state management

What is state management?

Application state management is the process of maintaining knowledge of an application's inputs across multiple related data flows that form a complete business transaction -- or a session -- to understand the condition of the application at any given moment. In computer science, an input is information the user puts into the program and state refers to the condition of an application according to its stored inputs -- saved as variables or constants.

From a practical perspective, the state of an application is represented by the data being delivered to -- and produced by -- the application.

Core business applications process sensitive information like orders, payments, invoices and bills of material. This processing depends on the state of the application and results in changes to the balance of inventories, accounts and financial ledgers. State management lets developers determine the state of the application to ensure the changes made appropriately reflect the real-world context and business processes.

How does state management work?

Overall, state management makes the state of an app visible in the form of a data structure, improving developers' ability to work with the app. State management libraries provide developers with the tools needed to create the data structures and change them when new actions occur.

There are two accepted models for state management: Front end, or client side, and back end, or server side.

In front-end state management, the user's own app or browser maintains the program's state, often by having certain buttons or user interface features enabled or disabled and sending the state along with the message. The user interface connection ensures the user and the application are in harmony throughout the session.

In back-end state management, an application component uses an external data structure or database to record the final state when it's done processing activities. Processing the next message starts with retrieving the previous state from the database. The state variable in the data structure can also synchronize the user interface -- and through it the user -- with the state of the session.

Software developers typically deal with several types of states or approaches to state management including the following:

  • Local. The state of a local component -- such as an individual module -- which can't be accessed or modified by other components.
  • Inter-module. The state of parent and child components as data is passed between them. In this case, one state of one software module can affect the state of another.
  • Global. The global state of the application, which can include a more holistic look at how that application interacts with users and other enterprise applications.

What are state management libraries?

Any implementation of state management is likely to use the support of development tools collected in a state management library.

In general, software libraries are common in all avenues of software development. A library provides various related code elements, such as modules and subroutines related to specific tasks. Libraries are easy to use and eliminate the need for developers to create common code elements from scratch -- saving considerable time and testing. Libraries can easily be added to software projects, and most modern software use many varied libraries including math, visualization, UI and networking.

State management libraries are a specific type of software library used to ensure the implementations of front-end or back-end state management work together to successfully obtain and provide understanding and control of the application.

State management libraries speed up the development of application state and make the state management code easier to maintain by enforcing common practices across multiple stateful applications. It's critical to pick state management techniques that work for the application, as well as the best tool library to implement these techniques.

State management libraries are explicit to development techniques such as the development language or the front- or back-end nature of state control. It's important for development teams to research their options and make the best choice for both current and likely future needs.

State management in application development

Early applications controlled the user dialog, so the individual steps within a session were dictated by the process itself; write data to the user, accept changes, confirm them and commit them. With the advent of web applications based on the stateless vision of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), it became necessary to more clearly define state management practices.

When a session message -- such as an HTML page -- is received, it's interpreted based on the state, which is recorded as a variable or constant that every process can access. The record ensures that receiving, for example, a confirmation message while in the waiting for confirmation state is handled differently than it would be in the waited too long for user response state. That, in turn, ensures that application systems that update databases and produce durable business records are always synchronized with the real world.

Advantages of state management

State management is essential in aligning and integrating core business applications and the cloud. Without some form of state management, business activities as routine as the purchase of something or a request for information would have to be structured as a single request or response exchange. This could put a significant burden on the user and would almost certainly reduce the effectiveness of the application. In some cases, such as the processing of an order, a stateless exchange could hide critical information like current stock levels, resulting in what could be a significant business impact on the seller and a major inconvenience to the buyer.

Although not all applications require or benefit equally from state management, successful use of state management can provide the following benefits:

  • Application stability and reliability. Critical data shared between modules or across the global application such as user input or preferences can be maintained and managed as a consistent data resource, reducing application errors and data conflicts or discontinuities.
  • Application performance improvements. State management can support features such as data caching, letting components share data and reducing the time needed to repeat calculations or fetch data from storage. Other performance enhancements can be realized in more responsive and stable user interfaces for improved user experience.
  • Better application debugging. State management offers clear and predictable data flow and management across an application, providing easier application troubleshooting and debugging.
  • Better application design. State management can help software developers design and build better applications by illustrating complex issues in communication between varied components which might not have clear or reliable means of direct interaction.

State management tools

State management tools are typically offered in the form of state management libraries, designed for developers who want to build state awareness into their applications. Most of these tools are used to implement front-end state management because that mechanism is easiest to execute and offers the tightest integration with the application's user base. Front-end state control is also ideal for state management when the goal of development is to add a cloud front-end to a business process.

Most tools work by adding a state object to something like JavaScript. This object and its methods are then used to manage state and prevent loss of state under unusual conditions, including contamination by code or changes in client-server relationships.

The React framework is a popular example of a state management tool for web and user interfaces. The open source, front-end, JavaScript library is maintained by varied sources, including Meta, third-party organizations and individual developers. React helps software developers build state-managed applications using programming frameworks such as Next.js. Developers can also use other state management platforms beyond React, such as Vue or Angular.

However, while React provides a fundamental library and library ecosystem for complex state management tasks, there are many add-on or specialized libraries that can be selected and implemented to emphasize desired state management tasks. Most React libraries are available for download directly from GitHub. Examples of widely used libraries for React applications include the following:

  • Cerebral.
  • Hookstate.
  • Jotai.
  • MobX.
  • Recoil.
  • Redux.
  • Rematch.
  • Zustand.

But state management libraries aren't created equal. Each is implemented to emphasize specific tasks or goals. For example, the Cerebral library uses declarative state and side effects management for JavaScript frameworks. By comparison, Zustand provides a simplified and pared-down library for React. It's important for developers to understand their specific application state management needs and take the time to evaluate potential libraries for factors including features, functionality, performance, scalability, maintainability, reusability and support such as the library's user community.

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This was last updated in January 2024

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