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Develop Mendix Widgets with Webpack and React

ejbroeders profile image EJBroeders ・10 min read

Somewhere two years ago I got involved in web development with Javascript and the whole surrounding ecosystem. And it was exciting! With the introduction of ES2015, the NPM repository, and React it felt as if the web was developing at such a rapid speed that all blog posts that I could find were instantaneous outdated. Each day there was a new feature or paradigm introduced that was the new cool thing to use, and it felt thrilling to be able to incorporate that in new projects.

This year I got into Mendix, and as a Javascript developer, my first project was a widget development. Actually more of a module. At Finaps we tried to make something similar to the Plotly designer which we could include in some of the dashboards that we develop. This widget was not easy to develop within the Dojo framework; each iteration during the construction felt kinda awkward. I rather wished to develop into something that felt more native to Javascript. So, after a few days of struggling, I decided to spend more time on developing a framework which I could leverage to develop native Mendix widgets, with the tools that I already knew.

It took some time and iterations but after a while the environment that I set up felt just right: it is easy to develop with ES2015 and even ES2017 / ES7 (in fact, any version that Babel supports), it includes the NPM package manager so that I can include any new modern library such as React, and it incorporates linting and unit testing for ease of development.

In this post, I will explain the steps that I took and guide through some of the more important configuration files, and show how to use the framework for a small widget. If you also want to start development of Mendix widgets based on this new framework, all code used is freely published, and a boilerplate can be found on Github:

https://github.com/Finaps/boilerplate-mendix-react-widget

Core technologies

Current web development has become quite mature, and as a developer, you have to use a lot of different tools in your building process. To name a few: Webpack, Babel, NPM, React, ESLint, Jest, etc. This might seem daunting at first, don't worry! The basic tools that are necessary for widget development will be explained in this section.

If you are using the boilerplate, then you can install all those tools by first installing NPM, and then issuing npm install in the folder in which the boilerplate is stored.

NPM

NPM, which stands for Node Package Manager, is at the root of most Javascript development. It is the default package manager for a lot of projects and consists of a command line client and an online database of public packages, which is called the registry. The registry includes all popular packages, such as Webpack, Babel, and React. This tool will be used to download all other tools necessary for widget development.

Because it is at the root of the project and is used to download the other packages with, it is the only package which needs manual installation. You can find the installation files here.

Webpack

Webpack is a module bundler. That is, Webpack takes one file (called an asset), typically a Javascript file, and follows all dependencies of that file. It looks at all includes and imports in that file and builds a dependency graph. After investigation, it bundles all those files into one file which can be served to the client.

There are two big advantages to this approach: A client has to download only one file if it encounters the widget (which saves a lot of time!) and each file that is used can be inspected by a plugin such as Babel, which will be described in the next section.

To install Webpack on your computer: after you have installed NPM issue npm install -g webpack from a command line. The -g flag tells NPM to install it globally on your machine such that you can always use Webpack from the command line.

Babel

Babel is a tool used to transpile Javascript features described in ES2015 / ES2017 / ES7 into plain old Javascript that is understandable by any browser in use. If Babel is included in the build process, then you can be safe that although your project uses cool new features such as the spread syntax, it will still run in ancient browsers such as Internet Explorer. This is important if you want to use those astonishing new features and cannot force your clients to use the latest version of Chrome or Firefox.

A whole other blog post can be written on the subject of those new Javascript features. And in fact, there are already quite a lot. If unsure what ES6/7 is, I suggest a quick Google. It is fascinating to see so much development within such a short period in one language.

Another great thing about Babel is, is that it allows transferring JSX syntax to React. Which is, in my opinion, the only graceful manner to write React apps.

Babel will not be used as a command line utility, and therefore it does not make sense to install it globally on your development machine. Of course, it can be done similar to how Webpack was installed, but it makes more sense to install it linked to a project. To start a new project: Make an empty directory and change your working directory in the terminal to the new folder, then run npm init. After that, you can install Webpack and Babel to the project by: npm install -s webpack babel-core babel-loader babel-preset-env.

React

React is a Javascript library developed by Facebook for building user interfaces by using a component-based design. It is at the moment the most popular Javascript library in use, and it empowers a lot of the web. Any current project which includes some design is almost surely component-based, and although the actual implementation is not always React, React set the tune on how those interfaces are developed. If you do not know this tech, I urge you to find a React tutorial as soon as possible.

To install the library, move the terminal to your project folder and run
npm install -s react react-dom prop-types babel-plugin-transform-react-jsx.

Setting everything up

The difficult part in getting all these tools together is in the configuration. There are numerous tutorials on the internet that help you set up a plain boilerplate with Webpack and Babel, but if you want something nonvanilla such as a Mendix widget instead of a plain Javascript application, then it suddenly becomes much harder.

If you are using the boilerplate, then all configurations are already set up and you can use this section as a guide through the most important configuration files which differ from a default setup.

Webpack

Webpack is configured through webpack.config.js. This subsection describes a few configuration flags that are not found in a typical Webpack configuration. For a full description of the configuration, check the documentation. There each of the lines found in the example configuration file is explained much more thorough than I can through this post.

We need to tell Webpack that we want our project to be built as a Mendix widget, which is actually an AMD module. An AMD module is a Javascript module written in such a way that it can easily be integrated into other projects. It was one of the first truly modular packagings of Javascript libraries developed by the Dojo framework. Nowadays the prevailing standard is the NPM registry which is based on CommonJS, but for our purpose, we want an AMD package.

We can tell Webpack to build an AMD module by setting the output target:

module.exports = {
    output: {
        libraryTarget: 'amd',
        ....
    }
    ....
}

Moreover, we want Webpack to use Babel to translate all of our new and fancy Javascript into plain older Javascript. We do so by including Babel as a plugin:

module.exports = {
    ....
    module: {
        loaders: [
            {
                test: /\.jsx?$/,
                exclude: /node_modules/,
                loader: ['babel-loader']
            }
        ]
    },
    ....
}

Also, a Mendix widget contains a Dijit object, which is defined through a declare procedure. Obvious that is not a native Javascript method, and as such Webpack would not know what to do with it when it encounters a declare function call in our widget. Therefore we have to state explicit that it is defined somewhere external and will be loaded by Mendix. Same goes for the WidgetBase object:

module.exports = {
    ....
    externals: {
        dojoBaseDeclare: "dojo/_base/declare",
        widgetBase: "mxui/widget/_WidgetBase"
    }
}

For completeness sake, a minimal webpack.config.js should look like:

module.exports = {
    target: 'web',
    entry: {
        app: path.join(__dirname, 'src/widget', 'HelloWorld.jsx')
    },
    output: {
        libraryTarget: 'amd',
        path: path.resolve(__dirname, 'build/widget'),
        publicPath: '',
        filename: 'HelloWorld.js'
    },
    module: {
        loaders: [
            {
                test: /\.jsx?$/,
                exclude: /node_modules/,
                loader: ['babel-loader']
            }
        ]
    },
    externals: {
        dojoBaseDeclare: "dojo/_base/declare",
        widgetBase: "mxui/widget/_WidgetBase"
    }
};

Babel

Babel is configured through .babelrc, which is rather self explainatory. The configuration for developing Mendix widgets is much easier and does not differ much from a regular configuration:

{
  "presets": [
    ["env", {
      "targets": {
        "browsers": ["last 2 versions"]
      },
      "modules": false,
      "useBuiltIns": true
    }]
  ],
  "plugins": ["transform-react-jsx"]
}

Build script

With the default configuration which is used by the boilerplate, it is possible to run Webpack from the root folder of the project with simply webpack (if you have opted for not installing Webpack global, then the command is ./node_modules/.bin/webpack). What next happens is that Webpack will load the configuration webpack.config.js, which points to an entry file (default src/widget/{WidgetName}.jsx, with {WidgetName} the name of the project defined in package.json). It will parse the entry file in combination with Babel, and builds the resulting bundled script in the build/{WidgetName}/widget directory.

To make it a working Mendix widget a package.xml file is necessary, which is generated by package.xml.js found in the boilerplate.

Next everything in the build directory has to be zipped and renamed to {widget}.mpk, which can be loaded directly into Mendix.

All these steps are included as an NPM script in the boilerplate. The script can be triggered by running npm run build in the root folder of the project.

Hello World

The current setup is made such that the name of the Mendix widget is defined in package.json, and the widget is further developed within the src directory. This boilerplate is installed and ready for use after issuing npm install. When npm run build is triggered all files from the src directory are taken and copied / transpiled in the build directory, which will then have the source of the Mendix widget in such a way that it can be safely used within any client browser. The build directory is zipped into build/widget.mpk, which can be loaded within a Mendix project. For testing purposes, this widget file is also copied by the NPM script to mendix/widgets, such that it can be tested directly in a Mendix project that resides in the mendix folder.

As an example, this boilerplate includes a copy of a simple Hello World widget, which loads on activation the React library and uses JSX syntax to print Hello World on screen. Obvious, that is not very exciting.

To make it a bit more exciting, let's extend this widget to print Hello World in a modal (pop-up). For that, we are going to use the React-Bootstrap library.

To install the bootstrap library execute npm install -s react-bootstrap. Now edit src/widget/HelloWorld.jsx to import the new library:

import declare from 'dojoBaseDeclare';
import widgetBase from 'widgetBase';

import React from 'react';
import ReactDOM from 'react-dom';
import {Modal} from 'react-bootstrap';
....

If we run npm run build now it will warn us that we have imported a library which is not used within the project yet. But it will work though and the new widget will contain the library components necessary for making our pop-up.

To have the widget show the pop-up, edit the code to render the modal:

....
import {Modal} from 'react-bootstrap';

const popup = <Modal show={true}>
        <Modal.Header>
            <Modal.Title>Hello World</Modal.Title>
        </Modal.Header>
        <Modal.Body>
            <h4>I just want to say Hello</h4>
        </Modal.Body>
        <Modal.Footer></Modal.Footer>
    </Modal>;

....

    ReactDOM.render(popup, this.domNode);
....

By now, after running npm run build, there will be a widget.mpk which shows when loaded Hello World in a pop-up.

A fun next exercise left for the reader is to add a close button. A full code snippet which has such a modal with close button can be found here.

Future possibilities

This boilerplate is as native to the NPM ecosystem as possible, in such a way that it can use the cool new features that are being developed by other Javascript developers. It is imagined that this framework is flexible enough to adapt to other libraries and developments which will happen soon. Which is of vital importance in web development due to the rapidly changing nature of the web. What was a few years ago the golden standard (say for instance AMD) is already outdated. As a developer, it is important to stay on top of all those changes and adapt them in your development.

For instance, now that Javascript applications are becoming quite large, development has to include some kind of unit testing. Without testing, the project will become unmanagable, which no one really wants. This is especially important now that we see a lot of single-page websites which are in fact a large React application. Unit tests can help to make sure that legacy code does not break when introducing new features to the codebase.

This boilerplate can be extended to incorporate unit testing through Jest. The incorporation of Jest in this boilerplate is subject for another post, which will happen probably in the near future.

Another major development on the web which excites me is WebAssembly. WebAssembly is a portable stack machine which promises to bring C and C++ programs to the web by compiling them into wasm files. The wasm files are designed to be faster parsed and executed. The main thing about WebAssembly is that it allows web development in a number of other languages (including Rust!) and also to include their ecosystems in a web application.

This boilerplate brings a new way of Mendix widget development, which is aimed at the future.

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EJBroeders

@ejbroeders

Really passionate about development, the web, artificial intelligence, and anything that is techsavy.

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