This blog post is a first draft of documentation I'm working on. It covers how the JavaScript Agent works, our recommended workflows, and how to get set up with various tools and environments.

Basics

To get started with JavaScript on the Internet Computer, we recommend you follow our quickstart guide in order to get set up with the basics of your development environment. This includes:

  • Dfinity's development SDK, dfx
  • Node JS (12, 14, or 16)
  • A canister you want to experiment with

The Internet Computer blockchain is accessible via an API that is available at https://ic0.app/api/v2. Smart contracts are able to define their own API's using the Candid Interface Declaration Language (IDL), and they will respond to calls through the public API.

The IC supports two types of calls - queries and updates. Queries are fast and cannot change state. Updates go through consensus, and will take around 2-4 seconds to complete.

As a result of the latency for updates, best practices around modeling your application's performance will have you make updates asynchronously and early. If you can make an update ahead of time and have it already "cached" in your canister's memory, your users will have a better experience requesting that data. Similarly, if your application needs to make an update, it is best to avoid blocking interaction while your update is taking place. Use optimistic rendering wherever practical, and proceed with your application as if the call has already succeeded.

A simple call

Talking to the IC from your application starts with the canister interface. Let's take a very simple one to begin with.

# hello.did
service : {
  greet: (text) -> (text);
}

This is a Candid interface. It defines no new special types, and defines a service interface with a single method, greet. Greet accepts a single argument, of type text, and responds with text. Unless labeled as a query, all calls are treated as updates by default.

In JS, text maps to a type of string. You can see a full list of Candid types and their JS equivalents at the Candid Types reference.

Since this interface is easily typed, we are able to automatically generate a JavaScript interface, as well as TypeScript declarations, for this application. This can be done in two ways. You can manually generate an interface using the didc tool, by going to the releases tab of the dfinity/candid repository.

In most cases, it is easier to configure your project to have a canister defined in dfx.json, and to generate your declarations automatically using the dfx generate command.

For our Hello World example, that looks like this:

// dfx.json
{
  "canisters": {
    "hello": {
      "main": "src/hello/main.mo",
      "type": "motoko"
    },
    ...
}

Then when we run dfx generate, dfx will automatically write the following to your src/declarations directory inside your project.

|── src
│   ├── declarations
│   │   ├── hello
│   │   │   ├── hello.did
│   │   │   ├── hello.did.d.ts
│   │   │   ├── hello.did.js
│   │   │   ├── hello.most
│   │   │   └── index.js

hello.did defines your interface, as we saw above, and hello.most is used for upgrade safety. That leaves us with the three remaining files, index.js, hello.did.js, and hello.did.d.ts.

Let's start with the simplest, hello.did.d.ts.

This file will look something like this:

import type { Principal } from '@dfinity/principal';
import type { ActorMethod } from '@dfinity/agent';
export interface _SERVICE { 'greet' : ActorMethod<[string], string> };

The _SERVICE export includes a greet method, with typings for an array of arguments and a return type. This will be typed as an ActorMethod, which will be a handler that takes arguments and returns a promise that resolves with the type specified in the declarations.

Next, let's look at hello.did.js.

export const idlFactory = ({ IDL }) => {
  return IDL.Service({ 'greet' : IDL.Func([IDL.Text], [IDL.Text], []) });
};

Unlike our did.d.ts declarations, this idlFactory needs to be available during runtime. The idlFactory gets loaded by an Actor interface, which is what will handle structuring the network calls according to the IC API and the provided candid spec.

This factory again represents a service with a greet method, and the same arguments as before. You may notice, however, that the IDL.Func has a third argument, which here is an empty array. That represents any additional annotations the function may be tagged with, which most commonly will be "query".

And third, we have index.js, which will pull those pieces together and set up a customized actor with your smart contract's interface. This does a few things, like using process.env variables to determine the ID of the canister, based on which deploy context you are using, but the most important aspect is in the createActor export.

 export const createActor = (canisterId, options) => {
  const agent = new HttpAgent({ ...options?.agentOptions });
  
  // Fetch root key for certificate validation during development
  if(process.env.NODE_ENV !== "production") {
    agent.fetchRootKey().catch(err=>{
      console.warn("Unable to fetch root key. Check to ensure that your local replica is running");
      console.error(err);
    });
  }
  // Creates an actor with using the candid interface and the HttpAgent
  return Actor.createActor(idlFactory, {
    agent,
    canisterId,
    ...options?.actorOptions,
  });
}

This constructor first creates a HttpAgent, which is wraps the JS fetch API and uses it to encode calls through the public API. We also optionally fetch the root key of the replica, for non-mainnet deployments. Finally, we create an Actor using the automatically generated interface for the canister we will call, passing it the canisterId and the HttpAgent we have initialized.

This Actor instance is now set up to call all of the service methods as methods. Once this is all set up, like it is by default in the dfx new template, you can simply run dfx generate whenever you make changes to your canister API, and the full interface will automatically stay in sync in your frontend code.

Browser

The browser context is the easiest to account for. The fetch API is available, and most apps will have an easy time determining whether they need to talk to https://ic0.app or a local replica, depending on their URL.

When you are building apps that run in the browser, here are some things to consider:

Performance

Updates to the IC may feel slow to your users, at around 2-4 seconds. When you are building your application, take that latency into consideration, and consider following some best practices:

  • Avoid blocking UI interactions while you wait for the result of your update. Instead, allow users to continuing to make other updates and interactions, and inform your users of success asyncronously.
  • Try to avoid making inter-canister calls. If the backend needs to talk to other canisters, the duration can add up quickly.
  • Use Promise.all to make multiple calls in a batch, instead of making them one-by-one
  • If you need to fetch assets or data, you can make direct fetch calls to the raw.ic0.app endpoint for canisters

Node.js

Configuration

You may need to do some additional configuration for your node.js application, using the default declarations we provide from dfx generate. This is because there are a couple features that are typically present in the browser context that may not be available in your Node.js context. Fetch is now available in Node 18, so that may not work out of the box. However, in older versions, you may need to configure fetch to be available in the global context, as well as the TextEncoder API.

In Node 18 - the setup is fairly simple. You need to make the following changes once you've generated your declarations:

  1. Rename the .js files to .mjs
  2. Comment out the last line exporting hello
  3. Either provide the canisterId through a process variable or import it directly
  4. Pass the host during the createActor method
// script.mjs
// Note - files were re-named from js to mjs
import { createActor } from "../declarations/hello/index.mjs";

import canisterIds from "../../.dfx/local/canister_ids.json" assert { type: "json" };

const canisterId = canisterIds.hello.local;

const hello = createActor(canisterId, {
  agentOptions: { 
    // fetch polyfill would go here if needed
    host: "http://127.0.0.1:8000" 
  },
});

hello.greet("Alice").then((result) => {
  console.log(result);
});

This will work out of the box, but you may also prefer to use a bundler to support TypeScript or other language features.

Bundlers

We recommend using a bundler to assemble your code for convenience and less troubleshooting. We provide a standard Webpack config, but you may also turn to Rollup, Vite, Parcel, or others. For this pattern, we recommend running a script to generate .env.development and .env.production environment variable files for your canister ids, which is a fairly standard approach for bundlers, and can be easily supported using dotenv. Here is an example script you can run to map those files:

// setupEnv.js
const fs = require("fs");
const path = require("path");

function initCanisterEnv() {
  let localCanisters, prodCanisters;
  try {
    localCanisters = require(path.resolve(
      ".dfx",
      "local",
      "canister_ids.json"
    ));
  } catch (error) {
    console.log("No local canister_ids.json found");
  }
  try {
    prodCanisters = require(path.resolve("canister_ids.json"));
  } catch (error) {
    console.log("No production canister_ids.json found");
  }

  const network =
    process.env.DFX_NETWORK ||
    (process.env.NODE_ENV === "production" ? "ic" : "local");

  const canisterConfig = network === "local" ? localCanisters : prodCanisters;

  const localMap = localCanisters
    ? Object.entries(localCanisters).reduce((prev, current) => {
        const [canisterName, canisterDetails] = current;
        prev[canisterName.toUpperCase() + "_CANISTER_ID"] =
          canisterDetails[network];
        return prev;
      }, {})
    : undefined;
  const prodMap = prodCanisters
    ? Object.entries(prodCanisters).reduce((prev, current) => {
        const [canisterName, canisterDetails] = current;
        prev[canisterName.toUpperCase() + "_CANISTER_ID"] =
          canisterDetails[network];
        return prev;
      }, {})
    : undefined;
  return [localMap, prodMap];
}
const [localCanisters, prodCanisters] = initCanisterEnv();

if (localCanisters) {
  const localTemplate = Object.entries(localCanisters).reduce((start, next) => {
    const [key, val] = next;
    if (!start) return `${key}=${val}`;
    return `${start ?? ""}
          ${key}=${val}`;
  }, ``);
  fs.writeFileSync(".env.development", localTemplate);
}
if (prodCanisters) {
  const prodTemplate = Object.entries(prodCanisters).reduce((start, next) => {
    const [key, val] = next;
    if (!start) return `${key}=${val}`;
    return `${start ?? ""}
        ${key}=${val}`;
  }, ``);
  fs.writeFileSync(".env", localTemplate);
}

Then, you can add "prestart" and "prebuild" commands of dfx generate; node setupEnv.js. Follow documentation for your preferred bundler on how to work with environment variables.

© Kyle Peacock 2022