write you a registry follower for great good
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#so you want to write a follower


This tutorial will teach you how to write a generic boilerplate NodeJS application that can manipulate, respond to, broadcast, analyze, and otherwise play with package metadata as it changes in the npm registry.

Wait...what? Why?

Here's the deal: do you want to have some fun with the package.json data from every version of every package in the npm registry? Some neat ideas:

  • Find all the package READMEs that mention dogs
  • Discover how many package authors are named "Kate"
  • Calculate how many dependency changes occur on average in a major version bump

And more! So stop waiting and write a follower!


In order to follow along with this tutorial you'll need NodeJS and npm. I recommend installing these using a version manager; I use nvm.

application setup

Let's set up our application:

  1. Create a directory called follower-tutorial. (mkdir follower-tutorial)
  2. Move into that directory (cd follower-tutorial).
  3. Initialize an npm project by typing npm init --yes. This will create a package.json with default values.
  4. Create a file called .gitignore and add the line node_modules to it.

Our application currently looks like this:

+ follower-tutorial
  |- .gitignore
  |- package.json


Our application is going to depend on a couple super helpful npm packages:

  • changes-stream: This package gives us access to a stream of changes from the npm registry's CouchDB. We'll listen for and respond to events from this stream in our app. These events represent changes in the npm registry.
  • request: This package allows us to make HTTP requests. We'll use this to retrieve the current total number of changes currently in the database so that we can optionally end our progarm when it has received all the current changes.

To install these packages we'll type:

npm install changes-stream request --save

... which will add both of our dependencies to our package.json.

set up a changes stream

Let's start writing our application now! We'll be writing our application in an index.js file at the root of our follower-tutorial application directory:

+ follower-tutorial
  |- .gitignore
  |- index.js       // <-- here's where our app goes
  |- package.json

The first thing we'll do inside our index.js is use the changes-stream package to create a new ChangesStream to listen to listen to the npm registry. To do so we'll write:

1  const ChangesStream = require('changes-stream');
3  const db = 'https://replicate.npmjs.com';
5  var changes = new ChangesStream({
6    db: db
7  });

Let's talk about what's happening here:

  • On line 1, we require the changes-stream package
  • On line 3, we save the URL of the npm registry db
  • On lines 5-7, we create a new ChangesStream instance, passing it an options object that points to our db

Now that we've created a changes stream, let's listen to it! To do this, we write:

9  changes.on('data', function(change) {
10   console.log(change);
11 });

Let's test it out: Run this application by typing:

node index.js

If everything is working correctly, you'll see something like this start streaming through your console:

{ seq: 445,
  id: 'CompoundSignal',
  changes: [ { rev: '5-a0695c30fdaa3471246ef0cd6c8a476d' } ] }
{ seq: 446,
  id: 'amphibian',
  changes: [ { rev: '5-1a864e76d844e90bf6c63cb94303b593' } ] }
{ seq: 447,
  id: 'aop',
  changes: [ { rev: '9-9acc0139df57a1db2604f13f12b500f2' } ] }
{ seq: 448,
  id: 'dynamo-schema',
  changes: [ { rev: '5-bf8052c0d4b6e80e6664625137efd610' } ] }
{ seq: 451,
  id: 'password-reset',
  changes: [ { rev: '21-948e6633799ffd56a993c3fb144d1728' } ] }

If you don't see that, and/or got an error, reread the sample code in this section and be sure you don't have any typos! If you continue having trouble, file an issue on this repo.

Otherwise... Congrats! You have a successful registry follower. Hurry up and hit ctrl-c - this stream won't ever exit the way we've written it now!

moar data please

So our follower works! But it's not that great right now because we don't really have all that much interesting data. Let's look at what we have right now:

{ seq: 446,
  id: 'amphibian',
  changes: [ { rev: '5-1a864e76d844e90bf6c63cb94303b593' } ] }
  • seq: the package's order in the sequence of change events
  • id: the name of the package (sometimes this is something else! we'll get to that in a bit tho, it doesn't matter too much right now.)
  • changes: an array containing a single object, with a single key rev that point to a change id

Let's be real: this data is not that interesting. Where's the good stuff? It turns out that the fun data is in a key called doc that we need to tell our ChangesStream instance, changes, to specifically grab. To do this, we'll add include_docs: true to the options object we pass to the ChangesStream constructor.

Once we've told our ChangesStream to include_docs, we get some new awesome data. This new data lives off of a key called doc on the change object we received from the stream.

The two changes we make to our code look like this:

5  var changes = new ChangesStream({
6    db: db,
7    include_docs: true            // <- this is the thing we're adding
8  })
10 changes.on('data', function(change) {
11   console.log(change.doc)      // <- so that we can add `.doc` here
12 });

Let's test it out by running node index.js. Assuming you've made all the changes we described above you should be seeing a LOT more data. Here's a summary of what you get:

  • _id: the name of the package
  • _rev: the revision id
  • name: the name of the package
  • description: the package description
  • 'dist-tags': an object with all dist-tag names and versions
  • versions: a nested object where every version is a key, and an object of all of the package metadata for that key is the value (this includes: main, directories, dependencies, scripts, engines, bin, devDependencies, and more)
  • maintainers: an array of objects, each representing info about a maintainer (name, email, website)
  • time: timestamps for every version of the package published, plus created and modified
  • author: an object representing the author of the package (name, email website)
  • repository: an object representing the location of the package code, e.g. { type: 'git', url: 'git://github.com/my/gitrepo.git' }

Take a moment and play around with your application by exploring the different pieces of data you can get from this stream. You may notice that some nested structures appear like [Object] in your console. You can print those out by adding JSON.stringify to your log, like this:

console.log(JSON.stringify (change.doc,null,' '));

...which will ensure that the nested objects aren't flattened (e.g. appear like [Object]).

Note: you'll have to ctrl-C out of your application every time you run it. It's still a never ending stream! In the next section we'll explain how to make it stop.

a never ending stream

As we mentioned in the previous section, our follower currently won't ever stop! Let's dive a little deeper into why that's the case:

Our application functions by listening for an event called data from a stream coming out of npm's registry, each event hands us an object that represents a change in the registry... and the registry is changing all the time!

Luckily, our db endpoint gives us some useful info to help us consume just the current changes as they exist at the time of access, and then stop the process.

Navigate your browser to our db url:


...you should see something that looks like this:

  "db_name": "registry",
  "doc_count": 345391,
  "doc_del_count": 355,
  "update_seq": 2496579,
  "purge_seq": 0,
  "compact_running": false,
  "disk_size": 1713074299,
  "data_size": 1320944467,
  "instance_start_time": "1466084344558224",
  "disk_format_version": 6,
  "committed_update_seq": 2496579

Let's talk about what some of these mean:

  • doc_count: is the number of documents that the db contains
  • update_seq: is the number of changes that are stored in the db

update_seq is the important bit of information here. As stated, it represents the number of change resources contained in the db. Remember the seq attribute on the change object we received from the stream? That number counts up until update_seq! This means that we can use this number to tell our follower to stop when change.seq meets or exceeds the update_seq value, signifying that it has processed all the changes in the db up until the time we accessed the update_seq value.

That was a lot of words, let's take a look at what this would look like in code.

2  const Request = require('request');
11 Request.get(db, function(err, req, body) {        // <- make a request to the db
12   var end_sequence = JSON.parse(body).update_seq; // <- grab the update_seq value
13   changes.on('data', function(change) {
14     if (change.seq >= end_sequence {               // <- if we're at the last change
15       process.exit(0);                            // <- end the program successfully ("0")
16     }
17     console.log(change.doc);
18   }) 
19 });

Let's walk through what this code is doing:

  • On line 2, we are require the request package
  • On line 11, we are making a request to our db using the request package
  • On line 12, we parse the response from our request and grab the update_seq value.
  • On line 13, on every data event, we check to see if the change.seq value we get is greater than or equal to update_seq. Why >= and not just equal? Remember that the registry is always changing, and there's a good chance it will change while we are following it! Using >= means that we can account for the change that happens while our application is running.
  • On line 15, we end our program. We send the value 0 to process.exit to indicate that we are ending the program successfully, i.e. not with an error.

Ok! Given this code, our application will now run for all the current changes in the registry and then exit. Take a moment and give it a go! Note: There are a lot of changes, so this can take up to an hour.

clean up

So our follower is pretty much done! However, there's a few things that ain't quite right about our data. Let's do that now so we can finish up.

Firstly, remember the id/_id key we recieve from our changes stream? We had identified that as being the name of the package, but that was a generalization. It turns out that there are actually 2 types of things in the changes db: changes and "design docs".

"Design docs"? What? Right. To understand this requires understand how CouchDB works a bit. One way to program with CouchDB is to write an application within the db. At this point, npm is moving away from this structure, but at one point (and still!) the registry was/is written as a CouchDB application. These applications exist as "design docs" inside the db, so when receive data from the db, sometimes we receive these design docs. If you watched your follower closely, you'd notice that sometimes it's logging undefined. Those are the "design docs".

To ignore these files, we can just check to see if a change is an actual package by checking if it has a name. We can accomplish this by checking if change.doc.namehas a value before we do anything with thechange` data. In our code, this looks like this:

17 if (change.doc.name) {             // <-- make sure the change is a change
18   console.log(change.doc);
19 }

Ok, so we're almost done. Actually, we are totally done. But there's one last thing we can do to make our data even better: we can normalize our data so that it is nearly exactly the same as the CLI uses and is returned by http://registry.npmjs.com.

To do this, we'll add one more dependency to our application: normalize-registry-metadata.

First things first: let's install this package and save it to our package.json:

npm install normalize-registry-metadata --save

Next, we require in our index.js:

3  const Normalize = require('normalize-registry-metadata');

Lastly, let's call Normalize() on the change data before we log it to the console:

18   console.log(Normalize(change.doc));        // <-- we only have to change this line!

And we're done! You can double check that your code is correct by looking at the complete code here.

forever follower

Don't want to stop? Want to write a persistent follower? You can move foward with our app as it is currently written, however you'll likely have a better experience replacing changes-stream with concurrent-couch-follower which is safer for operations that may require async (like a file write!). concurrent-couch-follower remembers the last change you processed and can start back from there if at some point you need to restart the program.

a few notes on performance

The vast majority of useful registry followers won't ever have any kind of follower-side performance problem. In keeping with long-established wisdom, you probably shouldn't even think about this section until you hit a bottleneck in use and confirm it by measurement. Logging Node.js cpuUsage() and memoryUsage(), heap analysis, and the built-in profiler are great places to start.

Under the hood, libraries like changes-stream GET the registry's CouchDB-style HTTPS replication endpoint, which streams newline-deliminted JSON objects, one per database update, over long-lived responses. These are the object chunks you receive from the stream.

Most registry update objects are manageably small, but the deviation is great, with a few updates weighing in close to 5 MB. The bulk of this is often (highly repetitive) README file strings, one per version in chunk.doc.versions. Some packages have thousands of versions. And every once in a while, some fiendish jokester publishes a "novelty" package that "depends on" every other package in the registry, as if they were the first to think of it.

Especially if you're using a pipeline of many object-mode streams to process the chunks, you may have high memory usage with Node.js' default maximum stream internal buffer size, highWaterMark, of 16. Multiple buffers of 16 objects each, plus lingering data not yet picked up by the garbage collector, can eat your RAM lunch quick. To reduce this number:

new ChangesStream({
  db: 'https://replicate.npmjs.com',
  include_docs: true,
  highWaterMark: 4

Most tried-and-true stream packages, like those in the Mississippi Streams Collection, take optional options-object arguments that get passed along to the core readable-stream constructors. You can set {highWaterMark: Number} in those arguments.

go forth and make something awesome!

We're seriously excited about what you'll build. Please share with us on twitter (@npmjs)! And please don't hesitate to ask for help in the issues on this repo :)