JS Questions: What is Webpack?

This is the tenth 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 Webpack?

JavaScript-based applications have increasingly complex systems and interactions. They send and receive data; they create a user interface; they have non-JavaScript assets such as styling and images; and they incorporate outside packages of reusable code. The purpose of Webpack is to bring together all the disparate parts and turn them into one file, made readable to the browser rendering the application. This job is called module bundling. 

There are two types of ways that code is transformed in Webpack and these processes are handled by separate entities: loaders and plugins.

Loaders take in the application’s files, turn them into modules that can be read by a JavaScript engine, and add the modules to a dependency graph. A dependency graph is like a map (written in JS) showing how each module is related to other modules.

Different loaders can handle different tasks in the transformation process. The babel-loader, for example, takes in ES2015 (or later) code and transpiles the code to an earlier version of JS syntax.

While loaders create modules, plugins alter the modules to optimize them for computer processing, dependency injection, debugging, and other tasks. The UglifyJS plugin, for example, minifies code in order to make it run faster. 

When all dependencies have been added to the graph and all processes have been run, the static file is handed off to the browser to load.

Webpack can be configured with whichever loaders and plugins a project needs, though there’s also an ‘out-of-the-box’ option for React developers. React, a popular library for building JS front end, has community support for Webpack. The package, Create React App, can be used to generate files for a new React application preconfigured with Webpack. The Webpack-enabled functionality, including hot reloading (which adds, removes, or updates modules, without a page needing to fully reload) make it especially handy.

Other module bundlers exist (Browserify is considered the first of its kind), but Webpack has become an industry favorite.



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