The increase in complexity in front end web development has driven to increasing amounts of specialization and separation of front and back end.

This specialization and increased complexity has a number of benefits - the quality of user experiences on the web has increased exponentially, while simultaneously reaching more people across more types of devices than ever in history.

However, it also introduces a number of challenges.

The Challenge: Interfacing between Frontend and API

The interface between frontend and API has become a common point of friction, challenge, and complexity.

In an ideal world, backend and frontend would evolve together in harmony, with close communication, and the data served up by the backend would match exactly what the front-end needs.

In reality, often the two parts of an application are developed by completely different teams, or even different companies. It's not at all uncommon to have a specialized team at an agency building out a design and front-end, while your own development team is working on the backend

Typical Solutions

The result is a flow that typically looks like the following:

  1. Build a UI using fake 'stubbed' data, either directly inline in the templates and code, or loaded via a set of fixtures.
  2. When the API is ready, scramble to replace every integration point with real API calls and data.

The problems with this approach are twofold:

  1. Data integration is often scattered throughout the application, requiring tracing down and reworking tons of code.
  2. Even if data is relatively isolated, there is often a mismatch between what the frontend expects and what the API eventually delivers.
A Better Solution Exists: VueX

If you're developing your front-end using Vue.js, a better solution to this problem is right at your fingertips.

The VueX library, deeply integrated into Vue, provides the perfect solution to creating a clean, isolated interface to your data that makes transitioning between stubbed data and a real API a breeze.

What is VueX

VueX is a state-management library inspired by Flux, Redux, and the Elm architecture but specifically designed and tuned to integrate well with Vue.js and take advantage of Vue's Reactivity.

All of these libraries aim to solve a simple problem: When there is state that is shared across many components, particularly components that are siblings or in greatly different views, managing distribution and updating of that state is challenging.

Libraries like VueX make it possible to manage shared state across components in a way that is structured and maintainable, by creating a global state tree that can be be accessed and updated by every component in a structured way.

How Does VueX Work

VueX divides state management into 3 key pieces: state, mutations, and actions. When you instantiate a VueX store, you define these three objects:

const store = new Vuex.Store({
  state: {
    ...
  },
  mutations: {
    ...
  },
  actions: {
    ...
  }
})

State

State represents the actual data itself. This is simply a JavaScript object that contains a tree of data. In VueX you can have a single, global state tree or organize by module (e.g. a users state tree, a products state tree, etc)

For example, we might use this state tree to keep track of our current user, starting with null if the user is not logged in:

state: {
  currentUser: null
}

Mutations

Mutations are the mechanism by which we change our state tree. All changes of state must flow through mutations, which allows VueX to manage the state in a predictable manner.

An example mutation might look like:

mutations: {
  setCurrentUser(currentState, user) {
    currentState.currentUser = user;
  }
}

Mutations are synchronous, and directly modify the state object (as compared to e.g. Redux where the equivalent concept is called a reducer and returns a new object.)

This synchronous, direct change of the state object meshes perfectly with Vue's concept of reactivity. VueX state objects are reactive, so the changes ripple outwards to all dependencies.

You call a mutation via the commit function:

store.commit('setCurrentUser', user);

Actions

Actions are the final piece of VueX, an intermediary between intent and modification.

Actions are asynchronous, and indirectly modify the store, via committing mutations. However, because they are asynchronous, they can do much more than that.

Asynchronicity allows actions to handle things like API calls, user interaction, and entire flows of action.

As a simple example an action might make an API call and record the result:

actions: {
  login(context, credentials) {
    return myLoginApi.post(credentials).then((user) => {
      context.commit('setCurrentUser', user)
    })
  }
}

Actions can return promises, allowing views or other code that dispatch actions to wait for them to finish and react based on their results. Instead of using commit, you dispatch an action. For example, our calling code might look like:

store.dispatch('login', credentials).then(() => {
  // redirect to logged in area
}).catch((error) => {
  // Display error messages about bad password
});

Why VueX Actions Are The Perfect Interface to the API

If you're working on a project where the backend and frontend are both evolving at the same time, or you're on a UI/Frontend team that may even be building out a user interface before the backend exists, you're probably familiar with the problem where you need to stub out parts of the backend or data as you develop the front.

A common way this manifests is as purely static templates or content, with placeholder values and text right in your front-end templates.

A step up from this is some form of fixtures, data that is loaded statically by the front-end and put into place.

Both of these often run into the same set of challenges: When the backend is finally available, there is a bunch of refactoring work to get the data in place.

Even if (miraculously), the structure of data from the backend matches your fixtures, you still have to scramble all over to find every integration point. And if the structure is different (and let's face it, it usually is), you not only have to do that but you have to figure out how you can either change the front-end or create an abstraction layer that transforms the data.

Enter VueX Actions

The beauty of VueX is that actions provide a perfect way to isolate and abstract between the frontend and the backend, and furthermore do so in a way such that updating from stubbed data to a real backend is seamless and simple.

Let me expand a little bit. Lets take our login example. If our login API doesn't exist yet, but we're still ready to build out the front-end, we could implement our action like so:

actions: {
  login(context, credentials) {
    const user = MY_STUBBED_USER;
    if(credentials.login === '[email protected]') {
      context.commit('setCurrentUser', user)
      return Promise.resolve();
    } else {
      return Promise.reject(new Error('invalid login'));
    }
  }
}

Now our front-end can implement a login that behaves exactly the way it will in the future, with test data, allowing for both success and failure. The behavior will happen immediately rather than asynchronously via an API, but by returning promises now any callers can treat it the same way they would a real API call.

When our API is available, we can simply modify this action to use it, and everything else in our codebase remains the same.

Handling Data Mismatches

Isolating our API calls to VueX also gives us a beautiful and clean way to handle mismatches in data format between the backend and the frontend.

Continuing our login example, perhaps we assumed that the API would return all the user information we needed upon login, but instead we need to fetch preferences from a separate endpoint once we're authenticated, and even then the format is different than we expected

We can keep this discrepancy completely isolated within our VueX action, preventing us from needing to change anywhere else in our frontend. Because promises can be chained and nested, we can go through a series of API calls that all need to complete before our action is considered complete.

actions: {
  login(context, credentials) {
    return myLoginApi.post(credentials).then((userData) => {
      const user = { ...userData };
      return myPreferencesApi.get(userData.id).then((preferencesData) => {
        user.preferences = transformPreferencesData(preferencesData);
        context.commit('setCurrentUser', user)
      });
    })
  }
}

The end result from the perspective of both our state modifications and the code that is dispatching our login action is exactly the same.

With VueX, the challenge of integrating a new or changing backend API into our front-end has been dramatically simplified.


Learning Vue?

If you're currently working on learning Vue, you might be interested in learning about my learning process. If you're looking for a course, I can vouch for this one, as it is the one I took to kickstart my learning.


P.S. - If you're interested in learning Vue, I just launched LearnVueJS.com, a project dedicated to teaching developers about Vue.js, and am offering a set of free webinars on the fundamentals of Vue.