Hem is a dependency management tool for JavaScript Web apps; you can think of it as Bundler for Node, or Stitch on steroids.

This is rather awesome, as it means you don't need to faff around with coping around JavaScript files. jQuery can be a npm dependency, so can jQueryUI and all your custom components. Hem will resolve dependencies dynamically, bundling them together into one file to be served up. Upon deployment, you can serialize your application to disk and serve it statically.

Hem was primarily designed for developing Spine.js based Single Page Web Applications (SPA's), so a major role it fills is to tie up some of the other lose ends of a frontend development project - things like running tests, precompiling code, and preparing it for deployment. It can even help out in proxying to an API if your app needs that.

Getting started

If you want to dive straight into using Hem and building Spine applications, check out the getting started article. Otherwise keep reading to learn more about Hem.


First, if you haven't got them installed already, you'll need Node and npm. Then, to install Hem:

npm install -g hem

Hem will now be available globally under the hem executable. Now, there are a few things you need to understand about Hem before we go any further.


Hem has two types of dependency resolutions: Node modules and Stitch modules.

In a nutshell, Hem will make sure your application and all its dependencies are wrapped up in a single file, ready to be served to web browsers.


CommonJS modules are at the core of Hem, and are the format Hem expects every module to adhere to. As well as ensuring your code is encapsulated and modular, CommonJS modules give you dependency management, scope isolation, and namespacing. They should be used in any JavaScript application that spans more than a few files.

To find out more about why CommonJS modules are the best solution to JavaScript dependency management, see the CommonJS guide

The format

The format is remarkably straightforward, but is something you'll have to adhere to in every file to make it work. CommonJS uses explicit exporting; so to expose a property inside a module to other modules, you'll need to do something like this:

# In app/controllers/
class Users extends Spine.Controller

# Explicitly export the Users object
module.exports = Users

The format mandates that a module object will be available in every module. However, if you're targeting both the CommonJS format, and a normal environment, you can do a conditional export, checking that the module object exists.

module?.exports = Users

Requiring modules

Requiring other modules is just as straightforward; just use the require() function.

Users = require("controllers/users")

In Hem apps, all module paths are relative to the app folder - so don't require files relative to the specific module.


Hem will also bundle up all your application's CSS into one file, ready to serve up to clients. CSS encapsulation and modularity is just as important as JavaScript de-coupling (and can get as equally messy if it's not done right); Hem goes some way to help you with this. To compile CSS, Hem uses an excellent library called Stylus. Stylus is mostly a superset of CSS, and the normal CSS syntax will work just fine if that's all you want.

However the awesome part of Stylus is the extra syntactical sugar it brings to CSS. Features like optional braces and colons, mixins, variables and significant whitespace all vastly improve your application's CSS, and decreases the amount of typing necessary. In a nutshell, Stylus is to CSS as CoffeeScript is to JavaScript.

Stylus files are indicated by the .styl extension, and are automatically compiled down to CSS by Hem. This all happens in the background, so you don't need to worry about it.

Also in the pipeline is the ability to bundle up CSS from Node modules.


Hem has some good defaults (convention over configuration), but sometimes you'll need to change them, especially when adding libraries and dependencies.

For configuration, Hem use a slug.json file, located in the root of your application. Below is an example, with all the default

  // Specify main JavaScript file:
  "main": "./app/index",

  // Specify main CSS file:
  "css": "./css/index",

  // Specify public directory:
  "public": "./public",

  // Add load paths:
   "paths": ["./app"],

  // We want these to load before (not CommonJS libs):
   "libs": [],

  // npm/Node dependencies
   "dependencies": []

As you can see, Hem expects a certain directory structure. A main JavaScript/CoffeeScript file under app/index, a main CSS/Stylus file under css/index and a public directory to serve static assets from. If you're using, these will all be generated for you.

Hem also allows you to specify static JavaScript libraries to include, under the "libs" option:

  "libs": [

These will be included before the rest of your JavaScript, and without being wrapped in the CommonJS module transport format. In addition, Hem lets you specify an array of npm/Node dependencies, to be included in your application. For example, in a default generated slug.json file, you'll find the following dependencies:

  "dependencies": [

These dependencies will be statically analyzed, to recursively resolve additional dependencies, and then wrapped in the CommonJS module format, being served up with the rest of your application's JavaScript. In other words, you don't have to have jquery.js, spine.js and json2.js floating around inside your application, they can be Node modules, installed through npm.


Ok, so now we've looked at how to configure Hem, let's actually use it in an application. As I mentioned earlier, this step is much easier with an application previously generated by, and I advise you go down this route if you're unfamiliar with Hem.

Now, we can start a development server, which will dynamically build our application every request, using the server command:

hem server

By default, your spine application is served at http://localhost:9294. You can configure the host and port from command line or as settings in your package.json

hem server -p 9295 --host -d

Would result in your application being served in debug mode at

If there's an index.html file under public, it'll be served up. Likewise, any calls to /application.js and /application.css will return the relevant JavaScript and CSS.

For the sake of avoiding cross domain issues in development environments when your spine app is utilizing an ajax api there is a optional proxy server built into hem. Including the following in your slug.json configures that:

"useProxy": true,
"baseSpinePath": "/apiapp/spineapp/",
"baseApiPath": "/apiapp/",
"apiHost": "localhost",
"apiPort": 8080,
"proxyPort": 8001,

now http://localhost:8001/apiapp/spineapp/ will return the spine app.

and http://localhost:8001/apiapp/ will return your apiApp

so relative links like @url = "../api/album/" from inside your spine app can resolve against your apiApp without issue

When you're ready to deploy, you should build your application, serializing it to disk.

hem build

This will ensure that your server can statically serve your application, without having to use Node, or have any npm dependencies installed.


For a quick introduction into how to deploy your application on Heroku, check out the article.