Creating a basic site with Node.js and Express

A walkthrough on how to create and deploy a basic site with Node.js and the Express framework

What we are going to do

This walkthrough will go over setting up a basic site using Node.js and Express. The walkthrough is aimed at beginners exploring Node.js as I've had many questions from friends and colleagues about creating and deploying node apps. If you are not a beginner the article probably won't be of much use to you. We are going to use express, an excellent web framework for node created by TJ Holowaychuk who seems to be pumping out Node.js libraries like he was ten men.

Here is the site we are going to create. You might also want to grab the source code.

Example Express website

Setup

First we need to setup our development environment. If you are on OSX I've covered how to setup Node.js and npm on OSX in a previous article. If you haven't got everything installed follow that article.

If you are on Linux there are plenty of articles on Google.

For Windows users there are also resources on Google but it is a bit more tricky.

Prerequisites

If everything has installed ok you should now have Node.js and npm running on your machine. At the terminal type node -v and npm -v and you should see something like:

node -v
v0.8.21
npm -v
1.2.12

Create an Express site

Still with me? We've covered a lot already! Now let's create an Express site.

First let's install express

npm install -g express-generator

The -g flag means that you are installing express globally on your system.

Now we can create an express application.

express -c stylus express_example

The -c states that we want to use stylus for css. You should see the following output:

create : express_example
create : express_example/package.json
create : express_example/app.js
create : express_example/public
create : express_example/public/javascripts
create : express_example/public/images
create : express_example/public/stylesheets
create : express_example/public/stylesheets/style.styl
create : express_example/routes
create : express_example/routes/index.js
create : express_example/routes/user.js
create : express_example/views
create : express_example/views/layout.jade
create : express_example/views/index.jade

install dependencies:
 $ cd express_example && npm install

run the app:
 $ node app

As per the instructions you'll need to install dependencies so do this

cd express_example && npm install

This will install packages and you will see a lot of output. When this is complete you can boot your application.

Boot the app

That's all the setup you need. Phew. Now you can boot the app:

node app.js

You should see Express server listening on port 3000 and if you open http://127.0.0.1:3000 you'll see the default Express page.

Using Git

Git is a version control system that is used heavily in the Node.js ecosystem, particulary with Github. If you aren't familiar with Git Scott Chacon is your go-to man. He's written extensively and eloquently on Git for beginners and experts. Checkout Gitcasts for if you are a beginner and ProGit for more advanced stuff. We are going to use git to version our site and publish it so let's set up our repo now. If your Express server is still running hit CTRL + C to stop it.

git init
git add .
git commit -m 'initial commit'

Developing Node.js sites

Normally when you develop a Node.js site you'll need ot restart your application each time you make a change. Thankfully our home-grown British JavaScript genius Remy Sharp has solved this problem with nodemon. Nodemon will reload your application each time it changes so you don't need to restart it. If you have used Shotgun for Ruby with Sinatra it is similar to that. To install run

npm install -g nodemon

Then you can start your app with

nodemon app.js

Using nodemon means you don't have to restart your app each time you make a change. For more infomation on nodemon see the README

HTML in Express

Express is agnostic as to which templating language you use. Templating languages can be a hot topic of debate but for this article I'm going to use jade. If you've used haml it is similar to that. In the example we use jade to setup a layout template.

!!! 5
html
  head
    title= title
    link(rel='stylesheet', href='/stylesheets/style.css')
    link(rel='stylesheet', href='/stylesheets/chunkfive-fontface.css')
  body
    header
      nav
        ul
          li 
            a(href="/") Home
          li 
            a(href="/about") About
          li 
            a(href="/contact") Contact
    section#wrapper!= body
        footer 
          section.css-table
            section.four-column
              section.cell
                p Mauris porttitor <br />felis eu leo aliquet<br /> ac rutrum odio aliquet
              section.cell
                p Mauris porttitor <br />felis eu leo aliquet<br /> ac rutrum odio aliquet
              section.cell
                p Mauris porttitor <br />felis eu leo aliquet<br /> ac rutrum odio aliquet
              section.cell
                p Mauris porttitor <br />felis eu leo aliquet<br /> ac rutrum odio aliquet

This is a common template we can reuse. The line section#wrapper!= body pulls in content from the page it is used on. Express also supports variables that you pass through to the template. In this case we pass the title variable. If you are coming from Sinatra this will all be familiar to you. If you are not I recommend consulting the Express documentation.

CSS in Express

Again Express is agnostic to what you use to generate your CSS - you can use vanilla CSS but for this example I'm using Stylus. This is very similar to Sass and supports variables, mixins, functions and more. I really like it! Here's an example from our stylesheet

body
  font 62.5%/1.5  Helvetica, Arial, "Lucida Grande", "Lucida Sans", Tahoma, Verdana, sans-serif
  text-align center
  background #000

#wrapper
  width 920px
  text-align left 
  margin-left auto 
  margin-right auto
  background #fff
  padding 20px
  border-bottom-radius(15px)

You'll see that stylus is very terse - you don't need brackets or commas.

Routing in Express

Routing is similar to Sinatra, allowing you to set up RESTful routes.

In this example we setup three routes in app.js

app.get('/', function(req, res){
  res.render('index', {
    title: 'Home'
  });
});

app.get('/about', function(req, res){
  res.render('about', {
    title: 'About'
  });
});

app.get('/contact', function(req, res){
  res.render('contact', {
    title: 'Contact'
  });
});

See the Express documentation for more.

Publishing your site

We've now developed a basic Node.js site using express and we want to host it somewhere. Publishing the site to Heroku is free and you can be up and running in no time. You can sign up for an account at Heroku for free and then install the toolbelt.

To make your example node site work with Heroku you must create a file called Procfile in the root of the project. Add the following.

web: node app.js

To make sure Heroku uses the correct versions of node add this to the package.json file

"engines": {
  "node": "0.8.x",
  "npm": "1.2.x"
}

Then you can use the command line tools to create a site on Heroku and publish it.

heroku apps:create 
git push heroku master

Easy!

Some other Node.js hosting providers include nodejitsu, Joyent, Cloud Foundry and Duostack.

Conclusion

This article has showed how to create a very basic site using Node.js and Express. It has introduced a number of things from the Node.js ecosystem and showed you how to deploy your app to Nodester.

The strengths of Node.js as a technology are not so much in building static websites like this. I encourage you to explore some of the Node.js libraries to see what it can do. Particularly for real-time applications Node.js is extremely exciting and I think we'll see some great apps built on Node.js. Try starting with socket.io for a taste of what to expect.

If you find any inaccuracies in the post send me an email and I'll update the post.

Further reading

Have an update or suggestion for this article? You can edit it here and send me a pull request.