void "words"

Front-end Streams

Streams are infectious. They are, to date, my favorite abstraction for dealing with large amounts of data over time.

They force you to think about big problems in small pieces, and present a handy composable interface to allow communication with one another via .pipe().

A problem I deal with every day is user input changing over time in the form of DOM events. Streams are designed to deal with data changes over time, so it seems like a logical fit.

Thinking about your application in terms of streams and pipelines of data provides you with a lot of benefits.

  1. The pieces that your system consists of (the streaming modules) tend to be much smaller and simpler. These properties tend to make them more testable, more reusable, easier to reason about, and less prone to bugs.
  2. The code that glues the pieces together as pipelines tends to be very expressive. a.pipe(b).pipe(c) is a very powerful statement. Not only is it very easy to write, it is also very easy to read: you are just chaining data transformations.
  3. Your system is talking POJOs at its deepest levels. This means that stepping through code and introspecting data is much easier and more intuitive. It also means that you are free to introduce any libraries or modules into your “stack”.

For a more in-depth analysis, see The Stream Handbook

An Ideal World

Imagine you want to take what a user types into an input element and display it in an output element. All we have to do is think of these things in terms of readable and writable streams and suddenly it’s very trivial.

Let’s imagine the simplest way to write that:

// pseudo-code incoming!


The good news is that this ideal world is not much different from the world that you can very easily be living within.


Browserify enables us to have node streams in the browser. This means that not only do we get stream primitives for cheap, but we also get the wealth of streaming modules on npm that Just Work(TM), because they deal simply with isolated forms of data.

Generally, I use through for stream construction. It presents a nice, functional interface that is very intuitive.

For more specific DOM tasks, we can use speciality modules, such as:

If I want to use something in a pipeline that doesn’t provide a streaming interface, I simply wrap it with one.


var write = require('dom-replace-html-stream')
  , events = require('dom-delegation-stream')
  , values = require('dom-value-stream')

// `.pipe()` always returns the destination stream, so we set up a pipeline and
// assign `input` to the stream of values
var input = events(document.getElementById('input'), 'input').pipe(values())
var output = write(document.getElementById('output'))


Let’s take a look at what is happening here.

  1. We require all the modules that we are going to use.
  2. We set up a first pipeline consisting of:
    • ‘input’ events triggered by the element with ID ‘input’
    • the value of the element that triggered the original event
  3. Because .pipe() always returns the destination stream, input is assigned to the values() stream that is emitting the element values.
  4. We create a writable stream to the element with ID ‘output’
  5. We create a new pipeline from the “input” to the “output”
  6. Magic

Introducing “ObjectState”

Now, let’s imagine that you want to actually collect this data somewhere to be used later, perhaps to send off to an API. This is where ObjectState comes in. Check this out:

var objectState = require('objectstate')

var state = objectState()

// ...the previous example happens...

state.listen(input, 'userInput')

Now, as you enter text into the input, ObjectState is collecting the emissions into a state object like:

    userInput: 'whatever you typed!'

The best part is that ObjectState is itself a stream. Which means that you can pipe it anywhere and it will happily emit its “state objects” anywhere you desire. This gives you a very simple and powerful way to compose streams of data into meaningful “chunks” and act upon them accordingly.

Putting it all together

Let’s make a slightly more advanced (if still somewhat contrived) system. Say you want to create a module that lets the user input an ID number into an input and have it rendered as it might appear on an ID card.

For this example, we will want to use a template engine. At Urban Airship, we use Ractive. As mentioned earlier, because it does not expose a streaming interface, we wrap it in one. That wrapper looks very much like:

var Ractive = require('ractive')
  , through = require('through')

module.exports = ractiveStream

function ractiveStream(el, template, _options) {
  var options = _options || {}
  var stream = through(write)

  options.el = el
  options.template = template

  var ractive = new Ractive(options)

  stream.view = ractive

  return stream

  function write(data) {

Pretty straight-forward, but let’s take a quick look.

  • We expose a simple API that meets our needs (given an element and a template, optionally a Ractive options object, return a stream).
  • We provide access to the Ractive instance via the .view property of the returned stream.
  • Whenever our stream is written to, it resets the context of the Ractive instance.

Now, let’s build our theoretical widget! We can assume that it will be handed a DOM element to render itself into.

Let’s start with the template

<div class="card-input">
  <input type="text" name="full-name"/>
  <input type="text" name="card-number"/>
<div class="card-output">
  <div class="card-template">
    <span class="card-number"></span>
    <span class="card-name"></span>

Simple enough, now for the JavaScript:

var events = require('dom-delegation-stream')
  , values = require('dom-value-stream')
  , objectState = require('objectstate')

var ractiveStream = require('./ractive-stream')
  , cardTemplate = require('./template.ract') // check out the ractify transform
  , stripNonDigits = require('./strip-non-digits')
  , addDashes = require('./add-dashes')

module.exports = cardWidget

function cardWidget(el) {
  var ractive = ractiveStream(el, cardTemplate)
    , state = objectState()

  // DOM events -> values, assign `name` to the values stream
  // we select on the `name` attribute, because it is not typically subject to
  // change as frequently as class or ID.
  var name = events(el, 'input', '[name=full-name]')

  // DOM events -> values -> strip non-digits -> add dashes, assign `cardNumber`
  // to the dashes stream
  // " 123 45678,91011a12" -> "123456789101112" -> "1234-5678-9101-112"
  var cardNumber = events(el, 'input', '[name=card-number]')

  state.listen(name, 'fullName')
    .listen(cardNumber, 'cardNumber')


Let’s break it down:

  • We require all of the modules we will be using, including a couple of theoretical but trivially-implemented modules that export a function that returns a stream:
    • “strip-non-digits” just removes all non-digit characters from a string.
    • “add-dashes” inserts dashes into a string in a pattern like you might expect on an ID card.
  • We declare our export, which is the function that constructs this “widget”
  • Our function takes an element, and immediately creates a ractiveStream with that element and our template.
  • We initialize an ObjectState to serve as our source of context.
  • We create two pipelines:
    • They both start as events -> values, effectively turning input keystrokes into the value of the element they were triggered from.
    • The cardNumber stream is further piped into our “add-dashes” module for formatting.
  • Our objectState is told to listen to these streams, and consider them as keys “fullName” and “cardNumber” respectively.
  • We pipe our objectState directly into our ractiveStream to be used as context.

In Conclusion

Streams are an undeniably powerful concept. They enforce a separation of concerns and provide handy mechanisms for composition. Hopefully, I have made clear how you can leverage them for making your front-end code simpler and more portable. In future blog posts, I plan to explore options for creating large systems using these concepts.

Further Reading

Newer >>