Building a Server-Rendered Map Component

Part 2: How to use client-side libraries like Leaflet, in Node.

As discussed in Part One: Why?, it’d be really useful to be able to take an interesting UI component like a map, and pre-render it on the server as a web component, using Server Components.

We don’t want to do the hard mapping ourselves though. Really, we’d like this to be just as easy as building a client-side UI component. We’d like to use a shiny mapping library, like Leaflet, to give us all the core functionality right out of the box. Unfortunately though, Leaflet doesn’t run server-side.

This article’s going to focus on fixing that so you can use Leaflet with Server Components, but you’ll hit the same problems (and need very similar fixes) if you’re doing any other Node-based server rendering, including with React. The JS ecosystem right now is not good at isomorphism, but with a few small tweaks you can transform any library you like, to run anywhere.

Let’s focus on Leaflet for now. It doesn’t run server-side, because there’s not that many people seriously looking at rendering nice UIs outside a browser, so JS libraries are pretty trigger-happy making big browser-based assumptions. Leaflet expects a few things that don’t fit neatly outside a browser:

  • Global window, document and navigator objects.
  • A live element in an HTML DOM to be inserted into.
  • A Leaflet <script> tag on the page, so it can find its URL, so it can autodetect the path to the Leaflet icons.
  • To export itself just by adding an ‘L’ property to the window object.

All of these are things need tricky fixes. Just finding these issues is non-trivial: you need to try and use the library in Node, hit a bug, solve the bug, and repeat, until you get the output you’re expecting.

Leaflet is a relatively hard case though. Most libraries aren’t quite so involved in complex DOM interactions, and just need the basic globals they expect injected into them.

So, how do we fix this?

Managing Browser Globals

If you npm install leaflet and then require(“leaflet”), you’ll immediately see our first issue:

> ReferenceError: window is not defined

Fix this one, and we’ll hit a few more at require() time, for document and navigator too. We need to run Leaflet with the context it’s expecting.

It would be nice to do that by having a DOM module somewhere that gives us a document and a window, and using those as our globals. Let’s assume we’ve got such a module for a moment. Given that, we could prefix the Leaflet module with something like:

var fakeDOM = require("my-fake-dom");
var window = fakeDOM.window;
var document = fakeDOM.document;
var navigator = window.navigator;
[...insert Leaflet code...]

(Instead we could just define browser globals as process-wide Node globals and leave the Leaflet source untouched, but this isn’t good behaviour, and it’ll come back to bite you very quickly if you’re not careful)

Doing something like this will get you much closer. With any reasonable DOM stub you should be able to get Leaflet successfully importing here. Unfortunately though, this fails because of a fundamental difference between browser and Node rendering. On the server, we have to support multiple DOM contexts in one process, so we need to be able to change the document and window.

We can still pull this off though, just taking this a step further with something like:

module.exports = function (window, document) {
var navigator = window.navigator;
  [...insert Leaflet code...]

Now this is a Node module that exports not a single Leaflet, but a factory function to build Leaflet for a given window and document, provided by the code using the library. This doesn’t actually return anything though when called, as you might reasonably expect, instead creating window.L, as is common for browser JS libraries. In some cases that’s probably ok, but in my case I’d rather leave Window alone, and grab the Leaflet instance directly, by adding the below to the end of the function, after the Leaflet code:

return window.L.noConflict();

This tells Leaflet to remove itself as a global, and just give you the library as a reference directly.

With this, require(“leaflet”) now returns a function, and passing that a window and document gives you a working ready-to-use Leaflet.

Emulating the expected DOM

We’re not done though. If you want to use this Leaflet, you might define a Server Component like:

var LeafletFactory = require("leaflet");
var components = require("server-components");
var MapElement = components.newElement();   MapElement.createdCallback = function (document) {
var L = LeafletFactory(new components.dom.Window(), document);
  var map =[41.3851, 2.1734], 12);
  L.tileLayer('http://{s}{z}/{x}/{y}.png', {
maxZoom: 19,
components.registerElement("leaflet-map", {prototype: MapElement});

This should define a component that generates the HTML for a full working map when rendered. It doesn’t. The problem is that Leaflet here is given a DOM node to render into (‘this’, inside the component), and it tries to automatically render at the appropriate size. This isn’t a real browser though, we don’t have a screen size and we’re not doing layout (that’s why it’s cheap), and everything actually has zero height or width.

This isn’t as elegant a fix, but it’s an unavoidable one in any server-rendering approach I think: you need to pick a fixed size for your initial render, and nudge Leaflet to use that. Here that’s easy, you just make sure that before the map is created you add:

this.clientHeight = 500;
this.clientWidth = 500;

And with that, it works.

This fakes layout, as if the browser had decided that this was how big the element is. You can render like this at a fixed size for lots of applications, and potentially add client-side rendering on top to resize too if you want.

With that added, you can take this component, render it with a cheeky components.renderFragment(“<leaflet-map></leaflet-map”) and be given working HTML for a lovely static map you can send straight to your users. Delightful.

There is still one last step required if you want to take this further. Leaflet by default includes a set of icons, and uses the ‘href’ in its script tag in the page to automatically work out the URL to these icons. This is a bit fragile in quite a few ways, including this environment, and if you extend this example to use any icons (e.g. adding markers), you’ll find your icons don’t load.

This step’s very simple though, you just need to set L.Icon.Default.imagePath appropriately. If you want to do that in a nice portable Server Component, that means:

var componentsStatic = require("server-components-static");
var leafletContent = componentsStatic.forComponent("leaflet");
L.Icon.Default.imagePath = leafletContent.getUrl("images");

This calculates the client-facing URL you’ll need that maps to Leaflet’s images folder on disk (see Server-Components-Static for more details).

Making this (more) maintainable

There’s one more step though. This is a bit messy in a few ways, but particularly in that we have to manually fork and change the code of Leaflet, and maintain that ourselves in future. It would be great to automate this instead, to dynamically wrap normal Leaflet code, without duplicating it. With Sandboxed-Module we can do exactly that.

Sandboxed-Module lets you dynamically hook into Node’s require process, to transform module code however you like. There’s lots of somewhat crazy applications of this (on-require compilation of non-JS languages, for example), but also some very practical ones, like our changes here.

There’s potentially a very small performance hit on startup from this for the transformation, but for the rest of runtime it shouldn’t make any difference; it hooks into the initial file read to change the result, and then from that point on it’s just another Node module.

So, what does this look like?

var SandboxedModule = require('sandboxed-module');
module.exports = SandboxedModule.require('leaflet', {
sourceTransformers: {
wrapToInjectGlobals: function (source) {
return `
module.exports = function (window, document) {
var navigator = window.navigator;
return window.L.noConflict();

That’s it! Your project can now depend on any version of Leaflet, and require this wrapped module to automatically get given a Node-compatible version, without having to maintain your own fork.

This same approach should work for almost any other library that you need to manage server side. It’s not perfect — if Leaflet starts depending on other browser global things may break — but it should be much easier to manage and maintain than copying Leaflet’s code into your project wholesale.

Hopefully in future more projects will improve their native support for running in other environments, and this will go away, but in the meantime there are some relatively simple changes you can make to add Node support to even relatively complex client-side libraries.

Let’s stop there for now. In the next post, we’ll take a proper look at a full working map component, complete with configurability, static content and marker support, and see what you can do to start putting this into action yourself. Can’t wait? Check out for the map component codebase so far.

Like this? Recommend it below, and hit Follow to catch the next installment.