Introduction to npm

npm means node package manager.

In January 2017 over 350000 packages were reported being listed in the npm registry, making it the biggest single language code repository on Earth, and you can be sure there is a package for (almost!) everything.

It started as a way to download and manage dependencies of Node.js packages, but it has since become a tool used also in frontend JavaScript.

There are many things that npm does.

Yarn is an alternative to npm. Make sure you check it out as well.


npm manages downloads of dependencies of your project.

Installing all dependencies

If a project has a packages.json file, by running

npm install

it will install everything the project needs, in the node_modules folder, creating it if it’s not existing already.

Installing a single package

You can also install a specific package by running

npm install <package-name>

Often you’ll see more flags added to this command:

  • --save installs and adds the entry to the package.json file dependencies
  • --save-dev installs and adds the entry to the package.json file devDependencies

The difference is mainly that devDependencies are usually development tools, like a testing library, while dependencies are bundled with the app in production.

Updating packages

Updating is also made easy, by running

npm update

npm will check all packages for a newer version that satisfies your versioning constrains.

You can specify a single package to update as well:

npm update <package-name>


In addition to plain downloads, npm also manages versioning, so you can specify any specific version of a package, or require a version higher or lower than what you need.

Many times you’ll find that a library is only compatible with a major release of another library.

Or a bug in the latest release of a lib, still unfixed, is causing an issue.

Specifying an explicit version of a library also helps keeping everyone on the same exact version of a package, so that the whole team runs the same version until the package.json file is updated.

In all those cases, versioning helps a lot, and npm follows the Semantic Versioning (SEMVER) standard.

Running Tasks

The package.json file supports a format for specifying command line tasks that can be run by using

npm <task-name>

For example:

  "scripts": {
    "start-dev": "node lib/server-development",
    "start": "node lib/server-production"

It’s very common to use this feature to run Webpack:

  "scripts": {
    "watch": "webpack --watch --progress --colors --config webpack.conf.js",
    "dev": "webpack --progress --colors --config webpack.conf.js",
    "prod": "NODE_ENV=production webpack -p --config webpack.conf.js",

So instead of those long commands, which is easy to forget or mistype, you can run

$ npm watch
$ npm dev
$ npm prod