news from the front

Configuring a basic environment for JavaScript development

No doubt: front-end development has changed a lot.

Since the rising of the Web Standards, web technologies have reached huge proportions and significantly evolved its potential. Due to an open nature and well defined specifications, the standards spread the world and are today supported in almost any device available on the market.

In this new context, to program JavaScript is not anymore to create simple code snippets and to load them in HTML. It is currently synonym of developing complex applications, and therefore, there are more to take in concern than ever were.

Development environment: what for?

The development of complex applications require things such as modularity and high level programming paradigms. Although, since the current widely supported version of JavaScript (ECMAScript 5) doesn’t have such features out of the box, how could we use it to build anything really complex, reliable and cross platform?

The answer: by setting up a good environment.

There are plenty of JavaScript libraries and tools available, and each of them aim to address specific issues. If we pick the right ones and successfully combine them, we are able to build our own integrated development environment, fully addapted to our (and our project’s) needs. This way we can achieve amazing results, such as:

Configuring a basic environment

Let’s get our hands dirty and set up a basic environment. It will include:

  1. Dependency management with npm;
  2. Module bundling with webpack;
  3. ES6 compilation with babel;
  4. Task automation with npm scripts;
  5. Live-reload development server with live-server.

1. Dependency management with npm

First things first: before we use npm, let’s make sure we have the last node.js version installed:

$ node --version
$ v6.9.1

If you have an earlier version in your machine (or no version at all), you can grab the latest one in node’s downloads’ page or install it via package manager.

Verifying npm version

Once node.js is installed, npm is surely also available. Let’s verify it’s version:

$ npm --version
$ 4.0.2

If you’ve got an earlier version, you can use npm to update itself:

$ sudo npm install -g npm

(Omit sudo if you’re on Windows)

Starting the project

Now that node and npm are up to date, we can start a new project. Create the project folder and run the command npm init inside of it:

$ mkdir my-project
$ cd my-project
$ mkdir src dist
$ npm init

This will create the following structure:

    ├─ dist/
    └─ src/

Then, npm will ask a few questions about your project, for which you can type an answer or hit enter to go with the default. After answering the questions, a package.json will be created in the project root. This file contains all the information about your applications in what concerns to dependency management. It should look somewhat like this:

  "name": "my-project",
  "version": "1.0.0",
  "description": "",
  "main": "index.js",
  "scripts": {
    "test": "echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1"
  "author": "Your Name <>",
  "license": "ISC"

Installing dependencies

As I stated before, for this project we’re going to install webpack and babel. They are both development dependencies, which means they’re required during development but not in production (as they’re a bundling and a compiling tool, right?). For that reason, we’re going to pass the flag --save-dev to npm along with the installation command:

$ npm install --save-dev webpack babel-loader babel-core

Now they’re installed under /node_modules and referenced in package.json under devDependencies.

We can also install production dependencies, passing along the flag --save. Let’s take jQuery for example:

$ npm install --save jquery

It will be referenced in package.json under dependencies.

2. Configuring webpack

Create the file webpack.config.js on the root of the project. Inside of it, paste this:

module.exports = {
  entry: "./src/index.js",
  output: {
    path: __dirname + "/dist",
    filename: "bundle.js"
  module: {
    loaders: [
      { test: /\.js$/, exclude: /node_modules/, loader: "babel-loader" }
  externals: {
    "jquery": "jQuery"

Two things to notice about this setup:

  1. We’re setting babel-loader to work on files that match /\.js$/, which means every JavaScript file will be processed by babel during the bundling;
  2. We’re declaring jquery as an external module, which means we’re going to include it by hand and it should not be part of the bundle, what allow browsers to cache the lib.

3. Configuring babel

We already set webpack to process our code with babel, but it’s not enough. Babel won’t do anything until we setup a preset. So, let’s install the latest preset available, which is actually called latest:

$ npm install --save-dev babel-preset-latest

Now, create a file called .babelrc on the project root and past this:

  "presets": ["latest"]

4. Using npm scripts to automate tasks

Task running is a fundamental tool during development process, and yet there are some very popular modules available to address it, npm itself offers us an straight forward approach.

Let’s open our package.json and append some code:

  "name": "my-project",
  "version": "1.0.0",
  "description": "",
  "main": "index.js",
  "scripts": {
    "test": "echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1",
    "build": "webpack",
    "watch": "webpack --watch"
  "author": "Your Name <>",
  "license": "ISC"

We are able to run the tasks like this:

$ npm run build
$ npm run watch

Then, npm will run the specified commands of our task in the console.

Adding multiple commands to a task

In the example above we have a single command in each of our tasks, so what’s the point, right? We could just run webpack from the terminal, with no need of npm scripts. But what if our building process included more than just webpacking? Maybe compiling some SCSS?

Let’s try:

$ npm install --save-dev node-sass

And our scripts object would look like this:

"scripts": {
  "test": "echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1",
  "build": "webpack && node-sass ./scss -o ./css && exit 0",
  "watch": "webpack --watch & node-sass --watch ./scss -o ./css"

For the build command we’re bundling our JavaScript, compiling our SCSS and exiting. As we’re using the && operator, next command gets executed only if previous succeeded.

On the other hand, for our watch command it’s impossible to wait previous command to succeed, as both --watch actions will stay running undefinetly. In such cases we can use & operator to run commands simultaneously.

5. Using a live-reload development server

A live-reload server can really accelerate development process. It’s all we need to finish our basic environment and start worrying only about our application itself.

Install the server globally:

$ sudo npm install -g live-server

(Remember to omit sudo if you’re on Windows)

Once it’s installed, navigate to the root of the project and run:

$ live-server

The project folder will be served at The page will automatically reload on any JavaScript change and even inject CSS changes without reloading!

Or… we could do even better, by adding it to our npm scripts!

"scripts": {
  "test": "echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1",
  "build": "webpack && node-sass ./scss -o ./css && exit 0",
  "watch": "webpack --watch & node-sass --watch ./scss -o ./css",
  "serve": "npm run watch & live-server"

That’s it. Call npm run serve in the terminal and start coding your project. Everything will be compiled and served on every change.

$ npm run serve

Any doubts or considerations? Please leave a comment or send me and e-mail. :)

Share this: