UPDATE: There is now a Node.js addon for loading and calling dynamic libraries using pure JavaScript: node-ffi. Also, node-waf is no longer being used to compile Node.js extensions.

TRANSLATIONS: This post was translated to Chinese: http://www.oschina.net/translate/how-to-write-your-own-native-nodejs-extension


This is a follow up to How to roll out your own Javascript API with V8. You should still be able to follow if you haven't read it.

We will now port the code we have written for V8 to Node.js and package it for npm.

node-notify screenshot

The full source code of this tutorial is available from github:

git clone git://github.com/olalonde/jsnotify.git

You can also install it through npm:

npm install notify

The code was tested on Ubuntu 10.10 64-bit and Node.js v0.5.0-pre.

Getting started

First let’s create a node-notify folder and with the following directory structure.

|-- build/                   # This is where our extension is built.
|-- demo/
|   `-- demo.js              # This is a demo Node.js script to test our extension.
|-- src/
|   `-- node_gtknotify.cpp   # This is the where we do the mapping from C++ to Javascript.
`-- wscript                  # This is our build configuration used by node-waf

This fine looking tree was generated with the tree utility.

Now let's create our test script demo.js and decide upfront what our extension's API should look like:

// This loads our extension on the notify variable.
// It will only load a constructor function, notify.notification().
var notify = require("../build/default/gtknotify.node"); // path to our extension

var notification = new notify.notification();
notification.title = "Notification title";
notification.icon = "emblem-default"; // see /usr/share/icons/gnome/16x16
notification.send("Notification message");

Writing our Node.js extension

The Init method

In order to create a Node.js extension, we need to write a C++ class that extends node::ObjectWrap. ObjectWrap implements some utility methods that lets us easily interface with Javascript.

Let's write the skeletton for our class:

#include <v8.h> // v8 is the Javascript engine used by Node
#include <node.h>
// We will need the following libraries for our GTK+ notification
#include <string>
#include <gtkmm.h>
#include <libnotifymm.h>

using namespace v8;

class Gtknotify : node::ObjectWrap {
    Gtknotify() {}
    ~Gtknotify() {}
    static void Init(Handle<Object> target) {
      // This is what Node will call when we load the extension through require(), see boilerplate code below.

 * WARNING: Boilerplate code ahead.
 * See https://www.cloudkick.com/blog/2010/aug/23/writing-nodejs-native-extensions/ & http://www.freebsd.org/cgi/man.cgi?query=dlsym
 * Thats it for actual interfacing with v8, finally we need to let Node.js know how to dynamically load our code.
 * Because a Node.js extension can be loaded at runtime from a shared object, we need a symbol that the dlsym function can find,
 * so we do the following:

v8::Persistent<FunctionTemplate> Gtknotify::persistent_function_template;
extern "C" { // Cause of name mangling in C++, we use extern C here
  static void init(Handle<Object> target) {
  // @see http://github.com/ry/node/blob/v0.2.0/src/node.h#L101
  NODE_MODULE(gtknotify, init);

Now, we'll have to we have to write the following code in our Init() method:

  1. Declare our constructor function and bind it to our target variable. var n = require("notification"); will bind notification() to n: n.notification().
// Wrap our C++ New() method so that it's accessible from Javascript
// This will be called by the new operator in Javascript, for example: new notification();
v8::Local<FunctionTemplate> local_function_template = v8::FunctionTemplate::New(New);

// Make it persistent and assign it to persistent_function_template which is a static attribute of our class.
Gtknotify::persistent_function_template = v8::Persistent<FunctionTemplate>::New(local_function_template);

// Each JavaScript object keeps a reference to the C++ object for which it is a wrapper with an internal field.
Gtknotify::persistent_function_template->InstanceTemplate()->SetInternalFieldCount(1); // 1 since a constructor function only references 1 object
// Set a "class" name for objects created with our constructor

// Set the "notification" property of our target variable and assign it to our constructor function
target->Set(String::NewSymbol("notification"), Gtknotify::persistent_function_template->GetFunction());
  1. Declare our attributes: n.title and n.icon.
// Set property accessors
// SetAccessor arguments: Javascript property name, C++ method that will act as the getter, C++ method that will act as the setter
Gtknotify::persistent_function_template->InstanceTemplate()->SetAccessor(String::New("title"), GetTitle, SetTitle);
Gtknotify::persistent_function_template->InstanceTemplate()->SetAccessor(String::New("icon"), GetIcon, SetIcon);
// For instance, n.title = "foo" will now call SetTitle("foo"), n.title will now call GetTitle()
  1. Declare our prototype method: n.send()
// This is a Node macro to help bind C++ methods to Javascript methods (see https://github.com/joyent/node/blob/v0.2.0/src/node.h#L34)
// Arguments: our constructor function, Javascript method name, C++ method name
NODE_SET_PROTOTYPE_METHOD(Gtknotify::persistent_function_template, "send", Send);

Our Init() method should now look like this:

// Our constructor
static v8::Persistent<FunctionTemplate> persistent_function_template;

static void Init(Handle<Object> target) {
  v8::HandleScope scope; // used by v8 for garbage collection

  // Our constructor
  v8::Local<FunctionTemplate> local_function_template = v8::FunctionTemplate::New(New);
  Gtknotify::persistent_function_template = v8::Persistent<FunctionTemplate>::New(local_function_template);
  Gtknotify::persistent_function_template->InstanceTemplate()->SetInternalFieldCount(1); // 1 since this is a constructor function

  // Our getters and setters
  Gtknotify::persistent_function_template->InstanceTemplate()->SetAccessor(String::New("title"), GetTitle, SetTitle);
  Gtknotify::persistent_function_template->InstanceTemplate()->SetAccessor(String::New("icon"), GetIcon, SetIcon);

  // Our methods
  NODE_SET_PROTOTYPE_METHOD(Gtknotify::persistent_function_template, "send", Send);

  // Binding our constructor function to the target variable
  target->Set(String::NewSymbol("notification"), Gtknotify::persistent_function_template->GetFunction());

All that is left to do is to write the C++ methods that we used in our Init method: New, GetTitle, SetTitle, GetIcon, SetIcon, Send

Our constructor method: New()

The New() method creates an instance of our class (a Gtknotify object), sets some default values to our properties and returns a Javascript handle to this object. This is the expected behavior when calling a constructor function with the new operator in Javascript.

std::string title;
std::string icon;

// new notification()
static Handle<Value> New(const Arguments& args) {
  HandleScope scope;
  Gtknotify* gtknotify_instance = new Gtknotify();
  // Set some default values
  gtknotify_instance->title = "Node.js";
  gtknotify_instance->icon = "terminal";

  // Wrap our C++ object as a Javascript object

  return args.This();

Our getters and setters: GetTitle(), SetTitle(), GetIcon(), SetIcon()

The following is pretty much boilerplate code. It boils down to back and forth conversion between C++ values to Javascript (V8) values.

// this.title
static v8::Handle<Value> GetTitle(v8::Local<v8::String> property, const v8::AccessorInfo& info) {
  // Extract the C++ request object from the JavaScript wrapper.
  Gtknotify* gtknotify_instance = node::ObjectWrap::Unwrap<Gtknotify>(info.Holder());
  return v8::String::New(gtknotify_instance->title.c_str());
// this.title=
static void SetTitle(Local<String> property, Local<Value> value, const AccessorInfo& info) {
  Gtknotify* gtknotify_instance = node::ObjectWrap::Unwrap<Gtknotify>(info.Holder());
  v8::String::Utf8Value v8str(value);
  gtknotify_instance->title = *v8str;
// this.icon
static v8::Handle<Value> GetIcon(v8::Local<v8::String> property, const v8::AccessorInfo& info) {
  // Extract the C++ request object from the JavaScript wrapper.
  Gtknotify* gtknotify_instance = node::ObjectWrap::Unwrap<Gtknotify>(info.Holder());
  return v8::String::New(gtknotify_instance->icon.c_str());
// this.icon=
static void SetIcon(Local<String> property, Local<Value> value, const AccessorInfo& info) {
  Gtknotify* gtknotify_instance = node::ObjectWrap::Unwrap<Gtknotify>(info.Holder());
  v8::String::Utf8Value v8str(value);
  gtknotify_instance->icon = *v8str;

Our prototype method: Send()

First we have to extract the C++ object this references. We then build our notification using the object's properties (title, icon) and finally display it.

// this.send()
static v8::Handle<Value> Send(const Arguments& args) {
  v8::HandleScope scope;
  // Extract C++ object reference from "this"
  Gtknotify* gtknotify_instance = node::ObjectWrap::Unwrap<Gtknotify>(args.This());

  // Convert first argument to V8 String
  v8::String::Utf8Value v8str(args[0]);

  // For more info on the Notify library: http://library.gnome.org/devel/libnotify/0.7/NotifyNotification.html
  // Arguments: title, content, icon
  Notify::Notification n(gtknotify_instance->title.c_str(), *v8str, gtknotify_instance->icon.c_str()); // *v8str points to the C string it wraps
  // Display the notification
  // Return value
  return v8::Boolean::New(true);

Compiling our extension

node-waf is the build tool used to compile Node extensions which is basically a wrapper for waf. The build process can be configured with a file called wscript in our top directory:

def set_options(opt):

def configure(conf):
  # This will tell the compiler to link our extension with the gtkmm and libnotifymm libraries.
  conf.check_cfg(package='gtkmm-2.4', args='--cflags --libs', uselib_store='LIBGTKMM')
  conf.check_cfg(package='libnotifymm-1.0', args='--cflags --libs', uselib_store='LIBNOTIFYMM')

def build(bld):
  obj = bld.new_task_gen("cxx", "shlib", "node_addon")
  obj.cxxflags = ["-g", "-D_FILE_OFFSET_BITS=64", "-D_LARGEFILE_SOURCE", "-Wall"]
  # This is the name of our extension.
  obj.target = "gtknotify"
  obj.source = "src/node_gtknotify.cpp"
  obj.uselib = ['LIBGTKMM', 'LIBNOTIFYMM']

We're now ready to build! In the top directory, run the following command:

node-waf configure && node-waf build

If everything goes right, we should now have our compiled extension in ./build/default/gtknotify.node. Let's try it!

$ node
> var notif = require('./build/default/gtknotify.node');
> n = new notif.notification();
{ icon: 'terminal', title: 'Node.js' }
> n.send("Hello World!");

The previous code should display a notification in the top right corner of your screen!

Packaging for npm

That's pretty cool, but how about sharing your hard work with the Node community? That's primarily what the Node Package Manager is used for: making it easy to import extensions/modules and distribute them.

Packaging an extension for npm is very straightforward. All you have to do is create a package.json file in your top directory which contains some info about your extension:

  // Name of your extension (do not include node or js in the name, this is implicit).
  // This is the name that will be used to import the extension through require().

  "name" : "notify",

  // Version should be http://semver.org/ compliant

  "version" : "v0.1.0"

  // These scripts will be run when calling npm install and npm uninstall.

  , "scripts" : {
      "preinstall" : "node-waf configure && node-waf build"
      , "preuninstall" : "rm -rf build/*"

  // This is the relative path to our built extension.

  , "main" : "build/default/gtknotify.node"

  // The following fields are optional:

  , "description" : "Description of the extension...."
  , "homepage" : "https://github.com/olalonde/node-notify"
  , "author" : {
      "name" : "Olivier Lalonde"
      , "email" : "[email protected]"
      , "url" : "http://www.syskall.com/"
  , "repository" : {
      "type" : "git"
      , "url" : "https://github.com/olalonde/node-notify.git"

For more details on the package.json format, documentation is available through npm help json. Note that most fields are optional.

You can now install your new npm package by running npm install in your top directory. If everything goes right, you should be able to load your extension with a simple var notify = require('your-package-name');. Another useful command is npm link which creates a symlink to your development directory so that any change to your code is reflected instantly - no need to install/uninstall perpetually.

Assuming you wrote a cool extension, you might want to publish it online in the central npm repository. In order to do that, you first need to create an account:

$ npm adduser

Next, go back to the root of your package code and run:

$ npm publish

That's it, your package is now available for anyone to install through the npm install your-package-name command.


Writing a native Node extension can be cumbersome and verbose at times but it is well worth the hard earned bragging rights!

Thanks for reading. Let me know in the comments if you run into any problem, I’ll be glad to help.

If you liked this, maybe you'd also like what I tweet on Twitter! Might even want to hire me?