Editor’s note: This article is part of our Code Optimization series, where we take a look at how to optimize coding for better efficiency in a bid to be better coders.
Dependencies are a cornerstone of modern web development. These are the required tools, plugins, libraries and frameworks necessary to build high-level web applications.
The sheer number of dependencies has skyrocketed in the last few years. Over time developers have adopted dependency management tools which alleviate the stress of keeping dependencies organized and up-to-date. These tools lead to an optimized workflow for developers and project managers.
I’ve cataloged the best dependency tools here including both well-established and newly-emerging platforms. Professional web development requires continuous learning and I’d argue dependency management is a skillset worth learning.
I couldn’t write this guide without giving credit to the Node Package Manager. Built on Node.js, this system powers a tremendous repository of 100,000+ packages and modules.
Each project can use a package.json file setup through NPM and even managed with Gulp(on Node). Dependencies can be updated and optimized right from the terminal. And you can build new projects with dependency files and version numbers automatically pulled from the package.json file.
NPM is valuable for more than just dependency management, and it’s practically a must-know tool for modern web development. If you’re confused please check out this Reddit thread for a beginner’s explanation.
The package management system Bower runs on NPM which seems a little redundant but there is a difference between the two, notably that NPM offers more features while Bower aims for a reduction in filesize and load times for frontend dependencies.
Check out this Stack question to learn more about the subtle differences.
Some devs argue that Bower is basically obsolete since it runs on NPM, a service that can do almost everything Bower can do. Generally speaking this isn’t wrong.
But devs should realize Bower can optimize the workflow specifically with frontend dependencies. I recommend Ben McCormick’s article Is Bower Useful to learn more about the value offered from both package management tools.
Rails developers will love this feature, but what about frontend packages? Since Ruby is open source, developers can build projects like Bower for Rails. This brings frontend package management to the Ruby platform with a small learning curve.
There’s something special about RequireJS in that it’s primarily a JS toolset. It can be used for loading JS modules quickly including Node modules.
RequireJS can automatically detect required dependencies based on what you’re using so this might be akin to classic software programming in C/C++ where libraries are included with further libraries.
You’ll find an interesting GitHub discussion on this topic and the value it offers modern web developers. Granted other JS management tools like webpack have popped up, RequireJS still works in production environments. And if it works for you that’s all that matters.
All your dependencies are pulled into a single JS file which lets you add and remove items quickly. Plus these can be updated in the browser regardless of other tools you’re using (like RequireJS).
Libraries are updated based on the latest versions through the terminal. Each project can be created automatically with optimized components based on your needs. Jam is free on GitHub and worth a look if you have the time.
Most developers know of Browserify even if it’s not part of their typical workflow. This is another dependency management tool which optimizes required modules and libraries by bundling them together.
Check out this intro tutorial to see how Node can be managed right in the browser. There’s also a lengthy Browserify handbook hosted on GitHub for free. The idea is to bring all these Node tools into the browser and save time by automating the process with Browserify.
Still in its early stages of growth, MantriJS is a dependency system for mid-to-high level web applications. Dependencies are managed through namespaces and organized functionally to avoid collisions and reduce clutter.
Mantri is currently at v0.2.2 at the time of writing. It’s completely open source and built for more complex web applications that require large bundles of dependencies. Mantri aims to follow modular programming practices and hopes to encourage developers onto the same path.
The project management tool volo is an open source NPM repo that can create projects, add libraries, and automate workflows.
volo create you can affix any library like HTML5 Boilerplate.
But aside from creating new projects you can also add/update libraries for older projects. Volo ties into everything you would need for frontend development. Check out volo’s design goals to see how it operates in a real-world project.
Ender is the “no-library library” and is one of the lightest package managers you’ll find online. It allows devs to search through JS packages and install/compile them right from the command line. Ender is thought of as “NPM’s little sister” by the dev team.
The main Ender website has quality documentation so it’s worth a glance if you’re interested.
The majority of Python developers recommend pip for dependencies including the Django team. Whether you’re just getting started with Python or already use it consistently with backend development, this is a package manager you’ll be glad to have in your toolbox.
If you’re a PHP developer of any kind I seriously recommend looking into Composer. It’s easy to get started but difficult to fit into your workflow. However with practice it’ll become a staple for PHP dev projects.
This is a versatile tool with the potential to grow even larger in time. Plus NPM can mix with Composer to create a frontend + backend dependency management system for all your PHP/JS projects.
It’s clear many of these dependency managers have similar traits with similar qualities. Some are built to solve alternate problems and can even run in tandem with each other (ie. Composer and NPM).
The subject of dependency management can be tough for new developers. I recommend picking one of these tools and researching in-depth to learn as much as possible. Try building small webapps and learn why dependency management is useful.
Once you learn how to apply these tools into your workflow you’ll never consider going back.