Comment on current eventsBefore I get started, I'm writing this between January 6, when Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, and January 20th, when Joe Biden is set to be inaugurated as president. As unsettling as it is to see unfold, it is a reminder that the United States is still suffering under institutions that coddle white supremacy and racial resentment, stoked by income inequality and unscrupulous politicians. I'd like to simply state that Black and Indigenous lives matter, LGBTQIA+ lives matter, and that systems of power that benefit some over the good of the many are wrong, even when I am part of the group benefiting.

Curious about how frontend code works on the Internet Computer? Here's what I've learned after two weeks on the job.

What you get in the starter

If you're following the Quick Start guide, you'll get some useful instructions on how to install the dfx sdk, leading you to create a templated project using dfx new hello.

[object Object],How your project looks immediately after init

How your project looks immediately after init

Things will largely look familiar to you if you've been working with frontend code for a while. You've got src and node_modules folders, as well as package.json and webpack.config.js config files.

There is also a dfx.json config file, which is worth opening up and inspecting.

// dfx.json
  "canisters": {
    "hello": {
      "main": "src/hello/",
      "type": "motoko"
    "hello_assets": {
      "dependencies": ["hello"],
      "frontend": {
        "entrypoint": "src/hello_assets/public/index.js"
      "source": ["src/hello_assets/assets", "dist/hello_assets/"],
      "type": "assets"
  "defaults": {
    "build": {
      "packtool": ""
  "dfx": "0.6.17",
  "networks": {
    "ic": {
      "providers": [""],
      "type": "persistent"
    "local": {
      "bind": "",
      "type": "ephemeral"
  "version": 1

Inside, you'll see that the template has provided you with two "canisters": hello and hello_assets. Their names are generated to match the name of your new project you provided during dfx new.

Those canisters point to two directories under your src folder. One has some motoko code, and the other is JavaScript. If you're a person, the motoko code is probably new to you, but even the JavaScript has something that looks a little odd to you.

// src/hello_assets/public/index.js
import hello from "ic:canisters/hello";

hello.greet(window.prompt("Enter your name:")).then(greeting => {

The hello object imported from ic:canisters/hello is clearly nonstandard, but we'll get to what it's doing in a second.

Build your starter

To get your starter running, you'll need to run a few commands. First, run dfx start and then open a new terminal tab or window.

In the new window, you need to create your on a local version of the internet computer, then compile your code.

dfx canister create hello
dfx canister create hello_assets
dfx build

Now, you should see that you have a .dfx directory, with a bunch of new content inside. The interesting bits will be the files inside of .dfx/local/canisters, inside the hello and hello_assets directories.

[object Object],new dfx folder

new dfx folder

You'll see that the canisters compile into wasm code, which is what runs on the canisters, as well as a candid type delcaration file hello.did, and JavaScript files that set up an interface for your API.

This code is what enables the ic:canisters/hello import that we saw earlier in our source code.

If you look into the webpack.config.js, you'll see that there is a pre-filled configuration that uses Webpack's alias feature to link your ic:canisters/hello to .dfx/local/canisters/hello/hello.js, along with its type declaration file hello.did.js.

If you're looking closely at hello.js, however, you'll notice something that's not immediately clear. It attaches its interface to a global object, ic.agent. You can run a search on your codebase, but you'll see that there's nowhere that sets up this global ic object that you can access.

Still, you can navigate to your browser, pull up localhost:8000 and pass your canister id as a query parameter, and you'll get an html payload that loads and executes your code. The reason that the code works is that the asset canister has a few assumptions and some magic it's doing for you.

  • An asset canister bootstraps your identity with html that initializes a global ic object and an anonymous identity.
  • That anonymous identity allows you to request static assets, including your JS bundle.

From there, you have a workflow that will allow you to run a compile job and deploy a JavaScript application to the Internet Computer. You can work with any JavaScript technology that compiles with WebPack, and build your application.

Wait, I have to manually build and deploy every time? That sounds slow and bad.

Yeah, I agree with you on that one, and I think we can make some big improvements. In my next post, I'll get into how you can use the @dfinity/agent package and a polyfill to create your own global ic object to start working with webpack-dev-server and enable a more modern workflow. We're actively working on making this process friendlier internally, but if you're eager to get started, you can check out our unofficial Create React App DFX Template work in progress. Credit to Mio Quispe for their work on the proof of concept and starting point for our project.

© Kyle Peacock 2021