bp

Building a static storage import-map CDN

at a large industrial dock, a shipping container is open, and piles of maps  are spilling out

In my day-job at Red Hat, my team are responsible for developing, promoting, and shipping the Red Hat Design System. Seen from one perspective, a design system is nothing more than a collection of web components, and maybe some guidelines on how to use them. While this is true in a narrow sense, our experience has shown that the work of building design systems involves much more "meta". Perhaps the lion's share of our work is taken up by our efforts to package up the design system for use in diverse and distinctive applications. After all, a design system that only serves a single application isn't of much use.

Delivering a Design System

As work on building out the design system proceeded, and as teams were canvassed for interest and adoption, it became clear that just telling teams to npm i @rhds/elements was not the one-size-fits-all solution we'd hoped it would be. For one thing, not every team has the capability or interest to maintain a package.json file and associated "ecosystem" toolchain. This isn't a problem if you fall into the camp which holds that the final solution to UI development is to always use React for everything. But as it turns out there are plenty of capable software engineers who don't subscribe to that view. The refrain we heard over and over was "if we had a CDN to deliver these components, it would solve so many problems". We found ourselves unable to disagree.

For background, a CDN is a network of web servers, usually distributed evenly around the globe, which provide redundant access to commonly accessed resources like images and scripts. For our purposes, the web-distributed and browser-compatible aspects of CDNs were most compelling. So when we say CDN here, what we're really referring to is a web service which hosts browser-compatible files that comprise the design system. Anyone with an HTML page and an internet connection can use them; no need to first install and build packages.

The Requirements

Different apps have different needs, different teams have different processes. That reads like a dull cliche, but in large organizations, engineering leads have so much to keep track of just managing their own responsibilities, it's unreasonable to expect them to keep track of other team's requirements and processes as well. That's why it's advantageous for design systems teams to maintain a degree of independence from their user's stacks, so that no one use case 鈥 preeminent though it may be 鈥 can steam roll the others.

With that in mind, we set about gathering the requirements.

1st-party
For many good reasons including security, performance, and reliability, we can't rely on 3rd party services.
Allowlist
Similarly, we wanted control over which software was available on the CDN. While mirroring NPM was a tempting proposition at first, some brief consideration convinced us that opening the firehose to the world's largest software repository for use on a corporate CDN was maybe not the best plan.
No app
The skills and time of our design systems team could not be taken up in app maintenance. There would be no PagerDuty, no SLA, no weekend crises. This was non-negotiable.
Page-level control
With a project as large as redhat.com (not to mention other design system users), we could not reasonably expect every page to maintain the same version line. As new versions of the design system would be released (particularly major versions), we would need to give page authors the ability to manage their own dependencies at the document level. This is underscored by the double-registration problem of global custom element names.
NPM package congruency[1]
We knew in advance that we could not predict the fine details of every design system user's needs. We couldn't easily list a set of assumptions about packaging that would obtain in every case. For that reason we decided early on that we should strive to stay as close as possible to the experience of npm installing our packages.
Package versions
Like any design system, ours grows and evolves over time. Consuming pages would need to be able to target a given version or version line. The NPM ecosystem and associated tools rely on semantic versioning to provide a measure of confidence when upgrading dependencies. We would need to serve multiple versions of our design systems so that users could choose the one that works for them.
Entrypoints and transitive dependencies
No one cares about tslib 馃幓. CDN users wouldn't need to extend LitElement (at least, not from our files). We wanted to provide a limited set of entry points per package, and hide the implementation details in a "vendor bundle" or similar solution.
esm-first
The advantages to javascript modules are many: they are automatically deferred, they always parse and run in strict mode, they make it much harder to accidentally pollute the global scope, and they can be mapped from bare specifiers. It seemed clear to us that there was no compelling reason to go out of our way to support scripts when modules are better in most every respect.

All of these requirements led us in one direction: web standards and import maps.

Import Maps on one Foot

Since their initial specification in 2015, JavaScript modules (i.e. esm) are able to import other modules by absolute or relative path or by fully qualified URL. So for example, you can write these imports in a module without any problems:

import * as foo from '../foo.js';
import * as bar from '/bar.js';
import * as baz from 'https://qux.quux/baz.js';

This works a treat in many cases, but the major drawback is that you can't just import "a package", you have to import from a path to a particular file. Developers got used to referring to packages installed on their computers in node_modules directories by name, though, using what came to be called "bare module specifiers", like so:

import * as foo from 'foo';

Import maps let page authors map from import specifiers to module urls:

<script type="importmap">
  { "imports": {
    "foo": "/modules/foo.js" } }
</script>

<script type="module">
  import * as foo from 'foo';
</script>

This also lets page authors rewrite import specifiers, for example, by requesting a specific version of a library

<script type="importmap">
  { "imports": {
    "lit": "https://jspm.dev/lit@2.7.3" } }
</script>

Alternatives we Considered

There are already a small but growing collection of CDNs which support modern esm-first workflows to varying degrees.

Service Pros Cons
unpkg 鉁 Module-rewriting via ?module 鉂 Doesn't respect entry points[2]
鉂 3rd-party
jspm 鉁 Import Maps 鉂わ笍
鉁 Actively maintained
鉂 Proprietary
鉂 3rd party
esm.sh 鉁 Self-hosted
鉁 Open-source
鉁 Import-maps 鉂わ笍
鉂 Requires us to run an app

We could have just told our users "use esbuild or rollup", but as mentioned above, not every user of our design system can (or should) run a nodejs / npm toolchain for their pages or web apps.

The Big Idea: A Static File Bucket

In order to meet all our requirements, we decided to build a static file structure and ship it to Red Hat's existing CDN platform redhatstatic.com, via SPAShip.

We reserved a subdir for our distribution and started dreaming up file structures. We new we wanted the top-level of the packages dir to be a list of specific package versions, and we knew we wanted each individual package to provide all the files listed in it's entry points block.

dx
鈹斺攢鈹 v1
    鈹斺攢鈹 @patternfly
        鈹溾攢鈹 elements@2.0.0
        鈹   鈹溾攢鈹 pf-accordion
        鈹   鈹   鈹斺攢鈹 pf-accordion.js
        鈹   鈹溾攢鈹 pf-avatar
        鈹   鈹   鈹斺攢鈹 pf-avatar.js
        鈹   鈹斺攢鈹 ...etc
        鈹斺攢鈹 elements@2.0.1
            鈹溾攢鈹 pf-accordion
            鈹   鈹斺攢鈹 pf-accordion.js
            鈹溾攢鈹 pf-avatar
            鈹   鈹斺攢鈹 pf-avatar.js
            鈹斺攢鈹 ...etc
    
    
Our desired file structure

Package Entry Points

A package's entry points don't have to line up with the files on disk. This might pose problems for our static CDN, since it's all based on directory structure. For example, our package @rhds/elements has an exports block that looks like this:

{
  "name": "@rhds/elements",
  "version": "1.0.1",
  "description": "Red Hat Design System Elements",
  "type": "module",
  "license": "MIT",
  "exports": {
    ".": "./rhds.min.js",
    "./lib/*": "./lib/*",
    "./*": "./elements/*"
  },
}

This means that if you import @rhds/elements/rh-footer/rh-footer.js, it should point to @rhds/elements@1.0.1/elements/rh-footer/rh-footer.js, whereas if you import @rhds/elements/lib/context/color/provider.js, it will point to @rhds/elements@1.0.1/lib/context/color/provider.js.

Thankfully, an import map can manage this for us.

<script type="importmap">
  { "imports": {
    "@rhds/elements/lib/": "/dx/v1/@rhds/elements@1.0.1/lib/",
    "@rhds/elements/": "/dx/v1/@rhds/elements@1.0.1/elements/" } }
</script>

Building the Static Files

So let's get cracking. Our first problem is that we need to install multiple versions of the same package on the build machine, but npm typically can only install a single version at a time. Additionally, we'd like to separate strictly between the build process' dependencies and the build environment (into which we install and from which we build the static file structure). We chose pnpm to manage our dependencies, because it's global package store already represents a flat list of package versions, much like our package directory will eventually be. We also decided to create a temporary working directory with a private local-only npm package, where we'd install our packages.

With the packages on disk, we chose esbuild to bundle them up, while maintaining entry points.

The workflow for creating a build of the CDN looks like this:

  1. Receive a comma-separated list of package version ranges
    • e.g. @patternfly/elements@>=2,@rhds/elements@>=1
  2. Retrieve the list of concrete package versions for each of those ranges
  3. For each package version from step 2:
    1. Install the package using pnpm (i.e. link it from the global store)
    2. Convert it's entrypoints map to a list of filepaths on disk
    3. Use esbuild to bundle up that list of entrypoints
      • Making sure to mark all the requested package names as external, so that we don't end up bundling files from sibling CDN packages

That last point about external packages is important, by marking sibling packages as external, we ensure that if @rhds/elements depends on modules from @patternfly/elements, then that file won't get bundled into the dependent package. In the case of custom-element definitions, that could lead to double-registration errors, so it's not just a performance issue.

Sharing Code

When we run the build, we configure esbuild to output all the shared chunks to a common folder at the root of the CDN. Since we give chunks a hashed filename, and the hash is based on the file contents, we're confident that there won't be collisions, and we even hope that a large number of identical chunks will be produced across the entire build. If that were the case, more code (particularly common dependencies) would be shared between packages or versions.

This isn't a perfect solution, but we are confident that it's Good Enough for Now.

Generating Import Maps

The package entry point schema is more flexible than import maps, it can contain wildcards, whereas import maps can only specify trailing slashes which forward an entire directory tree. esbuild's entryPoints config field is the strictest of all, requiring a list of concrete file paths. So before we run the build, we have to first glob up all the files referred to in the package export map. This process allows us to generate an import map for each package at the same time we build out it's files. We make that import map available, along with some other metadata about the build, in a meta.json file at the root of the CDN.

These import maps point to absolute paths from the CDN's web root, so for example:

"@rhds/elements/rh-alert/rh-alert.js": "/dx/v1/@rhds/elements@1.0.1/rh-alert/rh-alert.js",

This won't work when placed on pages at other domains, but it can serve as the basis for further configuration and tooling.

Assets

While we can depend on import maps to rewrite module paths, this won't work for assets like global stylesheets. We would still need to link to the files in their original directory structure. This is fine, but provides a somewhat unpleasant "developer experience":

<script type="module">import '@rhds/elements/rh-footer/rh-footer.js';</script>
<link href="https://redhatstatic.com/dx/v1/@rhds/elements@1.0.1/elements/rh-footer/rh-footer-lightdom.css" rel="stylesheet">

That elements@1.0.1/elements is a minor annoyance. For this reason, we copy those assets (by filename convention) to the directory they would appear to be in according to the import map. Let's hope for a spec solution for this one.

Opportunities for Improvement

Make it public

The current iteration of our build chain doesn't have any specifically corporate stuff in it, so we're hoping to package this thing up for public consumption as a F/OSS package soon.

Non-destructive / less-destructive builds

At the moment we need to rebuild the entire directory structure each time we run an update. We'd like to instead rely on the stateful information recorded in the meta.json file to only build and publish updated packages.

JSPM provider plugin

JSPM's generator package is a provider-agnostic utility for generating import maps. We'd like to ship a provider plugin so that teams using our CDN can automate their import map construction.

Semver range URLs

It would be swell to let our users specify a version range when importing, rather than requiring them to pin a version to their import maps.

<script type="importmap">
{ "imports": {
  "@rhds/elements/": "https://redhatstatic.com/dx/v1/@rhds/elements@^1/" } }
</script>

We think we can manage this either in the spaship config or in the host CDN's HTTP config, and this shouldn't require a running app, so long as we write the lookup table of semver strings, or maybe a supported subset of them, at each build. Functions are just lookup tables, after all.

More explicit vendor bundles

While the hashed chunk solution seems reasonable for now, we'd prefer to bundle up certain well-known dependencies (like lit and tslib) by version into minified vendor bundle files. There's an open issue on esbuild for "manual chunks" which has gained much attention, and it appears to be on Evan Wallace' radar, so we'll pursue that or a similar solution when it becomes available.

Thanks

We're looking to roll this work out to pages on redhat.com and various other apps and services soon.

Michael Potter, for doing most of the work. Ivana Rodriguez for her interest and feedback. Zack Hawkins, for his careful review and pointed constructive critique. Kyle Buchanan for his support, brainstorming, and interest, and Rob Chappell for the initiative and managerial support.

Thanks also to Steven Spriggs and Nikki Massaro Kauffman for proofreading this post.


  1. at least as far as package entry points are concerned.

  2. UNPKG does not support package entry points (aka export maps) as of this writing