Why nodeJS is awesome and why you shouldn't even think about using it. Part 1

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I'm going to preface this blog entry with a message to seasoned developers who would quickly be wondering why I'm glossing over a ton of stuff. I'm writing this post for a audience that knows enough to be dangerous but lets guys and girls like you do the heavy lifting. You can move on to the next blog in your daily reading list. You should know all this stuff.

Most of the backend code for Giant Bomb, Comic Vine and Gamespot is written in PHP with Symfony 2. Most, but not all; The chat app is written in nodeJS, the new kid on the block. nodeJS is JavaScript for the backend. Its extremely fast and powerful and its deceptively easy. Its JavaScript so it must be easy. Right? Well, yes, its easy to get started. It makes lots of hard things easy but don't let that lull you into a false sense of security and consider throwing PHP, Python, Ruby, Java or even (gasp) ASP.NET out the window and making your front end guys full-stack developers just because they know JavaScript.

Although it is JavaScript, using it for backend code is quite different than using it on the client. nodeJS is fast because it knows how slow I/O is and while something is doing I/O it lets other code run. No other backend environment does that out of the box. Java and ASP.NET can with threads, Ruby can with Evented Ruby, PHP not so much and Python thinks it can but good luck with that. That 'can' I speak of basically means there's some work to do to and in the case of Ruby it wasn't really designed to do that. nodeJS just does it. There's no extra work involved, no library to add and no overhead code to write. The key thing here is that it does mean that programmers need to think differently about how they write code.

There are no threads in nodeJS but it is basically multithreaded. Yes I said that. Its not multithreaded in the way Java or ASP.NET is. Those environments use a preemptive threading model. Programmers don't have to think about threading in that model though they very well do need to know that they are in a multithreaded environment. The hard part of that model is making sure that two threads aren't using the same resource at the same time. That is much harder than it seems and its one of the hardest things for any programmer to get right.

nodeJS uses a cooperative threading model (OK CS major, stop shaking your head and read the preface). There is only one thread running in any nodeJS process but there are many threads of code active at any one time. These "threads" do their work and when they come to a point where they are going to start some operation that will take some time, like reading from I/O, they hand control over to the nodeJS subsystem that determines which other "thread" is ready to continue. This is done though closures. If you're familiar with jQuery or any Google JavaScript API you know what closures are.

Here's a simple closure example

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You'll notice that function is provided as a parameter to the fileSystem.readFile function. This function will be executed when the data from the file has been read. A lot of time had passed between the time that the function fileSystem.readFile was called and when the closure was called. In that time, nodeJS let other tasks run. In any other environment the server stalled while it waited for the file to be read. No other requests could be processed. The above example is fairly straightforward but let me show you another example where data is read from a file, written to a database and the the file was cleared out.

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You see here where it starts getting a little hard to follow. Its inception! Or an episode of Pimp My Back End. (Yo dawg, I heard you like functions so I put a function inside of your function inside of another function). Even this example is fairly simple compared to some of the nodeJS code I've come across. Does that look like any frontend code you've ever come across. Probably not. And this is where nodeJS will take you and your previously frontend only developers over the cliff. This kind of thing is what nodeJS code is all about. Are you scared yet?

Tomorrow I'll dive further into why nodeJS so cool and also do my best to scare the hell out of you so you'll go running when someone suggests you use it.

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