The Little Book on CoffeeScript

Creating Applications

Now you've been given an overview of the syntax, lets explore actually structuring and creating CoffeeScript applications. This section aims to be useful to all CoffeeScript developers, novice or advanced. Indeed, it should be relevant to pure JavaScript developers too.

For some reason, when developers are building client side JavaScript applications, tried and tested patterns and conventions often fly out the window, and the end result is a spaghetti mess of un-maintainable coupled JavaScript. I can't stress enough how important application architecture is; if you're writing any JavaScript/CoffeeScript beyond simple form validation you should implement a form of application structure, such as MVC.

The secret to building maintainable large applications is not to build large applications. In other words, build a series of modular de-coupled components. Keep application logic as generic as possible, abstracting it out as appropriate. Lastly separate out your logic into views, models and controllers (MVC). Implementing MVC is beyond the scope of this chapter, for that I recommend you check out my book on JavaScript Web Applications and use a framework like Backbone or Spine. Rather than that, here we're going to cover structuring applications using CommonJS modules.

Structure & CommonJS

So what exactly are CommonJS modules? Well, If you've used NodeJS before you've used CommonJS modules, probably without realizing it. CommonJS modules were initially developed for writing server side JavaScript libraries, in an attempt to deal with loading, namespacing and scoping issues. They were a common format that would be compatible across all JavaScript implementations. The aim was that a library written for Rhino would work for Node. Eventually these ideas transitioned back to browsers, and now we have great libraries like RequireJS and Yabble to use modules client-side.

Practically speaking, modules ensure that your code is run in a local namespace (code encapsulation), that you can load other modules with the require() function, and expose module properties via module.exports. Let's dive into that in a bit more depth now.

Requiring files

You can load in other modules and libraries using require(). Simply pass a module name and, if it's in the load path, it'll return an object representing that module. For example:

User = require("models/user")

Synchronous require support is a contentious issue, but has mostly been resolved with the mainstream loader libraries and latest CommonJS proposals. It may be something you'll have to look into if you decided to take a separate route than the one I'm advocating with Stitch below.

Exporting properties

By default, modules don't expose any properties so their contents are completely invisible to require() calls. If you want a particular property to be accessible from your module, you'll need to set it on module.exports:

# random_module.js
module.exports.myFineProperty = ->
  # Some shizzle

Now, whenever this module is required then myFineProperty will be exposed:

myFineProperty = require("random_module").myFineProperty

Stitch it up

Formatting your code as CommonJS modules is all fine and dandy, but how do you actually get this working on the client in practice? Well, my method of choice is the rather unheard of Stitch library. Stitch is by Sam Stephenson, the mind behind Prototype.js amongst other things, and solves the module problem so elegantly it makes me want to dance for joy! Rather than try and dynamically resolve dependencies, Stitch simply bundles up all your JavaScript files into one, wrapping them in some CommonJS magic. Oh, and did I mention it'll compile your CoffeeScript, JS templates, LESS CSS and Sass files too!

First things first, you'll need to install Node.js and npm if you haven't already, we'll be using those throughout this chapter.

Now let's create our application structure. If you're using Spine, you can automate this with Spine.App, otherwise it's something you'll need to do manually. I usually have an app folder for all the application specific code, and a lib folder for general libraries. Then anything else, including static assets, goes in the public directory.


Now to actually boot up the Stitch server. Let's create a file called and fill it with the following script:

stitch  = require("stitch")
express = require("express")
argv    = process.argv.slice(2)

package = stitch.createPackage(
  # Specify the paths you want Stitch to automatically bundle up
  paths: [ __dirname + "/app" ]

  # Specify your base libraries
  dependencies: [
    # __dirname + '/lib/jquery.js'
app = express.createServer()

app.configure ->
  app.set "views", __dirname + "/views"
  app.use app.router
  app.use express.static(__dirname + "/public")
  app.get "/application.js", package.createServer()

port = argv[0] or process.env.PORT or 9294
console.log "Starting server on port: #{port}"
app.listen port

You can see some dependencies listed: coffee-script, stitch and express. We need to create a package.json file, listing these dependencies so npm can pick them up. Our ./package.json file will look like this:

  "name": "app",
  "version": "0.0.1",
  "dependencies": { 
    "coffee-script": "~1.1.2",
    "stitch": "~0.3.2",
    "express": "~2.5.0",
    "eco": "1.1.0-rc-1"

And let's install those dependencies with npm:

npm install .
npm install -g coffee-script

Rightio, we're almost there. Now run:


You'll hopefully have a Stitch server up and running. Let's go ahead and test it out by putting an script in the app folder. This will be the file that'll bootstrap our application.

module.exports = App =
  init: ->
    # Bootstrap the app

Now let's create our main page index.html which, if we're building a single page app, will be the only page the user actually navigates to. This is a static asset, so it's located under the public directory.

<!DOCTYPE html>
  <meta charset=utf-8>
  <!-- Require the main Stitch file -->
  <script src="/application.js" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script>
  <script type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8">
    document.addEventListener("DOMContentLoaded", function(){
      var App = require("app");
    }, false);

When the page loads, our DOMContentLoaded event callback is requiring the script (which is automatically compiled), and invoking our init() function. That's all there is to it, we've got CommonJS modules up and running, as well as a HTTP server and CoffeeScript compiler. If, say, we wanted to include a module, it's just a case of calling require(). Let's create a new class, User, and reference it from

# app/models/
module.exports = class User
  constructor: (@name) ->

# app/
User = require("models/user")

JavaScript templates

If you're moving logic to the client side, then you'll definitely need some sort of templating library. JavaScript templating is very similar to templates on the server, such as Ruby's ERB or Python's text interpolation, expect of course it runs client side. There are a whole host of templating libraries out there, so I encourage you to do some research and check them out. By default, Stitch comes with support for Eco templates baked right in.

JavaScript templates are very similar to server side ones. You have template tags interoperated with HTML, and during rendering those tags get evaluated and replaced. The great thing about Eco templates, is they're actually written in CoffeeScript.

Here's an example:

<% if @projects.length: %>
  <% for project in @projects: %>
    <a href="<%= project.url %>"><%= %></a>
    <p><%= project.description %></p>
  <% end %>
<% else: %>
  No projects
<% end %>

As you can see, the syntax is remarkably straightforward. Just use <% tags for evaluating expressions, and <%= tags for printing them. A partial list of template tags is as follows:

You can use any CoffeeScript expression inside the templating tags, but there's one thing to look out for. CoffeeScript is whitespace-sensitive, but your Eco templates aren't. Therefore, Eco template tags that begin an indented CoffeeScript block must be suffixed with a colon. To indicate the end of an indented block, use the special tag <% end %>. For example:

<% if @project.isOnHold(): %>
  On Hold
<% end %>

You don't need to write the if and end tags on separate lines:

<% if @project.isOnHold(): %> On Hold <% end %>

And you can use the single-line postfix form of if as you'd expect:

<%= "On Hold" if @project.isOnHold() %>

Now we've got a handle on the syntax, let's define an Eco template in views/users/

<label>Name: <%= @name %></label>

Stitch will automatically compile our template and include it in application.js. Then, in our application's controllers we can require the template, like it was a module, and execute it passing any data required.

require("views/users/show")(new User("Brian"))

Our file should now look like this, rendering the template and appending it to the page when the document loads:

User = require("models/user")

App =
  init: ->
    template = require("views/users/show")
    view     = template(new User("Brian"))

    # Obviously this could be spruced up by jQuery
    element = document.createElement("div")
    element.innerHTML = view

module.exports = App

Open up the application and give it a whirl! Hopefully this tutorial has given you a good idea of how to structure client-side CoffeeScript applications. For your next steps, I recommend checking out a client-side framework like Backbone or Spine, They'll provide a basic MVC structure for you, freeing you up for the interesting stuff.

Bonus - 30 second deployment with Heroku

Heroku is an incredibly awesome web host that manages all the servers and scaling for you, letting you get on with the exciting stuff (building awesome JavaScript applications). You'll need an account with Heroku for this tutorial to work, but the great news is that their basic plan is completely free. While traditionally a Ruby host, Heroku have recently released their Cedar stack, which includes Node support.

Firstly we need to make a Procfile, which will inform Heroku about our application.

echo "web: coffee" > Procfile

Now, if you haven't already, you'll need to create a local git repository for your application.

git init
git add .
git commit -m "First commit"    

And now to deploy the application, we'll use the heroku gem (which you'll need to install if you haven't already).

heroku create myAppName --stack cedar
git push heroku master
heroku open

That's it! Seriously, that's all there is to it. Hosting Node applications has never been easier.

Additional libraries

Stitch and Eco aren't the only libraries you can use for creating CoffeeScript & Node applications, there are a variety of alternatives.

For example, when it comes to templating, you can use Mustache, Jade or write your HTML in pure CoffeeScript using CoffeeKup.

As for serving up application, Hem is a great choice, supporting both CommonJS and NPM modules and integrating seamlessly with the CoffeeScript MVC framework Spine. node-browsify is another similar project. Or if you want to go lower level with express integration, there's Trevor Burnham's connect-assets

You can find a full list of CoffeeScript web framework plugins, on the project's wiki.