I posed myself the question: why isn't engines.node used to load the right version of node when I run npm start? It's great that this value is used when I'm deploying to a service like Heroku, but I also want to use it locally.

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👋 The why

Most of the time (at time of writing), the version of node doesn't really matter to my code. The code I write often has to work on 0.10, 4.x and 6.x because either I'm writing CLI tools, or don't have many version-dependant code.

"Most" means not all the time. So, some of the time I see this:

node crashes because node 6 is required for this particular project

This command was crashing because the modules were built with a different version of node than the version that just ran it. You can see the same effect trying to run ES6 with node 0.10 though 😁

Wouldn't it be cool if, when I ran npm start it detected the version of node required, and it switched to using that?

👌 The concept

I'm using nvm (and you might be using a different version manager). nvm will be used to run the code in the right version.

The engines property in the package.json file will be introduced via an environment variable called $npm_package_engines_node when npm start is used:

  "engines": {
    "node": 6
  "scripts": {
    "start": "node server.js",
    "env": "echo $npm_package_engines_node"
    "#": "run `npm run env` to this in action",

As an example, I've added a script to double check run with npm run env which will yeild: 6.

The idea is that if the $npm_package_engines_node value isn't present, then the default system version of node will run.

👊 The implementation

I'm going to hack how node is run. I'm creating $HOME/bin/node with chmod 755 permissions. The contents of this custom node script is:


# if the value of npm_package_engines_node is empty, then
if [ -z "$npm_package_engines_node" ]; then
  # find the next best version of node (i.e. not this script)
  NODE=$(which -a node | sed -n '2p')
  # use exec to slurp up STDIN correctly
  exec $NODE $@
  # else: load the nvm code, but don't execute it
  source $HOME/.nvm/nvm.sh --no-use
  # then execute the arguments under node version X
  nvm exec $npm_package_engines_node node $@

Note that the $@ represents all the arguments passed to my script.

To get this to work correctly, my new version of node will be the highest priority in the path (which I'll explain how in a moment).

Then to find the real path to node, I use which -a node which shows all the paths to node, and I take the second line and use it as the executable. This should be the system version of node.

If the engines property is detected, then I load load up nvm (using a command I found by spelunking the source code), and then execute the request using the desired version of node (though do check the caveats).

I'm using nvm, so my path typically looks like this, the system version of node made available at the top of the path:

# ...

This path gets added during nvm being loaded. So, our custom version of node needs to be accessible above nvm's version. When I load nvm (in my .zshenv - so that tools like Sublime see node correctly), I capture the original location of the node executable in _NODE and I'll prepend $HOME/bin to the path:

# contents of `cat ~/.zshenv`
source $HOME/.nvm/nvm.sh

Now, when I run npm start:

npm start now correctly runs node 6


…as usual 😳

Most importantly, this technique does not work at all if the engines is a range (and will probably blow things up if nvm doesn't have the version requested). I did write some simple code that found the matching installed version of node for a semver range, but the time to execute the semver calc on all versions of node installed outweighed the benefit.

Also (yes, also), if I run nvm use X to switch node version, nvm will put the path to node above our bespoke version of node, so this trick doesn't work in the current shell session any more.

Important this is far from perfect, and I've used this for a while, but on other systems I've disabled it altogether. You mileage may vary!

🐱 There's more than one way to skin a cat

This definitely feels hacky to me, and a little brittle—see earlier caveats.

I expect use of the engines property will be formalised for development one day, and maybe you can comment as to alternative or better solutions, but for now: it works 😄

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