Learning React: #1 Setting up the environment

February 04, 2016

Learning React Series

In this series I wanna discuss my learning experience with ReactJS, this will be an opinionated series on what I think of ReactJS & other libraries, Why I switched to it, and why I think ReactJS is awesome, along side all the opinions I will be sharing code on what I am learning and explaining how it all works.

Note: I have created a github repo that contains all the source code for this article here

Why I bothered learning a new framework

I’ve been a frontend developer for a while now, the last 4 years my work was mostly AngularJS 1.x & EmberJS and I think I’m comfortable with both.

For me it all started by checking out AngularJS and building small apps with it, until the apps I was working on got bigger, I learned about AngularJS more & knew that the code I wrote was terrible and need a BIG refactoring (I think this happened to most), because AngularJS is pretty relaxed, there is no restrictions on where to put things, and that was one of the biggest dis-advantages. at least from my perspective

Then life went by and then I started working with a project built with EmberJS I think it was still in beta, and I had a really difficult time learning it, the concepts were totally different from AngularJS and I hated it at first.

After that it all clicked, and I LOVED EmberJS (And still loving it) been working with it exclusively on various projects for the last couple of years.

Until one of my tasks was to make a big app more performant, the problem was that there were too many properties & observers so any change triggered list refresh multiple times, dealing with the meta language of ember and the two way bindings was just too much headache, during that time, React was on fire and I decided to take a look, at first honestly I though its just too difficult, then now even tho I didn’t work on any real/big projects with React it is my new favourite Library

Note: ember team agrees and they are embracing all the core React concepts and they are in the process of integrating them in ember, but this topic is for another article

Setting up the environment

React doesn’t come with a build tool to init the app, instead you have to do it manually.

React is a low level library and they want to keep it that way, not providing you with a tool like ember-cli for generating/running/deploying the app is a bit frustrating, but honestly giving you the option to choose whatever you want gives you a lot of possibilities like using cutting edge transpilers for using ES7 with react or honestly anything you could ever think of.

Our module loader/bundler + transpiler will be webpack + babel

Initialize the Application

first install webpack globally by running npm install -g webpack

To create a new react application, create a new folder and run the following commands

  • npm init
  • npm install the following list
"dependencies": {
    "babel-loader": "^6.2.0",
    "babel-plugin-add-module-exports": "^0.1.2",
    "babel-plugin-react-html-attrs": "^2.0.0",
    "babel-plugin-transform-class-properties": "^6.3.13",
    "babel-plugin-transform-decorators-legacy": "^1.3.4",
    "babel-preset-es2015": "^6.3.13",
    "babel-preset-react": "^6.3.13",
    "babel-preset-stage-0": "^6.3.13",
    "react": "^0.14.6",
    "react-dom": "^0.14.6",
    "webpack": "^1.12.9",
    "webpack-dev-server": "^1.14.1"

let me explain some of the packages introduced in the list above

wepack-dev-server: a tool for running webpack command in watch mode so whenever any file is changed the compilation happens and fires up a localhost server that serves all the files

react|react-dom after react-native was introduced, the react team figured out the need for extracting a single library that will be used everywhere and created a web specific library that handles the dom aspect of the web, which is now react-dom

babel presets: presets are bunch of plugins associated together, like es2015 allows the user to write ES6, react allows you to write jsx and stage-0 allows the user to write all cutting edge ES7 stuff

Configure webpack

create a new ./webpack.config.js that contains the following

var debug = process.env.NODE_ENV !== 'production'
var webpack = require('webpack')
var path = require('path')

module.exports = {
  context: path.join(__dirname, 'src'),
  devtool: debug ? 'inline-sourcemap' : null,
  entry: './js/app.js',
  module: {
    loaders: [
        test: /\.js?$/,
        exclude: /(node_modules|bower_components)/,
        loader: 'babel-loader',
        query: {
          presets: ['react', 'es2015', 'stage-0'],
          plugins: [
  output: {
    path: __dirname + '/src/',
    filename: 'app.min.js',
  plugins: debug
    ? []
    : [
        new webpack.optimize.DedupePlugin(),
        new webpack.optimize.OccurenceOrderPlugin(),
        new webpack.optimize.UglifyJsPlugin({
          mangle: false,
          sourcemap: false,

The two interesting properties here are:

  • entry: which will be our entry point to the app the first script that runs, and through it, loads the rest of the app
  • output: this is the result when running webpack, this will be referenced in index.html that we will create bellow

this is a pretty basic webpack config that checks the env, if its production will optimize the code by uglifying it and removing duplicate code and sourcemaps.

There is a concepts in webpack (actually babel) which is called loaders through them we can write (ES6, ES7, JSX, …), and it will compile all that to ES5 and will run on all browsers, take a look at the previous link for more info

Note webpack is not exclusive for react, its recommended using it or any other build system (Grunt, Gulp, ..) for any Javascript application


Note by using webpack you will install most of the dependencies from npm not bower and you can reference it from the code, webpack will figure how to handle all that for you (and yes npm is also a good package manager for the web)

At this point we are done with creating our small build system, its a little effort at first, but it makes our life so much easier, specially when the project grows

Cool tip on running your app

One of the dependencies for our app is webpack-dev-server, you could start the app by running


This will actually not work, we need to tell it the base of our app is inside src, so we would run it with the following instead

webpack-dev-server --content-base src

Instead of doing this every time that we would want to run our app, we could add a command in scripts in our package.json

  "dependencies": {
  "scripts": {
    "dev": "./node_modules/.bin/webpack-dev-server --content-base src --inline --hot",
    "test": "echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1"

We are passing two extra flags

  • --inline: this will not show a status bar at the top (shows by default)
  • --hot this enables hot module replacement, awesome feature, instead of refreshing the whole page, it just replaces the components that was edited, read more about it here

Now whenever we want to run the app we would type npm run dev

Basic App Structure

our directory structure should look like this

> node_modules/
> src/
   > js/
     - app.js
     > components/
       - Hello-World.js
   - index.html
- package.json
- webpack.config.js


<!DOCTYPE html>
    <meta charset="utf-8">
    <title>Learning React Series</title>

    <div id="app"></div>
    <script src="app.min.js"></script>

This is just blank html boilerplate, the only interesting part that we are referencing app.min.js (that we specified in the webpack.config.js)


import React from 'react'
import ReactDOM from 'react-dom'

import HelloWorld from './components/Hello-World'

const app = document.getElementById('app')
ReactDOM.render(<HelloWorld />, app)

pretty basic file, just renders the Hello-World component


import React from 'react'

export default class HelloWorld extends React.Component {
  render() {
    let msg = 'Extra Message from React'
    return (
        <div>Hello World!</div>

A really simple react component, just renders

Hello Message
Extra Message from React

That’s it in my next article will be talking about react basics and what is DDAU (Data down action up), until next time, have an awesome day

Written by Nadeem Khedr citizen of the world, you can find me on Twitter & Github