Best-in-Class Developer Experience with Vite and Hydrogen


Hydrogen is a framework that combines React and Vite for creating custom storefronts on Shopify. It maximizes performance for end-users and provides a best-in-class developer experience for you and your team. Since it focuses on evergreen browsers, Hydrogen can leverage modern capabilities, best practices, and the latest tooling in web development to bring the future of ecommerce closer.

Creating a framework requires a lot of choices for frontend tooling. One major part of it is the bundler. Traditionally, developers had no native way to organize their code in JavaScript modules. Therefore, to minimize the amount of code and waterfall requests in the browser, new frontend tools like Webpack started to appear, powering projects such as Next.js and many more.

Bundling code became the de facto practice for the last decade, especially when using view libraries like React or Vue. Whereas these tools successfully solved the problem, they quickly became hard to understand and maintain due to the increasing complexity of the modern web. On top of that, the development process started to slow down because bundling and compiling are inherently slow: the more files in a project, the more work the tool needs to do. Repeat this process for every change made in a project during active development, and one can quickly notice how the developer experience (DX) tanks. 

Bundle-based dev server image from Vite.js docs

Thanks to the introduction of ES Modules (a native mechanism to author JavaScript modules) and its support in browsers, some new players like Snowpack and Parcel appeared and started shaping up the modern web development landscape.

Image showing use of native ES Modules to minimize the amount of bundling required during development
Native ESM-based dev server from Vite.js docs

This new generation of web tooling aims to improve the DX of building apps. Whereas Webpack needs a complex configuration, even for simple things due to its high flexibility, these new tools provide very sensible but configurable default values. Furthermore, they leverage native ES Modules to minimize the amount of bundling required during development. In particular, they tend to bundle and cache only third-party dependencies to keep network connections low (the number of files downloaded by the browser). Some dependencies may have dozens or hundreds of files, but they don’t need to be updated often. On the other hand, it provides user code unbundled to the browser, thus speeding up the refresh rates when making changes.

Enter Vite. With its evergreen and modern philosophy, we believe Vite aligns perfectly with Hydrogen. Featuring a lightning-fast development server with hot module replacement, a rich plugin ecosystem, and clever default configurations that make it work out of the box for most apps, Vite was among the top options to power Hydrogen’s development engine.

Vite is French for “quick”, and the Hydrogen team can confirm: it’s really fast. From the installation and setup to its hot reloading, things that used to be a DX pain are (mostly) gone. It’s also highly configurable and simple to use.

Partially, this is thanks to the two magnificent tools that power it: ESBuild, a Golang-based, lightning-fast compiler for JavaScript, and Rollup, a flexible and intelligible bundler. However, Vite is much more than the sum of these parts.

Ease of Use

In Vite, the main entry point is a simple index.html file, making it a first-class citizen instead of an after-thought asset. Everything else flows from here by using stylesheets and scripts tags. It crawls and analyzes all of the imported assets and transforms them accordingly.

Thanks to its default values, most flavors of CSS and JavaScript, including JSX, TypeScript (TS), PostCSS, work out of the box.

Let me reiterate this: it just works™. No painful configuration is needed to get those new CSS prefixes or the latest TS type checking working. It even lets you import WebAssembly or SVG files from JavaScript just like that. Also, since Vite’s main target is modern browsers, it’s prepared to optimize the code and styles by using the latest supported features by default.

We value the simplicity Vite brings in Hydrogen and share it with our users. It all sums up to saving a lot of time configuring your tooling compared to other alternatives.

A Proven Plugin System

Rollup has been around for a much longer time than Vite. It does one thing and does it very well: bundling. The key here is that Vite can tell it what to bundle.

Furthermore, Rollup has a truly rich plugin ecosystem that is fully compatible with Vite. With this, Vite provides hooks during development and building phases that enable advanced use cases, such as transforming specific syntax like Vue files. There are many plugins out there that use these hooks for anything you can imagine: Markdown pages with JSX, SSR-ready icons, automatic image minification, and more.

In Hydrogen, we found these Vite hooks are easier to understand and use than those in Webpack, and it allows us to write more maintainable code.

Speed

A common task that tends to slow down web development is compiling JavaScript flavors and new features to older and widely supported code. Babel, a compiler written in JavaScript, has been the king in this area for a long time.

However, new tools like ESBuild started to appear recently with a very particular characteristic: they use a machine-compiled language to transform JavaScript instead of using JavaScript itself. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, they also apply sophisticated algorithms to avoid repeating AST parsing and parallelize work, thus establishing a new baseline for speed.

Apart from using ESBuild, Vite applies many other optimizations and tricks to speed up development. For instance, it pre-bundles some third-party dependencies and caches them in the filesystem to enable faster startups.

All in all, we can say Vite is one of the fastest alternatives out there when it comes to local development, and this is something we also want our users to benefit from in Hydrogen.

ESM and HMR

Along with Snowpack and Parcel, Vite is one of the first tools to embrace ECMAScript Modules (ESM) and inject JavaScript into the browser using script tags with type=module.

This, paired with hot-module replacement (HMR), means that changes to files on the local filesystem are updated instantly in the browser.

Vite is also building for the future of the web and the NPM ecosystem. While most third-party libraries are still on CommonJS (CJS) style modules (native in Node.js), the new standard is ESM. Vite performs an exhaustive import analysis of dependencies and transforms CJS modules into ESM automatically, thus letting you import code always in a modern fashion. And this is not something to take lightly. CJS and ESM interoperability is one of the biggest headaches web developers have faced in recent years.

As app developers ourselves in Hydrogen, it is such a relief we can focus on coding without wasting time on this issue. Someday most packages will, hopefully, follow the ESM standard. Until that day, Vite has us covered.

Server-Side Rendering

Server-side rendering (SSR) is a critical piece to modern frameworks like Hydrogen and is another place where Vite shines. It extends Rollup hooks to provide SSR information, thus enabling many advanced use cases.

For example, it is possible to transform the same imported file in different ways depending on the running environment (browser or server). This is key to supporting some advanced features we need in Hydrogen, such as React Server Components, which was only available in Webpack to this date.

Vite can also load front-end code in the server by converting dependencies to a Node-compatible runtime and modules to CJS. Think of simply importing a React application in Node. It greatly eases the way SSR works and is something Hydrogen leverages to remove extra dependencies and simplify code.

Community

Last but not least, Vite has a large and vibrant community around it.

Many projects in addition to Hydrogen are relying on and contributing to Vite, such as Vitest, SvelteKit, Astro, Storybook, and many more.

And it’s not just about the projects, but also the people behind them who are incredibly active and always willing to help in Vite’s Discord channel. From Vite’s creator, @youyuxi, to many other contributors and maintainers such as @patak_dev, @alecdotbiz, or @antfu7.

Hydrogen is also a proud sponsor of Vite. We want to support the project to ensure it stays up to date with the latest DX improvements to make web developers’ life easier.

Our goal when building Hydrogen on top of Vite was to keep things as “close to the metal” as possible and not reinvent the wheel. CLI tools can rely on Vite commands internally, and most of the required configuration is abstracted away.

Creating a Vite-powered Hydrogen storefront is as easy as adding the @shopify/hydrogen/plugin plugin to your vite.config.js:

Behind the scenes, we are invoking 4 different plugins:

  • hydrogen-config: This is responsible for altering the default Vite config values for Hydrogen projects. It helps ensure bundling for both Node.js and Worker runtimes work flawlessly, and that third-party packages are processed properly.
  • react-server-dom-vite: It adds support for React Server Components (RSC). We extracted this plugin from Hydrogen core and made it available in the React repository.
  • hydrogen-middleware: This plugin is used to hook into Vite’s dev server configuration and inject custom behavior. It allows us to respond to SSR and RSC requests while leaving the asset requests to Vite’s default web server.
  • @vite/plugin-react: This is an official Vite plugin that adds some goodies for React development such as fast refresh in the browser.

Just with this, Hydrogen is able to support server components, streaming requests, clever caching, and more. By combining this with all the features Shopify already provides, you can unlock unparalleled performance and best-in-class DX for your storefront.

There are still many advanced use cases where Webpack is a good fit since it is very mature and flexible. Many projects and teams, such as React’s, rely heavily on it for their day-to-day development.

However, Vite makes building modern apps a delightful experience and empowers framework authors with many tools to make development easier. Storefront developers can enjoy a best-in-class DX while building new features at a faster pace. We chose Vite for Hydrogen and are happy with that decision so far.

Fran works as a Staff Software Engineer on the Hydrogen team at Shopify. Located in Tokyo, he’s a web enthusiast and an active open source contributor who enjoys all things tech and all things coconut. Connect with Fran on Twitter and GitHub.


If you’re passionate about solving complex problems at scale, and you’re eager to learn more, we’re hiring! Reach out to us or apply on our careers page.





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