Replacing Lerna + Yarn with PNPM Workspaces

This article was published on Nov 17, 2021, and takes approximately 12 minute(s) to read.

Monorepo architecture has become more popular over the years, which is understandable considering the problem it solves. The biggest challenge, though, is finding an easy-to-use tool for handling such a structure.

If you Google "monorepo tool javascript", you'll find many articles showing the most popular options we have, and curiously each one attempts to solve that problem in a very different way.

From the options we have, some are there for a while (like Lerna) but no longer actively maintained; others never went out from draft (like Bolt), others are working fine but only for a specific kind of project.

Unfortunately, we don't have a killer tool that fits all types of JavaScript/Typescript projects and all sizes of teams, and that's understandable.

Yet there's one ("new") option that might help us in most cases: pnpm workspaces.

But before talking about pnpm, let me tell you my monorepo/workspaces usage and how I managed to solve that in the first place.

My Blog

When I first created my blog, I bootstrapped a Next.js application, put it into a git repository, and pushed the scaffolding code there.

After a while, I needed to set up the CMS to hold my content. Then I created a Strapi application, put it into another git repository, and pushed it to another Github repo.

Then, I decided to fork a library called mdx-prism to fix some minor problems and automate its deployment. Once again, another new git repository containing its code and setup.

I had 3 git repos implied that I had 3 eslint, prettier, jest, babel, and typescript configs, but I handled it for a while.

Soon, I became bothered by every dependency update (like TypeScript); I had to update in all repositories (three pull requests). Every new thing I learned like a new eslint rule, I agree, I had to go in there and change three times and so on.

My first instinct was:

What if I put all projects inside a single folder and repository, create my base config and use it to extend each project's config?

Unfortunately, I couldn't simply drop the files there, extend, and hope it works because things are more complex than that. The tools need module/file resolution, and I didn't want to ship all projects when I was about to deploy.

At that moment, I realized I needed a monorepo tool to do this linking and make my experience better.

I tried some solutions, and the easiest way to get up and running was Lerna + Yarn Workspaces.

Of course, along the setup process, I had had some gotchas like understanding why some builds were failing (not all apps likes hoisted dependencies), had to adapt my pipelines, and how I deployed each project. Still, I managed everything and had a decent setup.

With the bare minimum setup, I started to create even more small independent modules/apps to re-use, extend and try out new tools without impacting my existing code. That was the moment I saw with my own eyes how amazing it's working a monorepo.

About Lerna + Yarn Workspaces

Lerna is a high-level monorepo tool that provides abstractions to simultaneously manage a single or multiple apps/packages.

You can run commands (e.g., build, test, lint) for all the projects you control with a single command-line instruction, or if you prefer, you can even filter a specific project with the flag --scope.

Yarn Workspaces is a low-level tool that handles the packages installation, creates a symlink between projects, and allocates the modules in root and controlled projects folders.

You can use either Lerna or Yarn Workspaces to manage your repository, but you may have noticed that they are more complementary than exclusionary. In other words, they work really well together.

Even nowadays, this combination is still a good choice, but some "problems" might be highlighted:

  • Yarn Workspaces (at least for v1) is no longer receiving new features and improvements (the last update was from 2018);
  • Lerna documentation is OK, but you have to figure out a lot of things by yourself;
  • Lerna publishing system is not as simple as it seems, especially to generate automated publishes with commit lint;
  • You can easily get lost on understanding the commands you have to run or what commands are being run by other commands you invoke;
  • Lerna CLI has problems like you cannot install multiple dependencies at the same time;
  • Lerna CLI --scope is not reliable and hard to understand and use;
  • There's a wizard to help us with regular tasks, but it seems to be being maintained outside the main repo;
  • Lerna is currently unmaintained;

By the time it was created (in 2015), Lerna had come up to help us with this lack of tooling to manage JS monorepos, and it did amazingly well.

Though because they might not have a dedicated team (or a few people) to work on that, plan the future of the tool, Lerna is slowly dying.

I'm not here to blame creators and maintainers, the open-source world has a lot of problems, but this is a subject for another post.

You're probably now thinking:

If Lerna is in this stage, what's the option we have now?

pnpm Introduction

In case you don't know, like npm and Yarn, pnpm is also a package manager tool for JavaScript projects. It does the same job but in a more efficient way.

The biggest deal around pnpm was that they solved one problem that npm introduced and that Yarn copied, which it's the way of installing dependencies.

There are two big problems that pnpm comes to solve:

Disk Space

Let's say you have five projects that have react@17.0.2 as a dependency.

When you npm or Yarn install in all projects, each will have its copy of React inside node_modules. Considering that React has approximately 6.9kB, in 5 repositories, we'll have 34.5kB of the same dependency in your disk.

This example seems too little, but everyone that works with JS knows that sometimes node_modules can easily hit gigabytes.

Installing dependencies with pnpm, it first downloads it in its own "store" (~/.pnpm-store). After downloading it there, it creates a hard link from that module to the node_module in your project.

In the same example as before, pnpm will install react@17.0.2 on its store and, when we install the project dependencies, it'll first check if React at version 17.0.2 is already saved. If so, it creates a hard link (pointing to a file in disk) in the projects node_modules.

Now, instead of having five react@17.0.2 copies (34.5kB) in our disk, we'll have a single version (6.9kB) on the pnpm store folder and a hard link (which does the same job as a copied file) in every project that uses react in this version.

Consequently, we save a lot of disk space and have much faster installation for new projects that use dependencies we already have installed.

Phantom dependencies

When we install dependencies with npm, it downloads all dependencies and dependencies and puts everything inside node_modules. This is what they call the "flat way".

Let's see this in practice. The following `package.json:

{
  "dependencies": {
    "unified": "10.1.0"
  }
}

After running npm install, will result in the following node_modules:

node_modules
├── @types
├── bail
├── extend
├── is-buffer
├── is-plain-obj
├── trough
├── unified
├── unist-util-stringify-position
├── vfile
└── vfile-message

Though this approach has been working for years, it can lead to some problems called "phantom dependency".

The only dependency we have declared in our project is unified, but we still can import is-plain-obj (dependency of unified) in our code:

import ob from "is-plain-obj";

console.log(ob); // [Function: isPlainObject]

Because this is possible, our dependencies and the dependencies of our dependencies can also make this mistake and import something from node_modules without declaring it as dependency/peerDependency.

Now, let's see how pnpm does that.

Using the same package.json and running pnpm install, we'll have the following node_modules:

node_modules
├── .pnpm
├── @types
├── unified -> .pnpm/unified@10.1.0/node_modules/unified
└── .modules.yaml

As you can see, the only dependency we have is unified, and it's "the one" we have, but... there is this arrow that indicates this module is a symlink.

Let's then inspect what's inside .pnpm:

node_modules
├── .pnpm
│ ├── @types+unist@2.0.6
│ ├── bail@2.0.1
│ ├── extend@3.0.2
│ ├── is-buffer@2.0.5
│ ├── is-plain-obj@4.0.0
│ ├── node_modules
│ ├── trough@2.0.2
│ ├── unified@10.1.0
│ ├── unist-util-stringify-position@3.0.0
│ ├── vfile-message@3.0.2
│ ├── vfile@5.2.0
│ └── lock.yaml
├── @types
│ └── unist -> ../.pnpm/@types+unist@2.0.6/node_modules/@types/unist
├── unified -> .pnpm/unified@10.1.0/node_modules/unified
└── .modules.yaml

pnpm installs every dependency with its version as suffix inside the .pnpm folder and only moves to the node_modules root what's actually defined in your package.json.

Now, if we try to do the same code as before, we'll get an error because is-plain-obj is not inside node_modules:

internal/process/esm_loader.js:74
 internalBinding('errors').triggerUncaughtException(
 ^

Error [ERR_MODULE_NOT_FOUND]: Cannot find package 'is-plain-obj' imported from /Users/raulmelo/development/sandbox/test-pnpm-npm/pnpm/index.js

Although installing node_modules in this way is more reliable, this may break compatibility with some apps that may have been built on top of the flat node_modules.

An example of it is Strapi v3. As you can see here, they are aware about that and will fix some day.

For our luck, pnpm took those cases into account and provided a flag called shamefully-hoist.

The dependencies will be installed in the "flat way" when we use this flag, and apps like Strapi will just work.

pnpm Workspaces

pnpm introduced workspaces feature on v2.

Its goal was to fill this gap of the easy-to-use and well-maintained monorepo tool we currently have.

Since they already had the low-level part (package manager), they only added a new module to handle workspaces whenever you have a pnpm-workspace.yaml file in the root level of your project.

It's almost the exact config as Lerna + Yarn Workspaces with the three significant advantages:

  1. We grasp from pnpm disk space fix;
  2. We use their nifty CLI (it's well-built and has an excellent DX);
  3. It solves many Lerna CLI problems like filtering, installing multiple versions.

In (almost) all commands, pnpm allow us to run with a flag called --filter. I think it's self-explanatory, but it runs that command for the filtered repositories.

So imagine you have two full apps which have two separated pipelines. With Lerna + npm or Yarn, we install dependencies for every single project when we run an installation.

This means, in some cases, downloading 1GB of dependencies instead of 300MB.

With pnpm though, I can simply run:

pnpm install --filter website

And now, only the root dependencies and the dependencies from my website will be installed.

The filter command is already good enough, but it goes beyond and offers much more flexibility.

I do recommend you to take a look at pnpm's "Filtering" documentation and take a look at how amazing it's.

Another recommendation: "pnpm vs Lerna: filtering in a multi-package repository"

It seems a minimal thing, but those little details make a lot of difference while working in different environments.

Migration

If you want to see the PR I've merged containing the whole migration, you can check it here. I'll only highlight the overall changes I needed to perform.

Replacing Commands

I had a bunch of scripts that invoke yarn CLI. For those, I only need to replace with pnpm <command> or pnpm run <command>;

Removing Yarn Workspace config

In my package.json, I had declared the workspaces field for Yarn and also defined some packages not to hoist to root node_modules:

{
"workspaces": {
   "packages": [
     "packages/*",
     "apps/*"
   ],
   "nohoist": [
     "**/netlify-lambda",
     "**/netlify-lambda/**"
   ]
 }
}

All this was gone.

Replacing lerna.json with pnpm-workspace.yml

I've removed the following config:

{
  "version": "independent",
  "packages": ["packages/*", "apps/*"],
  "npmClient": "yarn",
  "useWorkspaces": true,
  "command": {
    "version": {
      "allowBranch": "main"
    },
    "publish": {
      "conventionalCommits": true,
      "message": "chore(release): publish",
      "ignoreChanges": ["*.md", "!packages/**/*"]
    }
  }
}

With:

prefer-workspace-packages: true
packages:
  - 'packages/*'
  - 'apps/*'

Adapting pipelines, Dockerfile, and Host platform

One thing I had to change was to make sure I always install pnpm before installing the dependencies in my Github Actions, Docker image, and Vercel's install script:

npm install -g pnpm && pnpm install --filter <project-name>

It's an essential step because most of the environment contains yarn out-of-the-box but not pnpm (I hope this will change soon).

Remove yarn.lock file

This file is no longer needed. Pnpm creates its own pnpm-lock.yaml lock file to control the dependencies version.

Adapt build command

When I run lerna run build for my website, it automatically understands that it also has to build the packages my website uses.

With pnpm, I have to make this explicit:

pnpm run build --filter website # Only build the website

pnpm run build --filter website... # Builds first all dependencies from the website and only then, the website

This is important because not all packages I publish to NPM.

Add a .npmrc

pnpm accepts a bunch of flags and options via CLI. If we don't want to pass them all the time, we can define all of them inside a .npmrc file.

The only option I added there was:

shamefully-hoist​=true

As I explained before, Strapi doesn't work with pnpm's way of installing node_modules which is ashamed.

By committing this file, I ensure that the dependencies are correctly installed everywhere I run pnpm install.

Replacing semantic-release with Changesets

I have to confess that I haven't fully tested this yet.

To summarize, in my previous setup, I was forced to write commits in a specific way so that semantic release could checkout my changes, understand automatically what has changed by reading the messages, bump a version and publish my package.

It was working fine, but some gotchas, especially considering how the Github Actions environment works.

Though, Pnpm recommends we use changesets from Atlassian.

The approach is a bit different. Now, if I do a change, I have to create a .md file with some meta info and description and changesets will, based on this file, understand how to generate change longs and which version should be bumped.

I still have to finish this setup and maybe write an article about that. 😅

Conclusion

And that's was basically all I needed to replace Lerna + Yarn Workspaces with pnpm workspaces.

To be honest, it was easier than I initially thought.

The more I use pnpm, the more I enjoy it. The project is solid, and the user experience is joyful.

References