From a convenience store to Redux architecture

Imagine that you’re a proud owner of a convenience store that sells various products. Remember how did you start? You rented an empty place (i.e. the store was in its initial state). Then you purchased shelves and ordered products. After that, multiple vendors started delivering products. You hired employees that arranged these products on the shelves in a certain order changing the state of the store. Then you put out the Grand Opening sign and lots of colorful balloons.

Customers started visiting your store and buy products. When the store is open, some products lay on the shelves, and some products are in the shopping carts of customers. Some customers are waiting in lines at the cash registers, and there are store employees there. In other words, we can say that at any given moment, your store has the current state.

If a customer takes an action, e.g. buys (or returns) five bottles of water, the cashier scans the barcode, and this reduces (or increases) the number of bottles in the inventory, i.e. updates the state. If a vendor delivers new products, your clerk updates the inventory (i.e. state) accordingly.

Your web app can also maintain a store that holds the state of your app. Similarly to a real store, at any given time your app’s store has a current state. Some data collections have specific data retrieved from the server and, possibly modified by the user. Some radio buttons are checked, the user selected some products and navigated to some routes represented by a specific URL.

If the user interacts with the UI, or the server sends new data, these actions should ask the store object to update the state. But to keep track of the state changes, the current state object is never updated, but a new instance of the state object is created.

What’s Redux?

Redux an open-source JavaScript library that takes care of managing application state. Initially, the React.js developers made Redux popular, but since it’s just a library for maintaining an app state, it can be used in any JavaScript app. Redux is based on the following three principles:

  • Single source of truth. There is a single store where your app contains the state that can be represented by an object tree.
  • State is read-only. When an action is emitted, the reducer function won’t update, but clone the current state and update it based on the action.
  • State changes are made with pure functions. You write the reducer function(s) that takes an action and the current state object, and returns a new state.

In Redux, the data flow is unidirectional:

1. The app component dispatches the action on the store
2. The reducer (a pure function) takes the current state object and then clones, updates, and returns it.
3. The app component subscribes to the store, receives the new state object and updates the UI accordingly.

This is how the Redux unidirectional data flow can be presented if used in a web app.

An action is a JavaScript object that has a property `type` describing what happened in your app, e.g. the user wants to buy the IBM stock. Besides the property type, and action object can optionally have another property with the payload of data that should somehow change the app state, for example:

  type: 'BUY_STOCK',
  stock: { symbol: 'IBM', quantity: 100} 

This object only describes the action and provides the payload, but it doesn’t know how the state should be changed. Who does? The reducer.

A reducer is a pure function that specifies how the state should be changed. The reducer never changes the current state but creates a new (and updated) version of it. In other words, the state object is immutable. The reducer creates a copy of the state object and returns a new reference to it. If you use the Angular framework, it’s a binding change event, and all interested parties will immediately know that the state has changed without requiring expensive value checking in the entire state tree.

A reducer function has the following signature:

function (previousState, action): State {...} 

Should the reducer function implement the app functionality like placing an order, which requires work with external services? Of course not, because reducers are meant for updating and returning the app state, e.g. the stock to buy is “IBM”. Besides, implementing the app logic would require interaction with the environment external to the reducer, i.e. it would cause side effects, and pure functions can’t have side effects.

The reducer can implement minimal app logic related to the state change. For example, the user decides to cancel the order, which requires a reset of certain fields on the state object. The main app logic remains in your application code (e.g. in services) unless a concrete implementation of the Redux-inspired library offers a special place meant for the code with side effects.

Why storing an app state in a single place is important

Recently, I was working on a project for a car manufacturer. This was a web app that allowed a prospective buyer to configure a car by selecting from tons of packages and options (e.g. model, interior and exterior colors, length of the chassis et al.) This app was developed for many years, the software modules were written using JavaScript, jQuery, Angular, React, Handlebars as well as the HTML templating engine Thymeleaf on the server. Nothing unusual, right?

From the user’s perspective, this was one workflow that consisted of several steps resulting in configuring and pricing the car based on selected options. But internally, this process was switching from one module to another, and each module would need to know what was selected in the previous step to show the available options.

In other words, each module would need to know the current state of the app. Depending on the software used in any particular module, the current user’s selections were stored using one of the following places:

* URL parameters
* HTML data attributes
* Browser’s local and session storages
* Angular services
* React store

New requirements were coming in, new JIRA tickets were created and assigned, and we’d start implementing them. Time and time again, implementing a seemingly simple new requirement would turn into a very time consuming and expensive task. Good luck in explaining to your manager why showing the price in page B would take a half day if this price was already known in page A. The thing is that the state object used in page B didn’t expect to have the price property, and if in page A the price was a part of the URL, page B was expecting to get the current state from the local storage.

Re-writing an app from scratch was not an option, but it would be so much easier if the app state was implemented in a uniform way and stored in a single place!

While the Redux is widely used in the web apps developed with the React framework, for Angular apps you can use the ngrx library that also implements the unidirectional data flow and can be used for implementing the app state management.
While the Redux API is simple, the ngrx is not. The reason is that ngrx is a combination of Redux and RxJS libraries that offers more than just keeping track of the round-trips between the UI and the app state. With ngrx, you can inject the code that communicates with external services into the data flow. Also, you can monitor the state of the router.

I’m planning to write a series of blogs to present ngrx, so it wouldn’t require a Ph.D. to master it. If you can’t wait, consider enrolling in our online workshop on using ngrx for state management in Angular apps. You’ll need to invest 7 hours of your time, but this may save you a lot more time in the long run.


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