The world is awash in Javascript, but not everyone is speaking the same dialect

The Background

Recently I've been spending a fair amount of time hacking away in Javascript on the improbable node.js. As I've gushed, my preferred stack of choice nowadays is Redis, node.js and Riak. One great thing about this arrangement is that both node.js and Riak speak Javascript natively. Considering that Javascript is the lingua franca of end user browsers everywhere you can imagine a situation where being able to develop in Javascript throughout the stack could be a compelling proposition.

With visions of one language to rule them all running through my mind I set off to remake my world of applications in a new image. A better image. The transformation from a hodgepodge of languages goes smoothly. Synergies are being realized as functions get packaged for reuse in different environments. Alas, all is not well in the Shire. I've run into a snag and it is somewhat interrupting secondsies. 

The Problem

Middle-earth aside, it turns out that all Javascript engines are not created equal. Beyond specific performance differences between the various Javascript implementations there are also subtle differences in feature support. In my humble opinion, nowhere is this more glaring then in date parsing. In an era where you are executing javascript in three separate environments - browser, middleware and database - and potentially against three different engines, you need to concern yourself with the details. On the client end your user can be using any of a number of different browsers all with their own Javascript engine and version number. If you are using node.js your engine is v8, Riak uses spidermonkey as its engine. Do not be lulled into a sense of security due to the fact that you are using one language throughout. In some instances you may as well be in two completely different languages. Ok maybe that's a bit much, but let us take a closer look.

Here is a picture of a Date.parse() test I ran on the three major browsers, chrome, safari and firefox on osx snow leopard and the code used to make it happen. It's clear that v8 has the best date parsing support, but I'll let you be the judge.

chrome, safari and firefox

What I'm doing here is running an array of different date and date/time strings through Date.parse() to see which date/time formats a given engine will accept. If an engine can successfully parse a string it will return an integer, if not it will return NaN (Not a Number). This integer is the date/time represented as the number of milliseconds since Jan 1, 1970, aka. the epoch. Obviously this won't work for dates older than Jan 1, 1970 but I'm mainly interested in present and forward dates. Run the code for yourself, feel free to add any formats you are interested in and take a look at the results. After you are done being all 'WTW' about it come back. Ya, this sucks. This sucks... hard. But, like, why... specifically. 

As it turns out computers can sort all kinds of stuff, strings included. However, what you'll find is that string representations of dates like Jan, 1 2011 won't sort the way you want them to... you know chronologically. To skip that problem you need to convert said date into an integer - which computers also have no problem sorting - yet this time the sorting will mean exactly what you want it to mean. For example, this is an issue in Riak when you want to map/reduce over a range of keys and then do interesting things to them based on dates contained therein. I talk about sorting by date in Riak in a previous post.


So now that we know our date parsing is all out of whack what can we do about it?

If your application calls for date conversions do yourself a favor and do it in your middleware - node.js, python, ruby, what have you - and ship integers out directly to the end user and to the database. Centralizing your parsing will ensure that all your parsing is being done under the same rule set. All javascript implementations will be able to go from an integer to a date like so:

new Date(integer)

This will eliminate the vagaries of conversion in multiple environments. Sure, a lot of these headaches can be curtailed by controlling the date format before it enters your system but sometimes it is just out of your control. Minimize the number of places in your application for discrepancy and ship data around your stack in a format every language implementation can understand.

If you know of any other interesting gotchas between the various Javascript implementations please share them in the comments.