JS Questions: What is Node.js?

This is the ninth in a series of posts I’m writing that aims to provide concise, understandable answers to JavaScript-related questions, helping me better understand both foundational concepts and the changing landscape of language updates, frameworks, testing tools, etc.

What is Node.js?

Unlike Ruby (and many other programming languages), JavaScript wasn’t built to be executed outside of the browser. A Ruby program can be run by simply typing the path to the file to be run prepended by ‘ruby’ in terminal:

ruby filename.rb

Node.js (also called simply Node), which is built on the Chrome V8 JavaScript Engine, can be used to run JavaScript code outside of the browser. To try it, download Node and run the Javascript file from terminal:

node filename.js

Nodejs.org refers to Node as a runtime. Runtime environments dictate how a program is executed. All runtime environments have an event loop, or set of instructions how a programming language handles incoming events and dispatches them.

A ‘non-blocking I/O model’ differentiates Node from other runtime environments. Input and output (I/O) refers to the interaction between the processing system and user or other input making a request. A user clicks their mouse, for example, and the server returns requested data rendered in the browser.

In contrast to a non-blocking model, a blocking I/O is one in which JS code cannot run until the previous operation is complete. In other words, the event loop pauses until the process finishes. Node allows asynchronous, non-blocking events to occur, meaning that a process doesn’t need to finish in order for another to start. This allows an application to handle frequent incoming requests with minimal downtime.

Node is widely used to make server-side applications. The server side of an app takes in requests and responds with data to the front end of the application. This allows requests to create, update, or delete data to be persisted in a database, as well as for information to be accessed from the database and rendered in the front end.

Scalability, low latency, and high bandwith are often noted as key benefits of using Node over other server-side options, due to its non-blocking I/O. More information about how Node works as compared to Ruby’s Event Machine, for example, is available on nodejs.org.  There’s also a ‘hello world’ example for creating a server with Node and hosting it on a port.

Node also has a popular JavaScript package manager, npm, which allows developers to install JavaScript packages, pieces of software made available to developers to download and use with their own projects. Some commonly downloaded JS packages include express, react, and babel-core.

“Node’s package manager, npm, has transformed from hosting utility modules for server-side apps to the canonical place to store distributable JavaScript code.” –The future of Javascript in 2017 and Beyond

Finally, node is also open source and has a community of contributors.





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