Wed, 29 Sep 2010

Couchapp Walkthrough - Part 1

Couchapps are a particular way of using couchdb that allow you to serve web applications directly from the database. These applications generate HTML and javascript to present data from couchdb to the user, and then update the database and the UI based on their actions.

Of course there are plenty of frameworks out there that do this sort of thing, and more and more of them are adding couchdb support. What makes couchapps particularly interesting are two things. Firstly, the ease with which they can be developed and deployed. As they are served directly from couchdb they require little infrastructure, and the couchapp tool allows for a rapid iteration. In addition, the conveniences that are provided mean that simple things can be done very quickly with little code.

The other thing that makes couchapps attractive is that they live inside the database. This means that the code lives alongside the data, and will travel with it as it is replicated. This means that you can easily have an app that you have fast, local access to on your desktop, while at the same time replicating to a server so that you can access the same data from your phone while you are out. Again, this doesn't require couchapps, and they won't be suitable for all needs, but they are certainly an interesting idea.

You can read more about couchapps at http://couchapp.org.

Intrigued by couchapps I set out to play with them over a weekend. Unfortunately the documentation is rather lacking currently, so I wouldn't recommend experimenting yourself if you are not happy digging around for answers, and sometimes not finding them outside the code. In order to go a little way to rectifying this, I intend to write a few posts about the things I wish I had known when I started out. I found everything to be a little strange at first, and it wasn't even clear where the entry point of a couchapp was for instance. Hopefully these posts will be found using google by others who are struggling in a similar way.

Architecture

Firstly something about the pieces that make up a couchapp (or at least those that the tool and documentation recommend,) and the way that they all fit together.

At the core is the couchdb database itself. It is a collection of "documents", each of which can have attachments. Some of these documents are known as "design documents," and they start with a prefix of "_design." Design documents can have "view" functions, and various other special fields that can be used to query or manipulate other documents.

A couchapp is a design document with an attachment, usually called index.html. These attachments are served directly by couchdb and can be accessed at a known URL. You can put anything you like in that html file, and you could just have a static page if you wanted. Usually however though it is is an HTML page that uses javascript in order to display the results of queries on the database. The user will then access the attachment on the design document, and will interact with the resulting page.

In theory you can do anything you like in that page, but it is usual to make use of standard tools in order to query the database and provide information and opportunity for interaction to the user.

The first standard tool is jQuery, with a couple of plugins for working with couchdb and couchapps specifically. These allow for querying views in the database and acting on the results, retrieving and updating documents, and plenty more.

In addition the couchapp tool sets you up with another jQuery plugin called "evently", which is a way to structure interactions with jQuery, and change the page based on various events. I will go in to more detail about how evently works in a later post.

In addition to all the client-side tools for interacting with the database, it is also possible to make use of couchdb features such as shows, lists, update handlers validation functions in order to move some of the processing server-side. This is useful for various reasons, including being more accessible, allowing search engines to index the content, and not having to trust the client not to take malicious actions.

The two approaches can be combined, and you can prototype with the client-side tools, and then move some of the work to the server-side facilities later.

Stay tuned for more on how a simple couchapp generates content based on what is in the db.

Posted at: 00:48 | category: /tech | Comments (1)


I think the mental scars of Zope 2 are still too deep for me to think this is a really good idea :-)

Posted by Michael Hudson-Doyle at Wed Sep 29 22:54:34 2010