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What is Node.js? An Essential Tool for JavaScript Coders

What is Node.js? An Essential Tool for JavaScript Coders

 For both beginner and experienced JavaScript developers looking to improve their skills, finding an efficient and effective coding library is key. While there are several popular libraries available, one of the more popular JavaScript options available is Node.js.

But what is Node.js? How can it help you work more efficiently, effectively, and on more complicated projects? From understanding where JavaScript fits in, to learning why you should consider taking a class and familiarizing yourself with the Node.js framework, we’ve put together everything you need to know in this handy guide.

First, what is Node.js and how does JavaScript fit in?

Simply put, JavaScript is a specific coding language, and Node.js is a coding library that helps programmers use the language more cleanly and efficiently. 

Node.js and other coding libraries simplify the process of using JavaScript code specifically for complex or repetitive functions. Node.js allows developers to use JavaScript to write command line tools and server-side scripting. Running scripts server-side produces dynamic web page content before the page is sent to the user's web browser (and thus, before it is seen by the user).

Node.js was originally created in 2009 by Ryan Dahl in response to what he perceived as limitations of the then-popular Apache HTML script. He created Node.js to allow JavaScript programmers to expand functionality from simply adding dynamic features to web pages to a whole new range of features more in common with other complex languages like Python.

Node.js was designed to run as a standalone program, as opposed to directly out of a browser. Node.js can, therefore, be used to write server-side applications with access to the operating system, file system, and anything else required to build fully functional applications.

So what is Node.js used for specifically? How can I use it?

According to the Node homepage, Node “uses an event-driven, non-blocking I/O model.” This means that Node is optimized to handle asynchronous JavaScript activities, including reading and writing to the file system, handling connections to database servers, or handling requests as a web server.

The most useful application of Node.js is for real-time web applications, in contrast to the stateless applications that require the client to initiate communication and thus facilitate usage. Instead, Node.js plays a critical role for many major technology companies by allowing programmers to build fast, scalable network applications. This is possible largely because Node is capable of handling a huge number of simultaneous connections with high throughput, which allows for major scalability (an easy way to save time, money, and future development hours).

Likewise, Node is renowned for its included NPM “modules” - a set of publicly available, reusable components, available through quick and simple installation via an online database. These modules were designed (and are constantly updated and expanded) by experienced JavaScript developers and Node users. Modules (as they do for other languages) function as “shortcuts” -- pre-made processes and programs that allow you to shortcut around more complex coding to create dynamic processes without repetitive coding.

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In addition to the broad/general uses and functions of Node, here are just a few of the specific things you can do with it:

  • Chat - Because of the variety of connections and variables as well as the importance of user experience, Node.js is particularly well-designed for creating and maintaining chat rooms on websites for customer service, community, or other functions.
  • Queued Inputs - For companies and apps that manage large amounts of data, which can quickly bottleneck with less-streamlined processes, Node.js offers an elegant solution to avoid taxing a database.
  • Data Streaming - Node.js offers the ability to process files as they upload/download, which saves time (and is important for video or audio encoding).
  • Proxy Server - Node is easily usable as a server-side proxy that can handle a large amount of simultaneous connections in a non-blocking manner. This functionality is especially useful for proxying different services with different response times, or collecting data from multiple source points.
  • Application/System Monitoring Dashboards - Essential for any web business or app owner, Node.js offers solutions for analyzing real-time traffic and tracking visitor data. For companies attempting to compile this information for sales and targeting purposes, this is an invaluable tool.

So why should I learn Node.js?

Real-time web (and real-time web applications) are the norm. Node’s ability to optimize JavaScript specifically for this environment makes it highly demanded - and thus, offers plenty of opportunity for creative and professional opportunities.

Additionally, Node is also rapidly becoming a key part of the tech stacks of major companies around the world - companies that not only hire, but influence others looking for successful best practices to use on a smaller scale. As demand only continues to grow as a result of this process, Node.js is an invaluable library to add to your developer toolkit to make you an invaluable resource to work on real-time web applications.