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The Pros and Cons of NPM: Does the Reward Outweigh the Risks?



Solutions Review’s Expert Insights Series is a collection of contributed articles written by industry experts in enterprise software categories. Dotan Nahum of Check Point Software weighs the security pros and cons of NPM packages, and wonders if the rewards outweigh the risks.

Expert Insights badgeEighty-six percent of teams in the software sector have adopted agile methodologies. The need for speed is the main underlying theme of software development, which has made concepts and solutions like NPM increasingly popular. But is it time for a change?

As organizations seek to release products faster, security risks constantly creep up. For example, secrets and log files are becoming increasingly difficult to protect. The clock is ticking for DevOps teams and developers to gain better visibility over these security challenges to overcome them. What part can NPM play in protecting software products, and is it worth it?

In the world of software development, using tools like NPM can streamline processes. But as with any tool, there are always risks involved.

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The Pros and Cons of NPM

Security Concerns with NPM Packages

NPM packages can be a double-edged sword. While they can boost productivity, the open-source nature of the NPM registry makes it a target for attackers to introduce malicious packages. One well-known example is the “event-stream” package, a popular package for handling real-time data streams in Node.js applications. In 2018, a malicious version of the package was published to the NPM registry, containing a backdoor that stole user information from infected applications.

What can we learn from this? Well, even popular and well-maintained packages can become a security risk. To avoid a repeat disaster like this one, you can follow these best practices:

  • Regularly check for updates and vulnerabilities
  • Use version control to track changes to your dependencies
  • Use tools like NPM-audit

Dependency Management Issues

Managing dependencies in a project can sometimes feel like a game of Jenga— one wrong move sends the whole thing tumbling down. With a large number of packages available in the NPM registry, managing dependencies can become a complex and time-consuming task.

Take the challenge of managing version conflicts, for example. When different packages in a project depend on different versions of the same package, it can lead to conflicts that prevent the project from working effectively. Not only is this frustrating for developers, but it’s also difficult to resolve, especially in large projects with many dependencies.

Another challenge of dependency management is dealing with changes in packages. When a package is updated, it may introduce changes that break the existing functionality. This can be especially problematic in projects where your team relies heavily on a certain package, as fixing the issue may require significant effort and time.

Scalability Roadblocks

Maintaining a consistent development environment is increasingly challenging as projects grow in size and complexity, especially when using NPM. Numerous dependencies can lead to slow performance and roadblocks to scalability.

As the number of dependencies in a project grows, it can take longer and longer to install and update packages and to ensure that all developers are using the same version of each package. You need to recognize these challenges to avoid inconsistencies in the development environment and potential compatibility issues.

But Every Cloud (or Risk) Has a Silver Lining

There’s a reason why so many developers choose to use NPM—it can’t make your coffee in the morning (wouldn’t that be nice?), but it is a valuable asset for any development project.

Let’s dive into all the perks it offers.

  • Increase Productivity Through Reusable Code. By leveraging pre-existing code in the NPM registry, developers can save time and increase their productivity rather than reinventing the wheel. Devs can focus on writing unique code and use packages to add functionality to their projects, leading to faster development times.
    NPM packages standardize the development process because they are widely used and well-maintained. This can make it easier to onboard new developers to a project, as they can rely on the packages to provide consistent functionality.
  • Access a Large Ecosystem of Packages. Having access to a large ecosystem of packages can be a game-changer. Whether you’re looking for a package to handle authentication, perform image manipulation, or send emails, you’re likely to find one that fits your needs in the NPM registry. And with new packages added all the time, the possibilities are virtually endless. With just a few simple commands, developers can install packages and start using them in their projects, no matter how complex the packages may be. This can save developers countless hours of development time, as they don’t have to write code from scratch for common tasks.
  • Community Support and Collaboration. With NPM, developers have access to a vast community of contributors, both individual developers and major companies, who constantly work to improve and maintain the registry. The large and active community of contributors ensures that bugs and security vulnerabilities are detected and fixed more quickly, therefore keeping the packages reliable and secure. With so many perspectives and skill sets represented in the NPM community, new ideas and approaches can be explored, leading to the development of even better packages.

Is NPM a Must-Do for Developers?

So, what’s the verdict after exploring the risks and rewards of using NPM? As with most things in life, the answer is not a simple yes or no. By leveraging pre-existing packages and tapping into the resources and expertise of the NPM community, developers can streamline their development processes, increase productivity, and build better applications more efficiently. NPM also has security, dependency management, and scalability challenges, which can lead to difficulties in maintaining a secure and consistent development environment.

In the end, whether or not to harness NPM will depend on your project’s specific needs and demands. But with the right tools, best practices, and awareness of the risks involved, NPM can be a valuable asset for developers looking to build robust and efficient applications.

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