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Evaluating JavaScript Open Source Packages

Jordan Nielson

September 16, 2019

Blogger, JavaScript, React, babel, webpack

In almost every project there will come a point where you reach for an existing package to augment your source code to make it simpler, more robust, or to reduce the amount of maintenance. When you reach for a libary it is important to evaluate the different options available, on a number of different fronts. If you simply evaluate a package based on if it will accomplish the task you have for it, you might miss out on some important considerations that can come back and hurt you later. For instance, if you pick a package that only has 1 line of actual source code and no tests does that package really give you any benefits? I would say it doesn't, but each project is different and it might be helpful to your project to be able to import that 1 line from a package instead of a local file.

So, what do you consider when evaluating a package? In my experience, it's helpful to have a list ready to go through for each package that you think might work for the need you have. My list usually looks something like the following:

  • License permissiveness
  • Stability
  • Maintenance Level
  • Popularity
  • Documentation Quality
  • Amount of code in the library
  • Amount of code it will require/save in my project
  • Open and Closed Pull Request trends
  • Contributing Documentation

In using this list, I have a number of questions I ask myself to evaluate each category, which I'll include below. You should generally answer as many questions as you need to ensure a package isn't a definite "no", and write down your answers! By writing down the answers that you come up with to each question you pose for the various packages you're providing notes and documentation for future you in order to answer the question 6 months from now, "Why did you choose [this package] over [that package]?" (which comes up more often than not).

I want to point out that this list is definitely personal opinions that I have found useful in my projects. If you have other suggestions, feel free to share them with me! I'd love to know what other people do when evaluating packages, since there might be critical steps I'm missing.

License permissiveness

The first point that I usually check when evaluating a potential solution to my problem is the license that it uses, and how permissive that license is. When evaluating packages for use in a work project it's super important to follow the guidelines of your organization, as it can cause some major issues if you use a license incorrectly. So, the questions that I ask myself regarding the license:

  • Is the license on the short-list of pre-approved ones for the organization?
  • Is the license something I'm comfortable with using in a personal project?
  • Does the license require any sort of attribution or having my project adopt that license?
  • Is using this package worth the license requirements?

Stability

In order to properly evaluate a package for use, I feel like looking at how stable the package seems is critical to future efforts to stay up to date. I recently wrote about upgrading your project dependencies and the work that it takes to do that regularly is significantly less if you use stable packages. How do you determine a package's stability? I usually use questions like the following:

  • Are there frequent releases? (This could be good or bad depending on the package)
  • Do they utilize alpha/beta/canary releases to test out changes? (and do people use those?)
  • Does it seem like people usually stay on the latest version? (This is a hard question to find data on quickly, but super worthwhile)
  • Is there a cycle for making breaking changes (major versions when using semver)?
  • Is there a large number of open issues? (Raw issue counts don't always share useful information, but it can be helpful to check)

There's all sorts of different metrics and things you can check on to try and determine how stable a package is, but I find it important to consider because some of the other aspects become significantly less important if a package is in a stable state and doesn't require any major changes or bugfixes.

Maintenance Level

If you have a project that isn't particularly stable, it becomes vital to determine what the current maintainer's level of involvement is. If there's just a single person working on the package, is that their full-time job? Or do they have other higher-priority things? If there's multiple maintainers you might consider if it seems like there's a "lead maintainer" who if they dropped off the package would stop moving forward. Particularly with less stable packages, having changes and improvements stop is not what you want to have happen since that could lead to critical bugs not being able to be fixed without forking the package. In determining the maintenance level I tend to ask myself questions like:

  • How many contributors are there to the package source code?
  • Does it look like there's a single person with permission to release updates, or can multiple people?
  • Are there any people working on it full-time? (Not every package needs full-time people working on it, but core ones I like to have it)
  • How quickly are issues and pull requests addressed? Does it seem like the maintainers work on it in spurts?
  • Is there a way to contribute funding/support to the maintainers? Can you do that?

Popularity

An important consideration in tandem with the Maintenance level is the popularity of the package. If a package is popular enough, it becomes more important to have a higher maintenance level through full-time maintainers or other means. But, important packages are useful because the maintainers tend to develop better habits relating to releases and documentation as the package increases in popularity. Picking a package purely because it is popular isn't always the best choice for a project, but it can make a difference in the resources that are available to help you figure out how to use the package. It can also impact how likely it is that the package maintenance will be picked up should something happen to prevent the current maintainers from keeping up with it. An important consideration with popularity is usually the package download count, but I don't find that metric to be particularly useful since it doesn't give any insight into how many projects are actually utilizing the package. I like the new Github "Used By" badge a little more but it still has some serious limitations. For now, I will just point out the things that I use to try and approximate how popular a package is:

  • What do the comparative download counts look like? (It's important to use relative amounts, since raw download counts are meaningless)
  • What does the github "Used By" badge say? How does that compare with other options?
  • How does the project compare in google result counts?
  • Are the questions on stackoverflow answered and accepted? Does it look like it is a community effort to answer questions?

For comparative download counts I usually use npmtrends, which doesn't provide a complete picture but can give you a decent idea of what the package looks like from that perspective. StackOverflow allows you to view tags, so you could check the styled-components tag to get a feel for if those questions are being answered and who is answering them.

Documentation Quality

An important and often overlooked aspect of an open source package is how good the documentation is. For simple packages the documentation might be sufficient as a simple readme that details the exports and how to use them. For more complex packages you'll often find they have an entire site dedicated to documentation. In either case, it is important to consider the documentation quality relative to the code you're pulling in. I generally use questions like the following to assess the quality of the docs:

  • When was the README last updated?
  • Does the README include all the exports from the package or are there undocumented features?
  • Is there a changelog or place for release notes?
  • Are the changelog/release notes more clear than the list of commits?

If they utilize a documentation website I'll check that out (ideally the source code for it in addition to the live site), using questions like the following (in addition to looking at the in-code documentation):

  • Does the website get updated when things change?
  • Is the website organized to make it easy to find what I need?
  • Does the website have missing information?
  • Are there terms on the website that are unclear and not explained?

Evaluating documentation quality is very personal, since what might make perfect sense to me has the possibility of completely confusing the next developer to come along. This is a step that I think it's super useful to get more than one person's opinion on, since usually people will generate an opinion on documentation as soon as they look at it the first time. Doing a review of the available documentation is pretty critical in making sure that the library actually solves the problem you're trying to solve, but it also helps to evaluate how easy it will be to figure out how to use the library and handle the weird things that will inevitably come up.

Amount of code in the library

Sometimes pulling in a package is helpful, but other times if you're just going to use it in a couple places you might be better off with writing more specific code for your project. In a lot of cases packages have extra abstractions that make them more reusable but add more code than you might need in your use. It might also be the case that there's a built-in language feature that can do most, and sometimes all, of what the package does. For example, it used to be common to use the left-pad package (and it still has 4 million weekly downloads), but JavaScript has a built-in padStart() method which does the same thing and doesn't require you to pull in a package. So, in some cases you want to make sure to ask yourself questions like:

  • Can this be done using a built-in language feature?
  • Does the package provide extra features I don't need?
  • Would there be a significant maintenance increase in my project to write the functionality myself? (Usually this is a yes, but some packages are trivial)
  • Does the package have tests and other code quality tools used that I don't want to replicate?

Amount of code it will require/save in my project

Something that isn't talked about often enough when using packages is the idea of how much code is required to consume the package. In some cases, it might be worthwhile to build a project-specific version of a package simply to reduce the amount of code needed to use the package. Dan Abramov wrote a post titled "Optimized for Change" which mentions this idea of "second order" API design - how does code using this API will look and evolve. In order to evaluate this idea for packages I look at, I tend to address questions like the following:

  • How long are the examples?
  • How much difference is there between the examples? Is there a lot of boilerplate?
  • Does the amount of code the package saves outweighs the amount of code it requires me to write?

Open and Closed Pull Request trends

Another thing to glance at related to Maintenance level is the open and closed pull requests for the package. If a package has a bunch of open pull requests that sit there for a really long time with no movement then there's likely an underlying issue with the maintenance level that I wouldn't want to commit to using the package. If there's no open pull requests that's usually a good sign, but if there haven't been any pull requests in the recent time span I'd want to make sure I had evaluated how stable the project is earlier on. If there's a lot of open pull requests but also lots of recently closed pull requests it could simply be an incredibly active package, but in most cases I've come across the issue is usually related to a lack of maintainers. So, I ask questions like:

  • How long have open pull requests been open?
  • Are there any recently closed pull requests?
  • Does it look like pull requests are closed in batches? How frequently does that happen?
  • Are pull requests usually closed (declined) or merged?
  • Is there a lot of chatter on pull requests before they're approved or declined?

Contributing Documentation

One of the last things that I check is if the project has contributing processes documented. Usually this isn't too big a deal since most people will document them as a favor to future them, but sometimes a project only has a single maintainer who hasn't cared to document the process used to make changes to the package in a reliable way. The questions here are usually:

  • Does contributing documentation exist?
  • Is there a pull request or issue template?

Conclusion

Once you put a package "through the ringer" and evaluate it, then what? How do you determine what package to use? Usually it comes down to a personal/project preference of what package makes the most sense. In almost all cases it will be a trade-off as one package might be smaller but less robust or another might be more feature-complete but add some extra bundle size that you'd prefer not to add. In any case, what packages you ultimately choose should be a decision that you are able to back up, so ideally you write down the answers to the questions you posed to each package as you do it in order to have some documentation for future you! I find that there's great value in being able to answer the question, "Why did you choose this package over the other option?" 6 months down the road by having notes, particularly since if things have changed in those 6 months you have the notes from last time and you can re-evaluate with ease!


Outline / Prep

What matters with a JavaScript Open Source Package? (Not ordered)

TL;DR Points:

  • Check the stability and popularity - are there frequent releases? Do people use it?
  • What's the Maintenance level? Are there people working on it full-time?
  • Code/Documentation/Contributing quality - are things documented and working?
  • License check is vital! Make sure it is a license you can use
  • Consider writing it yourself if it's insignificant?
  • Stability (How often do they release? Do they do alpha/beta releases? Do people use those?)
  • Maintenance level (are people working on it full-time? Does it have multiple contributors? etc)
  • Popularity (How many other projects depend on it? What do the download counts look like?)
  • Code Quality (Do they have tests? CI builds?)
  • Documentation quality (Is it up to date? Do they have previous versions available? Is it a separate site or just a readme?)
  • Contributing Documentation (Does it exist? Do they have Issue/PR Templates in github?)
  • Open and Closed Pull Requests (Did they sit for a long time? Was there back-and-forth conversation about them?)
  • What license(s) does it have involved in it? (Is it clear why it has those? Does your organization allow it?)
  • How much code is actually there? (bundlephobia & looking at the source - it might be better to inline)

Banner image courtesy of undraw.co

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