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Derived Values, Flowing

This, milord, is my family's axe. We have owned it for almost nine hundred years, see. Of course, sometimes it needed a new blade. And sometimes it has required a new handle, new designs on the metalwork, a little refreshing of the ornamentation ... but is this not the nine hundred-year-old axe of my family? And because it has changed gently over time, it is still a pretty good axe, y'know. Pretty good.

-- Terry Pratchett, The Fifth Elephant
    reflecting on identity, flow and derived values

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re-frame

re-frame is a pattern for writing SPAs in ClojureScript, using Reagent.

McCoy might report "It's MVC, Jim, but not as we know it". And you would respond "McCoy, you trouble maker, why even mention an OO pattern? re-frame is a functional framework."

Being a functional framework, it is about data, and the functions which transform that data.

Why Should You Care?

Perhaps:

  1. You want to develop an SPA in ClojureScript, and you are looking for a framework.
  2. You believe Facebook did something magnificent when it created React, and you are curious about the further implications. Is the combination of reactive programming, functional programming and immutable data going to completely change everything? And, if so, what would that look like in a language that embraces those paradigms?
  3. You're taking a Functional Design and Programming course at San Diego State University and you have a re-frame/reagent assignment due. You've left the reading a bit late, right?
  4. You know Redux, Elm, Cycle.js or Pux and you're interested in a ClojureScript implementation. In this space, re-frame is very old, hopefully in a Gandalf kind of way. First designed in Dec 2014, it even slightly pre-dates the official Elm Architecture, although thankfully we were influenced by early-Elm concepts like foldp and lift, as well as Clojure projects like Pedestal App, Om and Hoplon. Since then, re-frame has pioneered ideas like event handler middleware, coeffect accretion, and de-duplicated signal graphs.
  5. Which brings us to the most important point: re-frame is impressively buzzword compliant. It has reactivity, unidirectional data flow, pristinely pure functions, interceptors, coeffects, conveyor belts, statechart-friendliness (FSM) and claims an immaculate hammock conception. It also has a charming xkcd reference (soon) and a hilarious, insiders-joke T-shirt, ideal for conferences (in design). What could possibly go wrong?

It Leverages Data

You might already know that ClojureScript is a modern Lisp, and that Lisps are homoiconic. If not, you do now.

This homoiconic bit is significant. It means you program in a Lisp by creating and assembling Lisp data structures. Dwell on that for a moment. You are programming in data. The functions which later transform data, themselves start as data.

Clojure programmers place particular emphasis on the primacy of data, and they like to meditate on aphorisms like data is the ultimate in late binding. (Less productively, they also like re-watching Rich Hickey videos, and wishing their hair was darker and more curly)

I cannot stress enough what a big deal this is. It may seem like a syntax curiosity at first but, when the penny drops for you on this, it tends to be a profound moment. And once you understand the importance of this concept at the language level, you naturally want to leverage similar power at the library and system levels.

So, it will come as no surprise, then, to know that re-frame has a data oriented design. Events are data. Effects are data. DOM is data. The functions which transform data are registered and looked up via data. Interceptors (data) are preferred over middleware (higher order functions). Etc.

Data - that's the way we roll.

It is a loop

Architecturally, re-frame implements "a perpetual loop".

To build an app, you hang pure functions on certain parts of this loop, and re-frame looks after the conveyance of data around the loop, into and out of the transforming functions you provide - hence a tag line of "Derived Values, Flowing".

It does Physics

Remember this diagram from school? The water cycle, right?

Two distinct stages, involving water in different phases, being acted upon by different forces: gravity working one way, evaporation/convection the other.

To understand re-frame, imagine data flowing around that loop instead of water.

re-frame provides the conveyance of the data around the loop - the equivalent of gravity, evaporation and convection. You design what's flowing and then you hang functions off the loop at various points to compute the data's phase changes.

Sure, right now, you're thinking "lazy sod - make a proper Computer Science-y diagram". But, no. Joe Armstrong says "don't break the laws of physics" - I'm sure you've seen the videos - and if he says to do something, you do it (unless Rich Hickey disagrees, and says to do something else). So, this diagram, apart from being a plausible analogy which might help you to understand re-frame, is practically proof it does physics.

It is a 6-domino cascade

Computationally, each iteration of the loop involves a six domino cascade.

One domino triggers the next, which triggers the next, et cetera, boom, boom, boom, until we are back at the beginning of the loop, and the dominoes spring to attention again, ready for the next iteration of the same cascade.

The six dominoes are:

  1. Event dispatch
  2. Event handling
  3. Effect handling
  4. Query
  5. View
  6. DOM

1st Domino - Event Dispatch

An event is sent when something happens - the user clicks a button, or a websocket receives a new message.

Without the impulse of a triggering event, no six domino cascade occurs. It is only because of events that a re-frame app is propelled, loop iteration after loop iteration, from one state to the next.

re-frame is event driven.

2nd Domino - Event Handling

In response to an event, an application must decide what action to take. This is known as event handling.

Event handler functions compute side effects (known in re-frame simply as effects). More accurately, they compute a description of effects. This description is a data structure which says, declaratively, how the world should change (because of the event).

Much of the time, only the "application state" of the SPA itself need change, but sometimes the outside world must also be affected (localstore, cookies, databases, emails, logs, etc).

3rd Domino - Effect Handling

The descriptions of effects are realised (actioned).

Now, to a functional programmer, effects are scary in a xenomorph kind of way. Nothing messes with functional purity quite like the need for side effects. On the other hand, effects are marvelous because they move the app forward. Without them, an app stays stuck in one state forever, never achieving anything.

So re-frame embraces the protagonist nature of effects - the entire, unruly zoo of them - but it does so in a controlled and largely hidden way, and in a manner which is debuggable, auditable, mockable and pluggable.

We're Now At A Pivot Point

Domino 3 just changed the world and, very often, one particular part of it: the application state.

re-frame's app state is held in one place - think of it like you would an in-memory, central database for the app (details later).

Any changes to app state trigger the next part of the cascade involving dominoes 4-5-6.

There's a Formula For It

The 4-5-6 domino cascade implements the formula made famous by Facebook's ground-breaking React library:
v = f(s)

A view, v, is a function, f, of the app state, s.

Said another way, there are functions f that compute which DOM nodes, v, should be displayed to the user when the application is in a given app state, s.

Or, to capture the dynamics we'd say: over time, as s changes, f will be re-run each time to compute new v, forever keeping v up to date with the current s.

Or, with yet another emphasis: over time what is presented to the user changes in response to application state changes.

In our case, domino 3 changes s, the application state, and, in response, dominoes 4-5-6 are concerned with re-running f to compute the new v shown to the user.

Except, of course, there are nuances. For instance, there's no single f to run. There may be many functions which collectively build the overall DOM, and only part of s may change at any one time, so only part of the v (DOM) need be re-computed and updated. And some parts of v might not be showing right now.

Domino 4 - Query

Domino 4 is about extracting data from "app state", and providing it in the right format for view functions (which are Domino 5).

Domino 4 is a novel and efficient de-duplicated signal graph which runs query functions on the app state, s, efficiently computing reactive, multi-layered, "materialised views" of s.

(Relax about any unfamiliar terminology, you'll soon see how simple the code actually is)

Domino 5 - View

Domino 5 is one or more view functions (aka Reagent components) that compute the UI DOM that should be displayed to the user.

To render the right UI, they need to source application state, which is delivered reactively via the queries of Domino 4. They compute hiccup-formatted data, which is a description of the DOM required.

Domino 6 - DOM

You don't write Domino 6 - it is handled for you by Reagent/React. I mention it here for completeness and to fully close the loop.

This is the step in which the hiccup-formatted "descriptions of required DOM", returned by the view functions of Domino 5, are made real. The browser DOM nodes are mutated.

Managing mutation

The two sub-cascades 1-2-3 and 4-5-6 have a similar structure.

In each, it is the second to last domino which computes "data descriptions" of mutations required, and it is the last domino which does the dirty work and realises these descriptions.

In both cases, you don't need to worry yourself about this dirty work. re-frame looks after those dominoes.

A Cascade Of Simple Functions

You'll (mostly) be writing pure functions which can be described, understood and tested independently. They take data, transform it and return new data.

The loop itself is mechanical and predictable in operation. So, there's a regularity to how a re-frame app goes about its business, which leads, in turn, to an ease in reasoning and debugging.

The Dominoes Again - With Code Fragments

So that was the view of re-frame from 60,000 feet. We'll now shift down to 30,000 feet and look again at each domino, but this time with code fragments.

Imagine: we're working on a SPA which displays a list of items. You have just clicked the "delete" button next to the 3rd item in the list.

In response, what happens within this imaginary re-frame app? Here's a sketch of the six domino cascade:

Don't expect to completely grok the terse code presented below. We're still at 30,000 feet. Details later.

Code For Domino 1

The delete button for that 3rd item will be rendered by a ViewFunction which looks like this:

(defn delete-button 
  [item-id]
  [:div.garbage-bin 
     :on-click #(re-frame.core/dispatch [:delete-item item-id])])

That on-click handler uses re-frame's dispatch to emit an event.

A re-frame event is a vector and, in this case, it has 2 elements: [:delete-item 2486] (where 2486 is the made-up id for that 3rd item).

The first element of an event vector, :delete-item, is the kind of event. The rest is optional, useful data about the event.

Events express intent in a domain specific way. They are the language of your re-frame system.

Code For Domino 2

An event handler (function), called say h, is called to compute the effect of the event [:delete-item 2486].

On app startup, re-frame.core/reg-event-fx would have been used to register this h as the handler for :delete-item events, like this:

(re-frame.core/reg-event-fx   ;; a part of the re-frame API
  :delete-item                ;; the kind of event
  h)                          ;; the handler function for this kind of event

h is written to take two arguments:

  1. a coeffects map which contains the current state of the world (including app state)
  2. the event to handle

It is the job of h to compute how the world should be changed by the event, and it returns a map of effects - a description of those changes.

Here's a sketch (we are at 30,000 feet):

(defn h                               ;; maybe choose a better name like `delete-item`
 [coeffects event]                    ;; `coeffects` holds the current state of the world.  
 (let [item-id (second event)         ;; extract id from event vector
       db      (:db coeffects)]       ;; extract the current application state
   {:db  (dissoc-in db [:items item-id])})) ;; effect is "change app state to ..."

re-frame has ways (described in later tutorials) to inject necessary aspects of the world into that first coeffects argument (map). Different event handlers need different "things" to get their job done. But current "application state" is one aspect of the world which is invariably needed, and it is available by default in the :db key.

BTW, here is a more idiomatic rewrite of h which uses destructuring of the args:

(defn h 
  [{:keys [db]} [_ item-id]]    ;; <--- new: obtain db and id directly
  {:db  (dissoc-in db [:items item-id])}) ;; same as before

Code For Domino 3

An effect handler (function) actions the effects returned by h.

Here's what h returned:

{:db  (dissoc-in db [:items 2486])}   ;; db is a map of some structure

Each key of the map identifies one kind of effect, and the value for that key supplies further details. The map returned by h only has one key, so there's only one effect.

A key of :db means to update the app state with the key's value.

This update of "app state" is a mutative step, facilitated by re-frame which has a built-in effects handler for the :db effect.

Why the name :db? Well, re-frame sees "app state" as something of an in-memory database. More on this in a following tutorial.

Just to be clear, if h had returned:

{:wear  {:pants "velour flares"  :belt false}
 :tweet "Okay, yes, I am Satoshi. #coverblown"}

Then, the two effects handlers registered for :wear and :tweet would be called to action those two effects. And, no, re-frame does not supply standard effect handlers for either, so you would have had to have written them yourself (see how in a later tutorial).

Code For Domino 4

We now start the v = f(s) part of the flow.

The application state s has just changed (via Domino 3) and now boom, boom go Dominoes 4, 5, and 6, at the end of which we have a new view, v, being shown to the user.

In this domino 4, a query (function) over this app state is automatically called. This query function "extracts" data from application state, and then computes "a materialised view" of the application state - producing data which is useful to the view functions of domino, 5.

Now, in this particular case, the query function is pretty trivial. Because the items are stored in app state, there's not a lot to compute and, instead, it acts strictly like an extractor or accessor, just plucking the list of items out of application state:

(defn query-fn
  [db v]         ;; db is current app state, v the query vector
  (:items db))   ;; not much of a materialised view

On program startup, such a query-fn must be associated with a query-id, (so it can be used via subscribe in domino 5) using re-frame.core/reg-sub, like this:

(re-frame.core/reg-sub  ;; part of the re-frame API
   :query-items         ;; query id  
   query-fn)            ;; query fn

Which says "if, in domino 5, you see a (subscribe [:query-items]), then use query-fn to compute it".

Code For Domino 5

Because the query function for :query-items just re-computed a new value, any view (function) which uses a (subscribe [:query-items]) is called automatically (reactively) to re-compute new DOM.

View functions compute a data structure, in hiccup format, describing the DOM nodes required. In this "items" case, the view functions will not be generating hiccup for the just-deleted item obviously but, other than this, the hiccup computed "this time" will be the same as "last time".

(defn items-view
  []
  (let [items  (subscribe [:query-items])]  ;; source items from app state
    [:div (map item-render @items)]))   ;; assume item-render already written

Notice how items is "sourced" from "app state" via re-frame.core/subscribe. It is called with a vector argument, and the first element of that vector is a query-id which identifies the "materialised view" required by the view.

Note: subscribe queries can be parameterised. So, in real world apps you might have this:
(subscribe [:items "blue"])

The vector identifies, first, the query, and then supplies further arguments. You could think of that as representing select * from Items where colour="blue".

Except there's no SQL available and you would be the one to implement the more sophisticated query-fn capable of handling the "where" argument. More in later tutorials.

Code For Domino 6

The hiccup returned by the view function is made into real browser DOM by Reagent/React. No code from you required. Just happens.

The DOM computed "this time" will be the same as "last time", except for the absence of DOM for the deleted item, so the mutation will be to remove those now-missing DOM nodes from the browser.

3-4-5-6 Summary

The key point to understand about our 3-4-5-6 example is:

  • a change to app state ...
  • triggers query functions to rerun ...
  • which triggers view functions to rerun
  • which causes modified browser DOM

Boom, boom, boom go the dominoes. It is a reactive data flow.

Aaaaand we're done

At this point, the re-frame app returns to a quiescent state, waiting for the next event.

So, your job is ...

When building a re-frame app, you:

  • design your app's information model (data and schema layer)
  • write and register event handler functions (control and transition layer) (domino 2)
  • (once in a blue moon) write and register effect and coeffect handler functions (domino 3) which do the mutative dirty work of which we dare not speak.
  • write and register query functions which implement nodes in a signal graph (query layer) (domino 4)
  • write Reagent view functions (view layer) (domino 5)

re-frame is mature and proven in the large

re-frame was released in early 2015, and has since been successfully used by quite a few companies and individuals to build complex apps, many running beyond 40K lines of ClojureScript.

Scale changes everything. Frameworks are just pesky overhead at small scale - measure them instead by how they help you tame the complexity of bigger apps, and in this regard re-frame has worked out well. Some have been effusive in their praise.

Having said that, re-frame remains a work in progress and it falls short in a couple of ways - for example it doesn't work as well as we'd like with devcards, because it is a framework, rather than a library. We're still puzzling over some aspects and tweaking as we go. All designs represent a point in the possible design space, with pros and cons.

And, yes, re-frame is fast, straight out of the box. And, yes, it has a good testing story (unit and behavioural). And, yes, it works with figwheel to create a powerful hot-loading development story. And, yes, it has fun specialist tooling, and a community, and useful 3rd party libraries.

Where Do I Go Next?

At this point, you know 50% of re-frame. The full docs are here.

There are two example apps to play with:
https://github.com/Day8/re-frame/tree/master/examples

Use a template to create your own project:
Client only: https://github.com/Day8/re-frame-template
Full Stack: http://www.luminusweb.net/

And please be sure to review these further resources:
https://github.com/Day8/re-frame/blob/master/docs/External-Resources.md

T-Shirt Unlocked

Good news. If you've read this far, your insiders T-shirt will be arriving soon - it will feature turtles, xkcd and something about "data all the way down". But we're still working on the hilarious caption bit. Open a repo issue with a suggestion.

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