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Backbone.js + Express.js SPA boilerplate

This project is supposed to be a starter kit helping the community build Single Page Application architectures based on Backbone.js and Express.js frameworks.

A Pragmatic approach is key. The simplest implementation possible, just to show the way, not a finalized application. It covers aspects of front-end design, as well as open API.

You are the one, who can help project to grow. Join now and contribute, your help is much appreciated.

NOTE: It is still in progress. If you would like to contribute, please join the discussion/implementation of currently opened issues.



SPA infrastructure setup could be time consuming. It's a typical problem, to configure requirejs, initial routing and view manager, to prevent memory leaks. This project could be used as a good start to build your own single page application.

This project is a complete and minimal setup for building single page applications running on Express.js framework as back-end and Backbone.js as front-end.

SPA itself is rather simple concept, but it requires some infrastructure to have in place, before building up a new application. This project already includes this infrastructure.

Application example

'TheMailer' - simple app for managing emails, contacts, tasks.


Clone github repository,

$ git clone

Install npm dependencies,

$ npm install

Install bower dependencies,

$ bower install

Run app (development mode),

$ node app.js


Express.js is used as back-end development framework. It's simple and easy to configure for SPA.

In API-oriented architecture back-end is responsible for 2 main purposes:

  • Serving master page html
  • Providing API end-points for web client

Master page

Master page is main (and typically one) html page returned from server. It includes all styles and javascript, provides very basic layout and placeholder for application.

<div class="container">
	<div id="app" class="container"></div>

After master page is served back to client the rest of UI and logic is build by Backbone.js.

Serving master page

To serve master pages application includes middleware component serveMaster.js. It would respond with master page html for any request, except the requests for /api, /components, /css/ or /js.

API end-points

API is HTTP, JSON based end-points. Sources are located at source/api. Each API module returns a function that takes app instance and setup HTTP verb handler for a route.

module.exports = function (app) {
	app.get('/api/emails', function (req, res) {
		res.json({status: 'GET /api/users'});
	});'/api/emails', function (req, res) {
		res.json({status: 'POST /api/users'});

	app.put('/api/emails/:id', function (req, res) {
		res.json({status: 'PUT /api/users/' +});

	app.del('/api/emails/:id', function (req, res) {
		res.json({status: 'DELETE /api/users/' +});

To enable API end-point, you should modify app.js file, like

// api endpoints

Authorization and CORS

While you design new open API, authorization is probably one of the most important topics to consider.

There are many ways you can implement authorization. Choices you made will affect how much of API is usable and scalable. Before we jump in, I highly recommend blog post by Vinay Sahni regarding Pragmatic RESTFull API.

Traditional authorization algorithms are typically using some kind of token-based authorization. Means, each user of API is getting registered and special token (pseudo-random looking string) is issued and associated with that user. Token contains user identification + some meta info, encrypted with some simple algorithm as base64. For each request, users sends this token (in HTTP headers of query), server lookups for this token and if it finds match between encrypted userId and token, request treated as authenticated.

Tokens always have to be transported by secured channel as SSL.

The only problem with that approach is that each request requires at least one expensive database call. This could be avoided by applying some cryptography on authorization procedure. One of the approaches is usage of self-signed HMAC tokens. It's easy to implement and it scales very nice.

HMAC based API authorization

The routine could be slitted to such steps:

  1. Client signs ups to API by sending username and password.
  2. Client get registered, password hashed and placed to users collection in DB.
  3. Authorization token is issued.
  4. Client receives token back.
  5. For all further requests client sends token as password in authorization header of HTTP request.
  6. Server validates the token, if it's valid request treated as authenticated.

Note, token validation procedure doesn't require any DB request everything all depends on computation.

HMAC token

Let's take a look how to issue new authorization token. We typically want to reduce token lifetime, in case it's stolen. So, we want to include some meta information about time it's issued as well it's owner. This information is concatenated and HMAC algorithm applied, using servers private key.

After we add same info in open text and encrypt result by base64.

var timespamp = moment();
var message = username + ';' + timespamp.valueOf();
var hmac = crypto.createHmac('sha1', AUTH_SIGN_KEY).update(message).digest('hex');
var token = username + ';' + timespamp.valueOf() + ';' + hmac;
var tokenBase64 = new Buffer(token).toString('base64');

Here, AUTH_SIGN_KEY is private server key and tokenBase64 is the final result, sent back to client.


Client stores the token to cookie or localstorage and using it for each API request as part of Basic authentication header.

Request.js example,

request.get({url: url, auth: {user: username, password: token}}, function (err, resp) {
	error = err;
	response = resp;

jQuery example,

	type: "GET",
	url: "index1.php",
	dataType: 'json',
	async: false,
	username: username,
	password: token,
	success: function (){

Backbone.sync example,

Backbone.ajax = function() {
	var defaults = arguments[0];
	_.extend(defaults, {
		username: username,
		password: token

	return Backbone.$.ajax.apply(Backbone.$, arguments);

Token validation

Now, server receives token back and request need to be authenticated.

  1. Server decodes token base64 and parses out all token information (simple split by ';').
  2. Server computes HMAC signature of received username and timestamp using the same private server key.
  3. It compares it with HMAC received in token.
  4. If HMAC's are different, request is not authorized, 401 reply.
  5. Otherwise, server checks token TTL, if expires , 401 reply.
  6. Otherwise request is authenticated.

If token is compromised or wrong, HMAC guarantees that signatures will never match, except attacker is aware of server private key.

API Authorization implementation

API exposes few methods,


Signup, used as initial client registration. Login is called each time, new token have to issued. Validate is used to check token validity (it's used as internal method mostly).

There is source/middleware/auth.js that exposes createToken and validateToken functions. Create token is applied to signup and login api methods, validateToken is applied on every API that requires authorization.

Checkout test/api/auth.specs.js that specifies how authorization works in details, source/api/auth.js for end-point implementation.


CORS (Cross Origin Resource Sharing) have to be enabled to allow the API to be used from client applications, running on domain different than API deployment domain. For instance, your API can be deployed at, but application running at

In order to allow that, special middleware function created, /source/middleware/cors.js:

function cors() {
	return function (req, res, next) {
		res.header('Access-Control-Allow-Origin', '*');
		res.header('Access-Control-Allow-Methods', 'GET,PUT,POST,DELETE');
		res.header('Access-Control-Allow-Headers', 'X-Requested-With, X-Access-Token, X-Revision, Content-Type');


module.exports = cors;

It have be added during application initialization, like:



Backbone.js is the one of most popular front-end development framework (library). It provides abstractions for models, views, collections and able to handle client-side routing.

Front-end architecture is build on modular structure and relying on AMD to allow build scalable applications.

RequireJS and CommonJS

RequireJS picked up as asynchronous javascript module loading. RequireJS uses it's own style for defining modules, specifying the dependency as array of strings.

	'Backbone'], function(SomeDep, AnotherDep, YetAnotherDep, template, $, Backbone) {
		// module implementation...

With some time spent on Node.js programming, CommonJS style becomes more convenient to use. Fortunately RequireJS has CommonJS style implementation.

define(function (require) {
	// dependencies
	var SomeDep = require('/some/dep');
	var AnotherDep = require('another/dep');

	// export
	return {};


All routing logic is placed in /core/router.js. There are 3 routes defined in boilerplate.

Each route handler is responsible for starting up new application. Application run function takes ViewManager instance.

View manager

SPA application typical threat is memory leaks. Memory leaks might appear for a few reasons, one of the most famous reason for Backbone applications are, so called, zombie views.

/core/viewManager.js is responsible for disposing views during switch from one router to another.

Besides of that, it handles transitions during application switch.


Application is concept of grouping models, collections, views of unit in one place. The rule is, "one route - one application". Router matches the route, loading the application entry point and passes viewManager (or any other parameters, like id's or query strings) into application.

All applications are apps folder.

app.js is entry point of application and it's responsible for several things:

  • Fetching initial application data
  • Instantiating Main View of application
define(function(require) {
	var MainView = require('./views/MainView');

	return {
		run: function (viewManager) {
			var view = new MainView();;

Main view and subviews

Main view responsible for UI of application. It's quite typically that main view is only instantiating subviews and passing the models/collections further down.

MainView.js keeps track of subviews in this.subviews arrays. Each subview will be closed by ViewManager dispose function.

var MainView = Backbone.View.extend({
	initialize: function () {
		this.subviews = [];

	render: function () {
		var headerView = new HeaderView();

		var footerView = new FooterView();

		return this;


Handlebars is picked up as templating engine, powered by require-handlebars-plugin. Templates are stored on application level in template folder. Handlebars plugin is configured to keep templates in .html files.

View is loading template through !hbs plugin and uses that in render() function.

var HeaderView = Backbone.View.extend({
	template: require('hbs!./../templates/HeaderView'),

	render: function () {
		this.$el.html(this.template({title: 'Backbone SPA boilerplate'}));
		return this;


Transitions is a very nice feature for single pages applications. It adds the visual effects of switching from one application to another.

Boilerplate is relying on wonderful animate.css library. core/transition.js is responsible for applying transition style. It's being called from /core/viewManager.js.

Once you decide to have transitions in your app, simply modify master.ejs and add data-transition attribute to application div.

<div class="container">
	<div id="app" class="container" data-transition="fadeOutLeft"></div>

Checkout the list of available transitions on animate.css page. You can apply anything you want, please note "Out" transition type is suited the best.


Testing is key of quality product. Both sides (front and back) have to covered with tests to tackle the complexity.

Execute all tests

To execute all tests, run

$ npm test

Backbone.js (front-end) tests


Express.js (back-end) tests


Functional (web driver) tests




Build for production

Modern web applications contain a lot of JavaScript/CSS files. While application is loading all that recourses have to be in-place, so browser issuing HTTP requests to fetch them. As more application grow, as more requests need to be done.. as slower initial loading is. There are two ways of optimization of initial application loading:

  • concatenate and minify (decrease HTTP request)
  • gzip content (decrease payload size)

Application could operate in several modes - development, production. In development mode, we don't care about optimizations at all. Even more, we are interested to get not processed source code, to be able to debug easily. In production mode, we have to apply as much effort as possible to decrease initial load time.

Concatenate and minify

RequireJS comes together with optimization tool, called r.js. It's able to concatenate and minify both JavaScript and CSS code.

To simplify the process, we'll use GruntJS tasks runner. GruntJS is very handy tool, with great community around and very rich contrib library. There is a special task to handle RequireJS optimizations, called grunt-contrib-requirejs.

Gruntfile.js contains all required configuration. To run grunt,

$ grunt

The result of the grunt run is new folder /public/build that contains 2 files: main.css, main.js - concatenated and minified JavaScript and CSS code.

Gzip content

Besides concatenation, it's important to compress resources. Express.js includes this functionality out of the box, as compress() middleware function.

Development and production

The configuration distinction goes in app.js file.

app.configure('development', function(){
	app.use(express.errorHandler());							// apply error handler
	app.use(express.static(path.join(__dirname, 'public')));
	app.use(middleware.serveMaster.development());				// apply development mode master page

app.configure('production', function(){
	app.use(express.compress());								// apply gzip content
	app.use(express.static(path.join(__dirname, 'public'), { maxAge: oneMonth }));
	app.use(middleware.serveMaster.production());				// apply production mode master page

serveMaster.js middleware component is would serve different version of master page, for different mode. In development mode, it would use uncompressed JavaScript and CSS, in production mode, ones that placed in /public/build folder.

Cache busting

Caching is in general good since it helps to application to be loaded faster, but it could hurt while you re-deploy application. Browsers do not track the actual content of file, so if the content has changed, but URL still the same, browser will ignore that.

Besides, different browsers have different caching strategies. IE for instance, is 'famous' with is aggressive caching.

Cache busting is widely adopted technique. There are some different implementations for that, but one of the most effective is: name your resources in the way, so if content has changed the name of resource would change as well. Basic implementation is to prefix file names with hash computed on file contents.

Boilerplate uses grunt-hashres task for that (currently I'm using my own fork, hope that changes are promoted to main repo soon). That task transforms the grunt-contrib-requirejs output files main.js, main.css into something like main-23cbb34ffaabd22d887abdd67bfe5b2c.js, main-5a09ac388df506a82647f47e3ffd5187.css.

It also produces /source/client/index.js file serveMaster.js uses to render production master page correctly.

Now, everything that either .js or .css content is changed, build would produce new files and they are guaranteed to be loaded by browser again.

Optimization results

On a left side you see application running in development mode, on a right side in production mode.

optimization results

Even for such small application as 'TheMailer', the benefits are obvious:

  • Requests: 55 / 4 ~ 14 times fewer.
  • Payload: 756Kb / 43.4Kb ~ 17 times smaller.
  • Load time: 898ms / 153ms ~ 6 times faster.



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Legal Info (MIT License)

Copyright (c) 2013 Alexander Beletsky

Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person obtaining a copy of this software and associated documentation files (the "Software"), to deal in the Software without restriction, including without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Software, and to permit persons to whom the Software is furnished to do so, subject to the following conditions:

The above copyright notice and this permission notice shall be included in all copies or substantial portions of the Software.



Backbone.js + Express.js single page application boilerplate



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