Refactoring an Existing NodeJS App for ES2015 (Part 1)

2016-01-13 11:12:53 -0500

Thinking of getting started with ES2015? Coding with NodeJS v5.0.0 or higher? You can get started today! Node supports many features of ES2015 natively, without the need for a transpiler like Babel or Traceur.

ES2015 actually has a lot of really awesome features, and I think most of them are worthwhile to start using eventually. But, it you already have a Node app written and want to introduce ES2015 gradually, which features should you pick first?

This post talks about the three ES2015 features that I would focus on first. I picked these because they are the most compatible with existing patterns and are the easiest for developers to pick up and start using right away. They are also all supported fully in Node 5.x.

The features are:

  1. Block-scoped declarations (let and const)
  2. Arrow functions
  3. Template strings and new String methods

Part 2 will of this series will talk about classes.

Start using block-scoped variable declarations (let and const) instead of var

Note: You need to be in strict mode ('use strict') for these keywords to work. If you are using the Node REPL, you need to start it with node --use_strict as opposed to typing 'use strict'; within the REPL.

What is this let business?

The var keyword has a few issues that have been corrected by the new let keyword. First of all, var may be hoisted like this:

bla = 2;
var bla;

// is identical to:
var bla;
bla = 2;

Second of all, var-defined variables have the scope of entire enclosing function.

function varExample() {
  var x = 1;
  if (true) {
    var x = 2;  // same variable!
    console.log(x);  // 2
  console.log(x);  // 2

The let keyword avoids all of this weirdness. When you use let there is no hoisting, so you will get a ReferenceError at runtime:

function a() {
   c = 1;
   let c = 2;
   return c;
a(); // ReferenceError: c is not defined

Variables declared with let are block-scoped, not function scoped. A block is any section of code delimited with { ... }. Here's an example:

let x = 1;
let y = 2;
if (y > x) {
  let a = 3;
  x = a;
console.log(x); // 3
console.log(y); // 2
console.log(a); // ReferenceError: a is not defined.

What about const?

The const keyword follows the same scoping and (non-) hoisting rules as let. It has one more constraint, though: variables declared with const don't change their reference.

Here's a few examples:

const A = 1;
A = 2;   // TypeError: assignment to a constant variable

It's also important to realize that const doesn't enforce immutability for objects. You can change object properties of objects declared with const:

'use strict';
const MY_OBJECT = {
   MyProp: 1
MY_OBJECT.MyProp = 2; // no error here!
console.log(MY_OBJECT.MyProp); // 2

Refactoring recommendation

If it is possible to use const, use it. If it isn't possible to use const, use let. Don't use var anymore, unless you find some crazy edge-case where it is necessary.

Arrow functions

Arrow functions are a shorthand for writing small, anonymous functions. They also adopt the scope of their surrounding code, rather than creating a new one. This can eliminate use of the var self = this; pattern, and eliminate some uses of .bind().

Arrow functions also have a further-shortened version for implicitly returning the value of an expression. This is great for iterators and lodash-style functional programming.

Here are some examples:

let myArray = [1, 2, 3];
// These are all equivalent: { return i + 1; }) => { return i + 1; }); => { i + 1; }); => (i + 1)); => i + 1); // expression (i + 1) must be on one line => i + 1); // also must be on one line
// all return [2, 3, 4]

Here's an example of the way this works with arrow functions:

function Person () {
   this.age = 0;
   setInterval(function() { this.age++; }, 1000);
let p = new Person();
p.age; // -> 0
// (wait a few seconds)
p.age; // -> still 0

You could fix this with self, but that is annoying. Arrow functions make this easier:

function Person() {
   this.age = 0;
   setInterval(() => { this.age++; }, 1000);
let p = new Person();
// (wait a few seconds)
p.age // -> not zero

There are a few other differences with arrow functions that are more obscure:

  • Within the arrow function, arguments refers to the surrounding function, not to the argument list of the arrow function.
  • .call(), .bind(), and .apply() cannot change the scope of an arrow function. They still work otherwise (and have the same function signatures themselves). If you use them, this within the arrow function will just be unchanged.

Refactoring recommendation

Use arrow functions extensively. They are way better. One important thing to note, however, is that you still must use the anonymous-function syntax for method declarations:

let MyClass = BaseClass.extend({
   myMethod: function() {
      return 'the return';

Template strings

Template strings are common in other programming languages (Like PHP, Python, and Ruby). They let you avoid code like this, which is extremely prone to errors and typos:

let now = month + ' ' + day + ', ' + year + ' ' + hour + ':' + minute;

With template strings you can write:

let now = `${month} ${day}, ${year} ${hour}:${minute}`;

Template strings start and end with backticks (`). You can put any expression within the templates:

let a = 2;
let myString = `2 plus ${a} is ${2 + a}`;
// -> "2 plus 2 is 4"

Template strings can also be multi-line:

let myString = `This is a
multi-line string`;
// -> "This is a\nmulti-line string"

Refactoring recommendation

Use template strings in most cases where you would normally use string concatenation. Definitely use template strings for multi-line strings. They are particularly useful for inline templates in Angular directives.

New String methods

The String class has a few new useful methods. The most useful ones are:

  • haystack.includes(needle) - tests if a haystack includes needle. No more haystack.indexOf(needle)!
  • haystack.startsWith(needle) and haystack.endsWith(needle) - self explanatory.
  • 'test '.repeat(3) - returns 'test test test '.

Refactoring recommendation

Definitely use these methods instead of indexOf() for checking for substrings. They are much more readable.