Angst and the Angular Module System

Google's AngularJS is one of the most popular web frameworks out there, but it comes with its share of criticism (performance around two way binding being one of the more prominent complaints). Google responded by releasing Angular 2 (and, as of now, 4, 5 and 6), which addressed some of the issues but at the cost of being drastically incompatible with its predecessor, with no realistic way to upgrade except through pure elbow grease. Angular 2+ might as well be a completely different framework.

I never got the chance to become familiar with AngularJS, but my employer did decide to take the plunge with Angular 2 on one of their newer projects and so, for better or for worse, I am somewhat familiar how an Angular 2+ project works.

Aside from the rather gratuitous break with AngularJS, Angular 2+ (henceforth simply Angular) gets a lot of flak for being overly complicated. I completely understand this reaction; the learning curve is dauntingly high, especially compared to something like React, which lets you write a bare-bones web component with a lot fewer lines of code. I suspect that as your application gets more complicated, the differences between the two frameworks mellow out, but I don't judge the initial impression.

Simply put, there's just a lot more stuff in Angular.

Modules

One of the things that you need to learn to become proficient in Angular is a concept called a module, to be quickly distinguished from standard Javascript modules, which are entirely different beasts. It can be a bit difficult to understand what an Angular module for, and how best to organize code around it, so I decided to try and fill the gap.

Please note that this article assumes a certain degree of familiar with Angular in general. See the fine documentation if you wish to learn more.

A module is used in Angular for several things, but in this article we're mostly concerned with:

  • defining what you can use in a template (declarations)
  • configuring the dependency injection system (providers)

These two purposes can be somewhat at odds, as we will see.

One defines a module in Angular by declaring a class with an NgModule decorator:

@NgModule({
    // stuff goes in here, to be explained later
})
export class SomeModule {
    // nothing goes in here
}

The class itself doesn't really do anything except provide a name for the module.

For the most part, I will assume that the modules under discussion here are are eagerly loaded, i.e. they are all processed at once during the bootstrapping of the application.

Modules can be lazily loaded as well, meaning that they are processed some time after the application has booted (if at all), usually in response to route navigation. These kinds of modules have their own set of rules, particularly around dependency injection, which will be discussed later.

Components and Templates

When you create a component in Angular (again, see the docs if you don't know what these are), you are creating an entity with the intention of using it in a HTML template somewhere else.

(Though we'll focus on components in this document, pipes and directives are treated similarly in that they are entities which are used in templates).

When you create a component you define the HTML element with which it's associated. You instantiate that component by using its HTML element in the template of some other component.

Before you can instantiate a component, you are required to declare it in a module somewhere. There are no such things as "floating" components in Angular; if you want to use a component in a template somewhere, it needs to be part of a module. This means your application must have a minimum of one module, and it must be explicitly declared.

So, for example, if you have a component called AwesomeComponent (associated, let's say, with the comp-awesome HTML element), then AwesomeComponent needs to be declared in a module somewhere (let's call it AwesomeModule):

@Component({
    selector: 'comp-awesome',
    template: `put your template here`
})
export class AwesomeComponent {
}

@NgModule({
    declarations: [AwesomeComponent]
})
export class AwesomeModule {}

Declarations are private to the module in which they are defined. So while the comp-awesome element is now available for use in other components in AwesomeModule it is, notably, not available for use in components declared in other modules.

If you want to use AwesomeComponent outside of AwesomeModule - say, for example, in CoolComponent which is declared in CoolModule - then you need to:

  • put AwesomeComponent in the exports field of AwesomeModule and
  • put AwesomeModule in the imports field of CoolModule.

The modules in question now look like this:

@NgModule({
    declarations: [AwesomeComponent],
    exports: [AwesomeComponent]
})
export class AwesomeModule {}

@NgModule({
    declarations: [CoolComponent],
    imports: [AwesomeModule]
})
export class CoolModule {}

To summarize:

  • the declarations field of a module shows which components belong to this module. A component can belong to only one module. A component can use another component within the same module.

  • Components are by default private to the module (i.e they can only be instantiated by other components in the same module). To use a component in another module you need to list the component in the exports field of the module to which it belongs.

  • Using a component declared in another module's export field means importing it into every module where you want to use it.

Though not especially germane to the ongoing discussion, it's worth noting in passing that an exports field can also contain other modules, in which case you are exporting all the public things which the module is exporting.

Dependency Injection, Modules and Providers

The second major use for modules is to configure Angular's Dependency Injection (DI) system. DI is a really big topic in Angular and I won't pretend to cover it all here but, in essence, DI is how components receive their service dependencies. We say that a service is injected into a component. When you list a service class in a component's constructor, the DI system will provide an instance of the service to the component so it can use it.

For a service to be available for injection in some class, that service needs to be configured in the providers field of a module somewhere (as always, read the docs for the details of how this is done; the easiest way is usually just to use the class name directly in the providers field):

@NgModule({
    ...
    providers: [AwesomeService]
})
export class AwesomeModule {}

Broadly speaking, if you don't do anything special, Angular services are singletons. You can override this behaviour by supplying a different kind of provider.

The Angular docs like to describe the DI system as hierarchical, and it is, but I find that thinking about it this way makes things more confusing when you start off. The hierarchical nature of the DI system only really comes into play when you start using relatively advanced features like lazily loaded modules or when you start overriding providers at the component level (something that's often done only for testing purposes - I won't cover that here).

In particular, developers sometimes assume that there exists some kind of hierarchical relationship between importing and exporting modules, or that providers and services are somehow scoped to the module in which they are defined, like the declarations field.

That's not how it works. For the most part, it doesn't actually matter where you declare your provider, though for your own sanity you'll of course want to keep your provider fields relevant to the module you're defining (i.e. don't declare AwesomeService in CoolModule when it really belongs in AwesomeModule). It doesn't matter because providers declared in a module become global in scope (lazily loaded modules are an exception, as we will soon see). As long as the module in which your provider is defined is imported somewhere in your application (or, alternatively, is configured as the bootstrap application module), then your service is injectable anywhere in your application.

Unless one is trying to write a re-usable Angular library, one doesn't generally write "floating" application modules; as a rule, every module you declare is meant to be, and will be, imported somewhere at least once (or used as the application's bootstrap module). The application's root module will usually import core utility and feature modules, for example, which will themselves import still other modules. As far as the DI provider system is concerned, all these imports are flattened into one global injector at boot time, which is then used everywhere.

Once again, lazily loaded module are exceptional here; they aren't loaded at boot time, but rather on demand. It makes sense that they are not part of the global injector.

Declarations Versus Providers

You may have noted during the ongoing discussion that the declarations field and the providers field are, in a sense, working against each other. The declarations field are for things (components, etc.) which are private to the module. The providers field, on the other hand, are for services which are global in scope.

If your module contains nothing but declarations, then things are simple - you just import the module wherever you want to use the component.

If your module contains nothing but providers, then things are also simple - you'll want to import it in a module somewhere so it's available in your application (often in your root/application module, or in a module which is imported into your root/application module). You will only need to import it once because once configured in this fashion, a provider is global in scope and you can use the service it provides anywhere in your application.

It's when your module contains both declarations and providers that things become tricky, and it's here where we finally need to start making a distinction between eagerly loaded modules and lazily loaded modules.

If all of your modules are eagerly loaded, then things are once again simple. You import your module where needed (because of your declarations clause). Your service providers field will be globally re-declared each time you import, which is admittedly useless but more or less harmless.

It's when you start using lazily loaded modules that things become less simple.

Root Modules, Lazy Loading, and the forRoot() Convention

Angular allows you to lazy load modules. The basic idea here is that you can create a module that represents everything in a particular "page" or "route" in the application. The code is loaded only when the user navigates to the route, and will never be loaded if the user doesn't visit the route.

By definition, a lazily loaded module is activated only when you navigate to a particular route, not during the bootstrapping of the application. This means that a lazily loaded module will not participate in the configuration of the DI system during boot time. Instead, Angular creates a new injector as needed when the new module is loaded. The new injector is considered a child of the root injector, and this is one of the ways that the DI's hierarchy comes into play.

If your module only contains declarations, and no providers, then you don't have to worry about this detail; you just import your module where needed, including the lazily loaded one, and you're done. You can import your module into the root module as well with no issue.

It's when your module contains providers that possible issues arise. Angular will create a new injector for the lazily loaded module when it's finally loaded - when the application navigates to the associated route. Since new injector is considered a child of the root injector, any providers declared here will override those declared on the root. The practical upshot is that you'll be provided with one instance of the service in your root module and another instance in your lazily loaded module (if you import them in both). Your service, in other words, won't be a singleton anymore.

For many services, this is irrelevant, because many services don't keep state, and it doesn't matter if you use different instances in different parts of your application. For other kinds of services, particularly those which keep state, it definitely matters, and you need to mitigate this issue. So what do you do?

Normally, what you would like to happen is for the lazily loaded module to use the same service instance as your root. If your module only contains providers, this is easy - import the module only in your root module and be done with it. The lazily loaded module will use the root instance of the service if it lacks a provider of its own. This option isn't open to you, however, if your module also contains declarations, since you need to import those everywhere they're used.

This is where the forRoot() convention comes in. When a module has a static forRoot() method, it's meant to return a version of the module that contains the declarations and the providers. This version is meant to be imported in the root module. The standard, non-root version of the module (or, sometimes, the version returned from a forChild() static method) will contain just the declarations, and it's meant to be imported in lazily loaded modules. Since this version contains no providers, the lazily loaded module will use the providers and services from the root module, and you'll end up using the same service instances across your application.

@NgModule({
    // declarations and providers
    imports: [ModuleWithComponentsAndServices.forRoot()] 
})
export class EagerModule {}

@NgModule({
    // just declarations, no providers
    imports: [ModuleWithComponentsAndServices] 
})
export class LazyModule {}

Like I said...complicated, right? Sometimes, I get the hate.