27 Apr, 2021

10 min.

What Is React? Everything a Tech Leader Needs to Know

Before choosing it for your tech stack, learn more about React: its components, Virtual DOM, flexibility, ease of development. Find out how it's different from other frontend frameworks, discover possible limitations and ways to deal with them.

Rafał
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Krzysztof
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Olga
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Introduction

The library for creating User Interfaces with reusable components. No imposed technological or architectural solutions. Flexibility and reliability. That’s React in a nutshell.

It’s […] a powerful tool that may well change the way you approach front-end development. […] Instead of the usual approach to writing user interfaces, React treats each UI element as a contained state machine.

Bonnie Eisenman, former software engineer at Codeacademy.com, now tech lead at Twitter

If you consider React for your tech stack, there are a few things you should know. Let’s dive into specifics: React features, flexibility, learning curve, possible tech stack solutions. Also included: senior engineer’s advice on folder structure which you won’t find in tutorials.

TL;DR

# What is React and how does it work?

React is a library for building User Interface that fulfills its purpose perfectly, giving developers freedom and flexibility. To create apps, developers use JavaScript and JSX. Components and declarative code are what’s best about React.

# React features

Virtual DOM improves performance, and JSX allows programmers to build the UI using syntax that closely resembles HTML. Components allow developers to handle even the largest scale projects with ease.

# Flexibility vs learning curve

Flexibility in terms of tooling, architecture and code patterns is a benefit for experienced developers, and may be an obstacle for not experienced ones. React’s learning curve is steeper for the ones who don’t have experience with frontend. For those who know frontend or JavaScript, it’s easy to catch up React. 

# Support and stability

React is supported by many big companies, so it will remain a stable solution for years to come.

# Community and talent availability

The community of React is vast and active, making it easy to find experienced developers, seek for help, and find ready-made solutions.

# Tools and technologies for React apps

The default for React is a SPA (Single Page Application)﹣if we want to build server-side rendered applications, we need to use other tools like Next.js or Gatsby. React gives us freedom in terms of the backend.

# Angular vs React vs Vue

Angular, React and Vue are the three most popular JavaScript frameworks/libraries nowadays. They are more similar than you may think, but fit different competencies and slightly different projects.

# React limitations

Most common high-level problems with React relate to folder structure and the heterogeneity of the environment. Inexperienced developers may find choosing a suitable library problematic and structure the code inefficiently.

What is React?

React is one of the most popular JavaScript libraries for building User Interfaces. Notice: it’s a library, not a framework (even though it’s often called one).

You can think of code from a JavaScript library in terms of furniture and decorations for a house you’ve already built, while a framework is a model home template you use to build a house.

Skillcrush

Frameworks limit the flexibility in terms of tooling, technology stack, code patterns. React doesn’t limit it in any way. It has a simple task: make building User Interfaces easy and powerful. And it fulfills its purpose perfectly.

Having worked with JS frameworks for several years, we all know that frameworks are often bloated and force you to include things you don’t need. That may be ok in the server-side world, but a significant disadvantage with web apps.

Rich Manalang, former Architect and Team Lead at Atlassian, about rebuilding HipChat with React

App development with React

The default for React are SPAs (Single Page Applications). When building a complex application, you’ll most likely need to use React with other libraries and tools. There are no dependencies, so you and your team choose the whole tech stack. 

Thanks to components and modularity React is perfect for large-scale apps. However, while creating a React app, it’s recommended to have a large scale in mind from the beginning, while designing architecture and structuring folders. 

Tip: We explain how to structure folders later, with examples.

How does React work?

To code with React, developers use JavaScript and a special feature called JSX. React apps are built with reusable components. The code is declarative. 

Declarative code

With declarative code, developers tell JavaScript what needs to be done. What, not how. Declarative code is a result-focused instruction, that describes what we want (the end result) instead of how we want it. 

In the case of React, the library is in charge of performing all of the steps needed to achieve the result. Sometimes it can be challenging since the team has to know how to define the results but in the end the declarative code is easier to read and manage in the long run.

React features

JSX

It’s a language extension that allows web developers to easily modify DOM by using HTML code. Developers write the code using HTML-like syntax which is translated into pure JavaScript. Using JSX to update the DOM leads to significant performance improvements. 

Virtual DOM

Traditionally, a website uses HTML pages fetched from a server to update the view. For websites that involve high user interaction, it can seriously spoil the performance, since the entire DOM needs to reload every time a user clicks a feature calling for a page refresh. 

Single Page Apps written in React don’t need to fetch external HTML pages from a server. JSX allows developers to create a Virtual DOM﹣a copy of a real DOM React uses to see what parts need to change when an event happens. Virtual DOM determines what changes need to be made and updates the particular section intelligently. It takes less computing power and loading time. As a consequence, it improves performance a lot.

Discover what is React by getting to know it's feature - Virtual DOM.
Image source

Components

To write React apps developers create components that correspond to various interface elements. Each component represents a small, reusable piece of HTML, has its own logic and controls. It can maintain an internal state. Components make unit testing easier. 

Organizing components

To define the structure of an application, components are organized logically into a tree-like structure, where higher-level components encapsulate lower-level ones. Components can be nested within other components which allows for crafting complex applications with simple building blocks.

Although it is possible to achieve modularity with a classical inheritance pattern, frequent changes in superclass interfaces to support new features affects existing subclasses and increases code fragility. React’s compositional pattern is ideal for overall maintenance and scalability of our front-end codebase as it isolates much of the A/B test code.

Jordanna Kwok, Engineering Leader at Netflix

One-way data binding

React uses one-way data binding: it only binds the value of the model to the view, not the other way around. The information flows only in one direction. Developers modify the component’s state, and updates are propagated to components that are nested inside of them. The data can be transferred only from a component to the view, not the other way around.

Important: Components don’t modify the data they received.

Two-way data binding, used in frameworks like Angular, means that when there are data changes in the model (the model gets updated), so does the UI, and when UI elements get updated, that change is propagated back to the model.  Sometimes it can cause side-effects.

The “one way data flow” appealed to all developers in the team as a neat way to think about a UI application interactions. This also felt like a good solution to make debugging and understand data flows much easier and predictable. 

Subramanyan Murali, former Engineering Manager, Yahoo Mail

Flexibility vs learning curve

React is fairly easy to learn, especially for developers who know JavaScript. However, if your team doesn’t have a solid frontend experience, it may be harder for them to learn React. Why?

React offers a lot of flexibility in terms of architecture patterns, additional tooling, third-party libraries. 

On the one hand, this flexibility is a huge advantage for frontend experts. Unopinionated library allows a team to adjust every single aspect to the product’s requirements. React gives them a lot of options, is easy and pleasant to work with.

On the other, it’s easy to make a mess in architecture when inexperienced developers start to code in React. Also, in the case of big teams, you need to keep the finger on the pulse in terms of unification: using the same tools and patterns.

Key take-away: React’s flexibility makes work easier for experienced frontend developers and may create and obstacle for others (look after the unification in terms of tools and patterns).

Support and stability

React.js is supported by the biggest players. As everybody knows, Facebook stays behind it, but many big companies like Airbnb, Slack, Lyft, are engaged in creating the ecosystem around React.

It makes React a stable solution. We can be sure that the library will be supported for years. Even if React itself would completely stop expanding in a few years, it will be supported for the next 20. That makes it a stable solution for apps that plan to expand and be in the market for a long time.

Community and talent availability

React’s community is vast, so it’s easy to hire experts. According to The State of JavaScript 2019, React experience over time grows steadily. More than 70% of surveyed developers have experience in React and declared they will use it continually.

Discover what is React by exploring developer's experience with this library over time.
Image source

The React community on GitHub is also strong. On the one hand, that’s an indicator of talent availability. On the other, a big community means more support when your developers will need help. Also, the React community is very active and creates useful tools and solutions that are publicly available.

However, you need to be careful during the recruitment process, because a big community may also mean that it will be harder to pick the best ones from the crowd. 

Tools for various app types

Redux

Redux is a tool for stage management that can be used with any JavaScript framework or library.

The state of all components depends on one root object tree. This makes your app easier to look at as a whole and debug. Developers can easily separate the Model logic from the View, doing it in a scalable way, as well as write the state locally or on a server. Redux also gives you a few great debugging tools.

React and Redux create a perfect tech stack for real-time applications.

Gatsby

Gatsby is used with React to create static websites. It’s useful when the content doesn’t change in real-time. Gatsby takes care of everything: generates a static website from a JavaScript code, fills the gaps in the code, allows for easy communication with data sources. React and Gatsby work well with popular headless CMSs.

Next.js

Next.js is used to write server-side rendering to React apps. Server-side rendering allows developers to transfer navigation to the client-side and upload only parts of the website, not the whole. 

Next.js launches on Node.js and comes with many useful default solutions that provide excellent performance. The team behind it provided many optimizations. 

Next.js is perfect for e-commerce: Google understands it, clients get the content quickly and can navigate easily.

Backend stack

React goes well with any tech stack we choose, meaning you can use any backend. 

Node.js seems to be the best choice when you want to use one team to create the frontend and the backend of your web application.

Frontend with JavaScript: Angular vs React vs Vue 

Angular, React and Vue are the most popular and widely used JavaScript frameworks/libraries. They are very similar, yet each of them fits a different team’s capabilities. 

Since Angular is highly opinionated, frontend experts may struggle with following its rules. React and Vue are both flexible, hard to deal with for those who only start with frontend development. Vue is fairly new and it builds its position on the market but the position of React and the community around the library is bigger.

Angular 

Angular is the most mature framework out of these three. It offers a whole platform with a complete package of tools. Some consider it an advantage, some not since it cuts off the flexibility. The learning curve is steep for frontend experts and concepts seem complex. It is highly opinionated, so will be a better choice for fragmented teams and backend developers. Angular is supported by Google, but they also focus on other technologies.

React

React is liked by the community, offers a lot of support from the contributors, and useful, publicly available solutions. It’s easy to integrate with other frameworks. It doesn’t offer as much as Angular, but it does its part perfectly. It’s supported by the largest players which makes it reliable for long-term projects. There are many talents in the market. React is a perfect choice for large-scale apps since it offers modularity, however, developers need to know how to handle it.

Vue

Vue doesn’t have backing from a big company and is the youngest here. Developers like it since it’s very flexible. However, it can become too flexible for some teams and hard to use for non-experienced ones. It has the lowest learning curve for frontend experts and high for backend ones. Vue has the smallest community and lacks some plugins, but it’s growing steadily, being the most lightweight and offering excellent performance.

React limitations

Folder structure

React is perfect for a large scale but developers need to take care of the architecture and folder structure from the very beginning. 

Unfortunately, tutorials don’t mention that

For the last 2-3 years, the community has been speaking more loudly about these problems. We’ve also seen it in projects we have worked upon. Being boring or not, this topic is crucial, especially for large-scale apps.

Instead of following the folder structure from tutorials, we recommend looking at it from the abstraction and composition point of view, use feature folders, refactor often, and build an architecture based on bounded context (the central pattern in Domain-Driven Design).

DDD deals with large models by dividing them into different Bounded Contexts and being explicit about their interrelationships.

Martin Fowler
Discover what is React by exploring how to structure folders while developing a React app.
Image source

Then, the golden rule in structuring folders is to keep things close to the place you use them.

How could it look like in a React app? Check this example:

Discover what is React by learning how to structure folders in a React app the right way and avoid scalability problems in the future.
Author: Krzysztof Jendrzyca

Why should you care? The structure from tutorials simply doesn’t scale. Folders like “services” or “repositories” grow endlessly and team members need to build mental images to connect code from various folders. Keeping it together solves the problem.

The structure presented above allows for high scalability and makes development more efficient. It’s easier to make changes and test the app, and new developers have an easier start. If you have scalability in mind, take care of folder structure from the very beginning, and do it the right way.

Heterogenetic environment

React offers many solutions that solve the same problems. All of them are popular and there is no best one chosen by the community.

It can be both: advantage and the opposite. 

On one side, it gives us the possibility to choose the best solution for our specific case, and the choice is always broad. On the other, we need to choose consciously and take care of every developer maintaining a consistent, relevant environment. When each developer uses different tools, things can go off the beaten track: the code becomes inefficient and it creates bugs.

To sum up: why React?

Many companies choose React because of the freedom and flexibility it offers, along with the stability, supportive community, and a large talent pool. The whole ecosystem provides many useful tools and gives us the freedom to pick the technology stack for our application. In the meantime, React is awesome in doing its job﹣taking care of the UI of our application.

Frontend developers will most likely find React easier to learn and code with, compared to Angular. Compared to Vue, it’s more stable, with a larger community and talent pool.

React seems to be perfect for large-scale apps, but with architecture design and folder structure in mind from the very beginning. 

Is it the right JavaScript framework for your next project? The choice is yours.

If you need to explore React further, the next chapter of this handbook goes deeper into React scalability, maintenance, performance, and security﹣crucial aspects when assessing the business viability of the technology.

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