Diving into Node.js – Introduction & Installation

Why I Need Something Like Node.js?

First of all the use of some software is needed not because of itself, but because of the need of some specific functionality. In my case this was the need of real time news feed. Of course there is a way to make this without Node.js, as I’ll describe later in this post, but there are several disadvantages. However to begin from somewhere, let me explain what is Node.js.

Introducing Node.js

Perhaps the best way do describe what is Node.js is from its about page.

Node’s goal is to provide an easy way to build scalable network programs. In the “hello world” web server example above, many client connections can be handled concurrently. Node tells the operating system (through epoll, kqueue, /dev/poll, or select) that it should be notified when a new connection is made, and then it goes to sleep. If someone new connects, then it executes the callback. Each connection is only a small heap allocation.

In general Node is a program using the Google Chrome’s V8 JavaScript engine, which in turn is a program that can parse and execute code written in JavaScript. V8 is a very very interesting project itself. First of all from Google have developed this engine especially for one of his products – their browser Chrome. It pretends to be and by no means is one of the masterpieces of Google. It is fast and reliable engine, written in C++ and JavaScript, as Wikipedia’s page says. Actually this code is open source and can be embedded in whatever application written in C++. Thus you can have in your application a JavaScript engine.

Such kind of application/server is Node.js. With V8 embedded into, Node is intended to run on a machine and to serve some requests. Just like a normal web server, but with few differences. First of all Node is not only serving HTTP requests, but also TCP. Well I’m not so deep into this yet, but so far that works for me. What I need for now is its web serving functionality.

The way Node works, however is different from what we know from every other web server. Here it is a normal server in general:

Client Server

Whenever a request comes to the server, it tries to return the response as fast as possible. This is one of the main goals of every web developer team – to make the application as fast as possible. However in Node the things work different:

Node.js Client Server Application

Here the server doesn’t return immediately the response, but holds as long as possible until some “event” occurs. You can thing of Node as a classical chat server. Until one of the peers doesn’t write a message, the other doesn’t receive anything.

Some may be confused as how you can use both the typical web server, as Apache, with Node as another web server within the same page. The answer is – with AJAX. As you know thus you can have only one chunk of your page talking with the server – in this case the entire page is returned by Apache, but inside the page you can have a chat app using Node as a server, working perhaps on a different port on the same machine.

Typically this scenario can be simulated without Node, but as I said, with some disadvantages. Let’s say you have two browsers and one server – you can infinitely loop AJAX calls to the server and whenever there is new message on the server return it to the browser – this is quite inefficient. There are two approaches in this case.

  1. You can make those AJAX calls too recently and you can have a call every N seconds. In that case if N is to short you’ll have too many calls and in case the other peer doesn’t make anything the server will be unusually loaded with no practical effect.
  2. In the second case you can choose to make N too long – for instance 20 seconds. This is also bad, because during this period of time the peers may want to interact and chat.

In that case Node is a web server, but simply doesn’t return the response until a specific event doesn’t occur. How does this look like in a web browser. You may know how looking into the Firebug console for every AJAX call you see the request and how many seconds it has taken. If you make an AJAX call to a Node server app the request just doesn’t respond immediately.

Installing Node.js

The process of installation is described quite well, so I’m going to describe it in few steps.

  1. Download the application from Git, note that V8 is embedded inside. The version while this post was written and of course was stable is v0.2.4
  2. For those familiar with Unix/Linux systems, there are three simple steps following, however without GCC (Gnu Compiler Collection) you wont be able to proceed! I’m writing this especially for the Mac OS users, as they may know there is no built-in GCC there.
  3. ./configure
  4. make
  5. make install
  6. make test (optional)

This in general is enough. After all that you can write the node command in your terminal. However if there are some problems while compiling it you may refer to Git and the Node community for more help. Don’t forget that V8 can work only on x86, x64 and ARM architectures.

Summary

There are few things that can be summarized now:

  1. First of all Node can be a web server, as Apache is, but with the option to respond on event firing.
  2. You can request it either with a web page loaded in your browser or within a chunk of the page via AJAX.
  3. To install Node you need GCC. It comes with V8 JavaScript engine inside, which can run only on x86, x64 and ARM.

So far so good! Now we have Node installed, practically useless, because there is no application running on it. In my next post I’ll describe how to run your first application.

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