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Daniel Heath blogs here

Tools for building web applications

I’ve been building web applications for a year or so now. In this article I plan to share a few tools I’ve found useful.

Have a solid asset pipeline

In development, assets should be served via something that compiles them on-the-fly. Compilation failures need to be really obvious. You should never have to worry about whether you’re looking at the latest version.

Being stuck on rails 2.3.x for the moment, I am using Barista (gem install barista). Note that this solution can often end up serving outdated files (in development; production has been rock solid)

The sprockets-based pipeline in Rails 3.1beta is a far superior solution if you have the option of running the latest version.

Frameworks can save you a lot of time

EDIT: The front-end landscape has moved a long way in 5 years. These tools were a good way to build things at the time. I use and recommend coffeescript, jQuery, underscore.js, backbone.js (edit: dead link) and haml.js.

For example (using all of them at once):

class BB.views.RichText extends Backbone.View
  template: JST['rich_text_editing']

  initialize: (options) ->
    @model.bind "change", @render
    _.extend(BB.Wysiwyg) # Import rich text editing module

  render: =>
    e = $(@el)
    e.html @template(this)'view', this)


I plan to write an entire post on how I approach testing this kind of app. For the moment let me say that having a solid test suite will save you a heap of time. I use jasmine.js for my suite, along with the matchers from the jQuery-jasmine plugin.

For example: describe “PhoneNumber”, -> beforeEach -> @phone = new BB.models.PhoneNumber

  describe "isBlank", ->
    it "is true if text and number are blank", ->
      @phone.set(text: "", number: "")
      expect(@phone.isBlank()).toEqual true

Use JSON for transport

There are a few ways to get data from a server to a client:


It’s really convenient for the first week or three, but it gets very, very painful as complexity grows. Don’t do it.


You’ll have to write something to serialize/deserialize your data on the client, which is extra maintenance effort. Not bad otherwise.

Our apps used to do this - there was pages of dense parsing code.


This is really the best way to go - most of the strengths of XML without writing a line of code. The general pattern is:

updateContentFromUrl:(url) ->
  self = this
  @get(url, (parsedJsonForContent) ->
    model = new BB.models.Content(parsedJsonForContent)
    view = new BB.views.ContentView(model: model)
    self.element.find(".results").append view.render().el
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