Monorepos in JavaScript & TypeScript

 by Robin Wieruch
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This is a comprehensive tutorial on Monorepos in JavaScript/TypeScript --- which is using state of the art tools for these kind of architectures in frontend applications. You will learn about the following topics from this tutorial:

  • What is a monorepo?
  • How to structure a monorepo architecture?
  • How to create a monorepo?
  • Which tools to use for a monorepo?
  • How to perform versioning in a monorepo?
  • How to create a CI pipeline for a monorepo?
  • How to run applications decoupled from the monorepo?

I myself am extremely hyped about Monorepos these days, because they help me with my work as a freelance developer and my open source projects. When I started to use monorepos in JavaScript/TypeScript I must say it just felt natural to combine applications and packages this way. With this walkthrough, I hope to pass along my learnings in this space.

Shoutout to Lee Robinson who inspired and helped me tremendously to get started in this space. Another shoutout goes to Shawn "Swyx" Wang who made me aware of Turborepo and to Wes Bos & Scott Tolinski who had an episode on SyntaxFM about Monorepos.

When this tutorial becomes more practical, we will use React.js as framework of choice for creating applications and shared packages (UI components) within this monorepo. However, feel free to use your own framework of choice (e.g. Angular or Vue).

Table of Contents

What is a Monorepo

A monorepo is a project which contains smaller projects -- whereas each project can be anything from individual application to reusable package (e.g. functions, components). The practice of combining projects dates back to the early 2000 when it was called a shared codebase.

The name monorepo stems from the words mono (single) and repo (repository). While the former is self-explanatory, the latter comes from version control systems (e.g. git) where either projects:repositories are hosted in a n:n relationship (polyrepo) or a n:1 relationship (monorepo).

Often a monorepo is mistaken for a monolith. However, in a monolithic application all smaller projects are combined into one large project. In contrast, a monorepo can combine its smaller projects into multiple projects.

monorepo monolith

Monorepos are popular for large scale codebases used by large companies such as Google:

  • "The Google codebase includes approximately one billion files and has a history of approximately 35 million commits spanning Google's entire 18-year existence." [2016]
  • "Google's codebase is shared by more than 25,000 Google software developers from dozens of offices in countries around the world. On a typical workday, they commit 16,000 changes to the codebase, and another 24,000 changes are committed by automated systems." [2016]

However, these days monorepos become popular for any codebase which has multiple applications with a shared set of (in-house) packages ...

Why use a Monorepo

There are two major advantages using a monorepo for a large scale codebase. First of all, shared packages can be used in multiple applications on a local machine without an online registry (e.g. npm). The developer experience improves tremendously here, because everything is in the same codebase without updating dependencies via third-parties. When a shared package gets updated, it gets immediately reflected in all applications which depend on it.

Second, it improves collaboration across codebases. Teams working on different projects can improve the codebases from other teams without working on multiple repositories. It also improves accessibility without worrying about different setups and introduces a more flexible ownership of the source code across teams. Another benefit is the refactoring of code across many projects.

Structure of a Monorepo

A monorepo can contain multiple applications (here: apps) whereas each application has access to shared set of packages. Bear in mind that this is already an opinionated monorepo structure:

- apps/
--- app-one
--- app-two
- packages/
--- package-one
--- package-two
--- package-three

A package, which is just a folder, can be anything from UI components (e.g. framework specific components) over functions (e.g. utilities) to configuration (e.g. ESLint, TypeScript):

- apps/
--- app-one
--- app-two
- packages/
--- ui
--- utilities
--- eslint-config
--- ts-config

A package can be a dependency of another package. For example, the ui package may use functions from the utilities package and therefore the ui package depends on the utilities package. Both, ui and utilities package, may use configuration from the other *-config packages.

The apps are usually not dependent on each other, instead they only opt-in packages. If packages depend on each other, a monorepo pipeline (see Monorepo Tools) can enforce scenarios like "start ui build only if the utilities build finished successfully".

monorepos pipeline

Since we are speaking about a JavaScript/TypeScript monorepo here, an app can be a JavaScript or TypeScript application whereas only the TypeScript applications would make use of the shared ts-config package (or create their own config or use a mix of both).

Applications in apps don't have to use shared packages at all. It's opt-in and they can choose to use their internal implementations of UI components, functions, and configurations. However, if an application in apps decides to use a package from packages as dependency, they have to define it in their package.json file:

{
"dependencies": {
"ui": "*",
"utilities": "*",
"eslint-config": "*"
},
}

Applications in apps are their own entity and therefore can be anything from a SSR application (e.g. ) to a CSR application (e.g. ).

Continue Reading:

In other words: applications in apps do not know about being an repo in a monorepo, they just define dependencies. The monorepo (see Workspaces in Monorepos) decides then whether the dependency is taken from the monorepo (default) or from a registry (fallback, e.g. npm registry).

Reversely, this means that an application can be used without being part of the monorepo as well. The only requirement is that all its dependencies (here: ui, utilities, eslint-config) are published on a registry like npm, because when used as a standalone application there is no monorepo with shared dependencies anymore (see Versioning with Monorepos).

How to create a Monorepo

After all these learnings in theory about monorepos, we will walk through an example of a monorepo as a proof of concept. Therefore, we will create a monorepo with React applications (apps) which use a shared set of components/configuration (packages). However, none of the tools are tied to React, so you can adapt it to your own framework of choice (e.g. Angular or Vue).

We will not create a monorepo from scratch though, because it would involve too many steps that would make this whole topic difficult to follow. Instead we will be using a starter monorepo. While using it, I will walk you through all the implementation details which went into it step by step.

Start off by cloning the monorepo starter to your local machine:

git clone git@github.com:bigstair-monorepo/monorepo.git

We are using yarn as alternative to npm here, not only for installing the dependencies, but also for using so-called workspaces later on. In the next section (see Workspaces in Monorepos), you will learn about workspaces and alternative workspaces tools in contrast to yarn workspaces. For now, navigate into the repository and install all the dependencies with yarn:

cd monorepo
yarn install

While explaining other parts later, we will focus on the following content of the monorepo for now:

- apps/
--- docs
- packages/
--- bigstair-core
--- bigstair-map
--- eslint-config-bigstair
--- ts-config-bigstair

The monorepo comes with one "built-in" application called docs in apps for the documentation. Later we will integrate actual applications (see Workspaces in Monorepos) next to the documentation.

In addition, there are four packages -- whereas two packages are shared UI components (here: bigstair-core and bigstair-map) and two packages are shared configurations (here: eslint-config-bigstair and ts-config-bigstair).

We are dealing with a fake company called bigstair here which becomes important later (see Versioning with Monorepos). For now, just think away the bigstair naming which may make it more approachable. Furthermore, we will not put much focus on the ESLint and TypeScript configurations. You can check out later how they are reused in packages and apps, but what's important to us are the actual applications and the actual shared packages:

- apps/
--- docs
- packages/
--- core
--- map

For the two packages imagine any JavaScript/TypeScript code that should be consumed in our apps. For example, while the core package could have baseline UI components like buttons, dropdowns, and dialogs, the map package could have a reusable yet more complex Map component. From the apps directory's perspective, the separate packages are just like libraries solving different problems. After all, this only shows that the packages folder can scale vertically the same way as the apps folder.


To conclude this section, run the following command to run the apps/docs application. We will discuss later (see Monorepo Tools) why this command allows us to start a nested application in the apps folder in the first place:

yarn dev

You should see a Storybook that displays components from the core and map packages. In this case these components are only buttons (and not a map) for the sake of keeping it simple. If you check the core and map package's source code, you should find the implementation of these components:

import * as React from 'react';
export interface ButtonProps {
children: React.ReactNode;
}
export function Button(props: ButtonProps) {
return <button>{props.children}</button>;
}
Button.displayName = 'Button';

Furthermore, the package.json files of both packages define a name property which are defined as dependencies in the docs application's package.json:

"dependencies": {
"@bigstair/core": "*",
"@bigstair/map": "*",
"react": "18.0.0",
"react-dom": "18.0.0"
},

If both packages would be available via the npm registry, the docs application could install it from there. However, as mentioned earlier, since we are working in a monorepo setup with workspaces (see Workspaces in Monorepos), the package.json file of the docs application checks first if these packages exist in the monorepo before using the npm registry as fallback.

Last, check the implementation details of the docs application. There you will see that it imports the packages like third-party libraries even though they are packages in the monorepo:

import { Button } from '@bigstair/core';

This underpins again the fact that an application in apps doesn't know that it plays a part in a monorepo (see Incubating). If it wouldn't be in a monorepo (see Hatching), it would just install the dependencies from the npm registry.

Workspaces in Monorepos

A monorepo, in our case, consists of multiple apps/packages working together. In the background, a tool called workspaces enables us to create a folder structure where apps can use packages as dependencies. In our case, we are using yarn workspaces to accomplish our goal. There are alternatives such as npm workspaces and pnpm workspaces too.

A yarn workspace gets defined the following way in the top-level package.json file:

"workspaces": [
"packages/*",
"apps/*"
],

Since we already anticipate that we have multiple apps and packages, we can just point to the folder path and use a wildcard as subpath. This way, every folder in apps/packages with a package.json file gets picked up. Now, if an application from apps wants to include a package from packages, it just has to use the name property from the package's package.json file as dependency in its own package.json file (as we have seen before). Note that the structure of having apps and packages is already opinionated at this point.


In practice, it's about multiple apps which can opt-in local packages as dependencies. However, so far we have only used the docs application which uses our monorepo's packages. Furthermore, the docs application is just there for documentation of these packages. What we want are actual applications using the shared packages.

monorepos workspaces

Navigate into the apps folder where we will clone two new applications into the monorepo. Afterward, navigate back again and install all new dependencies:

cd apps
git clone git@github.com:bigstair-monorepo/app-vite-js.git
git clone git@github.com:bigstair-monorepo/app-vite-ts.git
cd ..
yarn install

Installing all dependencies is needed here for two things:

  • First, the new applications in apps need to install all their dependencies -- including the packages which they define as dependencies as well.
  • Second, with two new nested workspaces coming in, there may be new dependencies between apps and packages that need to be resolved in order to have all workspace working together.

Now when you start all apps with yarn dev, you should see the Storybook coming up in addition to two new React applications which uses the Button component from the packages.


Both cloned applications are React applications bootstrapped with Vite. The only thing changed about the initial boilerplates is its dependencies in the package.json where it defines the packages from our workspaces as third-parties:

"dependencies": {
"@bigstair/core": "*",
"@bigstair/map": "*",
...
}

Afterward, they just use the shared components the same way as we did before in the docs:

import { Button } from '@bigstair/core';

Because we are working in a monorepo setup, to be more specific in workspace setup which enables this kind of linking between projects (here: apps and packages) in the first place, these dependencies are looked up from the workspaces before installing them from a registry like npm.

monorepos dependencies

As you can see, any JavaScript or TypeScript application can be bootstrapped in the apps folder this way. Go ahead and create your own application, define the packages as dependencies, yarn install everything, and use the shared components from the packages workspaces.


At this point, you already have seen the global package.json file in the top-level directory and local package.json files for each project in apps and packages. The top-level package.json file defines the workspaces in addition to global dependencies (e.g. eslint, prettier) which can be used in every nested workspace. In contrast, the nested package.json files only define dependencies which are needed in the actual project.

Monorepo Tools

You have witnessed how workspaces already allow us to create a monorepo structure. However, while workspaces enable developers to link projects in a monorepo to each other, a dedicated monorepo tool comes with an improved developer experience. You have already seen one of these DX improvements when typing:

yarn dev

Executing this command from the top-level folder starts all of the projects in the monorepo which have a dev script in their package.json file. The same goes for several other commands:

yarn lint
yarn build
yarn clean

If you check the top-level package.json file, you will a bunch of overarching scripts:

"scripts": {
"dev": "turbo run dev",
"lint": "turbo run lint",
"build": "turbo run build",
"clean": "turbo run clean",
...
},
"devDependencies": {
...
"turbo": "latest"
}

A monorepo tool called Turborepo allows us to define these scripts. Alternative monorepo tools are Lerna and Nx. Turborepo comes with several configurations that allow you to execute the scripts for its nested workspaces in parallel (default), in order, or filtered:

"scripts": {
"dev": "turbo run dev --filter=\"docs\"",
...
},

In addition, you can create a turbo.json file (open it yourself) to define a monorepo pipeline for all the scripts. For example, if one package has another package as dependency in the packages workspace, then one could define in the pipeline for the build script that the former package has to wait for the build of the latter package.

monorepos pipeline

Last but not least, Turborepo comes with advanced caching capabilities for files which work locally (default) and remotely. You can opt-out of local caching any time. You can check out Turborepo's documentation here, because this walkthrough does not go into any more detail here.

Documentation in Monorepos

Because many monorepos come with applications which access a shared set of packages, it's already the perfect architecture to have one dedicated application for documentation purposes which also gets access to the packages.

monorepos documentation

Our initial setup of the monorepo already came with a docs application which uses Storybook to document all of the package's UI components. However, if the shared packages are not UI components, you may want to have other tools for documenting concepts, usage, or APIs.

From this "minimal monorepo architecture", which comes with shared packages, documentation of the shared packages, and a proof of concept that the monorepo architecture works by reusing the packages in the documentation, one can extend the structure by adding more applications or packages to it as we have done in the Workspaces in Monorepos section.

Monorepos vs Polyrepos in Git

If nothing speaks against it, one can host a monorepo with all its workspaces in a single Git repository. That's the prime definition of a monorepo after all. However, once a monorepo scales in size with multiple workspaces, there is maybe (!) the need (see Example: Monorepos as Incubators) for separating the monorepo into multiple Git repositories. That's what we already did with the apps (except for docs) in our monorepo walkthrough.

There may be various ways to move from a single Git repository to multiple Git repositories for a monorepo -- essentially creating a polyrepo in disguise as a monorepo. In our case, we just used a top-level .gitignore file which ignores two of the nested workspaces from the apps which should have their dedicated Git repository.

monorepos git

However, this way we always work on the latest version of all workspaces (here: apps and packages), because when cloning all nested workspaces into the monorepo or as standalone application, they just use the recent code. We get around this flaw when taking versioning into account next.

Versioning with Monorepos

Applying versions, especially to shared packages in a monorepo which may end up online in a package manager (e.g. npm registry) eventually, is not as straightforward as expected. There are multiple challenges like packages can depend on each other, there is more than one package to keep an eye on, packages are nested folders in packages, and each package has to have its own changelog and release process.

In a monorepo setup, the packages behave like dependencies, because the apps are using them from the workspace setup (and not the registry). However, if an application does not want to use the recent version of a package in a workspace, it can define a more specific version of it:

"dependencies": {
"@bigstair/core": "1.0.0",
"@bigstair/map": "1.0.0",
...
}

In this case, if the version of the package in the workspace is different from the specified version, the install script will not use the workspace package but the registry instead. Therefore we need a way to create versions, changelogs, and releases for packages while developing the monorepo.


The changesets project is a popular tool for managing versions of multiple packages in a multi-package repositories (e.g. monorepo). Our monorepo setup already comes with an installation of changesets and scripts defined in the top-level package.json file. We will walk through each of these changesets scripts step by step:

"scripts": {
...
"changeset-create": "changeset",
"changeset-apply": "changeset version",
"release": "turbo run build && changeset publish"
},

Versioning packages will include publishing them to a registry (e.g. npm). If you want to follow along, you need to perform the following steps as prerequisite:

  • create an organization on npm which allows you to publish packages
  • npm login on the command line
  • use the name of your organization instead of bigstair everywhere in the source code
  • verify with yarn install && yarn dev that everything still works as expected

Another prerequisite before we can version a package: We need to change one of our packages first. Go into one of the UI packages and change the source code of the components. Afterward, the mission is to have the change reflected in the new version which gets published to npm.

monorepos versioning

  • First, run yarn changeset-create which enables you to create a changelog for changed packages. The prompt walks you through selecting a package (use spacebar), choosing the semver increment (major, minor, patch), and writing the actual changelog. If you check your repository afterward with git status, you will see the changed source code in addition to a newly created changelog file. If packages depend on each other, the linked packages will get a version bump later too.

  • Second, if the changelog file is okay, run yarn changeset-apply which applies the changelog and the version to the actual package. You can check again with git status and git diff if everything looks as desired.

  • Third, if everything looks okay, go ahead and release the updated packages to npm with yarn release. After the release, verify on npm that your new version got published there.

Essentially that's everything to versioning your packages on your local machine. The next section takes it one step further by using continuous integration for the versioning (2) and publishing (3) steps.

Continuous Integration with Monorepos

The complexity of the Continuous Integration (CI) of a monorepo depends on how many repositories get managed on a version control platform like GitHub. In our case, all packages are in the same repository (here they are part of the monorepo itself). Hence we only need to care about CI for this one repository, because in this section it's all about the release of the packages.

The example monorepo already uses GitHub Actions for the CI. Open the .github/workflows.release.yml file which presents the following content for the GitHub Action:

name: Release
on:
push:
branches:
- main
concurrency: ${{ github.workflow }}-${{ github.ref }}
jobs:
release:
name: Release
runs-on: ubuntu-latest
steps:
- name: Checkout Repository
uses: actions/checkout@v2
with:
fetch-depth: 0
- name: Setup Node.js 16.x
uses: actions/setup-node@v2
with:
node-version: 16.x
- name: Install Dependencies
run: yarn install
- name: Create Release Pull Request or Publish to npm
id: changesets
uses: changesets/action@v1
with:
publish: yarn release
env:
GITHUB_TOKEN: ${{ secrets.GITHUB_TOKEN }}
NPM_TOKEN: ${{ secrets.NPM_TOKEN }}

Note: If this workflow should run on your own GitHub repository, you have to create a NPM_TOKEN on npm and use it as repository secret on GitHub. Furthermore, you need enable the "Allow GitHub Actions to create and approve pull requests" for your organization/repository too.

monorepos continuous integration

Now again, change a component in one of the packages. Afterward, use yarn changeset-create to create a changelog (and implicit semver version) locally. Next, push all your changes (source code change + changelog) to GitHub. From there the CI with GitHub actions takes over for your monorepo's packages. If the CI succeeds, it creates a new PR with the increased version and changelog. Once this PR gets merged, CI runs again and releases the package to npm.

Monorepo Architecture

Monorepos are becoming more popular these days, because they allow you to split your source code into multiple applications/packages (opinionated monorepo structure) while still being able to manage everything at one place. The first enabler for having a monorepo in the first place are Workspaces. In our case we have been using yarn workspaces, but npm and pnpm come with workspaces as well.

The second enabler are the overarching monorepo tools which allow one to run scripts in a more convenient way globally, to orchestrate scripts in a monorepo (e.g. pipelines in Turborepo), or to cache executed scripts locally/remotely. Turborepo is one popular contender in this space. Lerna and Nx are two alternatives to it.

If a monorepo is used in Git, one can optionally decide to split a single repository into multiple repositories (polyrepo in disguise as a monorepo). In our scenario we have been using a straightforward .gitignore file. However, there may be other solution to this problem.

In the case of versioning, Changesets is a popular tool for creating changelogs, versions, and releases for a monorepo. It's the alternative to semantic release in the monorepo space.

In conclusion, Workspaces, Turborepo, and Changesets are the perfect composition of monorepo tools to create, manage, and scale a monorepo in JavaScript/TypeScript.

Example: Monorepos as Incubators

In my recent job as a freelance frontend developer, I had to set up a monorepo for a company. The company is a software house which develops applications for other companies. Over the years, they have developed packages (e.g. UI components) internally.

The goal for the monorepo: being able to develop applications for clients side by side while being able to use shared packages with a great DX.

It mentions great DX, because that's the important point for using a monorepo (see Why use a Monorepo): Rather than installing the packages from npm, we can just change them within the scope of the monorepo and see the changes reflected in the applications. Otherwise we would have to go through the whole release + install cycle when adjusting a UI library.

monorepo incubator

The process for incubating and hatching an application for a company is divided into two consecutive parts which I will explore in the following.

Incubating: When on-boarding a new client to the monorepo, we/they create a repository via git from where we clone it into our monorepo. From there, we can opt-in shared packages from the monorepo as dependencies. The client can clone the repository any time as standalone project (without having to rely on the monorepo) while being able to install all dependencies from the registry, because of the mandatory versioning of the shared packages.

Hatching: Once a client gets off-boarded, we set a final version to all dependencies in their project's package.json. From there, it's their responsibility to upgrade the packages. Hence the automatically generated changelog of in-house packages on our end if a client decides to upgrade one of them.

Monorepo FAQ

  • Are there Monorepos for Frontend and Backend? When working with a frontend and backend, they are are most often loosely coupled via an API. However, there are various aspects where frontend and backend can still use shared packages (type safe API interfaces, utility functions, server-side components). So it's totally possible to have a CSR React application, a SSR React application (e.g. Next.js), and an side by side.

  • Are Monorepos the same as Monoliths? They are not. A monorepo can produce one monolithic application, however there are more likely applications side by side which share the domain of the company or a set of packages but are not one self-contained application (definition of monolithic). In the end, there just needs to be the requirement for sharing code across multiple projects.

  • Are there Monorepos for Microfrontends? Not anything that I can reference here, however, it's absolutely possible to create a user facing application and a admin facing application side by side in a monorepo where the developer decides whether both get stitched together as one monolith or whether they are standalone applications on different (sub)domains (e.g. my-application.com and admin.my-application.com).

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