On Third-Party Javascript - The Principles

Posted by Gergely Nemeth

17 December 2015

Note: this is a guest post by RisingStack co-founder Gergely Nemeth

Third-party JavaScript is a pattern of JavaScript programming that enables the creation of highly distributable web applications. Unlike regular web applications, which are accessed at a single web address, these applications can be arbitrarily loaded on any web page using simple JavaScript includes. — Ben Vinegar, Anton Kovalyov (Third-party Javascript)

Google Analytics, Mixpanel, Disqus – just to name a few products that heavily rely on third-party JavaScript development In this post we are going to take a look on the principles of third-party JavaScript development – in Part II we will take a look on how other companies do it in details.

Principles of developing third-party JavaScript

Before going into the details on how the big players out there do this, let’s take a look at the key points that you should pay attention to.

Injecting third-party JavaScript

Traditionally, JavaScript resources can be inserted into a webpage with the following snippet:

We have to do something very similar when integrating into different web applications. For this you can provide the following snippet to your clients:

What just happened here? Firstly, we created a new ‘script’ HTML element, then started to decorate it with attributes. This snippet should be placed at the end of the ‘body’ tag.

The most important thing to notice here is the async attribute. Imagine the following scenario: your service gets a huge amount of traffic, and it becomes slow. If the loading of your script does not happen asynchronously, you can block the entire webpage. By setting its value to true we make sure that we will not block the loading of any other resources on the page.

But what should this file contain? Your entire application, or something different? The distribution part will try to answer this question.

The sacred global scope

When writing third-party JavaScript you do not know where your library will be used. It will be injected into the unknown, and that unknown sometimes will be Mordor itself, with other third-party libs already there.

Be a good guy, do not pollute the global scope even more.

Dependencies

As we have already discussed, your script will be injected into the unknown. This means, that it is very likely that libraries like jQuery, Backbone or Lodash/Underscore will be present in the page.

Be careful! You should never depend on these things, the developers of that site will not reach out to you and ask, if you are still using that thing. Even worse, they can use different versions of those libraries. So once again: never ever use them.

But what should you do instead? You have to bundle all your dependencies into your JavaScript file(s). Make sure, that thes do not interfere with the original ones (a.k.a. noConflict). To solve this problem Browserify/Webpack can be a good choice – they can help isolate your dependencies from the dependencies of the orignal site with scoping.

Also, lots of front end libraries can be found on NPM and used with Browserify. (e.g. you can use jQuery this way without putting it into the global scope, or even worse, overwritting the one used by the site you are injected into).

Communication with a server

When developing third-party JavaScript, communication with the back end servers is not trivial.

XMLHttpRequest cannot load
http://example.org/apple. Origin
https://example.com is not allowed by Access-Control-Allow-Origin.

Have you ever encountered this error message? It happened because the remote server refused to serve our request.

Enable CORS (Cross-Origin Resource Sharing)

The easiest way to do is to set the following headers in the response of the server:

Access-Control-Allow-Origin: *

Sure, you may want to limit who can reach your services – you can add domains instead of the asterisk.

The only thing you have to keep in mind when using CORS is the legacy support (if you have to deal with that). Internet Explorer browsers (8 and 9) does not have full CORS support:

To support these browsers you have to implement HTTP Method Overriding on both the client and the server. How does that work? It extracts the intended HTTP method from the method querystring/parameter, then handle the actual request as it was a DELETE, PUT, etc…

Luckily, for the common frameworks like Express and Koa you can find solutions on NPM (for Express, for Koa).

Identifying users

Users can be identified using cookies. They can be used in third-party JavaScript development as well, but we have to introduce two new definitions.

First-party cookie

First-party cookies are the “traditional” cookies. They are called first-party cookies because these cookies are placed on the same domain where the JavaScript code runs. Your partners will also see these cookies in their traffic.

Third-party cookie

Third-party cookies are called third-party, because they are placed on a different domain. Imagine the following scenario: your script is injected into examplestore.com. You may want to track your users using your own domain, whatanicewidget.com. In that case you will put a cookie on whatanicewidget.com.

What are the benefits of using a third-party cookie? You can recognise users from niceexamplestore.com, whatastooore.com not just from examplestore.com, because when making requests to your domain you will have the very same cookie.

When implementing an identifying mechanism for your application do not forget, that third-party cookies are not supported everywhere. Because of this reason you have to implement a fallback for the first-party cookie version.

LocalStorage

This is the trickiest one. You can use localStorage (if available in the browser) to identify users. But be aware: the same-origin policy applies to localStorage as well, so visiting the same site using HTTP and HTTPS will result in different localStorage contents.

So how does localStorage help you? In short: you can use window.postMessage to send messages between windows. So what you have to do is to include an external webpage into your site using an iframe (using HTTPS), then communicate with it – that window will contain the localstorage, that will be the same, no matter from where the user visits that. A sample implementation can be found here: https://github.com/zendesk/cross-storage:https://github.com/zendesk/cross-storage.

Distributing

When serving third-party JavaScript applications the size of it and the cache policy are crucial, as both not just affect the time your users have to wait to see the application, but also your monthly bills. CDNs charge based on traffic (in GBs, TBs) and the number of requests.

Hopefully this will not strike you as a suprise: always uglify/minify your JavaScript/CSS resources.

What what about caching? If you set the max-age to a big number, then pushing out new versions may take a lot of time to progate to all the clients. If you set it to a small value, then the clients will frequently download it. We can do better!

Let’s split up your application into two seperate JavaScript files! For the sake of simplicity call them loader.js and application.js.

The loader will be a really small file, basically what we created before, with a small exception: we include a revision number when loading the application.js file.

So in this case your users have to load loader.js file to their site, which will then load the application.js, containing all the application logic. But why to do this? For the loader file we can set a small cache time, like an hour – it does not matter if this will be downloaded a lot, because it will not be bigger than 1KB. For the application itself we can set the cache time to eternity, it will be downloaded only once.

splitting-third-party-js-apps
Splitting third-party javascript applications

This post previously pubished at RisingStack’s blog.


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