawlers and indexers.

But Derby lacks sessions and authentication. Or maybe it does have them. Who knows? I can’t find any documentation on either. (Yes, I know authentication’s coming in Racer, but I’m not exactly sure about the sessions, and no one seems to have documented it well outside of Racer’s GitHub repository). On the up side, Derby.js is by the same guy who wrote Everyauth. If that’s the case, why it hasn’t already been implemented is beyond me.

Anyways, that brings me to a Pro-Con list:

Pros

  • Real time, syncs models across client and server
  • Code sharing for client and server

Cons

  • Slow progress due to small number of followers and contributors
  • No authentication or sessions, as far as I can tell
  • Unstable, not usable for production

Recommendation

Do not use it for anything other than experiments, demos, and messing around. It’s not quite mature enough to use in production web apps. I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes, but it seems to have been at version 0.3.12 for a while now…

Meteor

Meteor is very much like Derby.JS. It handles the realtime synchronization of models across the client and server and allows for code sharing. The demos are equally impressive, and show off exactly how you can build real time games with Meteor.

But the same issues as Derby apply, and there are some pretty weird hacks that they used for workarounds (v0.3.9). Like Derby, there’s no authentication.

In bright red in their documentation is this:

Currently the client is given full write access to the collection. They can execute arbitrary Mongo update commands. Once we build authentication, you will be able to limit the client’s direct access to insert, update, and remove. We are also considering validators and other ORM-like functionality.

Since you are basically exposing your server side database to the client, I can come along and run Users.remove({}) and your entire users catalog has been erased. This will be addressed in the future– they are already working on an implementation.

That alone should scare you off from using Meteor in production, which is too bad, because like Derby, Meteor looks promising.

Depending on your preferences, you may also want to shy away from Meteor due to it’s use of Fibers instead of Node’s traditional callback-style programming, which Derby does use.

Also unlike Derby, Meteor does not render your content server side. This means search engines cannot index your content (which may not be an issue if your app’s a chatroom or app) and Javascript must be enabled. Meteor claims to have a fix in v0.3.9, but it’s such a bad workaround it’s not worth using. Essentially, they spawn an entire headless browser any time a web spider crawls your page. Let me say that again– Meteor’s workaround to prerender the page is to launch an entire web browser on your server, render the page, then pass that to the search engine. It’s extremely ineffecient and makes you prone to a DDOS attack.

Pros

  • Real time synchronization of models
  • Session support

Cons

  • Direct Mongo access
  • Uses a proprietary package manager (i.e. not NPM)
  • Terrible implementation of server side rendering

But hey, they have $11M in funding, so it can only get better. I hope. At least for Andreessen Horowitz’s sake.

Recommendation

As with Derby, do not use it for production. It’s still maturing and lacks authentication support as well. Plus, even worse, anyone can come along and erase your entire database in one command from their web inspector. But the demos are cool, and it looks like progress is being made more rapidly than Derby.

Express

This is the only framework I’ve ever used in a production Node.JS app. They’re on version 3.0 and the framework is quite mature. But unlike Derby or Meteor, it isn’t real time. If you ran a website on Express, your visitor wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a PHP app and Express– which might not be a bad thing, depending on what you’re making.

It’s pretty simple to use in that you define a path for Express to handle and then assign a function to it. It works with the Jade templating engine out of the box, but you can use other stuff too.

One big thing to note is that Express is not an MV* framework. In fact, there’s no models anywhere in Express. You have to build those yourself with something like Mongoose or whatever.

As the OCDevel post mentioned, Express is more of a DIY framework. It handles the important stuff like URL routing and even templating, but data and user management is up to you. Want authentication? Drop in a package like everyauth and set it up using Express’s middleware. The framework is so popular, most packages I’ve seen have support for it. So while there’s no built in support for a lot of things, you can usually find a package built to work with Express that handles what you need.

Pros

  • Easy to use and setup
  • Handles the important stuff, leaves the rest to you
  • RESTful– no real time stuff
  • Not MV*

Cons

  • Handles the important stuff, leaves the rest to you
  • RESTful
  • Not MV*

Recommendation

Unlike the other two frameworks, Express is a little more ambiguous in its pros and cons. What I may consider a pro (not MV), someone else may hate. But if Express looks like something you could use and deal with, you can* use it in production. It’s pretty stable and popular, so you’ll get a fair amount of support.

The Future

I’m looking forward to seeing Derby.js and Meteor mature, but for now, they just aren’t stable. I’d definitely be curious to see how TowerJS works, but there’s just so much CoffeeScript (which I hate, personally). I have used Express in production, it works beautifully, and I’ll continue to do so in the future (I have another two projects using it in development) because it’s mature, so of course I’m biased.

You’re probably wondering why I’m plugging for maturity and using Node.JS, which is still on version 0.8.x and not exactly stable. So I have a double standard, but Node.JS is relatively stable and feature complete compared to the frameworks that run on top of it. And I do still use a traditional PHP/MySQL approach for applications that don’t necessarily need Node.JS, but PHP is a terrible language for certain tasks.

In any case, only time and active development will help these frameworks along. Like I said, I have some projects that I want to use Derby.js for– but its immaturity and inability to do simple things such as authenticate a user (and the difficulty of building/integrating it yourself) makes it a bad choice.

The state of frameworks and Node.JS is kind of odd, but hopefully it’ll improve over time.

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