npm Basics for Rubyists

I recently began using npm in parallel with Sprockets on a Rails project. The front end needs had grown beyond the scope of what the default Rails & Sprockets configuration could handle – we’re no longer just sprinkling JavaScript and have a few complex front end apps. For front end development, this is a much better story than copying files to the vendor directory, or adding frontend library gems to the Gemfile.

npm is the best choice for JS package management for two reasons: it is bundled with node.js, and the recent release of npm 3 fixes its past quirks for use in front end web apps.

Past problems with npm

The main problem with npm in the past has been that peer dependencies were not flattened, so it may have been requiring multiple versions of the same dependency, like this:

lib-a v1.0.0
  ↳ dependency-a v0.8
lib-b v1.0.0
  ↳ dependency-a v0.9

Older versions of npm (pre 3.x) nested peer dependencies, which meant that both versions of dependency-a were included in your app bundle. For the front end, this duplication meant the size of the compiled JavaScript would be much larger than anticipated, and could create bugs from version errors.

As of npm 3.3 this dependency tree has been flattened. Peer dependencies must be installed explicitly, removing the duplication and allowing complete control over their versions. Clearing up the nested dependency problem removes the main advantage that other JavaScript package managers (like Bower) had over npm.

npm — Node Package Manager

There are two key things to know when getting started with npm, how to install dependencies, and where they are specified.

npm install

This command by itself is roughly equivalent to bundle install, it installs the dependencies listed in package.json. Generally, running npm install is the step directly after cloning a project with node.js dependencies.


In the node.js ecosystem, package.json is roughly equivalent to Bundler’s Gemfile. Project dependencies and their required versions are listed here, as well as configuration, and customized scripts relating to the project.

When entering an unfamiliar project, this is the first place to look.

Installing dependencies

In the Ruby ecosystem there are two ways to install gems, directly with gem install gemname, or via the Gemfile with Bundler. In node.js, npm is the only way to install node packages.

In Ruby, gems are installed system wide and if you’ve installed a gem, it is available for any project. npm has two ways of installing packages – globally, or locally.

Global installation is similar to running gem install – it installs the package to a globally configured node directory, however, global packages are not available locally within local projects. Global packages are typically used for utilities and tooling.

Local installation is npm’s default behaviour and will make the installed packages available within the current directory. If you are in ~/code/app-time, running npm install backbone will install to ~/code/app-time/node_modules/backbone.

Here’s a quick overview of the different commands:

Global Dependencies

In npm, you would typically use global installed packages for tooling or utilities you will use often for multiple purposes. Examples of packages that are typically installed globally are:

# Ruby
# installs the Rails gem globally
gem install rails

# npm
# Installs the express package globally
npm install svgo -g

Project dependencies

Modern Ruby projects typically use Bundler for managing dependencies and stores these in the project’s Gemfile. node.js uses npm and package.json, respectively.

  • npm install – Installs dependencies listed in package.json<br> Ruby equivalent: bundle install<br>

  • npm install react --save – Installs the React package and saves an entry to it in package.json<br> Ruby equivalent: add a gem to the Gemfile and run bundle install.

  • npm install webpack --save-dev – Installs the webpack package and saves an entry to the dev-dependencies section of package.json<br> Ruby equivalent: add a gem to the development group in the Gemfile and run bundle install.

  • npm install node-sass – Installs a package, but doesn’t reference it anywhere. This is not useful, unless you’re simply testing a package.<br> Ruby equivalent: none..

Running Locally Installed Executables

Unlike the Gemfile, package.json has more responsibilities than listing dependencies and can include configuration options, as well as customizable scripts.

Because dependencies are installed to a relative directory, the executable binaries aren’t in your shell’s PATH variable. In order to run a locally installed binary, you must prefix the command with npm run. For example, if you wanted to install and run svgo in a local folder, you would do the following:

# installs svgo and saves it to `package.json`
npm install svgo --save

# runs the svgo binary located in the `node_modules` directory
npm run svgo

In addition to this, you can configure different scripts to run by default using the scripts section of package.json. Here’s an example:

  "scripts": {
    "test": "mocha --compilers js:babel-core/register --recursive",
    "test:watch": "npm run test -- --watch"

This configuration will add npm run test and npm run test:watch to the project.

For further reading, see the Using a package.json section of the npm documentation.