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How to Make Learning About Node.js a Profound Experience

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Integrating JavaScript and Node.js with IBM i environments can be complicated, both administratively and programmatically. A free, cloud-based utility from Profound Logic can help bridge the gaps.

The perennial gripe of not enough ways or time for IBM i developers to learn new languages and methods is a problem that's looked for answers for years now. For programmers who'd like to ease into the world of JavaScript and Node.js, there's now an "easy stages" way to do this at no cost except the time involved.

NodeRun is a framework and IDE offered through the cloud by Profound Logic Software. It's a full-stack runtime environment for building both client-based JavaScript and server-based Node.js code with which to construct database-driven business applications. It's free to use. All you have to do is register and you'll be assigned your own workspace and be granted access to a wide range of tools and an online community of peers seeking to learn and discuss similar skills.

"NodeRun is an environment where we basically give the users a free sandbox, or multiple sandboxes, to try out and explore these tools and do whatever they'd like to do," explains Brian May, Director of Customer Solutions for Profound Logic and advocate for NodeRun.

The Framework Backing Up NodeRun

NodeRun uses the Profound.js framework, a Visual Designer tool for constructing rich UIs and single-page applications (which don't require the browser to reload a new page) that also has a built-in Node.js server based on Express, and APIs that work with “strong data types.” The framework also includes built-in error reporting and logging as well as built-in support for “rich displays” and HTML interfaces. It works with databases as varied as DB2, SQL Server, My SQL, MariaDB, and Oracle. MariaDB is the default database type, but NodeRun apps can be configured to work with the other types as well.

This database support is made possible by the Profound.js Connector, which also provides other advantages. These include the ability to let existing RPG and CL code use any Node.js module—as well as Web services, the Internet of Things, and Watson—in new applications or new versions of them. In addition, the connector lets Node.js modules act like native ILE programs on the IBM i, lets programs call 5250 green-screen interactive commands from Node and enter them as HTML5 on the fly, and natively integrate RPG, CL, COBOL, and Node.js programs.

The Profound.js framework also supports Node Package Manager (NPM), the default manager for Node.js and JavaScript.

"The framework itself has the ability to manage the session state for you so that it's a stateful business application," May notes. "It eliminates the need for developers to use callbacks, which is a huge hurdle for a lot of business developers who are first getting into Node.js. This lets programmers build apps in a top-down fashion in which line one executes before line two, even though JavaScript is an asynchronous language. So what the framework's doing in the background is just managing the event loop," May says.

Profound.js also uses a program called Fibers, which lets developers code programs without callbacks. Callback functions, particularly when nested, can cause problems because in some situations it's vital that code execute in a specific order, which can be a challenge using an asynchronous language like JavaScript. Fibers keeps everything executing in the proper order, for example, by letting developers turn callback functions into parameters to other called functions.

In addition, Profound.js maintains state for applications running within it. This lets developers, for example, display a screen and be confident that control will return to the next line of code in their app.

A final benefit is that Profound.js is versatile enough that the developer can use an API to call and use a web service with just one line of code.

Not a Production Environment

To be clear, NodeRun isn't a place where you can tinker with building an app and then deploy it to a production system. Although it's possible to do that, you'll need extra help from Profound Logic to carry out the deployment part. There would also be some licensing involved, May points out. For the time being, NodeRun is geared to be an environment where developers can experiment and learn at their own speed without any pressure.

"One day down the road, we may have an option to just click here and then we'll host it for you," May explains, "but we're not at that point yet."

What NodeRun is designed for is to make it easy to use right from the start. For one thing, it eliminates the hurdle many developers can face of needing company permission to even load Node.js on their normal work machine. For another, the UI Designer enables building UIs either via code or via simple dragging and dropping of UI elements provided with NodeRun. Finally, the editor lets learners build applications using whatever language they want. This means zero cost to the company any learning developer works for, zero footprint on company equipment, and minimal time for programmers to get started writing code and seeing how Profound.js and NodeRun actually work.

Signing up for a NodeRun account is also kept simple. Right at the top of the Noderun.com page is a login option. Users can even start using NodeRun without creating an account, but to save any work, you have to go through a short account registration process that simply asks the user for a name and email address. Once a user creates an account, they have full access to all the tools NodeRun offers, as well as its forums. Users can also log in via Facebook and other social media.

Packed with Features

Users create their personal space with the "New Space" button in the upper right corner of the start page. This launches the NodeRun IDE, which gives users access to all the framework's tools. Users can start building an app from scratch, select a template to get started, or clone an existing app from GitHub, a connection to which NodeRun fully supports. Once users have created an app, they can publish it to the NodeRun community, which lets the developer, or any interested NodeRun member, access and run the app and comment on it. Users can also collaborate on new apps, try apps written by others, and comment on other users' creations.

Some of the other tools available include more than 100 pre-built UI widgets, a built-in database for each user's workspace, built-in support for single-page apps, and a preconfigured Express.js server already running for all workspaces. Users can also start a custom server and point to it with a few menu clicks. A file tree feature helps users keep their various files organized and easy to locate, and the widgets are split into searchable categories based on their properties. There's even an auto-complete function for building text boxes.

The IDE features a Visual Design tool for building web and mobile apps, a code editor based on Monaco (the editor used in VS code), command line and visual interfaces to the Git version-control system, a version of Database Explorer, a Node.js debugger, an SQL interface to local data, and an NPM package installer for any workspace. The Hot Reloading feature causes code changes to an app to go live immediately. The Diff feature lets users automate comparing code lines in more than one version of an app and highlighting the changes.

Community features include the ability to share code and widgets via a single URL, the ability to add contributors to one's own space for collaboration, and built-in authentication features for developed apps. There are also thumbnails for showcasing app projects, the ability to share workspaces to social media with a single click, and public-permission controls that let each user determine who can access their work.

NodeRun can also generate stateful apps in which session handling is built-in, components can connect directly to a database without the developer having to write any code, and interfaces are easier to build, among other benefits. NodeRun also works with other client-side frameworks, such as React or Vue, should developers want to write their own custom session-handling and have a greater degree of control versus using prebuilt widgets. Stateful apps also let server-side code direct application flow, provide an automatic connection to a backend, and establish and track user sessions automatically without having to code those specific functions into an app. For greater simplicity, templates including interfaces to React and Vue are part of NodeRun's template library.

Another versatile feature is the ability to load JavaScript or CSS files only when a specific Rich Display screen is rendered at runtime. Developers can load more than one file per screen and external CSS files will automatically unload as soon as an app user navigates away from that screen.

NodeRun's integration with GitHub also enables developers to host an example app in NodeRun by linking to a GitHub repository. In fact, a developer could work on a project in both environments at once, pushing and pulling the changes back and forth, May points out.

A Learning Tool Aimed at Ease of Use

NodeRun is designed to provide a learning environment without requiring developers using it to know much of anything about what's under the covers with JavaScript and Node.js. As participants learn by experience and absorb comments from the NodeRun community on the built-in forums, they can branch out by experimenting with the varied range of tools and automation assistance the sandbox provides.

"It's just a simple integrated environment where if someone wanted to sit down and say, 'I just want to crank out some code really quick,' they could," May notes. "There's no setup involved, no worrying about creating a Node.js environment or making sure they have all the proper tools. Everything's preconfigured. All they have to do is create a Space and start coding."

Those interested in visual explanations of NodeRun can find short instructional videos on YouTube here.

John Ghrist

John Ghrist has been a journalist, programmer, and systems manager in the computer industry since 1982. He has covered the market for IBM i servers and their predecessor platforms for more than a quarter century and has attended more than 25 COMMON conferences. A former editor-in-chief with Defense Computing and a senior editor with SystemiNEWS, John has written and edited hundreds of articles and blogs for more than a dozen print and electronic publications. You can reach him at ghrist@comcast.net.

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