This unit builds on Unit 7, which introduced the npm registry and npm CLI. In this unit, learn about managing dependencies with the package.json file. You’ll also learn about the evolution of your Node applications–in other words, the cycle of writing an application, releasing it, and maintaining it.

Software is maintained long after its initial release. Maintenance activities include:

  • Bug fixes
  • Adding new features
  • Upgrades or other changes to the underlying system stack
  • Upgrades to third-party software dependencies

While developers tend to have the first three activities down, the last one is more or less out of our control. This is especially serious in Node due to the sheer number of dependencies to be managed. That’s why it’s key that you understand package.json and its role in maintaining and evolving your applications.

What is package.json

A Node project is commonly known as a package. JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) is the notation used to describe Node packages.

package.json is a file that contains basic information like package name and version number, as well as more complex metadata.

npm requires the package.json file to manage projects, and every project submitted to the npm registry must have one. If you want to create a successful Node project, you need to know how to create a package.json file.

Let’s look closer at the elements of this file.

The project manifest

A manifest is a document describing the contents of a given object, such as a container. package.json is the manifest required for every Node project. At minimum, a package.json file must contain two elements:

  • name: The package’s name
  • version: The package’s version number

package.json can contain many more fields than just these two, but let’s start with what’s required. I introduce the other fields soon.

Project metadata

In addition to elements like name and version, package.json contains more complex metadata. This metadata helps npm manage your dependencies, run scripts to start the application (as you saw in Unit 6, run unit tests, and more.

Project metadata includes elements like:

  • description: The human readable description, which comes up in npm search if you publish a package to the npm registry.
  • entry point: The package’s main JavaScript module.
  • license: The package’s license identifier (in Software Package Data Exchange (SPDX) format)– available licenses include Apache2.0, MIT, or ISC (the default), to name a few.
  • author: The developer (more specifically, the developer’s name and email address).
  • scripts: Scripts that run at various points in the package’s lifecycle (for example, start and test).
  • dependencies: Any other Node.js packages the package depends on (lots more about this later).

These are just a few of the metadata elements used for Node. You can read about all of the metadata available in package.json in the Node documentation.

Sharing code

One of Node’s greatest strengths is the npm ecosystem, and sharing code is key to the culture of Node. Using third-party software in your programs can also introduce complexity to your projects. Knowing how to wrangle package.json will save you countless sleepless nights managing bugs, software updates, and other issues.

How to create a package.json file

There are two ways to create a package.json from scratch:

Option 1: Take the interview

If you run npm init from the command line, npm will interview you about your new package. It will ask you a series of questions. For each of those questions there is a default, which I’ve summarized in the table below.

Question Default
package name The name of the current directory
version 1.0.0
description '' (empty string)
entry point index.js
test command "echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1"
git repository ''
keywords []
author ''
license ISC

The entire interview looks like this:

$ npm init
This utility will walk you through creating a package.json file.
It only covers the most common items, and tries to guess sensible defaults.

See `npm help json` for definitive documentation on these fields
and exactly what they do.

Use `npm install <pkg>` afterwards to install a package and
save it as a dependency in the package.json file.

Press ^C at any time to quit.
package name: (unit-8) 
version: (1.0.0) 
description: 
entry point: (index.js) 
test command: 
git repository: 
keywords: 
author: 
license: (ISC) 
About to write to package.json:

{
  "name": "unit-8",
  "version": "1.0.0",
  "description": "",
  "main": "index.js",
  "scripts": {
    "test": "echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1"
  },
  "author": "",
  "license": "ISC"
}


Is this OK? (yes) yes
$

Option 2: Accept the defaults

The quickest way to create a package.json is to accept all the defaults, then change what you want later. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to instruct npm init to just accept the defaults, using the npm init -y command:

$ npm init -y
Wrote to package.json:

{
  "name": "Unit-8",
  "version": "1.0.0",
  "description": "",
  "main": "index.js",
  "scripts": {
    "test": "echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1"
  },
  "keywords": [],
  "author": "",
  "license": "ISC"
}


$

If you haven’t already done it, open a terminal window or command prompt and navigate to an empty directory. All the source code for this unit is on GitHub, but I want you to build this example from scratch. That way you’ll own it, and you’ll understand it more deeply.

Managing dependencies in Node

Relying on third-party software is part of Node-based development, and most Node applications have numerous dependencies. As software evolves, these dependencies can cause quite a mess for Node.js applications. Once you’ve installed dependencies they also have to be managed. In this section, I show you how to manage all the dependencies.

Before you go any further, modify the package.json you generated in the previous section so it looks like this (just so we’re on the same page):

{
  "name": "Unit-8",
  "version": "1.0.0",
  "description": "Node.js Course Unit 8 Example Code",
  "main": "unit-8.js",
  "scripts": {
    "test": "echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1"
  },
  "keywords": [],
  "author": "J Steven Perry <jstevenperry@gmail.com>",
  "license": "Apache-2.0"
}

Feel free to replace your name as the author in your local copy.

There are two ways to add a new package as a dependency to your Node project. Let’s look at both options below.

Option 1: Use npm to install a new package

You can use npm to directly install a new package. From the command line, enter this command: npm install makoto-logger

You should see something like this:

$ npm install makoto-logger
npm notice created a lockfile as package-lock.json. You should commit this file.
npm WARN Unit-8@1.0.0 No repository field.

+ makoto-logger@1.0.2
added 1 package and audited 1 package in 3.706s
found 0 vulnerabilities

$

Look at package.json and you’ll notice two differences from before you installed makoto-logger.

First, there’s a new dependencies section just below license, which looks like this:

  "dependencies": {
    "makoto-logger": "^1.0.2"
  }

Second, notice that npm created the node_modules directory and placed the newly installed dependency there.

Option 2: Specify a new dependency in package.json

Another way to install a new package is to specify it as a dependency in package.json, then run npm install with no arguments. The new dependency and all of its dependencies will be installed.

To see this in action, add the following dependency to the dependencies element in your package.json (don’t forget to add a comma after the makoto-logger dependency):

    "sqlite3": "^4.0.1"

Now run npm install with no arguments. You should see output like this:

$ npm install

> sqlite3@4.0.1 install node_modules/sqlite3
> node-pre-gyp install --fallback-to-build

node-pre-gyp WARN Using needle for node-pre-gyp https download
[sqlite3] Success: "node_modules/sqlite3/lib/binding/node-v64-darwin-x64/node_sqlite3.node" is installed via remote
npm WARN Unit-8@1.0.0 No repository field.

added 68 packages from 48 contributors and audited 98 packages in 11.595s
found 0 vulnerabilities

$

Installing multiple packages

In Unit 7, I introduced eslint, which looks for potential errors in your JavaScript code. Run this command to install eslint and a few companion tools (note that i is short for install):

npm i --save-dev eslint babel-eslint eslint-config-strongloop

This installs the following packages and their dependencies (which are installed recursively):

  • eslint
  • babel-eslint
  • eslint-config-strongloop

The --save-dev flag is used to save the package dependencies to package.json in an element named devDependencies. Here’s the output:

$ npm i --save-dev eslint babel-eslint eslint-config-strongloop
npm WARN Unit-8@1.0.0 No repository field.

+ eslint-config-strongloop@2.1.0
+ babel-eslint@8.2.6
+ eslint@5.1.0
added 148 packages from 186 contributors and audited 431 packages in 10.889s
found 0 vulnerabilities

$

You’ve just added a handful of dependencies to your project. Your package.json should now look like this:

{
  "name": "Unit-8",
  "version": "1.0.0",
  "description": "Node.js Course Unit 8 Example Code",
  "main": "unit-8.js",
  "scripts": {
    "test": "echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1"
  },
  "keywords": [],
  "author": "J Steven Perry <jstevenperry@gmail.com>",
  "license": "Apache-2.0",
  "dependencies": {
    "makoto-logger": "^1.0.2",
    "sqlite3": "^4.0.1"
  },
  "devDependencies": {
    "babel-eslint": "^8.2.6",
    "eslint": "^5.1.0",
    "eslint-config-strongloop": "^2.1.0"
  }
}

You may wonder what the caret (^) just before each version numbers means. That’s Semantic Versioning (SemVer) syntax, which we’ll look at next.

Specifying version numbers

Semantic Versioning (or SemVer) is a formal way to specify version numbers. It was created by Tom Preston-Warner, one of the cofounders of GitHub. As of this writing the latest SemVer specification is 2.0.0.

SemVer uses a three-part numbering scheme to specify a release label, which looks like this:

Major.Minor.Patch

Here’s what each placement means:

  • Major is used for a new public API that breaks (is not backward-compatible with) a previous version (for Major > 0, that is).
  • Minor is used for new features that are backward-compatible (or non-breaking) only with the current major version.
  • Patch is used for a bug fix that is non-breaking.

The SemVer spec also has extensions for creating pre-release labels, but I won’t cover those here.

Examples and rules for using SemVer

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • 1.0.0 is always the first release of the public API.

  • 1.1.1 indicates the release is the first patch, of the first feature release after the first release of the public API.

  • 2.0.4 indicates the fourth patch after the release of the first breaking change (that is from 1.x to 2.0.0).

Don’t skip integers (to go from, say, 1.2.4 to 1.2.6, skipping 1.2.5); always increment them.

Numbers always increase within any subordinate version component, and reset to zero when their superior changes. For example, a feature release of version 1.2.3 becomes 1.3.0 where Patch resets to zero. A breaking change from 2.9.11 becomes 3.0.0 and resets both of the subordinate Minor and Patch numbers.

Managing version tolerance

Dependencies change, and if you don’t tend to them those changes can break your code.

SemVer’s version numbers gives a package author a way to qualitatively declare the impact of a given change relative to the previous version. As a package consumer, it also gives you a way to specify how much change you are willing to tolerate for a given dependency.

As a package producer, you can follow the SemVer guidelines to easily inform package consumers of how much a dependency has changed from one release to the next.

As a package consumer, you can follow the SemVer guidelines to enable your package manager (npm, yarn, etc.) to automatically handle those upgrades.

Used properly, SemVer will save you from having to read hundreds of release notes, just to figure out if your code is going to break when you do an upgrade.

Automatic upgrades

When you have hundreds or thousands of dependencies, tool support for SemVer really matters. So let’s see how to use SemVer to tell your package manager how much version tolerance you are willing to accept on a package-by-package basis.

We’ll use the following dependencies snippet from package.json as our example:

.
.
  "dependencies": {
    "foo-a": 1.2.3,
    "bar-a": ~2.1.4,
    "baz-a": ^1.2.5
  }
  .
  .

The syntax can get complicated, depending on what you’re trying to tell npm to do. This course limits examples to the syntax you’re most likely to use.

Example 1: Accept a single version only

Let’s say you are not willing to tolerate any change to the current version of a dependency. In this case, you would specify just the version number with no special characters:

    "foo-a": 1.2.3,

This tells npm, “For package foo-a, only use version 1.2.3 no matter what.”

Use this command when you don’t want npm to automatically upgrade foo-a.

Example 2: Accept a range of patches for a minor update only

Now let’s say you want to allow a range of patches for a single minor version of a given component. In this case, you would use the tilde (~) character:

    "bar-a": ~2.1.4,

This tells npm: “For package bar-a any approximate release from 2.1.4 up to the next feature release (which would be 2.2.0) is acceptable.” In other words, 2.1.5 would be fine (as would 2.1.6, 2,1,7, and so on), but 2.2.0 would not.

Use this command when you’re willing to accept bug fixes (patches) but don’t want npm to automatically upgrade to new feature releases.

Example 3: Accept a range of minor feature releases

If you can tolerate bug fixes and minor feature releases within a major release, use the caret (^) character:

    "baz-a": ^1.2.5

This tells npm: “For package baz-a any compatible release from 1.2.5 up to the next major release (which would be 2.0.0) is acceptable.”

In this case, npm would automatically update baz-a to, say, 1.2.6 or 1.3.0, but not to 2.0.0.

The SemVer calculator

You can use the npm semver calculator to get the exact rule you need for a given dependency. All you have to do is choose a package, then input a SemVer rule. The tool will show you which versions of that package match the given rule.

Here’s output for the approximately equal rule in the sqlite3 module:

Figure 1 npm semver calculator Figure 1. npm semver calculator showing ~2.1.9 rule for sqlite3

And here’s output for the compatible rule:

Figure 2 npm semver calculator Figure 2. npm semver calculator showing ^2.1.9 rule for sqlite3

The calculator is also a great way to learn SemVer syntax. Check it out and play around with it.

Package locking: package-lock.json

If you’ve worked in Node, you’ve probably noticed the file called package-lock.json. Turns out it’s an important file that solves a dependency-related problem. Let’s take a look.

Example scenario

To get at the problem, let’s go back in time to the days before npm release 5.

We’ll use sqlite3 as an example. At the time of this writing, the current version is 4.0.1.

Suppose that I write a package that specifies a dependency on sqlite3 like this:

  "dependencies": {
    "sqlite3": "^4.0.1"
  }

I’ve specified the dependency on sqlite3 as: “any change that is backward-compatible with major release 4.”

I publish my package to the npm registry and life is good.

Some months later, the sqlite3 team publish a new feature release (4.1.0) that is completely backward compatible with 4.0.1. Around the same time, you decide you want to use my package, so you specify it as a dependency in your package.json.

When you run npm install you will get sqlite3 version 4.1.0. So far, so good.

The problem

Now let’s suppose that the way my package uses sqlite3 conflicts with the new feature and creates a bug (to be clear, this is my fault, not sqlite3’s). My code breaks, which means your code breaks. That’s not good.

The problem is this: based on the loose specification of the dependent version of sqlite3, the structure of your node_modules directory will be different following npm install than it was for me when I created my package.

When two people can run npm install and get different results, we call those results non-deterministic, meaning that you can’t always determine what a given node_modules directory will look like.

The solution

The non-determinism in this scenario is caused by the loose specification of dependent versions. What’s needed is a way to lock the specifications in place so that they are not loose. package-lock.json was introduced in npm version 5 for this purpose.

Now, whenever you run npm install, the exact version of every dependency is listed in a package-lock.json file, which is automatically generated. The file is used to resolve dependencies and install the correct dependency tree in node_modules.

In the case of our example, assuming there are no other dependencies on sqlite3 in your code, and given how I specified the dependency in my package.json when I published the package to the npm registry, you should always be able to determine which version of the package is installed for your project.

Bottom line: Commit package-lock.json to your source control if you want deterministic installs. (Trust me, you do.)

We’ve worked through the first few units in this course using “Vanilla Node”, meaning we’ve written all the code ourselves. Now we’re ready to move beyond this restriction, and start incorporating third-party code in our projects.

The npm ecosystem provides so much code you can reuse with a quick addition to your package.json and an npm install. I’ll introduce a few of those packages in the next sections, and we’ll use them in upcoming units.

Mocha and Chai for testing

Mocha is a testing framework for JavaScript applications, and is one of the most popular frameworks for Node.js applications.

Chai is an assertion library that replaces the Node assert module, and provides support for multiple styles of assertion:

  • Assert-style: For example, assertEqual(actualValue, expectedValue).
  • Behavior-driven development (BDD) style: For example: expect(expectedValue).to.equal(actualValue).

Together, Mocha and Chai make a powerful, must-have combination for Node projects. We’ll use Mocha and Chai in Unit 9.

Winston logging

Winston is a logging framework with the notion of transports, which are storage devices for logs (such as the console, files, and so forth) with additional community contribs for other transports like MongoDB.

Winston bills itself as “A logger for just about everything.”

I’ll let you be the judge, because we’ll use Winston in Unit 10.

Express web framework

Express is arguably the most popular web framework for Node, with millions of downloads per week.

It has lots of features you look for in a web framework: it’s fast, offers extensive templating support, has robust, easy-to-use routing, and more.

We’ll use Express in Unit 11.

Mongoose for MongoDB

MongoDB is one of the most popular NoSQL databases in the world.

Mongoose is an object data modeling (ODM) tool for MongoDB.

We’ll convert the Shopping List application from Unit 6 to use MongoDB and Mongoose in Unit 12.

And a few more

Node has so many popular packages that I can’t list them all here, let alone talk about them. But here are a few more you’re likely to run across:

These are just a few of the most popular packages for Node. Be sure to visit the npm website or npms.io to search for more packages you might want to use in your Node projects.

Conclusion to Unit 8

This unit has introduced you to package.json and using it to manage the challenges of software evolution in Node.

You’ve seen some of the elements this very important file contains, and you’ve learned how to create a package.json file from scratch.

We also looked at Semantic Versioning (SemVer), and I showed you how to use it to denote and manage updates in your Node applications. SemVer automates many aspects of dependency management, but it only works if everyone (package producers and consumers) follows the rules.

We also looked at how package-lock.json solves the problem of non-deterministic installation.

Finally, you got a first look at some Node packages we’ll work with in upcoming units. These are all packages you should know about, and you’ll get to know them better very soon.

We’ll start integrating third-party packages in Unit 9, where you’ll learn all about testing with Mocha and Chai.

VIDEO

Video

Quiz: Test your knowledge

Answer true or false

  1. SemVer was created to deal with the complexity of package dependency resolution in an automated fashion, when there are hundreds of thousands of dependencies.

  2. The author and repository elements are required in package.json if you plan to publish your package to the npm registry.

Check your answers

Choose the best answer

  1. Which of the following package.json elements are required?

    A. author

    B. name

    C. repository

    D. description

    E. B and D

    F. A and B

  2. Which of the following tells npm to match version 1.2.4 or higher and any compatible version up to version 1.3.0?

    A. ^1.2.4

    B. 1.2.4

    C. ~1.2

    D. ~1.2.4

    E. <1.2.5 || <1.3.0

  3. Which of the following best describes the purpose of package-lock.json for package my-utility?

    A. Ensures deterministic installation; that is, the same node_modules tree for any installation of my-utility.

    B. Ensures that the node_modules directory cannot be deleted during a failed unit test.

    C. Ensures that a change to package-lock.json is immediately reflected in package.json so the build does not fail.

    D. Ensures the project is consistent across hardware architectures where packages tend to float freely.

Check your answers

Fill in the blank

  1. If the current release is 2.3.0, the next Patch release number will be _.

  2. If the current release is 3.10.2, the next Minor release number will be _.

  3. If the current release is 1.0.0, the next Major release number will be _.

  4. In the space next to the description of a hypothetical change, indicate the SemVer release type that would be triggered (Major, Minor, or Patch), and what the release number should be. Assume the current release number is 1.2.3:

    A. Bug fixes, compatible with the previous release. Release type is _ and the version number is _.

    B. New features, not compatible with the previous release. Release type is _ and the version number is _.

    C. New feature, compatible with the previous release. Release type is _ and the version number is _.

    D. Breaking change to the public API. Release type is _ and the version number is _.

    E. Bug fix, not compatible with the previous release. Release type is _ and the version number is _.

    F. Addition to the public API, compatible with the previous release. Release type is _ and the version number is _.

  5. If the current release of package-a is 1.2.3, the SemVer syntax to indicate “starting with 1.2.3, any Patch and Minor release up to release 2.0.0 is acceptable” would be: _.

  6. If the current release of package-a is 1.2.3, the SemVer syntax to indicate “any 1.2.x Patch release up to release 1.3.0 is acceptable” would be: _.

  7. If the current release of package-a is 1.2.3, the SemVer syntax to indicate “starting with 1.2.3, any 1.2.x Patch release up to release 1.3.0 is acceptable” would be: _.

  8. If the current release of package-a is 1.2.3, the SemVer syntax to indicate “only release 1.2.3 is acceptable” would be: _.

  9. If the current release of package-a is 1.2.3, the SemVer syntax to indicate “any release including and above 1.2.3 is acceptable” would be: _.

Check your answers

Check your answers

Answers for true or false questions

  1. Answer: True: When a package changes, the package author changes the version number in accordance with SemVer guidelines. This enables package management tools like npm to automatically resolve the resulting dependency trees.

  2. Answer: False: Only the name and version elements are required, regardless of whether you publish your package to the npm registry or not. However, you are strongly encouraged to provide values for as many of the package.json elements as you can.

Answers for multiple choice questions

  1. Answer: B: Of the elements listed, only name is required. The other required element is version, which is not listed.

  2. Answer: D: Any minor release at or above 1.2.4 up to 1.3.0 will match this SemVer rule.

  3. Answer: A: A deterministic install is one where the node_modules tree is consistent for anyone who installs my-utility, regardless of dependency churn since my-package was published.

Answers for fill in the blank questions

  1. Answer: 2.3.4

  2. Answer: 3.11.0

  3. Answer: 2.0.0

  4. Answers:

    A: Patch – 1.2.4

    B: Major – 2.0.0

    C: Minor – 1.3.0

    D: Major – 2.0.0

    E: Major – 2.0.0

    F: Minor – 1.3.0

  5. Answer: ^1.2.3

  6. Answer: ~1.2, ~1.2.x

  7. Answer: ~1.2.3

  8. Answer: 1.2.3

  9. Answer: >=1.2.3