An in-depth perspective on webpack's bundling process

Post Editor

Webpack is a very powerful and interesting tool that can be considered a fundamental component in many of today's technologies that web developers use to build their applications. However, many people would argue it is quite a challenge to work with it, mostly due to its complexity.

30 min read
0 comments
post

An in-depth perspective on webpack's bundling process

Webpack is a very powerful and interesting tool that can be considered a fundamental component in many of today's technologies that web developers use to build their applications. However, many people would argue it is quite a challenge to work with it, mostly due to its complexity.

post
post
30 min read
0 comments
0 comments

Webpack is a very powerful and interesting tool that can be considered a fundamental component in many of today's technologies that web developers use to build their applications. However, many people would argue it is quite a challenge to work with it, mostly due to its complexity.

In this series of articles I'd like to share many details about the inner workings of webpack, with the hope that it will make working with webpack look more approachable. This article will serve as a basis for upcoming articles in which I will dive deeper into other webpack's features. You'll learn about how lazy loading works, how tree shaking works, how certain loaders work etc. My goal with this series is for you to become more comfortable when solving webpack-related problems. The objective of this article is to give you enough insights about the entire process so that you'll be able to intervene at any point in order to understand some aspects of webpack by yourself or to debug problems. Thus, in the last section we will see how to debug webpack's source code by going through its tests and some custom examples.

We will start off with a diagram that depicts, not very briefly, the entire bundling process. Some details are omitted though, as they are subjects for future articles. Then, we will expand some of the steps from the diagram. As we go along, we will also explain concepts such as modules, chunks etc. Also, to simplify comprehension, I will replace the snippets from the source code with diagrams and simplified code snippets. I will include, however, some links to the source code, maybe they will turn out to be useful.

As a convention, we will refer to NormalModules simply as modules. There are other types of modules, such as ExternalModule(when using module federation)  and ConcatenatedModule(when using require.context()), which are topics for separated articles. In this article, we will only focus on NormalModules.

If you want to follow along and explore the source code as you read the article, there is a Debugging webpack's source code section that you should check out first.

Visualizing the process with a diagram
Link to this section

base-diagram.png

You can get a better experience when visualizing the diagram by viewing it 'live' in Excalidraw. Link here.

I'd highly recommend opening the Excalidraw link of the diagram, as it will be used as support for the forthcoming in-depth explanations structured in sections, each of which describes a step or multiple steps from the diagram.

Let's get started!

The entry object
Link to this section

It is very important to mention that everything starts with the entry object. As you might expect, it supports many configurations, hence this topic deserves an article on its own. That's why we will consider a simpler example, that one in which the entry object is just a collection of key-value pairs:

<>Copy
// webpack.config.js entry: { a: './a.js', b: './b.js', /* ... */ }

Conceptually, a module in webpack is associated with a file. So, in the diagram 'a.js' will result in a new module and so will 'b.js' . For now, it is enough to retain that a module is an upgraded version of a file. A module, once created and built, contains a lot of meaningful information besides the raw source code, such as: the loaders used, its dependencies, its exports(if any), its hash and much more. Each item in the entry object can be thought of as the root module in a tree of modules. A tree of modules because the root module might require some other modules(which can be fairly called dependencies), those modules might require other modules and so forth, so you can see how, at a higher level, such tree could be built. All these module trees are stored together in a ModuleGraph, which we will go over in the next section.

The next thing that we need to mention now is that webpack is built on top of a lot of plugins. Although the bundling process is well established, there are a lot of ways one could chip in to add custom logic. Extensibility in webpack is implemented through hooks. For example, you can add custom logic after the ModuleGraph has been built, when a new asset has been generated for a chunk, before the module is about to be built(runs loaders and parses the source) etc. We will also explore them in future articles, as they are very interesting and they can provide solutions to a lot of problems related to webpack customization. Most of the times, the hooks are grouped under their purpose, and for any well defined purpose there is a plugin. For example, there is a plugin that is responsible for handling the import() function(responsible for parsing the comments and the argument) - it's called ImportParserPlugin and all it does is to add a hook for when an import() call is encountered during the AST parsing.

It should come as no surprise that there are a couple of plugins which are responsible for dealing with the entry object. There is the EntryOptionPlugin which practically takes in the entry object and creates an EntryPlugin for each item in the object. This part is important and is also related to what's been mentioned in the beginning of this section: each item of the entry object will result in a tree of modules(all these trees are separated from each other). Basically, the EntryPlugin starts the creation of a module tree, each of which will add information to the same single place, the ModuleGraph. Informally, we'd say that the EntryPlugin starts this complex process.

entry-option-plugin.png

For the sake of being on par with the initial diagram, it's worth mentioning that the EntryPlugin is also the place where an EntryDependency is created.

Based on the above diagram, let's get more insights about how important the EntryOptionsPlugin is by loosely implementing it ourselves:

<>Copy
class CustomEntryOptionPlugin { // This is the standard way of creating plugins. // It's either this, or a simple function, but we're using this approach // in order to be on par with how most of the plugins are created. apply(compiler) { // Recall that hooks offer us the possibility to intervene in the // bundling process. // With the help of the `entryOption` hook, we're adding the logic // that will basically mean the start of the bundling process. As in, // the `entryObject` argument will hold the `entry` object from the // configuration file and we'll be using it to set up the creation of // module trees. compiler.hooks.entryOption.tap('CustomEntryOptionPlugin', entryObject => { // The `EntryOption` class will handle the creation of a module tree. const EntryOption = class { constructor (options) { this.options = options; }; // Since this is still a plugin, we're abiding by the standard. apply(compiler) { // The `start` hook marks the start of the bundling process. // It will be called **after** `hooks.entryOption` is called. compiler.hooks.start('EntryOption', ({ createModuleTree }) => { // Creating new tree of modules, based on the configuration of this plugin. // The `options` contain the name of the entry(which essentially is the name of the chunk) // and the file name. // The `EntryDependency` encapsulates these options and also provides way to // create modules(because it maps to a `NormalModuleFactory`, which produces `NormalModule`s). // After calling `createModuleTree`, the source code of the file will be found, // then a module instance will be created and then webpack will get its AST, which // will be further used in the bundling process. createModuleTree(new EntryDependency(this.options)); }); }; }; // For each item in the `entryObject` we're preparing // the creation of a module tree. Remember that each // module tree is independent of others. // The `entryObject` could be something like this: `{ a: './a.js' }` for (const name in entryObject) { const fileName = entryObject[name]; // We're fundamentally saying: `ok webpack, when the bundling process starts, // be ready to create a module tree for this entry`. new EntryOption({ name, fileName }).apply(compiler); }; }); } };

In the last part of this section, we will expand a bit upon what a Dependency is, because it's something we will use further in this article and will be mentioned in other articles. You might be wondering now what an EntryDependency is and why it is required. From my perspective, it all boils down to a smart abstraction when it comes to creating new modules. Simply put, a dependency is just a preliminary to an actual module instance. For instance, even the entry object's items are dependencies in webpack's view and they indicate the bare minimum for a module instance to be created: its path(e.g ./a.js, ./b.js). The creation of a module can't start without a dependency, because a dependency holds, among other significant information, the module's request, i.e the path to the file where the module's source can be found(e.g './a.js'). A dependency also indicates how to construct that module and it does that with a module factory. A module factory knows how to start from a raw state(e.g the source code which is a simple string) and arrive at concrete entities which are then leveraged by webpack. The EntryDependency is in fact a type of ModuleDependency, meaning that it will for sure hold the module's request and the module factory it points to is NormalModuleFactory. Then, the NormalModuleFactory knows exactly what to do in order to create something meaningful to webpack from just a path. Another way to think about it is that a module was at first just a simple path(either in the entry object or part of an import statement), then it became a dependency and then, finally, a module.
Here's a way to visualize this:

entry-dep.png

An Excalidraw link for the above diagram can be found here.

So, the EntryDependency is used at the beginning, when creating the root module of the module tree.
For the rest of the modules, there are other types of dependencies. For example, if you use an import statement, like import defaultFn from './a.js' , then there will be a HarmonyImportSideEffectDependency which holds the module's request(in this case, './a.js') and also maps to the NormalModuleFactory. So, there will be a new module for the file 'a.js' and hopefully now you can see the important role that dependencies play. They essentially instruct webpack in how to create modules. We will reveal more information about dependencies later in the article.

A quick recap of what we've learned in this section: for each item in the entry object, there will be an EntryPlugin instance, where an EntryDependency is created. This EntryDependency holds the module's request(i.e the path to the file) and also offers a way to make something useful of that request, by mapping to a module factory, namely NormalModuleFactory. A module factory knows how to create entities useful to webpack from just a file path. Once again, a dependency is crucial to creating a module because it holds important information, such as the module's request and how to process that request. There are several types of dependencies and not all of them are useful to creating a new module. From each  EntryPlugin  instance and with the help of the newly created EntryDependency, a module tree will be created. The module tree is built on top of modules and their dependencies, which are as well modules, which can also have dependencies.

Now, let's continue our learning journey by finding out more about the ModuleGraph.

Understanding the ModuleGraph
Link to this section

The ModuleGraph is a way to keep track of built modules. It heavily relies on dependencies in the sense that they provide ways to connect 2 different modules. For example:

<>Copy
// a.js import defaultBFn from '.b.js/'; // b.js export default function () { console.log('Hello from B!'); }

Here we have 2 files, so 2 modules. File a requires something from file b, so in a there is a dependency which is established by the import statement. As far as the ModuleGraph is concerned, a dependency defines a way to connect 2 modules. Even the EntryDependency from the previous section connects 2 modules: the root module of the graph, which we will refer to as the null module, and the module associated with the entry file. The above snippet can be visualized as follows:

dep.png

It's important to clarify the distinction between a simple module(i.e a NormalModule instance) and a module that belongs to the ModuleGraph. A ModuleGraph's node is called ModuleGraphModule and it is just a decorated NormalModule instance. The ModuleGraph keeps track of these decorated modules with the help of a map, which has this signature: Map<Module, ModuleGraphModule>. These aspects were necessary to mention because, for instance, if there are only NormalModule instances, then there isn't much you can do with them, they don't know how to communicate with each other. The ModuleGraph gives meaning to these bare modules, by interconnecting them with the help of the aforementioned map which assigns each NormalModule with a ModuleGraphModule. This will make more sense at the end of the Building the ModuleGraph section, where we will use the ModuleGraph and its internal map in particular in order to traverse the graph. We will refer to a module that belongs to the ModuleGraph simply as module, since the difference consists of only a few additional properties.
For a node that belongs to the ModuleGraph there are few things well defined: the incoming connections and the outgoing connections. A connection is another small entity of the ModuleGraph and it holds meaningful information such as: the origin module, the destination module and the dependency that connects the 2 beforementioned modules. Concretely, based on the above diagram, a new connection has been created:

<>Copy
// This is based on the diagram and the snippet from above. Connection: { originModule: A, destinationModule: B, dependency: ImportDependency }

And the above connection will be added to A.outgoingConnections set and to B.incomingConnections set.
These are the basic concepts of the ModuleGraph. As already mentioned in the previous section, all of the module trees created from the entries will output meaningful information to the same single place, the ModuleGraph. This is because all these trees of modules will eventually be connected with the null module(the root module of the ModuleGraph). The connection to the null module is established through the EntryDependency and the module created from the entry file. Here is how I think of the ModuleGraph:

module-graph.png

Here is the Excalidraw link for the above diagram. Note: this diagram is not based on a previous example.

As you can see, the null module has a connection to the root module of each module tree generated from an item in the entry object. Each edge in the graph represents a connection between 2 modules and each connection holds information about the source node, destination node and the dependency(which informally answers the question why are these 2 modules connected?).

Now that we're a bit more familiar with the ModuleGraph, let's see how it is built.

Building the ModuleGraph
Link to this section

As we have seen in the previous section, the ModuleGraph starts with a null module whose direct descendants are the root modules of the module trees which were built from entry object items. For that reason, in order to understand how the ModuleGraph is built, we are going to examine the building process of a single module tree.

The first modules to be created
Link to this section

We will start with a very simple entry object:

<>Copy
entry: { a: './a.js', }

Based on what's been said in the first section, at some point we would end up with an EntryDependency whose request is './a.js'. This EntryDependency provides a way to create something meaningful from that request  because it maps to a module factory, namely NormalModuleFactory. This is where we left off in the first section.

The next step in the process is where the NormalModuleFactory comes into play. The NormalModuleFactory, if it successfully completes its task, will create a NormalModule.
And just to make sure there are no uncertainties, the NormalModule is just a deserialized version of a file's source code, which is nothing more than a raw string. A raw string does not bring much value, so webpack can't do much with it. A NormalModule will also store the source code as a string, but, at the same time, it will also contain other meaningful information and functionality, such as: the loaders applied to it, the logic for building a module, the logic for generating runtime code, its hash value and much more. In other words, the NormalModule is the useful version of a simple raw file, from webpack's perspective.

In order for the NormalModuleFactory to output a NormalModule, it has to go through some steps. There is also stuff to do after the module has been created, such as building the module and processing its dependencies, if it has any.

Here is once again the diagram we've been following, now focusing on the Building the ModuleGraph part:

main.png

You can find the link of the above diagram here.

NormalModuleFactory starts its magic by invoking its create method. Then, the resolving process begins. Here is where the request(file's path) is resolved, as well as the loaders for that type of file. Notice that only the file paths of the loaders will be determined, the loaders are not being invoked yet in this step.

The module's build process
Link to this section

After all the necessary file paths have been resolved, the NormalModule is created. However, at this point, the module is not very valuable. A lot of relevant information will come after the module has been built. The build process of a NormalModule  comprises a few other steps:

  • firstly, the loaders will be invoked on the raw source code; if there are multiple loaders, then the output of one loader might be the input another loader(the order in which loaders are provided in the config file is important);
  • secondly, the resulting string after running through all the loaders will be parsed with acorn(a JavaScript parser) which yields the AST of the given file;
  • finally, the AST will be analyzed; the analysis is necessary because during this phase the current module's dependencies(e.g other modules) will be determined, webpack can detect its magic functions(e.g require.context, module.hot) etc;  the AST analysis happens in the JavascriptParser and if you'll click on the link, you should see that a lot of cases are handled there; this part of the process is one of the most important, because a lot of what's coming next in the bundling process depends on this part;

Dependencies discovery through the resulted AST
Link to this section

A way to think of the discovery process, without going too much into detail, would be this:

ast.png

A link to the above diagram can be found here.

Where moduleInstance refers to the NormalModule created from the index.js file. The dep in red refers to dependency created from the first import statement, and the dep in blue refers to the second import statement. This is just a simplified way of viewing things. In reality, as mentioned earlier, the dependencies are added after the AST has been obtained.

Now that the AST has been examined, is time to continue the process of building the module tree we've talked about at the beginning of this section. The next step is to process the dependencies that have been found at the previous step. If we were to follow the above diagram, the index module has 2 dependencies, which are also modules, namely math.js and utils.js. But before the dependencies become actual modules, we just have the index module whose module.dependencies has 2 values which hold information such as the module request(the file's path), the import specifier(e.g sum, greet). In order to turn them into modules, we need to use the ModuleFactory that these dependencies map to and repeat the same steps described above(the repetition is indicated by the dashed arrow in the diagram showed at the beginning of this section). After processing the current module's dependencies, those dependencies might have dependencies as well and this process goes on until there are no more dependencies. This is how the module tree is being built, while of course making sure that the connections between parent and child modules are properly set.

Based on the knowledge we've gained so far, it would be a good exercise to actually experiment with the ModuleGraph ourselves. For this purpose, let's see a way to implement a custom plugin that will allow us to traverse the ModuleGraph. Here's the diagram that depicts how modules depend on each other:

module-graph.png

The link for the above diagram can be found here.

To make sure that everything in the diagram is intelligible, the a.js file imports the b.js file, which imports both b1.js and c.js, then c.js imports c1.j and d.js and finally, d.js imports d1.js. Lastly, ROOT refers to the null module, which is the root of the ModuleGraph. The entry options consists of only one value, a.js:

<>Copy
// webpack.config.js const config = { entry: path.resolve(__dirname, './src/a.js'), /* ... */ };

Let's now see how our custom plugin would look like:

<>Copy
// The way we're adding logic to the existing webpack hooks // is by using the `tap` method, which has this signature: // `tap(string, callback)` // where `string` is mainly for debugging purposes, indicating // the source where the custom logic has been added from. // The `callback`'s argument depend on the hook on which we're adding custom functionality. class UnderstandingModuleGraphPlugin { apply(compiler) { const className = this.constructor.name; // Onto the `compilation` object: it is where most of the *state* of // the bundling process is kept. It contains information such as the module graph, // the chunk graph, the created chunks, the created modules, the generated assets // and much more. compiler.hooks.compilation.tap(className, (compilation) => { // The `finishModules` is called after *all* the modules(including // their dependencies and the dependencies' dependencies and so forth) // have been built. compilation.hooks.finishModules.tap(className, (modules) => { // `modules` is the set which contains all the built modules. // These are simple `NormalModule` instances. Once again, a `NormalModule` // is produced by the `NormalModuleFactory`. // console.log(modules); // Retrieving the **module map**(Map<Module, ModuleGraphModule>). // It contains all the information we need in order to traverse the graph. const { moduleGraph: { _moduleMap: moduleMap }, } = compilation; // Let's traverse the module graph in a DFS fashion. const dfs = () => { // Recall that the root module of the `ModuleGraph` is the // *null module*. const root = null; const visited = new Map(); const traverse = (crtNode) => { if (visited.get(crtNode)) { return; } visited.set(crtNode, true); console.log( crtNode?.resource ? path.basename(crtNode?.resource) : 'ROOT' ); // Getting the associated `ModuleGraphModule`, which only has some extra // properties besides a `NormalModule` that we can use to traverse the graph further. const correspondingGraphModule = moduleMap.get(crtNode); // A `Connection`'s `originModule` is the where the arrow starts // and a `Connection`'s `module` is there the arrow ends. // So, the `module` of a `Connection` is a child node. // Here you can find more about the graph's connection: https://github.com/webpack/webpack/blob/main/lib/ModuleGraphConnection.js#L53. // `correspondingGraphModule.outgoingConnections` is either a Set or undefined(in case the node has no children). // We're using `new Set` because a module can be reference the same module through multiple connections. // For instance, an `import foo from 'file.js'` will result in 2 connections: one for a simple import // and one for the `foo` default specifier. This is an implementation detail which you shouldn't worry about. const children = new Set( Array.from( correspondingGraphModule.outgoingConnections || [], (c) => c.module ) ); for (const c of children) { traverse(c); } }; // Starting the traversal. traverse(root); }; dfs(); }); }); } }

The example we're following now be found at this StackBlitz app. Make sure to run npm run build in order to see the plugin in action. Based on the module hierarchy, after running the build command, this is the output we should be getting:

<>Copy
a.js b.js b1.js c.js c1.js d.js d1.js

Now that the ModuleGraph has been built and hopefully you've got a grasp on it, it's time to find out what happens next. According to the main diagram, the next step would be to create chunks, so let's get into it. But before doing that, it's worth clarifying some important concepts, such a Chunk, ChunkGroup and EntryPoint.

Clarifying what Chunk, ChunkGroup, EntryPoint are
Link to this section

Now that we are a bit more familiar with what modules are, we will build on top of that to explain the concepts mentioned in this section's title. To quickly explain once again what modules are, it suffices to know that a module is an upgraded version of a file. A module, once created and built, contains a lot of meaningful information besides the raw source code, such as: the loaders used, its dependencies, its exports(if any), its hash and much more.

A Chunk encapsulates one or module modules. At first glance, one might think that the number of entry files(an entry file = an item of the entry object) is proportional with the number of resulting chunks. This statement is partially true, because the entry object might have only one item and the number of resulting chunks could be greater than one. It is indeed true that for each entry item there will be a corresponding chunk in the dist directory, but other chunks could be created implicitly, for example when using the import() function. But regardless of how it is created, each chunk will have a corresponding file in the dist directory. We will expand upon this in the Building the ChunkGraph section, where we will clarify which modules will belong to a chunk and which won't.

A ChunkGroup contains one or more chunks. A ChunkGroup can be a parent or a child to another ChunkGroup. For example, when using dynamic imports, for each import() function used there will be a ChunkGroup created, whose parent will be an existing ChunkGroup, the one which comprises the file(i.e the module) in which the import() functions are used. A visualization of this fact can be seen in the Building the ChunkGraph section.

An EntryPoint is a type of ChunkGroup which is created for each item in the entry object. The fact that a chunk belongs to an EntryPoint has implications on the rendering process, as we will make it more clearer in a future article.

Given that we're more familiar with these concepts, let's proceed and understand the ChunkGraph.

Building the ChunkGraph
Link to this section

Recall that all we have until this moment is just a ModuleGraph, which we talked about in a previous section. However, the ModuleGraph is just a necessary part of the bundling process. It has to be leveraged in order for features like code splitting to be possible.

At this point of the bundling process, for each item from the entry object there will be an EntryPoint. Since it is a type of ChunkGroup, it will contain at least a chunk. So, if the entry object has 3 items, there will be 3 EntryPoint instances, each of which has a chunk, also called the entrypoint chunk, whose name is the entry item key's value. The modules associated with the entry files are called entry modules and each of them will belong to their entrypoint chunk. They matter because they are the starting point of the ChunkGraph's building process. Note that a chunk can have more than one entry module:

<>Copy
// webpack.config.js entry: { foo: ['./a.js', './b.js'], },

In the above example, there will be chunk named foo(the item's key) will have 2 entry modules: the one associated with the a.js file and the other associated with the b.js file. And of course, the chunk will belong to the EntryPoint instance created based on the entry item.

Before going into detail, let's set out an example based on which we will discuss the building process:

<>Copy
entry: { foo: [path.join(__dirname, 'src', 'a.js'), path.join(__dirname, 'src', 'a1.js')], bar: path.join(__dirname, 'src', 'c.js'), },

This example will encompass things that were mentioned earlier: the parent-child relationship of ChunkGroups(and hence dynamic imports), chunks and EntryPoints.

You can try out the above example here. The diagram that comes next is based on this example.

The ChunkGraph is built in an recursive fashion. It starts by adding all the entry modules to a queue. Then, when an entry module is processed, meaning that its dependencies(which are modules as well) will be examined and each dependency will be added to the queue too. This keeps on repeating until the queue becomes empty. This part of the process is where the modules are visited. However, this is just the first part. Recall that ChunkGroups can be a parent to/child of other ChunkGroups. These connections are resolved in the second part. For example, as previously stated, a dynamic import(i.e import() function) will result in a new child ChunkGroup. In webpack's parlance, the import() expression defines an asynchronous block of dependencies. From my perspective, it's called a block because the first thing that comes to mind is something that contains other objects. In case of import('./foo.js'.then(module => ...), it's clear that our intention is to load something asynchronously and it's obvious that in order to use the module variable, all the dependencies(i.e modules) of foo(including foo itself) must be resolved, before the actual module is available. We will thoroughly discuss how the import() function works, along with its particularities(e.g magic comments and other options), in a future article.
If this sparked your curiosity, here is where the block is created during the AST analysis.
The source code which summarizes the building process of the ChunkGraph can be found here.

For now, let's just see the diagram of the ChunkGraph created from our above configuration:

chunk-graph.png

The link to the above diagram can be found here.

The diagram illustrates a very simplified version of the ChunkGraph, but it should be sufficient to highlight the resulting chunks and the relationships between ChunkGroups. We can see 4 chunks, so there will be 4 output files. The foo chunk will have 4 modules, of which 2 are entry modules. The bar chunk will only have 1 entry module and the other one can be considered a normal module. We can also notice that each import() expression will result in a new ChunkGroup(whose parent is the bar EntryPoint), which involves a new chunk.

The content of the yielded files is determined based on the ChunkGraph, so this is why it is very important to the whole bundling process. We will briefly talk about the chunk assets(i.e the yielded files) in the following section.

Before exploring a practical example where we'd use the ChunkGraph, it's important to mention a few of its particularities. Similar to the ModuleGraph, a node that belongs to the ChunkGraph is called ChunkGraphChunk(read as a chunk that belongs to the ChunkGraph) and it is just a decorated chunk, meaning that it as some extra properties such as the modules which are part of the chunk, the entry modules of a chunk and others. Just like the ModuleGraph, the ChunkGraph keeps track of these chunks with additional properties with the help of a map which has this signature: WeakMap<Chunk, ChunkGraphChunk>. In comparison with the ModuleGraph's map, this map maintained by the ChunkGraph does not contain information about the connections between chunks. Instead, all the necessary information(such as the ChunkGroups it belongs to)  is kept within the chunk itself. Remember that chunks are grouped together in ChunkGroups and between these chunk groups there can be parent-child relationships(just as we've seen in the above diagram). This is not the case for modules, because modules can depend on each other, but there is not a strict concept of parent modules.

Let's now try to use the ChunkGraph in a custom plugin in order to get a better understanding of it. Note that this example we're considering is the one the above diagram depicts:

<>Copy
const path = require('path'); // We're printing this way in order to highlight the parent-child // relationships between `ChunkGroup`s. const printWithLeftPadding = (message, paddingLength) => console.log(message.padStart(message.length + paddingLength)); class UnderstandingChunkGraphPlugin { apply (compiler) { const className = this.constructor.name; compiler.hooks.compilation.tap(className, compilation => { // The `afterChunks` hook is called after the `ChunkGraph` has been built. compilation.hooks.afterChunks.tap(className, chunks => { // `chunks` is a set of all created chunks. The chunks are added into // this set based on the order in which they are created. // console.log(chunks); // As we've said earlier in the article, the `compilation` object // contains the state of the bundling process. Here we can also find // all the `ChunkGroup`s(including the `Entrypoint` instances) that have been created. // console.log(compilation.chunkGroups); // An `EntryPoint` is a type of `ChunkGroup` which is created for each // item in the `entry` object. In our current example, there are 2. // So, in order to traverse the `ChunkGraph`, we will have to start // from the `EntryPoints`, which are stored in the `compilation` object. // More about the `entrypoints` map(<string, Entrypoint>): https://github.com/webpack/webpack/blob/main/lib/Compilation.js#L956-L957 const { entrypoints } = compilation; // More about the `chunkMap`(<Chunk, ChunkGraphChunk>): https://github.com/webpack/webpack/blob/main/lib/ChunkGraph.js#L226-L227 const { chunkGraph: { _chunks: chunkMap } } = compilation; const printChunkGroupsInformation = (chunkGroup, paddingLength) => { printWithLeftPadding(`Current ChunkGroup's name: ${chunkGroup.name};`, paddingLength); printWithLeftPadding(`Is current ChunkGroup an EntryPoint? - ${chunkGroup.constructor.name === 'Entrypoint'}`, paddingLength); // `chunkGroup.chunks` - a `ChunkGroup` can contain one or mode chunks. const allModulesInChunkGroup = chunkGroup.chunks .flatMap(c => { // Using the information stored in the `ChunkGraph` // in order to get the modules contained by a single chunk. const associatedGraphChunk = chunkMap.get(c); // This includes the *entry modules* as well. // Using the spread operator because `.modules` is a Set in this case. return [...associatedGraphChunk.modules]; }) // The resource of a module is an absolute path and // we're only interested in the file name associated with // our module. .map(module => path.basename(module.resource)); printWithLeftPadding(`The modules that belong to this chunk group: ${allModulesInChunkGroup.join(', ')}`, paddingLength); console.log('\n'); // A `ChunkGroup` can have children `ChunkGroup`s. [...chunkGroup._children].forEach(childChunkGroup => printChunkGroupsInformation(childChunkGroup, paddingLength + 3)); }; // Traversing the `ChunkGraph` in a DFS manner. for (const [entryPointName, entryPoint] of entrypoints) { printChunkGroupsInformation(entryPoint, 0); } }); }); } };

The example can be found at this StackBlitz app. After running npm run build, this is the output that you should see:

<>Copy
Current ChunkGroup's name: foo; Is current ChunkGroup an EntryPoint? - true The modules that belong to this chunk group: a.js, b.js, a1.js, b1.js Current ChunkGroup's name: bar; Is current ChunkGroup an EntryPoint? - true The modules that belong to this chunk group: c.js, common.js Current ChunkGroup's name: c1; Is current ChunkGroup an EntryPoint? - false The modules that belong to this chunk group: c1.js Current ChunkGroup's name: c2; Is current ChunkGroup an EntryPoint? - false The modules that belong to this chunk group: c2.js

We've used indentation in order to distinguish the parent-child relationships. We can also notice that the output is on par with the diagram, so we can be sure of the traversal's correctness.

Emitting chunk assets
Link to this section

It is important to mention that the resulting files are not simply a copy-paste version of the original files because, in order to achieve its features, webpack needs to add some custom code that makes everything working as expected.

This begs the question of how does webpack know what code to generate. Well, it all starts from the most basic(and useful) layer: the module . A module can export members, import other members, use dynamic imports, use webpack-specific functions(e.g require.resolve) etc. Based on the module's source code, webpack can determine which code to generate in order to achieve the desired features. This discovery starts during the AST analysis, where the dependencies are found. Although we've been using dependencies and modules interchangeably until now, things are a bit more complex under the hood.

For example, a simple import { aFunction } from './foo' will result in 2 dependencies(one is for the import statement itself and the other is for the specifier, i.e aFunction), from which a single module will be created. Another example would be the import() function. This will result, as it was mentioned in the earlier sections, in an asynchronous block of dependencies and one of these dependencies is the ImportDependency, which is specific to a dynamic import.
These dependencies are essential because they come with some hints about what code should be generated. For example, the ImportDependency knows exactly what to tell webpack in order to asynchronously fetch the imported module and use its exported members. These hints can be called runtime requirements. For instance, if the module exports some of its members, there will be some dependency(recall we're not referring to modules now), namely HarmonyExportSpecifierDependency, that will inform webpack that it needs to handle the logic for exporting members.

To summarize, a module will come with its runtime requirements, which depend on what that module is using in its source code. The runtime requirements of a chunk will be the set of all the runtime requirements of all the modules that belong to that chunk. Now that webpack knows about all the requirements of a chunk, it will be able to properly generate the runtime code.

This is also called the rendering process and we will discuss it in detail in a dedicated article. For now, it's enough to understand that the rendering process heavily relies on the ChunkGraph, because it contains groups of chunks(i.e ChunkGroup, EntryPoint), which contain chunks, which contain modules, which, in a granular way, contain information and hints about the runtime code that will be generated by webpack.

This section marks the end of the theoretical part of this article. In the following section, we will see a few ways to debug webpack's source code, which can come handy whenever you're dealing with a problem or you just want to find out more about how webpack works.

Debugging webpack's source code
Link to this section

In the hope that the previous sections shed some light on how webpack works under the hood, in this section we will see how to debug its source code. We will also see where to place breakpoints in order to examine specific parts of the bundling process.

Using VS Code
Link to this section

VS Code is an amazing tool and what I particularly like about it is the variety of features it provides when it comes to navigating through a code base.

The approach we're going to follow is to clone the webpack repo in another custom repo, with the help of git submodules. We'll do so because it becomes very easy to be up to date with the changes that take place in the webpack repo, as we will see in a moment. I will show the way I'm doing things, but feel free to choose whatever approach fits you best.

First, I have created this repo, named understanding-webpack. If you want to follow along, you can set up the repo like this:

<>Copy
git clone --recurse-submodules git@github.com:Andrei0872/understanding-webpack.git yarn

There you will see a directory named examples, where each particular example is represented by a directory. In package.json, you'll see something like this:

<>Copy
"scripts": { "understand": "yarn import-order", "import-order": "webpack --config ./examples/import-order/webpack.config.js", "create-example": "cd examples && cp -r dummy-example" },

The rules I decided to follow are these: the main command(i.e the command I'll always be running in order try out any example) is yarn understand. If you run it now, webpack will use the example from at the examples/import-order path. Each example will get its own script, like import-order in the above snippet. When I want to use a different example, all I have to do is to replace import-order in "understand": "yarn import-order" with the name of the example.

And now onto the debugging part. There is a .vscode/launch.json directory which holds the debugging configuration. After pressing F5, it should run the yarn understand command in a debugging environment, so in order to quickly test it, place a breakpoint in the seal() function's body, in Compilation.js file(CTRL + P, then type webpack/lib/Compilation.js, then CTRL + SHIFT + O, then type seal) before starting the debugger.

Screenshot from 2021-08-25 00-26-08.png

By the way, the seal function encompasses a lot of the steps illustrated in the main diagram, such as: creating the first chunks, building the ChunkGraph, generating the runtime code and creating the chunk assets.

So, we've seen how to debug our own examples. Let's see now how to debug webpack's test or any other script that webpack has defined in its package.json file.

A quick side note: If you're running webpack in production mode or, more accurately said, if you include the terser plugin, you might have some troubles with the VS Code's built-in debugger, because there is no way to debug worker_threads or child processes in VS Code, as far as I'm aware. The jest-worker package makes use of those and jest-worker is used by terser-webpack-plugin. For that, I found a very useful tool, called ndb. After installing it, you can simply cd into the webpack directory(the git submodule) and type ndb to a new window, from which you'll be able to choose which script to run in debugging mode. You can also press breakpoints there, as you'd normally do in VS Code.

For instance, I placed a breakpoint in the Chunk.unittest.js before telling ndb to run the test:unit script(found in the bottom left corner):

Screenshot from 2021-08-25 00-23-02.png

You can also run specific suite of tests, by using a command similar to this:

<>Copy
// The options are taken from one of the `package.json` scripts // Simply replace `TestCases.template.js` with other file name if you want // to debug something else. ndb node --max-old-space-size=4096 --trace-deprecation node_modules/jest-cli/bin/jest --testMatch "<rootDir>/test/TestCases.template.js"

One problem that ndb solves is to allow you to use the debugger on files that are executed on a worker thread or on a different process than the original which started the debugging process. So, if you want to debug the terser's minifying process on your custom example, you can use ndb yarn understand(from the repo's root directory):

Screenshot from 2021-08-25 14-48-41.png

The file can be found at webpack/node_modules/terser-webpack-plugin/dist/minify.js. If you try debugging in VS Code, you should notice that the breakpoint won't be hit. With ndb, however, it works.

If you want to explore the bundling process from the beginning, you can add a breakpoint in the createCompiler function, in the webpack/lib/webpack.js file.

Screenshot from 2021-08-25 14-32-42.png

At this point, you can also inspect the default configuration values.

So, my recommendation would be to use ndb whenever you want to debug files that are run with the help of worker_threads or run on a different process than the one which you started the debugging process with.

A few tricks to easily navigate in webpack's (or any) codebase
Link to this section

Note: this assumes the VS Code editor is used.

  • use CTRL + SHIFT + F12 to see all the places in the repo where a certain variable/entity/function has been used:
Screenshot from 2021-08-25 15-00-47.png
  • use CTRL + SHIFT + \ to go to the matching parenthesis
  • use ALT + SHIFT +  H to see the call hierarchy
Screenshot from 2021-08-25 15-04-35.png

In the above screenshot, you can see what causes the setResolvedModule to be called.

  • to determine which plugins have added custom functionality to the hooks provided by webpack, you can do a global search(CTRL + SHIFT + F) and type .hooks.nameOfTheHook.tap(the way you add custom functionality to a hook is by using the tap/tapAsync method):
Screenshot from 2021-08-25 15-10-32.png

In the left panel you can see which plugins have added new logic to the built-in optimizeChunks hook.

Moreover, if you're using the debugger, quickly inspect the taps property of a hook to see the sources from where functionality has been added:

Screenshot from 2021-08-25 15-15-04.png

Using StackBlitz
Link to this section

StackBlitz is another great tool that we're lucky to have as developers. When using StackBlitz, you basically no longer have to leave the browser and you can do exactly what's been explained in the the Using VS Code section. Moreover, the ndb behavior is already built in StackBlitz - so, no need for an additional tool!

I have created a StackBlitz project called webpack-base and it contains a basic setup and it can be a very good starting point when creating other demos. Whenever I want to quickly explore some webpack feature, I simply open this project, fork it and I'm good to go!

I also made a video about it. Assuming we want to start exploring the bundling process from the point where the compiler is created, here are the necessary steps to do that(make sure to fork the project first):

  • run code node_modules/webpack/lib/webpack.js in the terminal
  • go to line 135(CTRL + G - same as in VS Code!) or search for the place where the create function is invoked(CTRL + SHIFT + P could help)
  • type the debugger; keyword
  • open the DevTools
  • run the npm run build script in terminal
Screenshot from 2021-09-09 21-01-46.png

We've used the debugger; keyword so that the file would appear much easier in the Sources tab. Sometimes it can be difficult to find it with CTRL + P. From this point, you can debug as you would normally do: click on line numbers to place breakpoints, you can add conditional breakpoints, step into etc.

Note: you can apply the same process for every node script.

Conclusion
Link to this section

In this article I've tried to include, without redundant details, as much information as needed in order for you to see webpack from a different perspective. It is a complex (and fascinating) tool and this write-up aimed to break it in smaller and digestible parts.

Thanks for reading!

The diagrams have been made with Excalidraw.

Special thanks Max Koretskyi for reviewing this article and for providing extremely valuable feedback.

Comments (0)

Be the first to leave a comment

Share

About the author

author_image

A curious software developer with a passion for solving problems and learning new things.

author_image

About the author

Andrei Gatej

A curious software developer with a passion for solving problems and learning new things.

About the author

author_image

A curious software developer with a passion for solving problems and learning new things.

Looking for a JS job?
Job logo
Front End Javascript Developer - Vue

TRIBUS

Worldwide
Remote
$50k - $62k
Job logo
Senior Front-End Engineer - JavaScript

labforward.io

Ukraine
Remote
$78k - $84k
Job logo
Engineering Manager | Javascript | MERN | MEAN

Albatronix Consulting

India
Remote
$26.8k - $40.3k
More jobs
NxAngularCli
NxAngularCli
NxAngularCli

Featured articles