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Chapter 17 React Tools

React and other modern JavaScript development approaches require leveraging a variety of external libraries, and often require other compilation steps such as transpiling to ES6, or bundling your JavaScript into a single file. There are a variety of tools available to make these steps easier, some of which we’ll introduce here.

17.1 Importing and Exporting in ES6

One of the most powerful features of ES6 is the ability to import and export functions from files. This allows you to create reusable blocks of code that are easily integrated to multiple projects. You no longer need to consider if a different JavaScript file has been loaded into the index.html file. Instead, we can import desired functions directly into our scripts. Moreover, it means that you don’t need to include an entire library – you can just import the functions you want, and leave out the rest. This will help prevent namespace collisions and limit the file-size of your project.

This article provides us with a working definition of JavaScript Modules:

JavaScript modules allow us to chunk our code into separate files inside our project or to use open source modules that we can install via npm. Writing your code in modules helps with organization, maintenance, testing, and most importantly, dependency management.

We’ll begin by writing a simple function that we can export – this will make the functions available to other scripts that import them:

// In our utility.js file, write a function that converts feet to meters
function feetToMeters(feet) {
    return feet / 3.28084

// Write another function metersToFeet
function metersToFeet(meters) {
    return meters * 3.28084

// Export each named function
export {feetToMeters, metersToFeet} // named exports

If we then wish to use feetToMeters in another function, we can simply import it:

// In our main.js file, import the feetToMeters function
import {feetToMeters} from './utility' // assuming we're in the same directory

17.1.1 Named v.s. default exports

The above example demonstrates the use of named exports, in which we explicitly name each object we wish to export, and then explicitly name it to import it.

// Utility.js ----------
// Write a function that converts feet to meters
// In our utility.js file, write a function that converts feet to meters
function feetToMeters(feet) {
    return feet / 3.28084

// Export each named function
export {feetToMeters} // named exports

There are then three syntax options for importing named exports:

// Importing options for a named export (see above)

// Option 1 -------- import named exports by name
import {feetToMeters, metersToFeet} from './Utility';
let meters = feetToMeters(30); // use function

// Option 2 -------- import named exports by name AS a shorter name
import feetToMeters as f2m from './Utility'
let meters = f2m(30); // use function

// Option 3 -------- import all named exports with a prefix
// Import our own components
import * as Utilities from './Utility';
let meters = Utilities.feetToMeters(30); // use function

Alternatively, you can export a single default object from a module:

// Utility.js ----------
// In our utility.js file, write a function that converts feet to meters
function feetToMeters(feet) {
    return feet / 3.28084

// Export a default module
export default feetToMeters; // single default export

Then, to import the default export, you can use the following syntax:

import feetToMeters from './Utility.js'

You’ll use this syntax to import // export your own functions, and you’ll also use them to import functions from external libraries.

17.2 Installing with NPM

We introduced the use of NPM in an earlier chapter, largely to install packages that were described in the package.json file. As we move forward, we’ll use NPM to install additional packages and deploy our code.

It’s a common occurrence that, part way through a project, you identify additional libraries that you would like to use in your project. You can use NPM to install a package and add it to your list of packages if you use the --save option:

# Download the lodash library, and add it to your list of packages
npm install lodash --save  # make sure to run this in your project folder

Adding it to your list of packages enables others to install the necessary files to use your program. When you start using a compiling program (like the functionality built into create-react-app) you’ll be able to import functionality from your node_modules folder as you would other functions (i.e., import):

// In a JS file in a project that gets compiled (using create-react-app)
import {uniq} from 'lodash';   // import a named export
let vals = uniq([1, 2, 3, 1]); // returns [1, 2, 3]

17.3 Create-React-App

In order to leverage a more complex structure for our code (such as importing and exporting functions), we need to compile our JavaScript before loading it into the browser. There are a variety of tools that people use to do this such as Gulp, Browserify, and Webpack. These tools are great for configuring a build system for your project, but they can be time-consuming to configure (especially if you don’t have any custom specifications that you’re trying to make).

So, the folks over at React built an amazing tool called create-react-app, which combines multiple tools (including Webpack) to compile your code for you. It’s super easy to get started:

# Globally install the create-react-app command line utility: only do this once!
# Depending on your permissions on your machine, you might need to `sudo npm install....`
npm install -g create-react-app

# Create a project called my-app (a child of your current directory)
create-react-app my-app

# Change your directory to my-app
cd my-app/

# Start running a local server with your project: visible at localhost:3000
npm start  # this functionality is defined in the package.json file that was created

Create React App is somewhat opinionated about the structure of your code, but comes with a number of advantages. For example, it will display errors and warnings in your browser window, will automatically reload when your JavaScript changes, and will inject CSS changes without reloading your page. When you create a new project, the following files will be created:


From there, you can begin editing your App.js file. Your <App/> component is rendered on the page, so you should augment it as you see fit. You can now import functions directly into a JavaScript file from libraries or your own modules:

// Import desired files
import {Component} from 'react' // import the Component class from the react library
import {uniq} from 'lodash';    // import a named export from the lodash library

// Create a class App by extending Component
class App extends Component {
  render() {
    return <div>My App</div>

// Export the App component to be imported in other files
export default App;

17.3.1 Building

In order to build your app for deployment, you will use the npm run build command (you can see what function this does by looking at the package.json file). This will appropriately compile your files (including JavaScript, CSS, images, etc.) into an optimized format. The only tricky thing is if you’re trying to host your build at a particular location, you’ll need to specify that location in your package.json file. For example, imagine you’re going to host your site at Create React App assumes that you’ll be hosting your project in the root of your server. In other words, when it builds, it will construct relative paths that assume resources are at the root. To adjust this, you’ll need to edit your package.json file:

  "name": "project-name",
  "version": "0.1.0",
  "private": true,
  "homepage": "",

By setting the homepage, the relative paths will be properly constructed. This will create for you a folder called build/, in which you’ll have the necessary files. You can then move these up a directory (i.e., out of the build/ folder) if you’re going to use your GitHub repo for hosting (this is an unfortunate manual step). Then you should be ready to deploy!

Another option is to use the gh-pages library. This will provide you with a command line tool to create a gh-pages branch, and move the files in your build/ folder up a directory (meaning that you don’t need to go to the URL project-nanme/build/). Here are the steps for using the gh-pages package:

# Install the gh-pages package in your project
npm install gh-pages --save

Then, edit your package.json file to add a new command in the scripts section. You’ll add the "deploy" line of code.

"scripts": {
     "start": "react-scripts start",
     "build": "react-scripts build",
     "test": "react-scripts test --env=jsdom",
     "eject": "react-scripts eject",
     "deploy": "npm run build&&gh-pages -d build"

Then, to deploy a project to the gh-pagesbranch on GitHub, you can simply run this line of code (this will build your project, and commit and push the built project to your branch):

npm run deploy

Then, on your server, you should pull down the code and checkout your gh-pages branch:

# On your server, such as a UW student server
git clone PROJECT-URL
git checkout gh-pages

# To update:
git pull origin gh-pages