MobX in the real world

MobX in the real world
MobX has been surging in popularity during the last year. It is being used as the state container in apps of all shapes and sizes. Redux vs MobX comparisons are made constantly, with MobX being praised for its simplicity and ease of use. But MobX is very unopinionated about the structure of your app; the only thing MobX does is guarantee that your view stays in sync with your state. So what does it mean to "replace Redux with MobX"? What does using MobX look like in a real app?

I am writing this in an Embraer ERJ-190 on my way back to Helsinki from ReactiveConf 2016, where I had the pleasure to watch Michel Weststrate present a talk that touched on this very topic. He presented MobX State Tree, a library that brings some structure to MobX apps (he also made it rain stickers!). I haven't had the opportunity to test-drive this library yet, but I believe mobx-state-tree to be very applicable to the ideas I want to present in this blog post.

I have also made my own experimental MobX structure library that borrows some ideas from Redux and is based on a functional programming style. It is called mobx-app. Feedback appreciated!

This blog post outlines the thinking behind mobx-app.

Edit 2019-02-25:

I have now used mobx-app in a multitude of client projects, and it remains my favorite state management solution. It even has 85 stars on Github (wow), so I'm not alone!

What we want to accomplish

The biggest blessing and the harshest curse of MobX is how unopinionated about your state structure it is. This means that you can use MobX as a complete Redux replacement in your app, or just for one feature where the usage of MobX doesn't look like Redux or even Flux at all. You may want to use it on the server for something! MobX doesn't care. MobX only keeps your state consumer in sync with your state.

The flip side is that, if you do not plan your app structure, you might end up with hard to maintain state spaghetti. Even if MobX allows you to mutate your state anytime, anywhere (except views or render functions) that does not mean you should. I recommend turning MobX strict mode on (mobx.useStrict(true)) to only allow state mutations in actions.

This blog post concerns MobX usage as a Redux replacement, which is probably how a vast majority of users will use it. What follows is roughly how mobx-app evolved and the ideas behind it.

The MVP

This is the "minimum viable product" in terms of using MobX as your state container:

// The entry point of your app

// Strict mode
mobx.configure({
  enforceActions: true
});

const state = mobx.observable({
    key: 'value',
    things: [{ ... }, ...]
})

ReactDOM.render(
    <Provider state={ state }>
        <App />
    </Provider>
)

As mobx-react recently gained the Provider higher-order component and the @inject decorator, this will work beautifully for small apps. No need to make it more complicated than this! In fact, I will push an app into production that uses this exact structure next week.

But MobX is not limited to small apps. Oh no. No no no no no! Read on about the state structure I use in medium to large apps.

The start line

The first step is to put the above store object into a function:

const Store = () => {

  return observable({
    key: 'value'
  })
}

Cool, we have our first store. This is actually a store factory that returns a new state object every time it is called.

We can pass in some initial data, in case you serialize the store and want to hydrate it later:

const Store = (initialData) => {

  return extendObservable({
    key: 'value'
  }, initialData)
}

Notice that I now use the extendObservable function to create the observable object. This works very much like Object.assign in that it allows you to add observable properties onto an object. extendObservable is actually an integral part of this state structure, which you will see as it evolves.

So far we have one simple store, a far cry from the granular reducer-based approach of Redux.

One store for each facet of the state

You probably think Redux's reducers are pretty nifty. You're right! They (usually) focus on one slice of the state, enabling you to build it without minding the rest of your app. Let's steal that idea!

We'll continue by defining how we want the singular state tree to look. An app of even moderate size has a few discrete sides to the state and it'll get cumbersome to manage it all from one huge file. What we want is close to how you combine reducers in Redux:

const stores = {
  store: Store, // The Store from above
  things: ThingStore
}

Now we have an index of all the stores in our app. This constitutes the top-most level of our state tree. Now we want to call these store factories and pass in relevant initialData:

const initialData = {
  store: {
    key: 'value from localstorage'
  },
  things: {
    thingsCollection: ['thing1 from localstorage']
  }
}

// Using lodash to map over the `stores` object
const state = _.mapValues(stores, (store, key) => store(initialData[key]))

This will result in state containing observable properties that describe your app's whole state! We're done, right?

Not so fast

We're missing two critical parts: actions and state shared between stores. That's right: MobX encourages that you share state between stores! This ties into the MobX mantra that you should always strive to minimalize state. For example, if one store has data on if the user is logged in or not, another store may want to use that data in a computed value. It makes no sense to have this piece of information in multiple stores. Thus each store needs access to the whole state at all times in an uncumbersome way.

We also need a way to mutate the state in a controlled way. MobX actions are perfect for this, and a must if you use MobX strict mode (which you definitely should). When using MobX, it makes no sense to fire off actions like you do in Redux, you just want to call a function that mutates the state directly. You will retain trackability of all actions since they can be traced with MobX spies.

Both of these need to be baked into our state structure.

The basics of composition

before we continue, we should review how we can use composition to create objects. In case a video is more your style, I highly recommend "Composition over Inheritance" by @mpjme.

const myFactory = (data) => {
  /* This is the "constructor". Do setup stuff here. */
  
  return {
    myMethod1: (arg) => { /* All methods have access to `data` */ },
    myMethod2: (arg) => { /* All methods have access to `data` */ }
  }
}

An important part to realize is that we can now import functions from other modules and use them as methods of this object that the above factory returns:

const functionsForASpecificThing = (data) => {
  function method1() { /* Operate on data */ }
  function method2() { /* Operate on data */ }
  
  return { method1, method2 }
}

const myFactory = (data) => {
  /* This is the "constructor". Do setup stuff here. */
  
  function method1() { /* Operate on data */ }
  
  const composedMethods = functionsForASpecificThing(data)
  
  return {
    method1,
    ..composedMethods
  }
}

This is basically object-oriented inheritance on steroids. We are not limited to inheriting from one class, we can mix in any number we want. This also solves problems where your client requests functionality from XYZ be included in ABC to produce a WTF.

If you use ES6 classes with MobX, you may be familiar with the pattern where the class methods are the actions. I like this pattern too. We're not getting rid of it.

The keen-eyed will notice that, using the composition approach, we no longer return the state object from the store factory. Instead we would return actions, like this:

const Store = (initialData) => {
  // Oops, this is now private state :<
  const storeState = extendObservable({
    key: 'value'
  }, initialData)
   
  return {
    action1, action2, actionN
  }
}

We could certainly include the state in the object that the factory returns, but that gets very messy very fast. And we still haven't solved the problem of a single, shared state tree!

The state field

What I aim to do is construct a "field" or "pool" of state that you can just reach into and grab what you need. Each store will hook into this state field and add its own properties to it. We need to rewrite our store like this:

const Store = (state, initialData, key) => {

  extendObservable(state, {
    key: 'value'
  }, initialData[key])

  return {
    action1, action2, actionN
  }
}

We also need to refactor our combination function from above:

const appState = (stores, initialData) => {
  const state = observable({})
  const actions = {}
  
  _.forOwn(stores, (store, key) => {
    actions[key] => store(state, initialData, key)
  })
  
  return { state, actions }
}

What we end up with is a bit different from what we started this journey with. In this model, store factories only operate on the global state, adding what they need to. They do not return a state object, but an object containing actions relevant to the slice of state that the store handles. The actions, as we'll soon see, are composed with the same global state field as the stores are.

All that is left now is to take the state and the actions returned from the store combiner and inject them into the context of our app, again using the provider from mobx-react:

ReactDOM.render(
    <Provider { ...appState }>
    <App />
  </Provider>
)

Then, use inject in your components to grab that you need:

@inject('state', 'actions')
@observer
class MyComponent extends Component { ... }

Of course, mobx-app includes a helper for grabbing exactly what you need from the context:

import { app } from 'mobx-app`

// The app selector function will inject `state`
// and all actions from `ThingStore` as props. 
@inject(app('things'))
@observer
class MyComponent extends Component { ... }

So what about actions

This is my favourite part. A collection of actions is simply:

const thingActions = (state) => {
  
    const addThing = action('Add thing to the collection of things', (thing) => {
    state.thingsCollection.push(thing)
  })
    
  /* More action functions here */
    
  return {
    addThing,
    doMoreThingStuff
  }
}

As you can see, an action factory has almost the same signature as a store factory, but it's job is to return functions that mutate the state. If you have a store that adds thingsand doohickeys to the state, that store can import both thingActions and doohickeyActions and return them as the store's actions. Also, since the state we pass into all actions is the GLOBAL state, the actions can peek into store properties that they're not directly related to.

An example of where this is useful is tokens and HTTP actions. If you define your ajax fetches as actions, all ajax requests can look into the state for the current JWT token and add that to the request. The same token can also be used in other actions that need it, and functions that determine if the user is logged in to the application at all.

It is liberating to be able to use whatever part of the state you need wherever you need it. This is definitely similar to how a Redux reducer can listen for whichever action it wants to, but for the whole state.

"wow"...

I know right!?!

It might not seem like much, but now we have:

  • Logical slices of state in their own modules along with places to put initializing code
  • Shareable actions that ensure that state mutations are kept tidy
  • A pool of pure state that any component can easily dip into

Check out mobx-app if you haven't already, I'd appreciate it a lot. The repo has a readme that goes even deeper into how it works, and can probably be considered a blog post in itself.