AngularJS is a frontend framework developed by folks at Google. It allows to build advanced web applications in a modular way by splitting the code base into small components. This brings a lot of advantages like a clean separation of concerns and an easier testability.

Browserify is a tool which allows to benefit from the CommonJS modules in theoretically any JavaScript environments. Given an entry point, it computes a dependency tree, resolves it and produces a single output file. By consuming the package.json, Browserify enables to require node_modules in the build. This allows to rely on npm as a package manager for frontend dependencies, where Bower or Component would have been usually used.

When I first heard about Browserify, I immediately thought the modularity it brings would be really nice to build AngularJS applications. And it actually is. However they are not a perfect match by now, and some drawbacks need to be fixed.

This article presents a solution to structure an AngularJS application using Browserify. It covers the use of non-CommonJS modules as dependencies.

A sample application

Let’s consider a sample application which sets an entry in the local storage, and uses it to react differently whether it’s the first time a user is loading the page. It will be used as a support to identify the trouble cases and detail how to tackle them. So create an empty folder and let’s get started!

First, create an app.js file which will be the entry point:

var angular = require('angular');

var app = angular.module('app', [
  require('angular-local-storage'),
]);

app.run(function(localStorageService) {
  if (!localStorageService.get('lastVisit')) {
    angular.element('body').text('Hello stranger!');
  } else {
    angular.element('body').text('Welcome back!');
  }
  localStorageService.set('lastVisit', Date.now());
});

Neat, isn’t it? If you come from a Node.js background I’m sure you do like it.

Now let’s generate the package.json:

npm init
npm install --save angular angular-local-storage jquery
npm install -D browserify

Then compile the application:

./node_modules/.bin/browserify app.js -o bundle.js

And finally create a basic index.html to load it:

<html>
  <head>
    <script src="bundle.js"></script>
  </head>
  <body ng-app="app">
  </body>
</html>

Pretty simple huh? But as you might expect, this doesn’t work. Open index.html in a web browser and take a look at the console to find a nice JavaScript error.

Explanations

There are several issues occurring here.

Modules not defining an entry point

When a module is required, Browserify looks in the node_modules folder to find its package.json and loads it. Browserify expects it to have a main property which contains the relative path to the file which should be loaded.

It is usual that this property is missing, that it points to the wrong file or that the package.json itself is missing. In such case, you can override the file to load in the own project’s package.json:

{
  "browser": {
    "angular": "./node_modules/angular/angular.js",
    "angular-local-storage": "./node_modules/angular-local-storage/dist/angular-local-storage.js"
  }
}

Modules not properly exporting their content

When Browserify requires the file indicated by the main property in the module’s package.json, it is usual that this file does not properly export its content in the CommonJS style. Also, we expect AngularJS modules to export their names so that we could directly require them in our AngularJS modules definitions.

To this end, browserify-shim can be used.

First install it:

npm install -D browserify-shim

Then, update the package.json:

{
  "browserify-shim": {
    "angular": {
      "exports": "angular"
    },
    "angular-local-storage": {
      "exports": "angular.module('LocalStorageModule').name"
    }
  },
  "browserify": {
    "transform": [
      "browserify-shim"
    ]
  }
}
  • angular exports the global variable angular
  • angular-local-storage exports its AngularJS module name LocalStorageModule

Modules fetching their dependencies on the global context

Some frontend modules relies on the fact their dependencies will be exposed on the global object (generally the window object in most browsers). This is an anti-pattern of the CommonJS architecture which favors separation of concerns.

For example, AngularJS expects jQuery to be exposed at the window.jQuery property.

One solution is to wrap the module into a function which exposes a global object with the appropriate properties. Hopefully, this could also easily done via browserify-shim.

Then, update the package.json:

{
  "browserify-shim": {
    "angular": {
      "depends": "jquery:jQuery"
    },
    "angular-local-storage": {
      "depends": "angular"
    }
  }
}
  • angular will be provided the jquery module on a fake window object at the property jQuery
  • angular-local-storage will be provided the angular module the same way

Wrap up

You should have added the following content to your package.json:

{
  "browser": {
    "angular": "./node_modules/angular/angular.js",
    "angular-local-storage": "./node_modules/angular-local-storage/dist/angular-local-storage.js"
  },
  "browserify-shim": {
    "angular": {
      "depends": "jquery:jQuery",
      "exports": "angular"
    },
    "angular-local-storage": {
      "depends": "angular",
      "exports": "angular.module('LocalStorageModule').name"
    }
  },
  "browserify": {
    "transform": [
      "browserify-shim"
    ]
  }
}

Once you’ve made those corrections, you should be able to compile and run the sample application:

./node_modules/.bin/browserify app.js -o bundle.js

Check it really works by opening index.html.

Side notes

Some related facts which can save you time when dealing with Browserify:

  • modules not published to npm can be installed by giving their git repository URL: npm install git+https://github.com/angular-ui/ui-router.git. Note that it is also possible to directly pass a GitHub repository: npm install angular-ui/ui-router. A version can be specified by appending ##tag. See the documentation for more information
  • modules not containing a package.json cannot be installed using npm (even by directly providing a git repository). To tackle this issue, a third party installer like napa has to be used
  • napa will directly install the dependencies in the node_modules directory
  • the postinstall script is equivalent to install. It is executed after the modules installation. However, I find it to be more explicit
  • you should place napa into the postinstall script
  • the paths provided in the browser field needs to be relative to the root package.json path. It is mandatory to start each entry by ./
  • it is possible to indicate files in another repository than node_modules when filling the browser field (e.g.: bower_components)
  • centralizing Browserify options in the package.json is a good practice since it allows to keep a constant behavior when invoking it in different ways (CLI, API)

Source

A working example can be found at the following GitHub Gist.

Conclusion

Even though there is a little more code to write to setup a project, this solution provides a beautiful way to organize its code in logical bricks. It totally matches the way AngularJS has been thought.

Also, managing all the dependencies in a single place is really useful. Especially when developing full-stack JavaScript applications, hence potentially sharing dependencies between the frontend and the backend (e.g.: Async.js, Bluebird, Moment.js, highlight.js, …). Using a CommonJS loader allows to rely on the exact same versions of the modules both client-side and server-side.