Hotwire: First Reactions

Hotwire: First Reactions

Published: December 26, 2020

Hotwire is a set of libraries and conventions that does for single-page interactivity on web sites what Rails did for web applications.

It provides all the benefits of client-side single-page application (SPA) frameworks with almost none of the downsides.

It does that by making HTML primary and providing a standard set of JavaScript tools to update and augment the HTML on the page.

Benefits of an SPA

All the benefits of a single-page app come down to different aspects of the same thing: reactivity.

When the user performs an action, the application reacts immediately, without the delay of an HTTP request, page download, render, and state reset.

When there is a change in application state that is not a initiated by the user, the change is immediately visible to the user without needing to click, reload, or wait for the page to download and re-render.

Downsides of an SPA

The downside of SPAs is that they are complicated. That complexity results in several times more work for developers, while simultaneously breaking functionality that is included automatically with HTML pages.

SPAs are not web applications. They are JavaScript applications that users download and run in their web browsers.

Users have to wait for the JS bundles to download and initialize before the application first begins to render. Then while using the app, they find that the web browser navigation buttons (back, reload, forward, etc.) cause the app to break or reset. URLs cannot be used to point to specific parts of the application, making bookmarks useless. Worse still, keyboard navigation, screen readers, and other assistive technology are often broken. And if you are running an uncommon browser or older hardware, you may not be able to use the app at all.

All of this could be fixed or mitigated with sufficient care and effort from the developers, but none of that work is necessary for web applications serving HTML and CSS.

Meanwhile, developers are also dealing with other added complications.

Behavior and views rendered by the server need to be duplicated by the front-end JavaScript code. There is a entire set of technologies to maintain for the front end with their own languages, libraries, compile chains, and distribution processes for running in a wide array of environments. And then there is the extra abstraction layer, usually JSON, between content on the back end and the HTML and CSS rendered for users.

Introducing Hotwire

Hotwire was released on December 22, 2020 by DHH and the rest of the team at Hey. It was extracted from Hey in the same way that Rails was extracted from Basecamp.

There are two main libraries that make up Hotwire, Turbo and Stimulus.

Turbo

Turbo is the next evolution of Turbolinks.

Turbolinks uses JavaScript to replace the body of an HTML page. By avoiding a page reload it makes navigating web apps faster. It does this with no custom JavaScript and in most cases is fully transparent to users and developers.

Turbo takes the strategy a step further and provides tools to update parts of the page in response to user action or live updates broadcast over a WebSocket.

Stimulus

Stimulus is the modest JavaScript framework focused on augmenting HTML already on the page. It provides a guided way to add dynamic client-side behavior without changing the way HTML and CSS pages are built and rendered.

Together, Turbo and Stimulus make it possible to have webapps that behave like JavaScript applications but are primarily HTML and CSS with minimal application-specific JavaScript. It’s all the benefits of an SPA, with almost none of the downsides.

How Hotwire works

Probably more important than the libraries that make up Hotwire are the conventions on how those libraries interact.

The most important of these conventions is the one that gives Hotwire its name, HTML over-the-wire.

Traditional SPAs send JSON to the client. The JavaScript app then takes that JSON and generates HTML that is rendered onto the page.

When you send HTML over-the-wire, you don’t need all the JavaScript code that knows how to render it to HTML. It also means that you don’t need to duplicate your templates or template rendering. The same server-side code generates the HTML the user sees no matter how it gets onto the page.

Downsides of Hotwire

There is no silver bullet; even Hotwire has its downsides.

New technology

Hotwire is a new framework. It hasn’t been proven in a lot of applications and no one outside of Basecamp has a lot of experience with it.

However, Stimulus is proven technology that’s been around for years. Turbo evolved from Turbolinks which has been a part of Rails since 2012.

And all of Hotwire is in production at Hey.

Convention dependent

Hotwire with Rails is built on an extensive set of conventions that allow the different parts to work together. If you do not follow these conventions carefully you will end up with a hairy mess of spaghetti code.

Once these conventions are well-understood and strongly modeled, they are easy to follow; but until then there is significant risk of making your code confusing and buggy.

Complicated

Hotwire is a huge improvement over SPA frameworks, but it is still complicated — really complicated.

Integration specs require JavaScript

It seems the only way to write specifications that demonstrate your Hotwire functionality is working as intended is to use Capybara with a JavaScript-capable web browser. This is orders of magnitude slower than the Rack-based browser used when you don’t need to test JavaScript integration.

Other SPA framworks have the same problem. The best way to mitigate it is with strong, simple conventions that give you a lot of confidence that the integration works, so few integration specs are needed.

Conclusions

Hotwire provides an HTML/CSS-centric way of creating live and reactive web applications. I believe it will revolutionize reactive web apps the same way Rails revolutionized web apps.

I highly recommend learning about it and adding it to your tool belt. Anytime you want to improve a portion of your web app by making it more instant and reactive, Hotwire is the tool to reach for.

The smart thing to do is add Hotwire little by little to places where it will have the biggest impact. But the technology is so exciting, I am considering rewriting entire applications to take full advantage of it.

If you are interested in other ways to make developing your Rails application awesome, take a look at my Annotated Guide to a New Rails Application.

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Damien Burke

Damien Burke

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Engineering leader with twenty years of experience in software startups