Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The wonderful backbone.js

I recently gave a presentation on backbone.js at the Brighton meeting. During this talk I demonstrated how Backbone.js can be used to organise JavaScript code into manageable layers. It’s Models and Collections manage the storing and retrieving of data. Views provide a mechanism for arranging the UI in to manageable chunks. It also has an event bus which helps reduce coupling between functions. Altogether, backbone brings order to the often chaotic world of client side development.

For the demonstration, I made a shopping list application which is available on github. Included is a web service which is used to manage the shopping list. You will need to install node.js to run the web service.

A traditional view of MVC

When first looking at backbone, I was thinking of an MVC framework in terms of the ASP.Net implementation. Here, the framework does not impose anything upon the model. The model is full of classes to capture the state and the behaviour of the system. For my shopping list it would contain types for an item, the list class, the price of the item and the state of the item. All of these would have methods which capture the behaviour. This model consists of a lot of small classes working together to define the system.

The controller is responsible for incoming requests. It will then validate the request and process it. If it is a query it will gather the required data and return it. If it was a command it will find a handler and update the model.

When complete it will load the correct view passing in the state required to render it.

The view uses the passed in data to create the representation requested by the client. Typically this will be an HTML page. The view is where we think of the client running server based MVC framework. Mainly as this is where we put all the client JavaScript.

Breaking with tradition

In backbone.js, the model object is very simple. It does not model the behaviour of a system accurately in fact, there may only be one model object. Therefore, it is not a system for building fully featured domain models.

What it does is apply the MVC pattern to browser development. Models, collections and views work together to create a wall. A wall which keeps all the AJAX code for dealing with data on one side, and all the code for building and rendering DOM elements on the other side. Without this boundary it is easy for JavaScript applications to have the same function calling a web service and updating the DOM. Over time this will lead to a system which is hard to maintain. By making a very clear separation between persistence code and UI code, backbone.js helps us to write better JavaScript.

Coding the data side

The first thing I did to find out how backbone can help my development was to create a model and a collection and point it at my web service.

I created a model object to represent an item in my shopping list:

There are three things happening above:
  1. I have created a model called ShoppingItem. This is told to use the Products collection in the constructor. It is also given some default values to be used by new instances.
  2. Here I create the collection of shopping items. In this simple demo I only have to set the endpoint for my web service and set the model object for the collection.
  3. Finally, I create a new instance of the collection.

The page itself has no real content, just a title. By using the console window in Firebug I can create, edit and delete new items in my shopping list

Here I can create a new item and when the save method is called, backbone sends a POST request to the service, creating the item.

Running this code in the browser will show backbone first POSTing the new item to the service. Then issuing a PUT to update the State, and finally a DELETE with the Id to remove it. Internally backbone uses either jQuery or Zepto for communication.


In backbone, a Model has to belong to a collection, in fact, it is a rare application where a single entity exists in isolation. Here is the Collection for my shopping list:

A very simple collection, it is told what type of Model it holds, and the URL for the web service to persist the objects to. The model object will use this URL when communicating with the web service. Finally it has method called toobuy which returns a list of all items in the collection where the state is “To buy”.


In this post I have created a shopping list in JavaScript. There is enough code here to run the application from the browser console where I can create, update and delete items from my list.

This highlights one of the first advantages of using backbone.js. I have concentrated on how my application will interact with the service before creating any UI components.

Look at the backbone.js site for more information and a growing list of examples.

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