Note: I pulled this from an old abandoned site. It will be hopelessly out of date by now and some of the formatting didn’t survive the transfer


In the previous post, we saw how virtualising a scroll window can enable the presentation of much larger data sets. I detailed a simple method to present a subset of data using the same UI components as a real list, but we saw it fall far short of browser-native scrolling.

We also saw that plenty of javascript libraries have solved this problem in the form of data grids. But one of the features of AngularJS that (for me) reduces the noise associated with other template solutions is the ng-repeat. This directive can cause the duplication of any HTML element for each element in a data set. Making it a truly general purpose means to presenting collections.

The ng-repeat Directive

The goal is simple: to create a drop in replacement for ng-repeat that only renders visible items. In reality, we are going to have to add some parameters and restrictions. In the absence of a scroll window, there should be no difference to the behaviour. So let’s examine the existing code for ng-repeat. Follow along with the 1.0.5 code on github.

The first thing to note is that the directive uses transclude and provides a compile function. Simpler directives will just supply a link function, but the repeat directive needs access to the composite linking function which will link compiled elements to new scopes for each item in a collection. This is better explained in the guide under “Reasons behind the compile/link separation”.

In essence, the linking function parses the repeater expression and sets up a watch to do all the hard work. The watch is there to add and remove child elements in sync with the collection, but it is careful to track movements as well as additions and removals. If you have an element representing item in the collection, and that element has some DOM state (a good example is a form element), then you don’t want to see that element get deleted and re-created just because the underlying item moved within the collection. This is not trivial to manage and there are open issues with the current version (1.0.5 at time of writing).

After all the shuffling has been taken care of, the code to actually add a new element or delete an existing is relatively simple. The composite linking function supplied by the $compile service to the directive compile function will do the work to attach a new element to a suitable scope.

A Virtual ng-repeat

Now we have some tough decisions to make. ng-repeat deals with items moving within a collection, but there are lots of difficult edge cases (such as primitives). The main reason for do this is to preserve DOM state associated with an item, but we are not going to be able to handle this when hidden elements are getting destroyed. So tough decision number one is to restrict content of the directive from having state in the DOM (no forms, no jQuery plugins that keep state) - all state must come from the items in the collection.

Another nicety of ng-repeat is that the collection can be an object and elements will be rendered using for(key in collection). In a virtual list, we need to target a subset of the collection by index. This would mean iterating through the entire object each and every time. Not impossible, but potentially a source of pain in a directive targeted at large data sets. So for the first version, we are going to restrict use to arrays. We could potentially add support for objects later if it proves feasible.

Towards a sf-repeat Directive

The theory of a virtual list has already been explained, but there are still some refinements to make. When to discard, when to render, how much to render. When we come to deal with ajax pages of data, we may want to deal with fixed-size chunks of items and elements. For now, we’ll start with a simple high-water and low-water system so that each time the viewport is scrolled, elements are discarded if they are past the high water mark (distance from the visible viewport) and new elements are created if they are within the low water mark. These water mark levels will need to be configurable, but we’ll ignore that wrinkle for now and pick numbers that sound nice.

diagram of a virtual list scrolling

In order to make the calculations about where the water marks are and even to determine the height of the content pane, we need to know the row height. This is surprisingly difficult and we have to get all restrictive again. The problem is that during the compile/link phase, there is no point at which we can decide that the child rows are fully rendered. There is always the possibility that some interpolated data could change the height just after we think we’re done. Our restriction will be that it must be possible to determine the row height from css and that each element will be displayed as block level. Oh, and no margins please! After the first row is linked in, we will examine for an explicit height or, failing that, max-height. Or we guess.

The next dimension we need is the viewport size. A virtual list without a viewport is just a list, so we should be able to handle that case. For normal use, it must be left to the user to define the viewport size using CSS. Just as with row height, we will have to go looking for a height (or max-height) at link time.

To the Code

We already have a module to use from the previous post, so we can add a directive to that. It would be nice if we could just override the necessary parts of the ng-repeat directive, but AngularJS directives don’t work like that. So lets dive right in with the directive definition:

var mod = angular.module('sf.virtualScroll');
mod.directive("sfVirtualRepeat", function(){
  return {
    transclude: 'element',
    priority: 1000,
    terminal: true,
    compile: sfVirtualRepeatCompile
  // ...

The compile function is going to do a little bit more work up-front than the ng-repeat equivalent: we can pre-parse the repeat expression (just as we did in part 1 for the scroller).

function sfVirtualRepeatCompile(element, attr, linker) {
  var ident = parseRepeatExpression(attr.sfVirtualRepeat),
      LOW_WATER = 100,
      HIGH_WATER = 200;

  return {
    post: sfVirtualRepeatPostLink
  // ...

The link function evaluates the expression identifying the collection we are bound to and sets up the watch, much like before, but this watch is simply on the length of the collection along with variables describing the active range. In addition, the link function sets up a listener for scroll events from the viewport which will adjust the current active range. Angular will notice that the watched variables have changed, and call the listener for the watch.

The watch is (as ever) where all the action happens. The algorithm can be boiled down to comparing the new active range with the existing and deciding what to destroy and what rows to create. Once the decisions have been made, we are very much back with ng-repeat: creating child scopes and linking them in. The subtlety is that the child DOM elements need to be positioned within their container. We could use absolute positioning, or adding a margin to the first. I’ve gone with the margin.

The Result

The sf-virtual-repeat directive is part of the sf.virtualScroll module on github in a source repository and a bower component with just the built artifacts.

I’ve yet to really thrash the code, so don’t bet your project on it! Please feel free to load up the github issues with requests as well as bug notifications. My next step will be to make a usable log viewer component and maybe look at offloading data to the server too.

By far the biggest problem with this sf-virtual-repeat directive is how many restrictions it places on the elements you can include. Also the CSS has to be pretty explicit for the container element.