Angular routing, a basic Q&A

At Angular Boot Camp, we thoroughly introduce and teach the Angular router – over the course of 3 days, spread out into relevant bits and pieces of other learning. Outside of class though, customers ask a straightforward question: What is the Angular Router, and why should I care?

To answer that, this post is a tidy re-introduction to routing in Angular. It is presented in Q&A form – there is little reason to reproduce the router documentation, so this is more like the average of many conversations.

What is routing?

Most concisely, in a web application routing means the relationship between the URL and the state of the application. State can mean a lot of things, but in this context it means “what screen the user is looking at” and “what specific entity/data the user is looking at on that screen”. For example, an application might have “/orders”in the URL when they are looking at a list of orders, or “/orders/12345” when they are looking at order number 12345.

Why use a router?

Routing is about translating between this concise string in a URL, and the rest of the machinery of an application, without coding that translation “by hand”. Developers sometimes ask why they need a thing called a router to do that, whether they might just instead inspect the “window.location” variable and make the application show the right thing. In a sense, the answer is yes – you could certainly do that. But it tends to get complex as an application grows, and if you do it ad hoc, your code won’t have as much in common with other application code. By using a router, you can write less code, and have a standard off-the-shelf solution to a problem that most applications need to solve.

Why care about the URL?

As you learn Angular, you can see how to use variables and ngIfs to make different data appear on the screen in response to user clicks. For example, you could have a variable “orderScreen” and some section of your template using ngIf to display only if orderScreen==true; then have a button which sets orderScreen=true. So you can easily see how to display different data based on what the user clicks, without caring about the URL.

But URLs (and by this I mean the part after the domain name) are the standard, well proven Web way of expressing “where” the user is. Users understand URLs, and users can copy and paste URLs in email, users can bookmark URLs. If your application has a specific URL to mean “order list screen”, a user could bookmark that and navigate directly to it when they like. Fundamentally, URLs are user-friendly.

Would it be easier to just write a separate “application” for my orders list screen? Could I avoid having to understand the router by making each screen a separate application?

I’ve seen applications, especially those adapted to fit inside an server-side system, which eschew the notion of “routing” between different screens and instead have an entirely separate application for each screen. This is possible, but inefficient. The browser ends up needlessly reloading much of the same JavaScript as the user navigates from one screen to another. With the router, the user will only need to load the new, different code for the next screen as they navigate.

Similarly, the router implements “lazy loading”, so just like the idea of totally separate applications, with the router, a user doesn’t have to wait for their browser to load the “order screen” JavaScript until they are ready to use that screen.

The router provides the ideal mix of efficiency in development, efficiency and deployment.

How do I get started with the Angular router?

As you create a new application with Angular CLI, there is a routing option which sets up the basic structure of routing for you. Unfortunately as of late 2017, you still need to manually code up specific routes, which you can do by following the Angular router documentation or various tutorials online (or of course, learn in our class). I expect a future evolution of the CLI will automate more of the router configuration process.

When should I get started with the Angular router?

A few years ago, I used to recommend waiting for routing until you really need it, until your application has more than one “screen”. But now it seems more advisable to simply follow the standard patterns for routing from the very beginning. As you create your first screen in an Angular application, go ahead and implement that screen in a module, and use router lazy loading the load that one module. This seems like extra structure, but will save you from having to rearrange your application code when a second “screen” is inevitably needed down the road. This is also exactly the path we teach in Angular Boot Camp.

What about that idea of routing to a specific (for example) order, rather than to the list of orders?

The idea of routing to a specific individual entity in your application problem domain, use a route parameter. A route parameter is simply a section of a route which can be filled in at runtime with a string. For example, “/orders/12345” suggests a routing set up where the second segment of the route (12345” is a parameter. This is easily configured in your Angular routing configuration, you can see the documentation for the exact syntax.

The more interesting part of a route parameter is consuming that parameters, being aware of it from inside application code. These route parameters arrive at your application component as an observable value. You’ll need to use a small amount of RxJS code to trigger loading of the appropriate data based on that route parameter. This sounds confusing and complex, but you can find examples online would show it is often just a few lines of code.

How do I link to a route?

You can link to a Angular route in an ordinary anchor element (“<A….”) in a component template. You do this using the router link directive (attribute). The documentation shows the exact syntax, but the important thing here is simply that you link to a route within the same application, with the syntax only mildly different from linking to any other page on the Internet.

Things get slightly more complex when you want to link to a specific entity (going back to our example, “/orders/12345”). To do this you use something called a route parameter array, in which the application code snippet has an array with these two parts of the route (orders, and 12345), which then get assembled automatically by angular routing into a working route link.

Of course in real application, users often click a button to do something rather than follow an ordinary web link; you can accommodate this with routing either by styling the link to look like a button (quite easy with bootstrap, for example) or with a line of code in a click handler to ask the router to navigate to a link.

So my links could be navigation in a sidebar or top bar, right?

Yes, the most common use for router links is in a navigation bar of some kind.

In this context, it also makes sense to visually mark which route link is currently “active”. To make it obvious to the user which part of the application they have already navigated to. The Angular router also makes this quite easy with an attribute “routerLinkActive”.

Is there anything else to know about routing?

There is an abundance of important capabilities in the router beyond this quick Q&A introduction. Past this introduction though, it starts to get a little bit more philosophical, and make sense to study after you are already experienced with basic use of the Angular router.  I will follow up with another post on some of these other routing thoughts.

 

 

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