Engineering

The Benefits of Migrating from JavaScript to TypeScript

By | | 6 min read


Summary
Recently, we moved our Browser RUM agent from JavaScript to TypeScript. In my last post, I focused on walking through the steps of migrating from JavaScript, the challenges, and best practices we uncovered along the way.

Recently, we moved our Browser RUM agent from JavaScript to TypeScript. In my last post, I focused on walking through the steps of migrating from JavaScript, the challenges, and best practices we uncovered along the way.

This one will focus on more details of the benefits and one missing feature in TypeScript compiler we suggest to implement.

TypeScript’s main benefits:

  1. Class and Module Support
  2. Static Type-checking
  3. ES6 Feature Support
  4. Clear Library API Definition
  5. Build-in Support for JavaScript Packaging
  6. Syntax Similarity to Our Backend Languages (Java, Scala)
  7. Superset of JavaScript

Class and Module Support

Keywords like class, interface, extends and module are available in TypeScript.
You can define a class as

// class define in TypeScript
class VirtualPageTracker extends Tracker {
    private virtualPageName: string = '';
    constructor(name) {
        super(name);
    }

    getName(): void {
        return this.virtualPageName;
    }

    static getTrackerName(): string {
        return  'VirtualPageTracker';
    }
}

TypeScript compiler will transcompile it to

var __extends = (this && this.__extends) || function (d, b) {
    for (var p in b) if (b.hasOwnProperty(p)) d

= b

; function __() { this.constructor = d; } d.prototype = b === null ? Object.create(b) : (__.prototype = b.prototype, new __()); }; // class define in TypeScript var VirtualPageTracker = (function (_super) { __extends(VirtualPageTracker, _super); function VirtualPageTracker(name) { _super.call(this, name); this.virtualPageName = ''; } VirtualPageTracker.prototype.getName = function () { return this.virtualPageName; }; VirtualPageTracker.getTrackerName = function () { return 'VirtualPageTracker'; }; return VirtualPageTracker; })(Tracker);

Static Type-checking

TypeScript compiler will check the type (to surface more typing errors at compiling time)

var name: string;
name = 2; // type error, assign a number to a string type variable

function foo(value: number) {}
foo(''); // type error, use a number as a string type parameter

interface Bar {
    setName: (name: string) => void;
    getName: () => string;
}


var bar: Bar = {
    getName: function() {
        return 'myName';
    }
} // type error, setName function is missing in the object assigned to bar.

A practical example is if we use the wrong data type in the browser beacon, we now get compiling errors. Before migrating to Typescript, they could only be found by testing against the back-end.

ECMAScript 6 Feature Support

It is the current version of the ECMAScript Language Specification with more language features.
With TypeScript, you can start using many ES6 features although it may not be supported in your target browser. TypeScript compile can compile the ts files into “ES3”, “ES5” or “ES6”.

Some of the features are very handy like:

// for..of loops
var arr = ['a', 'b', 'c'];
for (let item of arr) {
    console.log(item);
}

It’s compiled to

// for..of loops
var arr = ['a', 'b', 'c'];
for (var _i = 0; _i < arr.length; _i++) {
    var item = arr[_i];
    console.log(item);
}

Refer to TypeScript ES6 Compatibility Table for more ES6 features you can use.

Clear API Definition

To let other TypeScript libraries use your library, you need to create a .d.ts file to declare all your public types and APIs of your library.
These definition files turned out to be clear and accurate references of your public APIs since they are always maintained and update-to-date because
you always need them if you write your tests in TypeScript too.

Refer to https://github.com/borisyankov/DefinitelyTyped for TypeScript definition files created for large amounts of JavaScript libraries.

Build-in Support for JavaScript Packaging

You can define one main entry ts file and refer all the ts files you need in the output js file.

Compiling the main entry ts file with the –out option, the compiler will concatenate all the directly or indirectly referred ts files into one js file in the order they are referred.

Thus, we can easily tailor our library into multiple versions.
For example, with the same code base, we are able to generate specific versions of browser agents for desktop and mobile respectively.
We just need to create one entry file for each version with different ts files referred in it.

Syntax Similarity to Our Backend Languages (Java, Scala)

We use Java and Scala at the back-end.
TypeScript’s similarity to these languages allows our developers can switch between front-end and back-end programming more smoothly.
Refer http://www.slideshare.net/razvanc/quick-typescript-vs-scala-sample for a quick syntax comparison between TypeScript and Scala.

Superset of JavaScript

As a superset of JavaScript, TypeScript has a smooth learning curve for JavaScript developers.
This means  you can adopt TypeScript in your existing JavaScript projects quickly in an less disruptive way than CoffeeScript or ClojureScript.

One Missing Feature Suggested

In addition to the benefit, we also found some missing features could be implemented.
One of them is to merge the same module into the same function rather than multiple functions.

module A {
    function foo() { }
}

module A {
    function bar() {
        foo();
    }
}

generates below code with compiling error “cannot find name ‘foo’”.

var A;
(function(A) {
    function foo() {}
})(A || (A = {}));
var A;
(function(A) {
    function bar() {
        foo();
    }
})(A || (A = {}));

foo function defined within the first anonymous function call for module A is not visible in the second anonymous function call, so you have to export it as:

module A {
    export function foo() {}
}

module A {
    function bar() {
        foo();
    }
}

generates below code without error:

var A;
(function(A) {
    function foo() {}
    A.foo = foo;
})(A || (A = {}));
var A;
(function(A) {
    function bar() {
        A.foo();
    }
})(A || (A = {}));

The problem here is now A.foo is not only visible to module A. Anyone can call it and modify it now.

There is no module level visible concept which should be similar to Java’s “package-private” when there is no modifier for Java classes or members.

This could be solved by generating:

module A {
    export function foo() {}
}

module A {
    function bar() {
        foo();
    }
}

to

var A;
(function (A) {
    function foo() { }
    A.foo = foo;
})(A || (A = {}));
var A;
(function (A) {
    function bar() {
        A.foo();
    }
})(A || (A = {}));

The problem of merging into one function is a potential name conflict between the same module in two files. But the compiler can report error in this case, and if two people are working independently on the same module in two files, it would be better to create two different sub modules. Merging into one function could be a feasible way support module level visibility.

As I write this article, I notice the /* @internal */ annotation in the ts compiler source code; it’s an experimental option released with typescript 1.5.0-alpha to strip the declarations marked as @internal.

It helps to only include the declarations without @internal (which serves as your external APIs) when generating the .d.ts file from your code. And if your consumer are using TypeScript too, this prevents it from using your internal members.

Generating the .d.ts file for:

module A {
    /* @internal */ export function internal() {}
    export function external() {}
}

by

tsc -d --stripInternal A.ts

will output

declare module A {
    function external(): void;
}

However, if your consumers uses JavaScript, they can still use the internal function.

Conclusion

By and large, it’s a pleasant and rewarding experience to move to TypeScript. Though it adds limitations on your JavaScript implementation, you can either find a good workaround or implement the benefits that outweigh it. Moreover, it’s an active open source project (about 200 commits to master in last month) with well documentation to help you start easily. And just in March this year, Google also announced they would replace AtScript with TypeScript. Angular 2 is now built with TypeScript too. So far, the move to TypeScript has proved beneficial.