unmarshaller - Toolbox for configuration - Interview with Sven Sauleau

Serialization, or the process of transforming data from a shape to another, is a common problem you encounter eventually when programming. Perhaps you want to store some state to the hard drive from memory or restore it. Or you may want to share it across the wire and consume it somehow on the other end. That's where a related concept, marshalling, comes in.

In this interview you will learn more about the topic as Sven Sauleau discusses the ideas behind his library, unmarshaller.

Remember to check Sven's previous interview about async-reactor.

How would you describe unmarshaller to someone who has never heard of it?#

If you are not familiar with the term of marshalling, here is an excerpt from Wikipedia):

In computer science, marshalling [...] is the process of transforming the memory representation of an object to a data format suitable for storage or transmission, and it is typically used when data must be moved between different parts of a computer program or from one program to another. Marshalling is similar to serialization and is used to communicate to remote objects with an object, in this case, a serialized object. It simplifies complex communication, using custom/complex objects to communicate instead of primitives. [...]

When you have a lot of configuration, it's not easy to maintain or even to understand.

unmarshaller enables you to describe your configuration in a flexible way. It also provides tools to improve configuration usage.

How does unmarshaller work?#

To use unmarshaller, you have to define lookups against your data. These can be custom, or you can use ones provided with unmarshaller.

Lookup Function#

During the unmarshalling process the lookup function will be called to get the value for a given key.

If you want to extract values from an object the lookup will look like this:

const lookupFn = key => myObject[key];

How to provide the values is up to you. You could get them from the URL, looking for DOM nodes, network requests, and so on.

First, you need to declare your configuration in the unmarshaller object, here is an example:

unmarshaller.js:

// The builder is a set of helper functions to build
// the unmarshaller object.
// It has the builtin types: `string`, `number`,
// `boolean`, `object` and `holder` that is used to
// nest configurations.
import { builder } from 'unmarshaller';

export const unmarshaller = {
  // `person_name` will be the key used as argument
  // in the lookup function
  name: builder.string('person_name', {
    // `description` is used for documentation
    // generation
    description: 'Name of the person',

    // If the lookup function didn't returned a value,
    // the default value will be used instead
    defaultValue: 'Sven',
  }),

  customProps: builder.object('custom_props', {
    description: 'Custom properties',
    defaultValue: {},
  }),

  showAge: builder.boolean('person_show_age', {
    description: 'Show age of the person',
    defaultValue: true,
  }),

  age: builder.number('person_age', {
    description: 'Age of the person',
    defaultValue: -1,
  }),

  backgroundColor: builder.string('background_color', {
    description: 'Background color of the card',
    defaultValue: '#69b0dc',
  }),

  textColor: builder.string('font_color', {
    description: 'Font color',
    defaultValue: 'black',
  }),
};

index.js:

import { unmarshal } from 'unmarshaller';

// This is the unmarshaller object from the file above
import { unmarshaller} from './unmarshaller.js'

const lookupFn = (key) => myObject[key];
const config = unmarshal(lookupFn, unmarshaller);

// `config` is a regular JavaScript object containing your configuration:
//
// {
//   name: ...,
//   backgroundColor: ...,
//   textColor: ...,
// }
console.log(config);

Custom types#

To be able to use custom types you need to extend the default builder.

Here is an example of a color type:

import {
  builder as defaultBuilder
} from 'unmarshaller';

export const builder = {
  ...defaultBuilder,

  color: (name, options) => ({
    name,
    parser: parseColor, // custom parser function
    type: 'color',
    ...options
  }),
};

You can find more information about custom types in the documentation in the project repository.

Error handling#

In the case of a casting error, unmarshaller will always return the type you defined.

For example, if you pass an invalid JSON string in builder.object it will return {} unless you have defined a defaultValue.

How does unmarshaller differ from the other solutions?#

I didn't find an alternative solution to unmarshaller. There are some libraries which also adopt the idea of declarative configuration, but they only focus on one usage.

For example, ajv uses a declarative configuration, but it doesn't serve the same goal since it's only for validations.

To understand ajv better, read the interview with Evgeny Poberezkin.

Why did you develop unmarshaller?#

I made unmarshaller while I was working for a company. On some projects, we would use highly customizable React components (up to 70 different parameters). The configuration needed to be able to be set both by developers (passing props) and remotely by non-developers.

Our unmarshaller lookup function got the configuration either from query parameters in the URL or by calling a function in our proprietary SDK.

What next?#

Better syntax?#

The unmarshaller could also be JSX based (example for Webpack). The configuration could look like this:

<unmarshaller>

  <string
    name="name"
    defaultValue="Sven"
    description="Name of the person"
  />

  <holder name="colors">
    <color
      name="background_color"
      defaultValue="#69b0dc"
      description="Background color"
    />
    <color
      name="font_color"
      defaultValue="black"
      description="Font color"
    />
  </holder>

</unmarshaller>

Most common lookup functions#

Provide standard lookup functions, for example, to extract configuration values from URLs as this would allow users to use the functions that come with unmarshaller instead of having to write them themselves.

Ahead of time processing#

Create a Babel plugin to inline constant values in the unmarshaller object to avoid doing this at runtime.

What does the future look like for unmarshaller and web development in general? Can you see any particular trends?#

Since unmarshaller is flexible, I could imagine various tools built on top of it (for example, form validations).

Any last remarks?#

We have a few extra modules which are located in a second repository unmarshaller-extra:

unmarshaller-generator-markdown

Generate markdown documentation from a given unmarshaller object, containing the name, type, default value and a description of each configuration.

In our use case, we display the documentation of our React component on GitHub and in a panel in our Storybook.

The documentation will look like this:

name type default value description
background_color string #69b0dc Background color of the card
font_color string black Font color
name string Sven Name of the person

You can find an example here.

unmarshaller-generator-storybook-knobs

Generate Storybook addons/knobs from the unmarshaller object.

There's an example showing how to do this in the repository.

More extras to come soon. unmarshaller is a flexible tool, I'm excited to see tools built on top of it soon.

Conclusion#

Thanks for the interview Sven! unmarshaller seems to handle the problem of marshalling admirably. To learn more about the project, see unmarshaller on GitHub.

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