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Designing a JavaScript Plugin System

WordPress has plugins. jQuery has plugins. Gatsby, Eleventy, and Vue do, too.

Plugins are a common feature of libraries and frameworks, and for a good reason: they allow developers to add functionality, in a safe, scalable way. This makes the core project more valuable, and it builds a community — all without creating an additional maintenance burden. What a great deal!

So how do you go about building a plugin system? Let’s answer that question by building one of our own, in JavaScript.

I’m using the word “plugin” but these things are sometimes called other names, like “extensions,” “add-ons,” or “modules.” Whatever you call them, the concept (and benefit) is the same.

Let’s build a plugin system

Let’s start with an example project called BetaCalc. The goal for BetaCalc is to be a minimalist JavaScript calculator that other developers can add “buttons” to. Here’s some basic code to get us started:

// The Calculator
const betaCalc = {
  currentValue: 0,
  
  setValue(newValue) {
    this.currentValue = newValue;
    console.log(this.currentValue);
  },
  
  plus(addend) {
    this.setValue(this.currentValue + addend);
  },
  
  minus(subtrahend) {
    this.setValue(this.currentValue - subtrahend);
  }
};


// Using the calculator
betaCalc.setValue(3); // => 3
betaCalc.plus(3);     // => 6
betaCalc.minus(2);    // => 4

We’re defining our calculator as an object-literal to keep things simple. The calculator works by printing its result via console.log.

Functionality is really limited right now. We have a setValue method, which takes a number and displays it on the “screen.” We also have plus and minus methods, which will perform an operation on the currently displayed value.

It’s time to add more functionality. Let’s start by creating a plugin system.

The world’s smallest plugin system

We’ll start by creating a register method that other developers can use to register a plugin with BetaCalc. The job of this method is simple: take the external plugin, grab its exec function, and attach it to our calculator as a new method:

// The Calculator
const betaCalc = {
  // ...other calculator code up here


  register(plugin) {
    const { name, exec } = plugin;
    this[name] = exec;
  }
};

And here’s an example plugin, which gives our calculator a “squared” button:

// Define the plugin
const squaredPlugin = {
  name: 'squared',
  exec: function() {
    this.setValue(this.currentValue * this.currentValue)
  }
};


// Register the plugin
betaCalc.register(squaredPlugin);

In many plugin systems, it’s common for plugins to have two parts:

  1. Code to be executed
  2. Metadata (like a name, description, version number, dependencies, etc.)

In our plugin, the exec function contains our code, and the name is our metadata. When the plugin is registered, the exec function is attached directly to our betaCalc object as a method, giving it access to BetaCalc’s this.

So now, BetaCalc has a new “squared” button, which can be called directly:

betaCalc.setValue(3); // => 3
betaCalc.plus(2);     // => 5
betaCalc.squared();   // => 25
betaCalc.squared();   // => 625

There’s a lot to like about this system. The plugin is a simple object-literal that can be passed into our function. This means that plugins can be downloaded via npm and imported as ES6 modules. Easy distribution is super important!

But our system has a few flaws.

By giving plugins access to BetaCalc’s this, they get read/write access to all of BetaCalc’s code. While this is useful for getting and setting the currentValue, it’s also dangerous. If a plugin was to redefine an internal function (like setValue), it could produce unexpected results for BetaCalc and other plugins. This violates the open-closed principle, which states that a software entity should be open for extension but closed for modification.

Also, the “squared” function works by producing side effects. That’s not uncommon in JavaScript, but it doesn’t feel great — especially when other plugins could be in there messing with the same internal state. A more functional approach would go a long way toward making our system safer and more predictable.

A better plugin architecture

Let’s take another pass at a better plugin architecture. This next example changes both the calculator and its plugin API:

// The Calculator
const betaCalc = {
  currentValue: 0,
  
  setValue(value) {
    this.currentValue = value;
    console.log(this.currentValue);
  },
 
  core: {
    'plus': (currentVal, addend) => currentVal + addend,
    'minus': (currentVal, subtrahend) => currentVal - subtrahend
  },


  plugins: {},    


  press(buttonName, newVal) {
    const func = this.core[buttonName] || this.plugins[buttonName];
    this.setValue(func(this.currentValue, newVal));
  },


  register(plugin) {
    const { name, exec } = plugin;
    this.plugins[name] = exec;
  }
};
  
// Our Plugin
const squaredPlugin = { 
  name: 'squared',
  exec: function(currentValue) {
    return currentValue * currentValue;
  }
};


betaCalc.register(squaredPlugin);


// Using the calculator
betaCalc.setValue(3);      // => 3
betaCalc.press('plus', 2); // => 5
betaCalc.press('squared'); // => 25
betaCalc.press('squared'); // => 625

We’ve got a few notable changes here.

First, we’ve separated the plugins from “core” calculator methods (like plus and minus), by putting them in their own plugins object. Storing our plugins in a plugin object makes our system safer. Now plugins accessing this can’t see the BetaCalc properties — they can only see properties of betaCalc.plugins.

Second, we’ve implemented a press method, which looks up the button’s function by name and then calls it. Now when we call a plugin’s exec function, we pass it the current calculator value (currentValue), and we expect it to return the new calculator value.

Essentially, this new press method converts all of our calculator buttons into pure functions. They take a value, perform an operation, and return the result. This has a lot of benefits:

  • It simplifies the API.
  • It makes testing easier (for both BetaCalc and the plugins themselves).
  • It reduces the dependencies of our system, making it more loosely coupled.

This new architecture is more limited than the first example, but in a good way. We’ve essentially put up guardrails for plugin authors, restricting them to only the kind of changes that we want them to make.

In fact, it might be too restrictive! Now our calculator plugins can only do operations on the currentValue. If a plugin author wanted to add advanced functionality like a “memory” button or a way to track history, they wouldn’t be able to.

Maybe that’s ok. The amount of power you give plugin authors is a delicate balance. Giving them too much power could impact the stability of your project. But giving them too little power makes it hard for them to solve their problems — in that case you might as well not have plugins.

What more could we do?

There’s a lot more we could do to improve our system.

We could add error handling to notify plugin authors if they forget to define a name or return a value. It’s good to think like a QA dev and imagine how our system could break so we can proactively handle those cases.

We could expand the scope of what a plugin can do. Currently, a BetaCalc plugin can add a button. But what if it could also register callbacks for certain lifecycle events — like when the calculator is about to display a value? Or what if there was a dedicated place for it to store a piece of state across multiple interactions? Would that open up some new use cases?

We could also expand plugin registration. What if a plugin could be registered with some initial settings? Could that make the plugins more flexible? What if a plugin author wanted to register a whole suite of buttons instead of a single one — like a “BetaCalc Statistics Pack”? What changes would be needed to support that?

Your plugin system

Both BetaCalc and its plugin system are deliberately simple. If your project is larger, then you’ll want to explore some other plugin architectures.

One good place to start is to look at existing projects for examples of successful plugin systems. For JavaScript, that could mean jQuery, Gatsby, D3, CKEditor, or others.

You may also want to be familiar with various JavaScript design patterns. (Addy Osmani has a book on the subject.)  Each pattern provides a different interface and degree of coupling, which gives you a lot of good plugin architecture options to choose from. Being aware of these options helps you better balance the needs of everyone who uses your project.

Besides the patterns themselves, there’s a lot of good software development principles you can draw on to make these kinds of decisions. I’ve mentioned a few along the way (like the open-closed principle and loose coupling), but some other relevant ones include the Law of Demeter and dependency injection.

I know it sounds like a lot, but you’ve gotta do your research. Nothing is more painful than making everyone rewrite their plugins because you needed to change the plugin architecture. It’s a quick way to lose trust and discourage people from contributing in the future.

Conclusion

Writing a good plugin architecture from scratch is difficult! You have to balance a lot of considerations to build a system that meets everyone’s needs. Is it simple enough? Powerful enough? Will it work long term?

It’s worth the effort though. Having a good plugin system helps everyone. Developers get the freedom to solve their problems. End users get a large number of opt-in features to choose from. And you get to grow an ecosystem and community around your project. It’s a win-win-win situation.