Your Javascript should expose APIs, too!

Replicating module_invoke_all and drupal_alter in Javascript

If you've ever written a Drupal module before you're likely familiar with Drupal's hook system. I'm not going to go in to details about how the hook system works, or why this particular pattern was chosen by Drupal's developers. What's important here is what this systems allows module developers to accomplish.

At its most basic, the hook system is what allows me to write a module that enhances or extends Drupal -- without ever having to modify a line of someone else's code. I can, for example, modify the list of blocks that are available on a given page by simply implementing a "hook" function in PHP that modifies the information that was already set up. This approach is one of the things that makes Drupal incredibly flexible!

When you're writing your own custom modules, it is customary to expose these types of hooks for other modules, too. That way, other developers can come along and make minor modifications or feature enhancements to your module by "piggybacking" on your module's functionality, rather than hacking your code. It also means that you don't have to anticipate every possible use case for your code: by providing these extension points, you allow future developers to extend it.

Drupal makes it really easy for modules developers to do this, and it provides a set of helper functions that allow you to easily broadcast these "I have a hook! Who wants to tie into it?" announcements to the world.

Check out the docs for module_invoke_all(), module_invoke() and drupal_alter() to learn more.

The case for APIs

Now, that's all well and good, but what if the functionality I want people to be able to alter or events I want people to be able to react to are encapsulated in Javascript? This is where Drupal breaks down a bit and we're left to our own devices. Drupal provides a simple mechanism for modules to essentially register a bit of code that they would like to be executed whenever Drupal.attachBehavoirs is called. This happens when the DOM is fully loaded and Drupal's Javascript code has been properly initialized, and anytime new elements have been added to the DOM via AJAX. And that's about it.

For most cases where Javascript needs to interact with Drupal this works just fine. What you're likely really after is some element in the DOM anyway so you can do your sweet web 2.0 fadeIn().

Sometimes, though, your Javascript needs are more complex than adding visual pizzaz. Consider this; You've been asked to write a module that integrates a video player from a third party site into Drupal. The video service offers a straightforward Javascript based embed option. All you have to do is include their Javascript file on the page and call the player.setup() method, passing in an embed code to the player so that it knows which video to play. Easy enough, and a common pattern.

Let's say the setup() method takes not only an embed code but also an array of additional paramaters to configure how the player appears and behaves. Some of those paramaters are callback functions -- the name of an additional Javascript function that should be called when certian things happen. Some examples of this might be 'onCreate' when the player is embeded and ready to start playback, 'onPause' when someone clicks the player's play/pause button, and so on. For our example we'll assume that we're implementing an 'onCreate' callback. It should be triggered by the video player after it's been embedded, and is ready for playback to start. (Another common example of something like this the jQuery.ajax, which can take 'success' and 'error' callbacks. Which one gets called depends on the result of the Ajax request.)

This should be simple, right? Just set the callback to 'Drupal.myModule.onCreate' and write the corresponding function in your mymodule.js file!

Except... Later on in the project, Kyle comes along and is told to implement an unrelated piece of functionality that also fade a DOM element in on the page after the video player has been embeded. Now two different functions both need to fire when the Video player has been created. You can't just pass in a second 'onCreate' callback function to the player.setup() method -- it only allows one value! So now Kyle is stuck trying to jam his unrelated Javascript in to your Drupal.myModule.onCreate function. Blam! You've got a mess of unrelated, hard to maintain code!

A better way of handling this would be for your module to re-broadcast the 'onCreate' callback to give other code a chance to respond to it as well. You could take it one step farther and implement a system that sends out a notification when the 'onCallback' event occurs, and subscribe to it with any functions that need it. That approach would be a lot like the module_invoke_all() function in Drupal's PHP API.

Lucky for you, there are all kinds of ways to do this in Javascript! I'll outline two of them below.

The Drupal Way

One way of solving the problem is to replicate the Drupal.behaviors system provided by core. That's actually pretty straightforward. You need to:

  • Create a well known place for someone to register their objects or functions.
  • Write a short snippet of Javascript that will loop through and execute these registered functions.
  • Call this Javascript at the appropriate time.
  • Ensure that your module's Javascript is loaded before that of other modules.

In your javascript code, you'll need to create a standard object that other modules can go to when they register their functions. In core, this is Drupal.behaviors. We'll create our own new object for this example.

var MyModule = MyModule || {};
MyModule.callbacks = {};

Then you'll need an easy way to call and execute any registered callbacks.

MyModule.executeCallbacks = function(data) {
   $.each(MyModule.callbacks, function(key, callback) {
       if ($.isFunction(callback)) {

What this code does is loop over all the functions collected in MyModule.callbacks and executes them. Pretty simple, really! It works well for notifying any code of some "event" as long as you remember to call the MyModule.executeCallbacks() method at the appropriate times.

Now, any other module can register callback functions that will be called by the MyModule.executeCallbacks() method:

MyModule.callbacks.theirModuleOnCreate = function() {
   // Do some sweet Javascript stuff here ...

Put it all together by implementing your onCreate callback (the code we wanted to implement at the very beginning of this exercise!) and call the new code.

MyModule.onCreate = function() {
   // Give all modules that have registered a callback a chance to respond.

Pretty painless. Just make sure your module's Javascript file is loaded before any others: in Drupal, you can do that by changing the weight of your module to -10, or something similar. If you don't do that, you'll end up with warnings about "MyModule.callbacks being undefined" when someone else's Javascript is loaded first, and tries to register a callback with your object.

This approach is easy to implement, but it still has some problems.

  • It's a major "Drupalism." For anyone familiar with Javascript but not with Drupal's way of doing things, it's a conceptual hurdle that needs to be overcome before understanding how to add a new behavior.
  • If one behavior fails, the execution stops: anything that hasn't be executed will not get called, and you're dependent on others to write code that doesn't fail.
  • There is no easy way to remove a behavior added by someone else's code, or to overwrite the way that Drupal core does something. Don't like the table drag javascript? The only way around it is Monkey Patching.

An alternative way

Another approach that's a bit more "Javascripty" is to use the jQuery.trigger() and jQuery.bind() methods. With them, you can create custom events that other modules can listen for and react too. It's a lot like using jQuery to intercept the 'click' event on a link, perform some custom action, then allowing the link to continue with it's processing. In this case, though, we'll be triggering our own custom event on a DOM element. To do this you need to:

  • Call jQuery.trigger on an object or DOM element in order to broadcast an event.
  • Use jQuery.bind on an object or DOM element to register a listener for an event.
  • Wash, rinse & repeat ...

As usual, the code samples below would go inside of your module's mymodule.js file and be included on the page when necessary via the drupal_add_js() PHP function.

Inside of our module's .onCreate callback, we use the jQuery.trigger() method to trigger our custom event and alert all listeners that they should go ahead and do their thing. It's not necessary to prefix our event names with 'myModule.' but it does lead to cleaner code. (It also makes it easier to unbind all of the events associated with a particular module in one step.) This approach is functionally equivalent to calling the MyModule.executeCallbacks() method from the previous example. We're telling anyone that wants to participate that now is the time to do it!

MyModule.onCreate = function() {
   // Trigger an event on the document object.

The second piece of this puzzle is using the jQuery.bind() method to add an event listener that will be triggered any time our custom event is triggered. Each event listener receives the jQuery.Event object as the first argument. The code below is equivalent to the bit above where we register our callback with MyModule.callbacks.theirModule = {}

$(document).bind('myModule.onCreate', function(event) {
   // Do my fancy sliding effect here ...

Any number of modules can bind to the custom event, and respond to the onCreate callback event, without ever having to modify your module's Javascript.

Another technique that I've used in the past is to create a drupal_alter() style functionality in Javascript. This would allow others to modify the parameters that my code passes to a third party's API. It's easy to do, so since you can pass an array of additional arguments to the jQuery.trigger() method. They'll be passed along to any listeners added with jQuery.bind(). And, since complex data types in Javascript are inherently passed by reference, the listener can make changes to the incoming parameters and they'll be reflected upstream. Something like the following would do the trick.

MyModule.createWidget = function() {
  var parameters = {width: 250, height: 100, onCallback: 'MyModule.onCreate'};
  // Allow other modules to alter the parameters.
  $(document).trigger('myModule.alterParameters', [parameters]);

Then anyone else could bind to the new 'myModule.alterParameters' event and receive the parameters object as an additional argument. The first argument for any function using jQuery.bind() to listen to an event is always the jQuery.event object.

$(document).bind('myModule.alterParameters', function(e, parameters) {
  // Here I can change parameters and it will be reflected in the function that triggered this event.
  parameters.width = 350;

While this method isn't perfect either, I like that it's closer to the Javascript programming patterns used in the broader world outside of Drupal. This means it's easier for someone not familiar with Drupal to understand my code and to quickly figure out how to work with it.

It does, however, still exhibit some of the same problems as the Drupal.behaviors method. Notably the fact that if any one listener has code that fails the whole system breaks down. In addition, you have to trigger and bind to events on either a DOM element or other Javascript object.


Drupal itself doesn't come with a Javascript equivalent to the module_invoke_all() function, but there are a lot of ways that we can implement a similar system ourselves. When you run in to this problem in your development, I encourage you to use the second approach outlined: it has all the same capabilities of the Drupal.behaviors approach, with less code and a shallower learning curve.

These are by no means the only methods for accomplishing this sort of task in Javascript. Another for example would be the popular publish/suscribe pattern, but we'll wait to explore those in another article! Whichever approach you choose, it's important to build for future flexibility, just as you would with your PHP code.

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