pnpm's strictness helps to avoid silly bugs

pnpm is a package manager for Node.js. I have written an article earlier about why should we use pnpm. In this article I want to demonstrate how using pnpm helps in preventing some silly bugs.

When using npm, you have access to packages that you don’t reference in your project’s package.json. This is possible because npm creates a flat node_modules folder.

Let me explain this by an example.

You’ll get an output similar to this one:

accepts
array-flatten
content-disposition
content-type
cookie
cookie-signature
debug
depd
destroy
ee-first
encodeurl
escape-html
etag
express
finalhandler
forwarded
fresh
http-errors
inherits
ipaddr.js
media-typer
merge-descriptors
methods
mime
mime-db
mime-types
ms
negotiator
on-finished
parseurl
path-to-regexp
proxy-addr
qs
range-parser
send
serve-static
setprototypeof
statuses
type-is
unpipe
utils-merge
vary

As you can see, even though you installed only express, a lot more packages are available in the node_modules folder. Node.js doesn’t care what is in your package.json file, you will have access to all the packages that are in the root of node_modules. So you can start using all those packages without even installing them explicitly.

Let’s say you need debug in your project. You can start using it and forget to add it to package.json. Your project will work fine. You will commit your changes and publish it to production. It will work well even in production. However, after a few weeks or months, one of two things can very likely happen:

  1. a new major version of debug with a new API can get published. Your code was written for [email protected] and it needs some updates to work with [email protected]. You are safe till express uses [email protected] because [email protected] is installed to the root of node_modules. However, express can update its dependency in any moment, fix all usages of debug and publish a new patch (a patch, because express didn’t have any breaking changes). Next time you do npm install, express will be updated and [email protected] installed into the root of your node_modules. The project will break, even though you did not make any changes!
  2. another possibility is that express stops using debug. It can just remove it from dependencies and publish a new version. When you’ll update express, your code will break because the debug package won’t be in node_modules anymore.

Now imagine that your project is not a web app but a package used by many other people. If you don’t include a package used in code into the package.json, your package is a timed bomb. Do you remember left-pad? I can imagine a similar catastrophe happening in the future because of a forgotten dependency.

How does pnpm help with avoiding these type of bugs?

Unlike npm, pnpm does not try to move everything to the root of node_modules. If you remove the node_modules folder created by npm in the previous example and run pnpm install express, you’ll see that ls -1 will print only one symlink in the node_modules folder: express. No debug!

On next run, your app will immediately fail, because it won’t be able to find debug. Which is the way it should be! To fix the project, you’ll just run pnpm install debug and debug will be added to your package.json (pnpm saves packages to package.json by default, even when the --save parameter is not passed). With debug in your package.json, you can be sure that it will always be installed into node_modules and it will work with your code as expected.

pnpm gets a lot of issues opened because some packages/toolings don’t work. These issues are mostly happening because the packages/toolings have package.jsons that miss dependencies. Some developers even think that it is fine to not include dependencies in package.json because “it works with npm/yarn”. It is not OK! It might work today but it will break tomorrow.

You might not use pnpm. But please, publish valid packages. If you don’t use pnpm, use some tooling like dependency-check to validate your package before publishing it to the registry.

npm’s global style installation

A month later after publishing this article, I have found out that it is possible to avoid these kind of bugs with npm as well! It is not the default behavior but npm can install node_modules in a different layout, in which

Only your direct dependencies will show in node_modules and everything they depend on will be flattened in their node_modules folders.

To achieve this, just run npm with the –global-style option or change its value in the configs via npm c set global-style true.

Do you want to give pnpm a try?

Just install pnpm via npm: npm install -g pnpm. And use it instead of npm whenever you want to install something: pnpm i foo.

Also you can read more info at the pnpm GitHub repo or pnpm.js.org. You can follow pnpm on Twitter or ask for help at the pnpm Gitter Chat Room.

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