I recently joined the core team of maintainers for MobX-State-Tree, and I've been digging into the internals to learn about how it all works under the hood. This blog post is intended to be used as documentation and context for a pull request adding test coverage to the library. Unless you're deeply interested in the internals of MobX-State-Tree, you may find it a little dry. I mostly wrote it as a guide for my own experimentation and understanding.

But if you're excited about JavaScript state management and/or open source software, you've come to the right place! Let's get to it. I'll be taking a look at the codebase in the commit with hash 048f1ebf0d2c49983ec8914d78162882bc1a3e3e


One of the most common things you'll do in MobX-State-Tree is define models, like this:

import { types } from "mobx-state-tree";

// A tweet has a body (which is text) and whether it's read or not
const Tweet = types
.model("Tweet", {
body: types.string,
read: false, // automatically inferred as type "boolean" with default "false"
.actions((tweet) => ({
toggle() {
tweet.read = !tweet.read;

I think the API is pretty ergonomic and straightforward. But I wanted to get a sense of what we really expect as input, what comes back, and how MST puts it all together.


Turns out, types.model is pretty flexible about what it'll accept. The function definition uses TypeScript function overloads to handle three different types of input:

In the most specific case, we expect to get a name as a string and set of properties (technically typed as a ModelPropertiesDeclaration, but it's probably easiest to think of it as a spicy Object).

The function can also be invoked with just the properties argument (again, ModelPropertiesDeclaration) - skipping the name value.

But really, types.model will accept pretty much... any arguments at all. The catch-all, actual implementation of the function looks like this:

export function model(...args: any[]): any {
const name = typeof args[0] === "string" ? args.shift() : "AnonymousModel";
const properties = args.shift() || {};
return new ModelType({ name, properties });

Here's what we do when we invoke types.model:

  1. Figure out the name for the model (either args[0] or AnonymousModel)
  2. Determine out the properties to give to the model (args[0] if no name given, args[1] if a name is given, and then finally an empty object, {} in all other cases)
  3. Provide these arguments to the ModelType constructor.


Once we pass this information to the ModelType class, we'll get back some instance that will satisfy the IModelType interface.

There's lots to be said about the IModelType interface, so I'll save that for a future exploration. At a high level, this interface is pretty much what describes the API surface of the types.model itself. We need it to have:

  1. A set of properties that describe the tree and its possible state.
  2. A function called views, which will allow us to set up and apply views to the instance.
  3. A function called actions, which will allow us to set up actions that can modify the instance and its subtree(s)
  4. A function called volatile, which will allow us to set up volatile state for the object.
  5. An extend method, which allows us to share state between views and actions.
  6. Methods called preProcessSnapshot and postProcessSnapshot, which can transform snapshots or take action after processing snapshots for the instance.

How we get there

To keep this post tightly scoped, I'm going to focus on what goes on in the ModelType constructor:

  1. We set the name of the model.
  2. We convert the provided properties into an actual instance of ModelProperties (notice how we took an ModelPropertiesDeclaration and turned it into an actual ModelProperties).
  3. We freeze the properties (another internal MST function that deserves its own post).
  4. We determine the identifier attribute if there is one.

Here's what that looks like:

 constructor(opts: ModelTypeConfig) {
super(opts.name || defaultObjectOptions.name)
Object.assign(this, defaultObjectOptions, opts)
// ensures that any default value gets converted to its related type
this.properties = toPropertiesObject(this.properties) as PROPS
freeze(this.properties) // make sure nobody messes with it
this.propertyNames = Object.keys(this.properties)
this.identifierAttribute = this._getIdentifierAttribute()

Writing some tests

I hope you're feeling pretty good about the high level overview so far. This helped me to map out what's going on with my models in MobX-State-Tree. Let's see it in action! I want to write some tests around the behavior I've described.

Testing names

  1. Providing a string as the first argument should set it as the model's name.
  2. Providing an empty string as the first argument should set it as the model's name.
  3. Providing a non-string argument as the first argument should set the model's name as 'AnonymousModel'.

Testing properties

  1. Providing a string as the first argument and an object as the second argument should use the object's properties in the model.
  2. Providing an object as the first argument should parse and use its properties.
  3. Providing a string as the first argument and a falsy value as the second argument should result in an empty set of properties


  1. If no identifier attribute is provided, the identifierAttribute should be undefined.
  2. If an identifier attribute is provided, the identifierAttribute should be set for the object.
  3. If an identifier attribute has already been provided, an error should be thrown when attempting to provide a second one

Edge cases

  1. When we provide no arguments to the function, the model will be named AnonymousModel
  2. When we provide no arguments to the function, the model will have no properties.
  3. When we provide an invalid name value, but a valid property object, the model will be named AnonymousModel.
  4. When we provide an invalid name value, but a valid property object, the model will have no properties. At the time of writing, we consider this to be a bug, but we wrote the test to exercise and check the behavior.
  5. When we provide three arguments to the function, the model gets the correct name.
  6. When we provide three arguments to the function, the model gets the correct properties.

You can see the actual tests in this pull request.

Stuff I learned writing this post

Here's what really jumped out at me as I did the code archaeology for this post:

  1. TypeScript function overloading is cool, but it's confusing to read if you don't already have experience with it. We should consider documenting it more clearly where we use it.
  2. I'm guessing there are a lot of advanced TypeScript features we use in MobX-State-Tree that warrant more discussion and documentation for newcomers.
  3. I really like the transformation of ModelPropertiesDeclaration -> ModelProperties. The naming here communicates the intent quite clearly.
  4. It's interesting that we literally shift the args in the model function. I wonder if there's any particular advantage or disadvantage to modifying the input directly like that.
  5. toPropertiesObject is pretty complex - I'll want to cover that in its own investigation, along with freeze.
  6. I've always thought of actions, views, volatile, and so forth as "properties" of the MobX-State-Tree instance, rather than methods that we call on the instance itself. Those methods do in fact transform the instance and return an augmented version of it, but there is a fundamental difference between the properties object passed in to the constructor, and the transformed instance after calling those methods. When people write MST, I would bet most of them also think of actions and views as a "part" of the input to the model definition - rather than a separate modification to the underlying instance.