Building a Blog Part 3: Creating a Like button widget with Mithril and webpack

September 25, 2018

In part 3 of Building a Blog I will talk about the implementation of the like button at the bottom of every post in this website. The goal is to have an interactive widget that lets users see the number of likes for the post they are currently reading and optionally increment it by one unit. It is written with Mithril, a modern JavaScript framework for fast Single Page Applications.

Why a JavaScript framework?

For a like button, A button inside a form certainly gets the job done with zero JavaScript, but there is a little problem. The page reloads every time the form submits a POST request, which is not the best user experience in this case. The better approach is to use AJAX so we are going to need at least a little JavaScript. On top of that, the button has a state, it is either pressed (you liked the post) or it isn’t. The button’s visual appearance and behavior changes depending on the state. Managing state is not a simple task so it’s better to use a tool that is designed to efficiently update the UI every time state changes.

Why Mithril?

From Mithril’s homepage:

Mithril is a modern client-side Javascript framework for building Single Page Applications. It’s small (< 8kb gzip), fast and provides routing and XHR utilities out of the box.

As you can see, this fits perfectly in my blog since one of my goals is to keep the amount of JavaScript to a minimum to ensure faster page loading times. Doing an interactive button in plain old JavaScript is not something I consider maintainable because of the pain of dealing with state management. That’s the main reason why I decided to go with Mithril.

Whenever an event is triggered, Mithril automatically detects which parts of the UI need an update and efficiently re-renders those only. This same idea is implemented slightly differently by all popular front-end frameworks like React, Vue, Elm and many others. These frameworks have become so mainstream lately because they free you from having to write imperative code that manually calls DOM APIs to update the UI everytime somthing happens in your app.

I usually go with React for front-end applications, because it’s a great framework with a fantastic ecosystem, but for now I only want a small button. React is way too big for that. Mithril only adds 8 kB to the gzipped bundle size, instead of React’s 30+ kB. Also, inside those 8 kB there’s also a XHR utility included which helps with the AJAX calls. No need to add an extra library. On hindsight, Preact would have probably been a better choice since it is only 3 kB and I don’t need Mithril’s routing. I will consider it for future projects, but I’m happy with Mithril so it stays in my blog.

Getting Started

Like with most front-end development in 2018, the first step is to write some configuration files. This isn’t strictly necessary to get started with Mithril, but there are 2 things that I want that aren’t included out of the box:

These things only improve the development experience. They don’t affect performance or user experience in any way, so if you are not interested you can skip this section.

Since I’m going to need Babel and webpack, it is necessary to install a bunch of packages from the NPM registry. This can be achieved with yarn:

yarn add --dev babel-core babel-loader babel-plugin-transform-react-jsx babel-preset-env webpack webpack-cli webpack-dev-server

My package.json file ends up like this:

Babel is the compiler that transforms whatever flavor of JavaScript you want to use into something that browsers can actually run. It is super extensible. First, you add babel-core, which contains the base compiler, and then you add a preset and some plugins that know how to transpile the syntax that you want to use into valid ES5. In this case I add babel-preset-env, which is a preset that transpiles ES6+ code, and babel-plugin-transform-react-jsx, which is a little plugin that transpiles JSX to components for any supported framework. To tell Babel to use these packages, I have the following .babelrc configuration file:

Transpilation by itself isn’t terribly useful in production environments. To optimize the page’s loading time, the generated code must be bundled into a single minified JS file that can be quickly sent over the network. This is where webpack comes in. Webpack is also very extensible. It can bundle pretty much any kind of file that you could possibly want to include in your web app. All you have to do is install the appropriate “loader” and use it in your config file. In this case I wanted webpack to transform my ES6 files with Babel before bundling them so I chose babel-loader. Since I’m going to be using webpack from a terminal, I also need webpack-cli. The last dependency is webpack-dev-server. This is used by webpack to spin up a small web server that serves the bundled JS and reloads the browser every time a source file changes and a new bundle is generated. My webpack.config.js file ends up being like this:

This file specifies several things so I’ll try to explain them one by one.

Now that the tools are properly configured all that’s left to do is to actually run them. In development, webpack should start the dev server and generate bundles as quickly as possible, without any optimizations, and include source maps so that they can debugged. Luckily, the -d flag is a shortcut that does just that:

yarn webpack-dev-server -d

For production, the bundle should be minified and optimized. The -p flag is another nice shortcut that gets the job done:

yarn webpack -p

Writing the widget

Once configuration is done, I can actually write the code for my widget. It consumes the endpoints created in part 2, so let’s add the functions for the AJAX calls:

postStringId is just a helper function that extracts the post’s ID from the URL. These 2 functions use Mithril’s request function which returns a promise that resolves to the server response without the need for a promise polyfill. As you can see, it is very easy to do asynchronous HTTP requests with Mithril.

The widget will be handled by the app function. The idea is to display 3 things: the button, a counter with the post’s number of likes and a little message to inform the user about the button. The first thing that I will do here is to declare my state.

The first variable liked is self-explanatory, the post is either liked or not. The widget will be gray at start but red after being liked. likesCount is the “number” of likes to show in the counter. It starts with “??” because this value has to be fetched via AJAX, so it is unknown until the response arrives. lasCountFromServer holds the last value of likesCount. This is handy for “rollbacks” whenever an error is thrown. Finally footerMsg is a message to display next to the button. It first invites the user to like the post and when an error occurs this can be used to show an error message.

Now that state is declared let’s add some functions to manipulate it.

onCreateLikeButton and onLikeButtonCliked are the only functions that get called by the component, the other ones are just helpers.

When the component is created, onCreateLikeButton gets called and it sends an HTTP request to get the current like count for that post from the server. If the request succeeds, both likesCount and lastCountFromServer get updated with the new value. If the request fails then nothing is done.

When the button is clicked, then the button sends the HTTP request to update the likes counter in the server. The button is optimistic, it assumes that the request will succeed so it immediately sets liked to true and tries to update the in-memory counter. If the request succeeds then the counter is updated to whatever value the server currently has and sets footerMsg to a thank you message. If it fails, then the button has to rollback the optimistic update and set footerMsg to an error message. This is the whole point of keeping lastCountFromServer, so that the component can quickly return to that value when things go wrong.

Notice how there is no special API to update the component’s state like React’s setState. After every event, Mithril runs the callbacks and then figures out which parts in the UI actually changed and re-renders them.

The only thing left to do in the app function is to return a component. Every component must expose a view method and optionally other functions for lifecycle events or hooks. In this case I only need the oncreate hook to load the post’s like count so this is what app returns:

JSX can be used in the view function so that it can resemble the HTML that is generated on the browser. This function just returns a table with one row and two columns. The button and counter go on the first column and the message contained in footerMsg goes in the second column. The state variables liked and likesCount are passed to the smaller components LikeButton and LikeCounter as attributes. Notice that the onLikeButtonClicked callback is only set if the button is not already liked to avoid unnecessary actions. Here’s the code for the rest of the components:

These two take the data passed by the parent from the attrs object in view’s only argument and use it to render the DOM elements accordingly. Finally, to add the widget to the page, the app function must be mounted:

And that’s it! There is no need to mess with DOM APIs like createElement, findElementById, innerText, or innerHTML, the framework takes care of all that. After creating the production bundle with webpack, the widget is ready to be served. For that matter I use Nginx. Next part will be about configuring Nginx to serve static files efficiently and proxy API requests correctly.