19 March 2015

I worked on a very large, very complex system with some great folks in one of my previous jobs. A particular leader kept using abstractions I couldn’t buy into: factory, widget, state machine. I eventually found a use for these abstractions but now they’re under threat of being completely replaced. These are tools of the OO playbook–creating a system of “smart objects”.

React, virtual-dom, and any future incarnations, will change the way we code for the short term. No more smart objects; we want “dumb” objects used through a smart, composable, pipeline.

Why only the short term? Well, I still think web components hold a bright future for development targeting the browser and something better could land tomorrow.

Some benchmarks show great performance gains using the virtual-dom rendering pattern but the real gains come in the form of developer performance. The rendering logic can more easily separate from business logic which makes each more testable and easier to both understand and maintain.

In a recent project, our team delivered functionality using virtual-dom and ES6 syntax that supported IE8+. Seeing this project reach production under considerable constraints was a personal triumph. I felt like the system was ultimately easy to reason about, extend, and (with proper testing) maintain.

I feel the next challenge is scaling such an architecture and the key innovations will come from data structures and patterns that feed the virtual-dom’s render engine. David Nolen’s talk or article on the topic are a great inspiration.

I think future systems will rely on cursors (with or without immutable structures supporting it), streams, and a virtual-dom or React-like diffing/rendering algorithm. Cursors, with event emitters, become the heart-beat of streams. Reactive libraries then take over yielding only the correct data to the render logic where the virtual-dom’s proven patterns finish the job.

Another great boost in developer performance will come from streams, and their functional handlers, becoming the universal data-type of user input, server-side/peer data, and application state changes. This will ultimately reduce the developer vocabulary needed to understand a complex system.


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