This is the fourth chapter of the Writing a JavaScript framework series. In this chapter, I am going to explain the dirty checking and the accessor data binding techniques and point out their strengths and weaknesses.

The series is about an open-source client-side framework, called NX. During the series, I explain the main difficulties I had to overcome while writing the framework. If you are interested in NX please visit the home page.

The series includes the following chapters:

  1. Project structuring
  2. Execution timing
  3. Sandboxed code evaluation
  4. Data binding introduction (current chapter)
  5. Data Binding with ES6 Proxies
  6. Custom elements
  7. Client-side routing

An introduction to data binding

Data binding is a general technique that binds data sources from the provider and consumer together and synchronizes them.

This is a general definition, which outlines the common building blocks of data binding techniques.

  • A syntax to define the provider and the consumer.
  • A syntax to define which changes should trigger synchronization.
  • A way to listen to these changes on the provider.
  • A synchronizing function that runs when these changes happen. I will call this function the handler() from now on.

The above steps are implemented in different ways by the different data binding techniques. The upcoming sections will be about two such techniques, namely dirty checking and the accessor method. Both has their strengths and weaknesses, which I will briefly discuss after introducing them.

Dirty checking

Dirty checking is probably the most well-known data binding method. It is simple in concept, and it doesn't require complex language features, which makes it a nice candidate for legacy usage.

The syntax

Defining the provider and the consumer doesn't require any special syntax, just plain Javascript objects.

const provider = {  
  message: 'Hello World'
}
const consumer = document.createElement('p')  

Synchronization is usually triggered by property mutations on the provider. Properties, which should be observed for changes must be explicitly mapped with their handler().

observe(provider, 'message', message => {  
  consumer.innerHTML = message
})

The observe() function simply saves the (provider, property) -> handler mapping for later use.

function observe (provider, prop, handler) {  
  provider._handlers[prop] = handler
}

With this, we have a syntax for defining the provider and the consumer and a way to register handler() functions for property changes. The public API of our library is ready, now comes the internal implementation.

Listening on changes

Dirty checking is called dirty for a reason. It runs periodical checks instead of listening on property changes directly. Let's call this check a digest cycle from now on. A digest cycle iterates through every (provider, property) -> handler entry added by observe() and checks if the property value changed since the last iteration. If it did change, it runs the handler() function. A simple implementation would look like below.

function digest () {  
  providers.forEach(digestProvider)
}

function digestProvider (provider) {  
  for (let prop in provider._handlers) {
    if (provider._prevValues[prop] !== provider[prop]) {
      provider._prevValues[prop] = provider[prop]
      handler(provider[prop])
    }
  }
}

The digest() function needs to be run from time to time to ensure a synchronized state.

The accessor technique

The accessor technique is the now trending one. It is a bit less widely supported as it requires the ES5 getter/setter functionality, but it makes up for this in elegance.

The syntax

Defining the provider requires special syntax. The plain provider object has to be passed to the observable() function, which transforms it into an observable object.

const provider = observable({  
  greeting: 'Hello',
  subject: 'World'
})
const consumer = document.createElement('p')  

This small inconvenience is more than compensated by the simple handler() mapping syntax. With dirty checking, we would have to define every observed property explicitly like below.

observe(provider, 'greeting', greeting => {  
  consumer.innerHTML = greeting + ' ' + provider.subject
})

observe(provider, 'subject', subject => {  
  consumer.innerHTML = provider.greeting + ' ' + subject
})

This is verbose and clumsy. The accessor technique can automatically detect the used provider properties inside the handler() function, which allows us to simplify the above code.

observe(() => {  
  consumer.innerHTML = provider.greeting + ' ' + provider.subject
})

The implementation of observe() is different from the dirty checking one. It just executes the passed handler() function and flags it as the currently active one while it is running.

let activeHandler

function observe(handler) {  
  activeHandler = handler
  handler()
  activeHandler = undefined
}

Note that we exploit the single-threaded nature of JavaScript here by using the single activeHandler variable to keep track of the currently running handler() function.

Listening on changes

This is where the 'accessor technique' name comes from. The provider is augmented with getters/setters, which do the heavy lifting in the background. The idea is to intercept the get/set operations of the provider properties in the following way.

  • get: If there is an activeHandler running, save the (provider, property) -> activeHandler mapping for later use.
  • set: Run all handler() functions, which are mapped with the (provide, property) pair.

The accessor data binding technique.

The following code demonstrates a simple implementation of this for a single provider property.

function observableProp (provider, prop) {  
  const value = provider[prop]
  Object.defineProperty(provider, prop, {
    get () {
      if (activeHandler) {
        provider._handlers[prop] = activeHandler
      }
      return value
    },
    set (newValue) {
      value = newValue
      const handler = obj._handlers[prop]
      if (handler) {
        activeHandler = handler
        handler()
        activeHandler = undefined
      }
    }
  })
}

The observable() function mentioned in the previous section walks the provider properties recursively and converts all of them into observables with the above observableProp() function.

function observable (provider) {  
  for (let prop in provider) {
    observableProp(provider, prop)
    if (typeof provider[prop] === 'object') {
      observable(provider[prop])
    }
  }
}

This is a very simple implementation, but it is enough for a comparison between the two techniques.

Comparison of the techniques

In this section, I will briefly outline the strengths and weaknesses of dirty checking and the accessor technique.

Syntax

Dirty checking requires no syntax to define the provider and consumer, but mapping the (provider, property) pair with the handler() is clumsy and not flexible.

The accessor technique requires the provider to be wrapped by the observable() function, but the automatic handler() mapping makes up for this. For large projects with data binding, it is a must have feature.

Performance

Dirty checking is notorious for its bad performance. It has to check every (provider, property) -> handler entry possibly multiple times during every digest cycle. Moreover, it has to grind even when the app is idle, since it can't know when the property changes happen.

The accessor method is faster, but performance could be unnecessarily degraded in case of big observable objects. Replacing every property of the provider by accessors is usually an overkill. A solution would be to build the getter/setter tree dynamically when needed, instead of doing it ahead in one batch. Alternatively, a simpler solution is wrapping the unneeded properties with a noObserve() function, that tells observable() to leave that part untouched. This sadly introduces some extra syntax.

Flexibility

Dirty checking naturally works with both expando (dynamically added) and accessor properties.

The accessor technique has a weak spot here. Expando properties are not supported because they are left out of the initial getter/setter tree. This causes issues with arrays for example, but it can be fixed by manually running observableProp() after adding a new property. Getter/setter properties are neither supported since accessors can't be wrapped by accessors again. A common workaround for this is using a computed() function instead of a getter. This introduces even more custom syntax.

Timing alternatives

Dirty checking doesn't give us much freedom here since we have no way of knowing when the actual property changes happen. The handler() functions can only be executed asynchronously, by running the digest() cycle from time to time.

Getters/setters added by the accessor technique are triggered synchronously, so we have a freedom of choice. We may decide to run the handler() right away, or save it in a batch that is executed asynchronously later. The first approach gives us the advantage of predictability, while the latter allows for performance enhancements by removing duplicates.

About the next article

In the next article, I will introduce the nx-observe data binding library and explain how to replace ES5 getters/setters by ES6 Proxies to eliminate most of the accessor technique's weaknesses.

Conclusion

If you are interested in the NX framework, please visit the home page. Adventurous readers can find the NX source code in this Github repository.

I hope you found this a good read, see you next time when I’ll discuss data binding with ES6 Proxies!

If you have any thoughts on the topic, please share them in the comments.