Goodbye Redux

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A complete breakdown on why we needed Redux in the past, and why we don’t any more.

For the last few years, internet technologies have been shifting towards front-end JavaScript frameworks as a method of building better user experiences for web and mobile applications. This is awesome 🔥 I personally love the flexibility that these frameworks give us.

But has the amount of flexibility gone too far…

To really understand why this might be the case, let’s rewind the clock and look at how apps were built before JavaScript frameworks even existed.

⏳ A Land Before JavaScript…

Prior to the development of the first few front-end frameworks (the most notable being AngularJS, Backbone, and Ember) we use to just render templates on the server and then send the full HTML page to the browser. The popular frameworks at the time included:

  • Django (Python) — Initial release 21 July 2005; ~13 years ago.
  • Ruby on Rails — Initial release 13 December 2005; ~13 years ago.
  • Symphony (PHP) — Initial release 22 October 2005; ~13 years ago.

These frameworks revolved around the concept of the MVC a.k.a. the Model-View-Controller app development structure. Models demonstrated the “shape” of the data, views were templates which showed how to “display” the data and controllers “connected” the two.

I mean, there was JavaScript, but we’re talking more like jQuery sliders and some weird libraries that would make bounce effects that were completely unnecessary…

App’s built on these frameworks had a couple issues but overall; everything worked pretty well. Then one day, Ryan Dahl had an awesome idea to start using JavaScript as more than just a tool to make silly animations. He developed the first version of Node.js which allowed developers to write JavaScript outside the browser and on a server instead.

  • Node.js — Initial release on 27 May 2009; ~9 years ago.

Suddenly, people began appreciating the power of JavaScript and its ability to do a lot of work with only a little bit of code. This opened the mind of other developers to the possibilities of JavaScript. Not only did people begin building more powerful tools for Node.js but they also started creating interesting front-end frameworks as well. This started a snowball effect in JavaScript development over the next few years:

  • Express.js (back-end) — Initial release on 16 November 2010; ~8 years ago.
  • Backbone.js (front-end) — Initial release on 12 October 2010; ~8 years ago.
  • AngularJS (front-end) — Initial release on 20 October 2010; ~8 years ago.
  • Ember.js (front-end) — Initial release on 8 December 2011; ~7 years ago.

This began a major shift in the way apps were developed. The MVC framework, which previously was handle purely by the server, separated into two segments — a server which handled the MC (or models and controllers) and an front-end client which handled the view using one of the JavaScript frameworks above. In some of these early frameworks, they also included models and controllers in the view. Double models and controllers, some on the front-end, some on the back-end — now that sounds like a lot of code! 🙇🏽‍

🤦‍ Facebook Had A Problem

Everyone was pretty happy. Everything worked and was relatively easy to understand once you spent a couple of hours wrapping your head around it.

Then something happened…

Facebook was growing rapidly, and had become the largest web-app in the world. As you can imagine, being the largest web-app comes with some challenges. One of the biggest head aches was; showing the correct number of notifications in the header bar.

As people began to do things in the Facebook app, it was expected that these little notifications would update accordingly. This was not often the case. I don’t know if you were using Facebook at the time or if you remember, but these notifications were always wrong… The problem was that it was difficult for web-apps to recognise changes in one part of the app (e.g. when you read a message) and show that change in another area (e.g. reduce the unread notifications by one).

It’s not the worst thing in the world — and can be solved by reloading the page — but Facebook had over 1,000 passionate employees and decided it was time they would do something about this. So they rethought how the front-end framework’s handle information and decided to create their own; React.

  • React (front-end) — Initial release in March 2013; ~5 years ago.

This new framework was good at rendering HTML but was also very barebones and did not come with much in the way of “how” to develop apps. As such, they also launched Flux, which eventually evolved into what we call Redux (Redo-Flux). Below is the video that was on the on the Flux website back in 2014/2015. The video attempts to explain Flux and React.

🍐 …Then Things Started to Go Pear Shaped

The way Redux works is that it essentially stores all the dynamic information of an app in a single JavaScript object. When ever a part of the app needed to show some data, it would request the information from the server, update the single JavaScript object, and then show that data to the users. By storing all the information in one place, the app was always showing the correct information, no matter where you were looking. This thereby solved Facebook’s notification problem.

So suddenly, there was an new framework for building apps; the React Redux implementation. Facebook managed to solve their problem and everyone lived happily ever after.. right?

Not quite.

The problem is that people (including myself) began using the single object to store all their information — every piece of data provided by the server. Sure this keeps all the information up to date, but it also has 3 main drawbacks:

  1. It takes a lot of extra code to get working well which consumes all of your time.
  2. By keeping all the code in one place, you also introduce the idea of “stale data” which means that you may have unwanted data appearing in your app from a previous state.
  3. The learning curve for new developers went through the roof, and has subsequently made front-end web development very hard to adopt by new developers.

We managed to turn a relatively simple task of showing data to users from a few simple templates back in 2005 with MVC frameworks into monolithic front-end apps with 10x as much code on the front-end than the back-end. For example, I recently developed a simple app and used WakaTime to measure the time I spent on my coding. Here are the results:

  • React Redux front-end repository — 32 Hours.
  • Express + Mongoose back-end repository — 4 Hours.

Are you serious?? 🤯 I spent 8x as much time on the front-end than the back-end. Let’s dive into the reason it requires so much extra code. Here is an example of the steps I need to follow to add a basic data fetch call (e.g. getting all users), to my front-end repository.

🚧 Warning: the following steps are super techy so don't worry if you get lost.
  1. Create the component to show a list of users (no problems here).
  2. Create the fetch call to the API.
  3. Add a new field in the state.
  4. Add a new action which updates the state with data.
  5. Add a new thunk method which executes the fetch call and then updates the state using our new actions.
  6. Add the thunk function to our component using connect() which would wrap it in a dispatch function.
  7. Extract the data from the Redux state, again by using connect() .
  8. Declare the thunk function and the extracted data field in my component’s prop types.
  9. Call the thunk method in the componentDidMount() function.
  10. Finally render the data in the DOM.

Holy moly… 10 steps… Back in the good old days of Ruby on Rails, all I needed to do was give the data to my HTML template and BOOM! It would create the same result. I realised something needed to change.

☝️ A New Approach

Redux was great for solving the problem of keeping your front-end application in sync, however it brought it’s own problems (as mentioned before). When you think about it; how much extra functionality does Redux actually give us?

Essentially, we rewrote our entire front-end’s to solve a handful of trivial problems…

Anyway, Facebook also realised this and actually started to work on a new technology called GraphQL to help solve this. GraphQL is a buzz word at the moment but I’m not sure if anyone really understands why it is so cool.

GraphQL is not like Redux at all. Once again, Facebook has delivered an amazing a product but has failed to articulate why this gem of a product is so darn important; hence why I have spent the last few minutes giving you some context.

In summary, GraphQL is a car and Redux is a horse.

What? How is Redux a horse?

The reason I describe the two as a horse and a car is that; in no way would you consider a horse to be similar to a car — one is a living animal with four legs and the other is a machine with wheels. However, they both attempt to achieve the same end goal i.e. getting a person where they need to go. The car drives on streets and uses fuel, where as the horse is a majestic animal which can jump over rocks. Both have different advantages and use cases, but in general; a car will get you to your end destination much faster than the horse.

So, what is GraphQL?

The official docs describe GraphQL as “GraphQL is a query language for APIs” which is very unclear. Essentially what they mean by a query language is that it essentially replaces an API with potentially hundreds of HTTP endpoints. As this technology is still young, the documentation and supporting tech is still a little difficult to understand and as such; there also a learning curve. To help, here is an example.

GraphQL will replace endpoints such as:

  • GET /users/1234567890
  • POST /cars
  • PUT /example/endpoints

With custom queries which you create only when you need them. For example:

{
user(id: "1234567890") {
name,
email
}
}

Will return:

{
"user": {
"name": "Luke Skywalker",
"email": "luke@iamyourfather.com"
}
}

But hang on — custom queries… That’s going to take ages to implement. ~ Your thoughts.

That’s not actually true. The reason is because; by only asking for the data you need, you suddenly don’t need to make as many server requests which means that you don’t need to write as much code to handle those server requests. As such, you end up saving a tone of time on the code you don’t have to implement.

🤷‍ But how does this replace Redux?

Another great question, thanks for asking. Simply put, it doesn’t. However, what it does do is encourage you to not store all your information in the single object that Redux gives you. This is because each query is custom designed to only get data for one part of the app — not the whole thing. It would be an anti-pattern (and is simply not logical) to store information, specific to a single part of the app, in an app-wide data source.

By using GraphQL, you remove your dependence on Redux and thereby remove a tone of unnecessary code.

Something to also note is; Redux and GraphQL can co-exist in an application. This is helpful as you can slowly integrate GraphQL into your Redux application if you have already implemented it. Here are some docs on how you may go about implementing the two together.

Integrating with Redux | Apollo React Docs

Using Redux then become’s a choice. Use it to solve a few trivial tasks and bring all it’s overhead and problems, or replace those tasks with something else.

Okay then, so what do you use instead?

Redux was a good way for solving the problem at the time. However, since it’s inception, the web development industry has exponentially advanced and with that advancement has come the introduction and improvement in the area of web sockets.

Web sockets are open connections between the server and the client so that the server can tell the client when to specifically update. And guess what? GraphQL supports web sockets straight out of the box in the form of things called subscriptions. We can therefore use these subscriptions to update the parts of our app which we would like to keep in sync.

The main difference is that; rather than having the client tell us that something needs to update (using Redux), we instead have our servers tell the client that the data must be updated. This gives us the same result. Here are a few examples of how you can implement web sockets or subscriptions directly with Mongodb or with Mongoose.

  • A Node.js Perspective on MongoDB 3.6: Change Streams
  • Mongoose v5.2.12: API docs

🚀 The Future Looks Awesome!

GraphQL has been in development for a while, but is now at the stage where it can be comfortably used in production. I won’t lie; the docs are rather difficult to get your head around and do require a good prior understanding on JavaScript and how servers work. However, if you’re not quite there yet — at least you know what to aim for. Here is a link to a popular tutorial.

GraphQL: A query language for APIs.

There are also a tone of helpful libraries which can help you can incrementally integrate it into your existing products. Don’t worry, you don’t have to do it all at once, the libraries make it easy to slowly convert your apps over time. Apollo is one company who are currently doing a great job of this.

Apollo GraphQL

That’s it. I hope this article helped shed some light on some more complex concepts.

If you enjoyed this article, please give it a few claps — it really means a lot to me — or comment if you have any questions!

Thanks! 🙌

You can also follow me on Twitter 🦉 or… see some of my other posts:

  • Startup Productivity Guide 101
  • How I Launched a Startup in 4 Days
  • Getting Your First 100 Startup Customers


Goodbye Redux was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.