OEP-11: Front End Technology Standards

Title Front End Technology Standards
Last Modified 2017-03-06
Author Andy Armstrong <andya@edx.org>
Arbiter Matt Drayer <mattdrayer@edx.org>
Status Draft
Type Best Practice
Created 2016-10-19


This document describes the technology standards for developing front end applications and components for Open edX. It covers the techniques and approaches that are currently recommended, as well as the technologies and libraries that should be used.


The rapid pace of development in front end tooling has created opportunities to greatly improve the quality of the Open edX user and developer experience. After an assesment of industry best practices, the edX Front End Working Group (FedX) has made a number of technology recommendations for libraries, frameworks and tooling to modernize the edX front end.

Within this document, the phrase “front end” is used to mean any part of the platform that is shown to users. This encompasses views rendered in Python on the server, interactive interfaces written using JavaScript, and CSS styling.


Technology Selection

  1. Server-side content should be rendered with Django Templates

    Rationale: There are many template languages available for Django, but the simplest option is to use the built-in Django template engine. The Open edX codebase has a mixture of Django and Mako templates, but the former are easier to reason about because they don’t support arbitrary code evaluation. See Reasons for rejecting Mako for a more detailed explanation.

    Exception: Mako templates can continue to be used within edx-platform for consistency with the existing code base. This is because the base templates and theming support are all provided via Mako, so it is too much to expect a new feature to be implemented with a different framework. There is much desire to replace Mako within edx-platform so this exception may eventually be removed.

  2. Target the latest standardised JavaScript version (ECMA-262)

    Rationale: edX JavaScript should be written consistent with the latest ECMA-262 specification in order to ensure future support, the largest community and the availability of modern features. To support this syntax in older browsers, use Babel. Babel may also be configured to add syntax extensions widely adopted by the community of our recommended framework (e.g., JSX).

    Exception: Much of edX’s existing front end code is written conformant to the version of ECMA-262 released in 2009 (ES5). Files written in ES5 should be gradually converted to the newer standard as new development in those feature areas requires.

    Note: edX previously used CoffeeScript, but its use has now been deprecated. Community interest in TypeScript has also grown, but it and other languages that do not follow the ECMA-262 spec should not be used. See Reasons for rejecting CoffeeScript and Reasons for rejecting TypeScript for more detail.

  3. JavaScript libraries should be installed via npm

    Rationale: It is important that JavaScript libraries are kept up-to-date, and one key component is to make it as simple as possible to perform upgrades. Projects that use npm maintain all of their library requirements in a single package.json file, which can be easily changed as the versions change.

  4. JavaScript code should follow the edX ESLint configuration

    Rationale: In order to standardize and enforce Open edX’s JavaScript coding style across multiple codebases, edX has published an ESLint configuration that provides an enforceable specification. The edX ESLint Config is made available as an npm package that can be installed into any Open edX package.

    Exception: The edX ESLint Config for ES5 may be used where ES5 is in use. Both configs may be used in the same codebase through the use of ESLint configuration cascading.

  5. Use React and Redux when building new client-side applications

    Rationale: React should be used for building new UIs, as it is widely adopted by the community and strikes a balance between flexibility and feature richness. For state management of complex client-side interactions, Redux should be used. This library was chosen because it sees strong use in the React community, but is also flexible enough to be used in situations where a hybrid React/Backbone architecture exists.

    See React at edX for more details on the evaluation process that led to this technology selection. Other modern frameworks considered for use included Polymer and Angular. See Reasons for rejecting Angular and Reasons for rejecting Polymer for an exploration of why these alternatives do not work as well as React for edX.

    Exception: When building new applications within edx-platform, it is currently acceptable to use Backbone. Backbone is a somewhat old technology in the JavaScript world and has seen a rapid drop off in usage within the community. The plan is to incrementally adopt React within edx-platform as it can interoperate cleanly with Backbone. More documentation on this plan can be found in Modernizing the edX front end stack.

  6. JavaScript should be bundled using Webpack

    Rationale: Webpack is the tool of choice for code optimization and bundling, as it is widely used throughout the industry, and because it seamlessly handles modern code bases as well as all of the older technologies used by edX, such as AMD Modules. Webpack should be implemented to handle as much of the “asset pipeline” as possible, rather than passing this responsibility on to Django.

  7. JavaScript dependencies should be managed with ES2015 Modules

    Rationale: JavaScript module systems allow front end code to specify its dependencies and be grouped into bundles that minimize the assets needed to provide page functionality. The most prevalent module syntax is currently ES2015 Modules, which should be adopted everywhere edX code is written to the ES2015 spec or later.

    Exception: Much of edX’s existing (ES5) JavaScript uses the older AMD Modules syntax for modules. AMD Modules are interoperable with ES2015 Modules if Webpack is used for bundling, so AMD is an acceptable module definition if the code must remain ES5.

  8. CSS should be generated using Sass

    Rationale: Sass’s SCSS syntax is an extension of CSS that adds power and elegance to the basic language. It makes the maintenance of large CSS files more manageable though the ability to use variables, mixins, imports and more. In particular, it makes theming possible with the ability to override variables that define colors, fonts etc.

    You can find out more about Sass in the official Sass documentation.

Rejected Alternatives

  1. Angular

    Angular was a popular web framework in its 1.x iteration, and its maintainer (Google) recently released Angular 2. Angular 1 was not considered due to its support status. Angular 2 was rejected due to its opinionated characteristics including its use of TypeScript (a compile-to-JavaScript language) and the difficulty of incrementally integrating Angular into an existing application (e.g., alongside legacy Backbone). Consensus in the front end community is that Angular has a higher learning curve than alternatives like React, which matches poorly with edX’s limited front end developers and larger community of infrequent JavaScript contributors.

  1. Polymer

    Polymer is a framework built around Web Components, a set of draft extensions to the HTML and DOM specs for UI encapsulation. Web Components are a very interesting area of emergent Web technology, but are not yet finalized as a spec or supported in many browsers. Because of this, the Polymer community is small and performance issues exist. As Web Components become more mature, edX may reevaluate their use, either with Polymer or without.

  1. CoffeeScript

    The Open edX codebase made heavy use of CoffeeScript for several years, but its use at edX has now been officially deprecated. Most of the language benefits of CoffeeScript were made available in JavaScript as of the ES2015 spec, and CoffeeScript’s community has largely moved on.

  1. TypeScript

    Several variants of typed JavaScript have grown in community popularity recently, with TypeScript as the most popular. edX believes adding typing to our JavaScript would raise the barrier to entry for less experienced front end developers, and that using TypeScript in particular would lock us into a tool with an uncertain future (as we experienced with CoffeeScript). If typing is an absolute necessity for a feature (e.g., an API client or sensitive business logic), `Flow`_ is recommended, as it can be incrementally added and evaluated alongside non-typed code.

  1. Mako

    There are a number of reasons why Django templates is preferred to Mako:

    • Mako templates are not safe by default, meaning that it is very easy to introduce cross-site scripting vulnerabilities.
    • Mako templates are hard to unit test because they require that the whole Django context be available in case the template tries to access it. Django templates only have access to the context object that is passed to it, so it is very easy to simulate all possible scenarios.