Ember Without Data

Disclaimer

This post assumes an entry-level familiarity with Ember and its conventions. If you’ve yet to use Ember there are a few other resources worth checking out first.

If you’re already familiar with Ember, Ember-Data and the conversation surrounding both, then all this will probably be old news.

Otherwise, read on…


Ember has crystalised into v1 maturity. Ember-Data, however, is not yet production-ready and has become a point of contention within the community. When it all works, it’s like magic. When it doesn’t, it’s hard to know where to start debugging.

Much of the complaint and confusion so far have stemmed from a misconception that Ember-Data is part of Ember core and therefore Ember can’t be used without it. The team have been working hard to dispel this perception and demonstrate Ember’s power without Data.

Most apps will need a data-layer at some point though, and it’s undeniable that Ember works best in conjunction with Data. Let’s qualify that statement a little though — in reference to a framework like Ember, when we say ‘works best’ we really mean ‘does as much work for us as possible’.

With this in mind, let’s work out how we can get Ember to do this work for us without depending on Ember-Data.


Don’t Fear The Router

Ember’s Router is the heart of any app. Follow its conventions and the Router will handle almost all of your glue code for you. This includes fetching your models.

When we create a resourceful-route for one of our models…

App.Router.map(function() {
  this.resource('record', { path: '/records/:record_id' });
});

Ember knows that the model for that route can be found by calling:

App.Record.find(params.record_id);

In order to recreate this interface, we need to define App.Record.find in such a way that it returns the right model object.

App.Record = Ember.Object.extend();

App.Record.find = function(id) {
  return App.Record.DATA.findProperty('id', id);
}

App.Record.DATA = [
  App.Record.create({ id: 1, name: 'My First Record' }),
  App.Record.create({ id: 2, name: 'My Second Record' })
]

What happens when we want to add a route that displays all records?

App.Router.map(function() {
  this.resource('records', function() {
    this.resource('record', { path: ':record_id' });
  });
});

For reasons that are not immediately clear, Ember does not automatically handle fetching multiple models. Nevertheless, the convention is:

App.RecordsRoute = Ember.Route.extend({
  model: function() {
    return App.Record.find();
  }
});

So we need to make our find method return an array-like collection of models if no id argument is passed.

App.Record.find = function(id) {
  if (Ember.isNone(id)) {
    return App.Record.DATA;
  } else {
    return App.Record.DATA.findProperty('id', id);
  }
});

With this in place, our app is now wired up to display all records in App.Record.DATA, and fetch a particular record by id.


The Real World

A static set of records is only going to be useful for a while. Pretty soon, we’re going to want to fetch data from an external source. It’s up to us when we perform the request, so let’s do it right after our simple store is defined.

App.Record.DATA = [];

$.getJSON('/api/records.json').then(function(records) {
  records.forEach(function(record) {
    App.Record.DATA.addObject(App.Record.create(record));
  });
});

This works nicely for our records route. When App.Record.DATA changes, bindings ensure that the rendered content updates accordingly. It does not work out so well for our singular record. Let’s have a look what happens when we arrive directly at that route:

Singular record problem

We see that when the app transitions into the /records/1 route before the data has loaded, record with id ‘1’ is nowhere to be found. At some later stage, our ajax request will receive a response and the data will arrive. In fact, we could get lucky and the request could complete before we get to our route. More likely than not though, it’ll arrive at the wrong time.

It’s time to borrow another concept from Ember-Data: object materialization. Also known as object hydration, this is the process of returning a stand-in value object from the data store that will, at some later stage, be ‘hydrated’ with its real data. At which point, Ember’s bindings will ensure the page updates accordingly.

This pattern is not unique to Ember-Data. A quick Google will show many implementations across different languages and libraries. Nonetheless, it’s extremely powerful. Let’s have a look about how our app might flow with this in place.

Singular record with materialization

Note that a new collaborator has appeared, labelled ?. Arguably, we could hide all this behaviour in App.Record, but let’s not over-burden that class. Instead, let’s borrow yet another concept, the Store.

Ember’s docs describe DS.Store as a bookkeeping object. For our purposes, it’s main jobs are:

Let’s call our implementation RecordStore:

App.RecordStore = Ember.Object.extend({
  idMap: {},
  hydratedObjects: [],

  init: function() {
    this._super();
    this._fetch();
  },

  find: function(id) {
    return this._objectFor(id);
  },

  all: function() {
    return this.get('hydratedObjects');
  },

  _objectFor: function(id) {
    var idMap = this.get('idMap');

    return idMap[id] = idMap[id] ||
                       App.Record.create({ id: id });
  },

  _fetch: function() {
    var self = this;

    $.getJSON('/api/records.json').then(function(data) {
      data.records.forEach(function(record) {
        self._hydrateObject(record.id, record);
      });
    });
  },

  _hydrateObject: function(id, properties) {
    var object = this._objectFor(id);
    object.setProperties(properties);
    object.set('isLoaded', true);
    this.get('hydratedObjects').addObject(object);
  }

});

Let’s adjust our App.Record.find implementation accordingly:

App.Record.find = function(id) {
  if (Ember.isNone(id)) {
    return App.Record.store.all();
  } else {
    return App.Record.store.find(id);
  }
}

Initializers

James Croft pointed out that Ember’s initializers are the ideal way to instantiate our RecordStore singleton.

App.initializer({
  name: 'store',
  initialize: function() {
    App.Record.store = App.RecordStore.create();
  }
});

These act very much like Rails’ initializers, and ensure that pieces of setup code get executed at the most appropriate moment during Ember’s boot process.


In Conclusion

Ember-Data may not be the best fit for every application, but its interface and design are full of strong patterns which can be re-appropriated and put to work in our apps.

This is why making the time to play with ambitious libraries like these is so important. You may not end up actually using them, but you’ll almost certainly come away with new ideas about how to structure and design your code.

I’ve created a little app to demonstrate everything I’ve mentioned here using a Google spreadsheet as the source dataset:

Ember Without Data (A Demo App)


Thanks to Tom Marhsall and James Croft for valuable feedback.

Also thanks to Web Sequence Diagrams for their awesome tool and Sandi Metz for recommending it and being generally awesome too.