Using npm on the client side

May 27th 2013

Package Manager Anonymous

I didn't always use npm for front end package management. I tried a few, got stoked with one and converted all my co-workers to it. It was a great client side package manager. Why? Because it was so much like npm! Until one day a bearded friend said, "You know what else is like npm?", dramatic pause, "... npm." Mind blown.

Seriously why can't we use npm for front end? There isn't a rule. It is the node package manager but the word node doesn't explicitly mean server only.

Don't let anyone tell you npm is not for the client side.

It is and works fantastically well for the front end.

Easy To Install

npm comes with Node.js. So just install Node.js by visiting

This gives you the command npm in your terminal.

Love at First Publish

Create a package.json file. This describes your package. Or use npm init to ask a series of questions and npm will create a package.json for you.

  "name": "mymodule",
  "version": "0.1.0"

Once you have your package.json filled out, simply type: npm publish. This will create a new package on based on the name property in your package.json file. Your package will now be installable by anyone who types npm install yourpackagename.

Installing Packages

npm install package to install a package found on This will download the files to your node_modules folder.

npm install package --save will install and save the package as a dependency in your package.json file. Why is this cool? Well later down the road you can install all your dependencies by simply typing the command npm install.

npm install username/repo will install directly from a github repo.

Using on the Browser

In order to use node modules on the browser you will need a build tool. This might bother you. If this is a deal breaker then by all means continue wasting your life copying and pasting code and arranging your script tags.

All package managers need build tools. Some say they don't but they are not being totally honest. It doesn't matter if you build by typing a command in your terminal or build upon a HTTP request or build inline as the page loads. Those are build tools.

When you build does not negate that you build, sorry. So embrace a build tool.

Building From the Console

Let's keep it simple. browserify is a simple tool for bundling node modules for the browser.

Install it with npm install browserify -g. The -g will install the package globally and give you access to the browserify command.

Create an index.js entry point with the following:

// Use a Node.js core library
var url = require('url');

// Parse the URL of the current location
var parts = url.parse(window.location);

// Log the parts object to our browser's console

To bundle this to run on the browser type the command: browserify index.js > bundle.js. This will create the file bundle.js so that your browser can run it with the tag: <script src="bundle.js"></script>.

A Simple Module

Small modules are the reason why npm is so successful. They are easy to create, maintain and share. Create another file named hasher.js with the following:

// Use a Node.js core library
var url = require('url');

// What our module will return when require'd
module.exports = function(url) {
  var parsed = url.parse(url);
  return parsed.hash;

Now modify your index.js file to the following:

var hasher = require('./hasher.js');
var hash = hasher(window.location);

Moving logic into separate modules will help keep our app small and easy to maintain. Plus we've just started on the greatest url hash parsing library ever!

On the Shoulders of Everyone

What? You don't want to write the worlds best url hash parsing library? Well good news someone else probably already did. Search and I guarantee you'll find oodles. At the time of this writing npm has over 30,000 modules. Most of which are browserifyable.

This is the advantage of creating and using lots of small modules. One module may not be a good fit for your project. It is trivial to swap out a small module for another.

A quick npm search hash change revealed a few options. Lets go with hash-change. After a quick peruse of the hash-change read me we know how to use it. So let's edit our index.js:

require('hash-change').on('change', function(hash) {
  console.log('Goto page: ' + hash);

Cool now I can get the hash and even know when it is changed. The best part is now I don't have to maintain the hash-change code. Someone else now does that for me for free.

Building Upon a HTTP Request

An alternative is to build as you request from the server. If you have <script src="index.js"></script> on your page, the browser will request the index.js file from the server. You simply instruct your server to first compile that file and then give the results to the browser.

A handy tool for javascript is called beefy: npm install beefy -g. It is a browserify wrapper for this exact purpose.

Type beefy index.js 8080 to start a server on port 8080. Then send your browser to http://localhost:8080 and as your browser requests index.js it will compile with browserify and serve the results.


The lazy way is to load assets directly from the node_modules folder:

<link type="text/css" rel="stylesheet" href="node_modules/package/css/style.css">

A method more similar to browserify is npm-css. Install with npm install npm-css -g and bundle with npm-css index.css > bundle.css:

/* Use CSS from your node_modules folder */
@import "npm_module_name";

/* Or your own relative files */
@import "./style.css";

I don't enjoy writing CSS so I use a preprocessor. My preference is sass/compass but that requires Ruby (which is a dependency hurdle most are comfortable jumping). There are many other CSS preprocessors available on npm though. Check out rework or stylus.

Install rework with npm install rework -g. Then create the following file style.css:

body {
  background: linear-gradient(#eee, #ddd);

We then bundle our css with rework -v webkit,moz < style.css > bundle.css and it creates the file:

body {
  background: -webkit-linear-gradient(#eee, #ddd);
  background: -moz-linear-gradient(#eee, #ddd);
  background: linear-gradient(#eee, #ddd)

It does a lot more than that though so checkout rework's readme.


Images are fairly straight forward:

cp -R node_modules/module/images/* dist/images/.

Or just be lazy and load directly from the node_modules folder.

There are many modules on npm for creating spritesheets, sizing, applying filters, etc. If you wanted to get fancy.


The one thing npm might have too much of is template choices. You can keep it simple and just write plain HTML or choose from one of the hundreds of template options. My preference is plain HTML, embedded javascript for layouts and markdown for articles/posts.

Tying it All Together

How are these tools are tied together is heavily debated. So I'll just describe the two ways I prefer but feel free to search out and use what works for you.

Simple Shell Script

Shell scripts for small modules are easy to write. Just put the commands you would have normally typed into a file. Create a file named bin/build with the following:

rm -rf dist
mkdir -p dist/js
mkdir -p dist/css
mkdir -p dist/img
browserify js/index.js > dist/js/index.js
rework -v webkit,moz < css/style.css > dist/css/style.css
cp -R img/* dist/img/.
cp index.html dist/index.html

chmod +x bin/build to give the script execute permissions and then run it by typing bin/build.


If you need build operations a bit more front end friendly consider Grunt. Grunt ties build operations together through a Gruntfile.js. Each of the tasks source input files and destination output files are normalized through a Grunt config. An example Gruntfile.js for the same operations as above would be:

module.exports = function(grunt) {
    clean: ['dist/'],
    browserify: {
      'dist/js/index.js': ['js/index.js']
    rework: {
      'dist/css/style.css': ['css/style.css'],
      options: {
        vendors: ['-moz-', '-webkit-']
    copy: {
      images: {
        src: 'img/**',
        dest: 'dist/',
        expand: true


  grunt.registerTask('default', ['clean', 'browserify', 'rework', 'copy']);

First install the grunt cli tool globally with: npm install grunt-cli -g.

Then install grunt and the tasks we would like to use locally:

npm install grunt grunt-contrib-clean \
grunt-contrib-copy grunt-rework grunt-browserify --save-dev

Now when you run grunt anywhere within the project folder it will perform the steps in the default task you've registered.

The advantages of Grunt really show when you're experimenting with new modules. Most Grunt tasks use the same config syntax. So you can more easily configure your build process without having to remember each module API.


All package managers do relatively the same thing. Move files.
Pick a package manager on how well it does that.

All build tools do relatively the same thing. Transform files.
Pick your build tools on how well they do that.

If you're not using npm now solely because someone told you it isn't for client side.

Slap them and say, "npm all the things."