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Virtual DOM and diffing algorithm

There was a great article about how react implements it's virtual DOM. There are some really interesting ideas in there but they are deeply buried in the implementation of the React framework.

However, it's possible to implement just the virtual DOM and diff algorithm on it's own as a set of independent modules.

Motivation

The reason we wan't a diff engine is so that we can write our templates as plain javascript functions that take in our current application state and returns a visual representation of the view for that state.

However normally when you do this, you would have to re-create the entire DOM for that view each time the state changed and swap out the root node for your view. This is terrible for performance but also blows away temporary state like user input focus.

A virtual DOM approach allows you to re-create a virtual DOM for the view each time the state changes. Creating a virtual DOM in JavaScript is cheap compared to DOM operations. You can then use the 60 fps batched DOM writer to apply differences between the current DOM state and the new virtual DOM state.

One important part of the virtual DOM approach is that it is a module and it should do one thing well. The virtual DOM is only concerned with representing the virtual DOM. The diff batch and patch functions are only concerned with the relevant algorithms for the virtual dom.

The virtual DOM has nothing to do with events or representing application state. The below example demonstrates the usage of state with observ and events with dom-delegator. It could just as well have used knockout or backbone for state and used jQuery or component/events for events.

Example

Warning: Vaporware. The virtual-dom is not implemented yet.

var h = require("virtual-dom/h")
var render = require("virtual-dom/render")
var raf = require("raf").polyfill
var Observ = require("observ")
var ObservArray = require("observ-array")
var computed = require("observ/computed")
var Delegator = require("dom-delegator")
var diff = require("virtual-dom-diff")
var patch require("virtual-dom-patch")
var batch = require("virtual-dom-batch")

// logic that takes state and renders your view.
function TodoList(items) {
    return h("ul", items.map(function (text) {
        return h("li", text)
    }))
}

function TodoApp(state) {
    return h("div", [
        h("h3", "TODO"),
        { render: TodoList, data: state.items },
        h("div", { "data-submit": "addTodo" }, [
            h("input", { value: state.text, name: "text" }),
            h("button", "Add # " + state.items.length + 1)
        ])
    ])
}

// model the state of your app
var state = {
    text: Observ(""),
    items: ObservArray([])
}

// react to inputs and change state
var delegator = Delegator(document.body)
delegator.on("addTodo", function (ev) {
    state.items.push(ev.currentValue.text)
    state.text.set("")
})

// render initial state
var currTree = TodoApp({ text: state.text(), items: state.items().value })
var elem = render(currTree)

document.body.appendChild(elem)

// when state changes diff the state
var diffQueue = []
var applyUpdate = false
computed([state.text, state.items], function () {
    // only call `update()` in next tick.
    // this allows for multiple synchronous changes to the state
*    // in the current tick without re-rendering the virtual DOM
    if (applyUpdate === false) {
        applyUpdate = true
        setImmediate(function () {
            update()
            applyUpdate = false
        })
    }
})

function update() {
    var newTree = TodoApp({ text: state.text(), items: state.items().value })

    // calculate the diff from currTree to newTree
    var patches = diff(currTree, newTree)
    diffQueue = diffQueue.concat(patches)
    currTree = newTree
}

// at 60 fps, batch all the patches and then apply them
raf(function renderDOM() {
    var patches = batch(diffQueue)
    patch(elem, patches)

    raf(renderDOM)
})

Documentation

var virtualDOM = h(tagName, props?, children?)

h creates a virtual DOM tree. You can give it a tagName and optionally DOM properties & optionally an array of children.

var elem = render(virtualDOM)

render takes a virtual DOM tree and turns it into a DOM element that you can put in your DOM. Use this to render the initial tree.

var patches = diff(previousTree, currentTree)

diff takes two virtual DOM tree and returns an array of virtual DOM patches that you would have to apply to the previousTree to create the currentTree

This function is used to determine what has changed in the virtual DOM tree so that we can later apply a minimal set of patches to the real DOM, since touching the real DOM is slow.

var patches = batch(patches)

batch can be used to take a large array of patches, generally more then what is returned by a single diff call and will then use a set of global heuristics to produce a smaller more optimal set of patches to apply to a DOM tree.

Generally you want to call batch 60 or 30 times per second to compute the optimal set of DOM mutations to apply. This is great if your application has large spikes of state changes that you want to condense into a smaller more optimal set of DOM mutations.

batch also does other useful things like re-ordering mutations to avoid reflows.

patch(elem, patches)

patch will take a real DOM element and apply the DOM mutations in order. This is the only part that actually does the expensive work of mutating the DOM.

We recommend you do this in a requestAnimationFrame handler.

Concept

The goal is to represent your template as plain old javascript functions. Using actual if statements instead of {{#if }} ... {{/if}} and all other flow control build into javascript.

One approach that works very well is hyperscript however that will re-create a DOM node each time you re-render your view which is expensive.

A better solution is to have a h function that returns a virtual DOM tree. Creating a virtual DOM in JavaScript is cheap compared to manipulating the DOM directly.

Once we have two virtual DOM trees. One for the current application state and one for the previous we can use the diff function to produce a minimal set of patches from the previous virtual DOM to the current virtual DOM.

Once you have a set of patches, you could apply them immediately but it's better to queue them and flush this queue at a fixed interval like 60 times per second. Only doing our DOM manipulation with the callback to requestAnimationFrame will give us a performance boost and minimize the number of DOM operations we do. We also call batch in before we apply our patches to squash our list of diffs to the minimal set of operations.

Another important thing to note is that our virtual DOM tree contains a notion of a Component which is { render: function (data) { return tree }, data: { ... } }.

This is an important part of making the virtual DOM fast. Calling render() is cheap because it only renders a single layer and embeds components for all it's child views. The diff engine then has the option to compare the data key of a component between the current and previous one, if the data hasn't changed then it doesn't have to re-render that component.

The component can also implement a compare function to compare the data between the previous and current to tell us whether or not the change requires a re-render.

This means you only have to re-render the components that have changed instead of re-rendering the entire virtual DOM tree any time a piece of application state changes.

// **Warning:** Vaporware. The `virtual-dom` is not implemented yet.
var h = require("virtual-dom/h")
var render = require("virtual-dom/render")
var raf = require("raf").polyfill
var Observ = require("observ")
var ObservArray = require("observ-array")
var computed = require("observ/computed")
var Delegator = require("dom-delegator")
var diff = require("virtual-dom-diff")
var patch require("virtual-dom-patch")
var batch = require("virtual-dom-batch")
// logic that takes state and renders your view.
function TodoList(items) {
return h("ul", items.map(function (text) {
return h("li", text)
}))
}
function TodoApp(state) {
return h("div", [
h("h3", "TODO"),
{ render: TodoList, data: state.items },
h("div", { "data-submit": "addTodo" }, [
h("input", { value: state.text, name: "text" }),
h("button", "Add # " + state.items.length + 1)
])
])
}
// model the state of your app
var state = {
text: Observ(""),
items: ObservArray([])
}
// react to inputs and change state
var delegator = Delegator(document.body)
delegator.on("addTodo", function (ev) {
state.items.push(ev.currentValue.text)
state.text.set("")
})
// render initial state
var currTree = TodoApp({ text: state.text(), items: state.items().value })
var elem = render(currTree)
document.body.appendChild(elem)
// when state changes diff the state
var diffQueue = []
var applyUpdate = false
computed([state.text, state.items], function () {
// only call `update()` in next tick.
// this allows for multiple synchronous changes to the state
// in the current tick without re-rendering the virtual DOM
if (applyUpdate === false) {
applyUpdate = true
setImmediate(function () {
update()
applyUpdate = false
})
}
})
function update() {
var newTree = TodoApp({ text: state.text(), items: state.items().value })
// calculate the diff from currTree to newTree
var patches = diff(currTree, newTree)
diffQueue = diffQueue.concat(patches)
currTree = newTree
}
// at 60 fps, batch all the patches and then apply them
raf(function renderDOM() {
var patches = batch(diffQueue)
patch(elem, patches)
raf(renderDOM)
})
type Component<T> := {
render: (data: T) => VirtualDOMNode,
compare?: (left: T, right: T) => Boolean,
data?: T
}
type VirtualDOMNode := {
properties: Object,
tagName: String,
childNodes: Array<VirtualDOMNode | Component>
}
type VirtualDOMTree := VirtualDOMNode | Component
type DOMAttributeString := String
type DOMAttributeValue := Any
type DOMPatch := {
path: Array<Number>,
operation: 'attribute' | 'insert' | 'remove'
key?: DOMAttributeString,
value: VirtualDOMTree | DOMAttributeValue | null
}
virtual-dom/h := (
tagName: String,
attrs?: Object,
children?: Array<VirtualDOMTree>
) => VirtualDOMTree
virtual-dom/render := (tree: VirtualDOMTree) => DOMElement
virtual-dom-diff := (left: VirtualDOMTree, right: VirtualDOMTree)
=> Array<DOMPatch>
virtual-dom-batch := (patches: Array<DOMPatch>) => Array<DOMPatch>
virtual-dom-patch := (elem: DOMElement, patches: Array<DOMPatch>) => void
singins commented Aug 12, 2016

Hallo Jake,

in some of your repos, you are using a type document - docs.mli
I'm wondering, what kind of notation is this - something made up by yourself or based on some formalism?

Could you please explain? Thanks in advance.

Regards, Greg

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