A crash course on Serverless APIs with Express and MongoDB

Serverless has become an amazing tool for various use cases. Data processors, chatbots, APIs, you name it is now developed using serverless architectures.

Today, I’ll walk you through creating a production-ready Express API running on AWS Lambda with a persistent MongoDB data store. Yes, that’s a thing, you can build Express apps on AWS Lambda. Amazing, I know! And yes, you can use MongoDB without batting an eye!

It’s pretty straightforward when you think about it. Using AWS Lambda is pretty much the same as using a tiny Node.js runtime. It just abstracts away everything except for the code.

Let’s jump in.

TL;DR

You can severely hurt my feelings and jump to the section you’re interested in, or just keep reading.

Project setup

The setup itself will be bare bones minimum. But, it will still have everything you need to continue adding features for your future production apps. Here’s a diagram of the final layout so you can get an overview.

project-setup

As you can see it’s rather simple API for notes with CRUD logic, but it get’s the job done. Enough talk, let’s get the project up and running.

1. Install the Serverless Framework

First of all you need to install and configure the Serverless Framework. It’s a simple CLI tool to make development and deployment incredibly easy.

$ npm i -g serverless

You’ve now installed the Serverless framework globally on your machine. The Serverless commands are now available to you from wherever in the terminal.

Note: If you’re using Linux, you may need to run the command as sudo.

2. Create an IAM User in your AWS Console

Open up your AWS Console and press the services dropdown in the top left corner. You’ll see a ton of services show up. Go ahead and write IAM in the search box and press on it.

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You’ll be redirected to the main IAM page for your account. Proceed to add a new user.

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Give your IAM user a name and check the programmatic access checkbox. Proceed to the next step.

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Now you can add a set of permissions to the user. Because we are going to let Serverless create a delete various assets on our AWS account go ahead and check AdministratorAccess.

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Proceeding to the next step you will see the user was created. Now, and only now will you have access to the users Access Key ID and Secret Access Key. Make sure to write them down or download the .csv file. Keep them safe, don’t ever show them to anybody. I’ve pixelized them even though this is a demo, to make sure you understand the severity of keeping them safe.

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With that done we can finally move on to entering the keys into the Serverless configuration.

3. Enter IAM keys in the Serverless configuration

Awesome! With the keys saved you can set up Serverless to access your AWS account. Switch back to your terminal and type all of this in one line:

$ serverless config credentials --provider aws --key xxxxxxxxxxxxxx --secret xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Hit enter! Now your Serverless installation knows what account to connect to when you run any terminal command. Let’s jump in and see it in action.

4. Create a service

Create a new directory to house your Serverless application services. Fire up a terminal in there. Now you’re ready to create a new service.

What’s a service you ask? View it like a project. But not really. It’s where you define AWS Lambda Functions, the events that trigger them and any AWS infrastructure resources they require, all in a file called serverless.yml.

Back in your terminal type:

$ serverless create --template aws-nodejs --path sls-express-mongodb

The create command will create a new service. Shocker! But here’s the fun part. We need to pick a runtime for the function. This is called the template. Passing in aws-nodejs will set the runtime to Node.js. Just what we want. The path will create a folder for the service. In this example, naming it sls-express-mongodb.

5. Explore the service directory with a code editor

Open up the sls-express-mongodb folder with your favorite code editor. There should be three files in there, but for now we’ll only focus on the serverless.yml. It contains all the configuration settings for this service. Here you specify both general configuration settings and per function settings. Your serverless.yml will be full of boilerplate code and comments. Feel free to delete it all and paste this in.

# serverless.yml

service: sls-express-mongodb

custom:
  secrets: ${file(secrets.json)}

provider:
  name: aws
  runtime: nodejs8.10
  stage: ${self:custom.secrets.NODE_ENV}
  region: eu-central-1
  environment: 
    NODE_ENV: ${self:custom.secrets.NODE_ENV}
    DB: ${self:custom.secrets.DB}

functions:
  app:
    handler: server.run
    events:
      - http:
          path: /
          method: ANY
          cors: true
      - http:
          path: /{proxy+}
          method: ANY
          cors: true

plugins:
  - serverless-offline

The functions property lists all the functions in the service. We will only need one function though, because our whole Express app will be packaged into this single function. The handler references which function it is. Our final app will have a server.js file with a run function. Simple enough.

Take a look at the events now. They are acting as a proxy. Meaning every request to hit any HTTP endpoint will be proxied into the Express router on the inside. Pretty cool.

We also have a custom section at the top. This acts as a way to safely load environment variables into our app. They’re later referenced by using ${self:custom.secrets.<environment_var>} where the actual values are kept in a simple file called secrets.json.

Lastly, we also have the serverless-offline plugin for offline testing.

Creating the database on MongoDB Atlas

Ready for some more configuration? Yeah, nobody likes this part. But bare with me. Jump over to MongoDB Atlas and sign up.

It’s free and no credit card is required. It’ll be the sandbox we need for playing around. Once you have your account set up, open up your account page and add a new organization.

create organization

Pick a name you like, any will do. Press next and go ahead and create the organization.

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Nice. That’ll take you to the organization page. Press on the new project button.

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This will open up a page to name your project. Just type in whichever name you like and hit next.

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MongoDB cares about permissions and security so Atlas will show you another manage permissions page. We can just skip that for now, and create the project.

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Phew, there we have it. Finally, we can create the actual cluster! Press on the huge green “Build a new cluster” button. This will open up a huge cluster creation window. You can leave everything default, just make sure to pick the M0 instance size, and disable backups. As you can see the price for this cluster will be FREE. Quite nice. That’s it, hit “Create Cluster”.

create-db-7

After all that, add an admin user for the cluster and give him a really strong password.

create-db-9

Now, you just need to enable access from anywhere. Go to IP whitelist.

create-db-8

Your cluster will take a few minutes to deploy. While that’s underway, let’s start installing some dependencies.

Installing dependencies

This has to be my favorite part of any project… said nobody ever. But hey, we need to make sure this step is done properly so we can have smooth sailing down the road.

$ npm init -y
$ npm i --save express mongoose body-parser helmet serverless-http
$ npm i --save-dev serverless-offline

First of all we’re installing production dependencies, of which you surely know about Express, Mongoose, and BodyParser. Helmet is a tiny middleware for securing your endpoints with appropriate HTTP headers. However, the real power lies in the Serverless HTTP module. It’ll create the proxy into the Express application and package it into a single lambda function.

Lastly, we need Serverless Offline for testing our app locally. How about we finally write some code now?

Writing code

About time! Let’s jump in without any further ado.

1. Creating the server.js

First of all, we need to rename our handler.js file to server.js. Here we’ll put only the logic for running our lambda function with the serverless-http module.

// server.js
const sls = require('serverless-http')
const app = require('./lib/app')
module.exports.run = sls(app)

As you can see we’re requiring serverless-http, and exporting a function named run. This will hold the value of the serverless-http instance with our app passed as a parameter. That’s everything we need to package our Express app into a lambda function! Amazingly simple.

2. Adding secrets

Create the secrets.json file next for holding the environment variables.

// secrets.json
{
  "NODE_ENV": "dev",
  "DB": "mongodb://<user>:<password>@<clustername>.mongodb.net:27017,<clustername>.mongodb.net:27017,<clustername>.mongodb.net:27017/<database>?ssl=true&replicaSet=Cluster0-shard-0&authSource=admin&retryWrites=true"
}

To get the connection string for your Atlas cluster, navigate to the cluster dashboard and press the gray connect button. Follow the instructions and make sure the URL looks somewhat like the string above.

3. Creating the Express app

Now we can start writing our actual Express app.

Create a new folder in the root directory called lib. Here you’ll want to create an app.js file and db.js file to start with.

// ./lib/db.js
const mongoose = require('mongoose')
mongoose.connect(process.env.DB)

Having mongoose installed simplifies connecting to the database significantly. This is all we need.

Note: The process.env.DB was set in the secrets.json and referenced in the serverless.yml.

Once you’ve added the db.js switch over to the app.js file. Paste in the snippet below.

// ./lib/app.js
const express = require('express')
const app = express()
const bodyParser = require('body-parser')
app.use(bodyParser.json())
app.use(bodyParser.urlencoded({ extended: true }))
const helmet = require('helmet')
app.use(helmet())

require('./db')
const routes = require('./routes')
app.use('/api', routes)

module.exports = app

If you’ve ever written any code at all with Express, this will feel familiar to you. We’re requiring all the modules, using middlewares, requiring the database connection we just created above and binding routes to the /api path. But we don’t have any routes yet. Well, let’s get going then!

4. Adding routes

While in the lib folder, create a new folder named routes. It will be the base for all routes in the app. Create an index.js file in the routes folder and paste this snippet in.

// ./lib/routes/index.js
const express = require('express')
const router = express.Router()
const notes = require('./notes/notes.controller')
router.use('/notes', notes)
// Add more routes here if you want!
module.exports = router

Now we can just add any additional routes to this file and won’t have to touch anything else. That’s just so much easier.

5. Writing the CRUD logic

We’ve reached the fun part. As you can see in the index.js file from above, we want to require a notes.controller.js file where we should have CRUD operations defined. Well, let’s create it!

However, not to get ahead of ourselves, we first need a model for our Notes API. Create a notes folder in the routes folder and inside of it create two more files named note.js and notes.controller.js. The note.js will have our model definition for a note. Like this.

// ./lib/routes/notes/note.js
const mongoose = require('mongoose')
const NoteSchema = new mongoose.Schema({

  title: String,
  // this is a bug in the markdown - should not have the quotes ""
  description: String

})
module.exports = mongoose.model('Note', NoteSchema)

It’s more than enough to only have a title and description for this example. Moving on, we’re ready to add the CRUD. Open up the notes.controller.js and paste this in.

// ./lib/routes/notes/notes.controller.js
const express = require('express')
const notesController = express.Router()
const Note = require('./note')

notesController
  .post('/', async (req, res, next) => {
    const note = await Note.create(req.body)
    res.status(200).send(note)
  })

notesController
  .put('/:id', async (req, res, next) => {
    const note = await Note.findByIdAndUpdate(req.params.id, { $set: req.body }, { $upsert: true, new: true })
    res.status(200).send(note)
  })

notesController
  .get('/', async (req, res, next) => {
    const notes = await Note.find()
    res.status(200).send(notes)
  })

notesController
  .get('/:id', async (req, res, next) => {
    const note = await Note.findById(req.params.id)
    res.status(200).send(note)
  })

notesController
  .delete('/:id', async (req, res, next) => {
    const note = await Note.deleteOne({ _id: req.params.id })
    res.status(200).send(note)
  })

module.exports = notesController

Make sure not to forget requiring the Note model at the top of the file. Apart from that everything is rather straightforward. We’re using the usual Mongoose model methods for creating the CRUD operation and of course, the syntax is so lovely with async/await. You should also think about adding try-catch blocks around the await operators. But this simple example will suffice like this.

That’s it regarding the code. Ready for some testing!

Testing

I’m rather used to testing locally before deploying my apps. That’s why I’ll quickly run you through how it’s done with serverless-offline. Because you already installed it and added it to the plugins section in the serverless.yml all you need to do is to run one command to start the local emulation of API Gateway and AWS Lambda on your local machine.

$ sls offline start --skipCacheInvalidation

Note: In the root directory of your project run sls and you should see a list of commands. If you configured it correctly, sls offline and sls offline start should be available.

To make it easier for you to use this command, feel free to add it as an npm script in the package.json.

// package.json
{
  "name": "a-crash-course-on-serverless-apis-with-express-and-mongodb",
  "version": "1.0.0",
  "description": "",
  "main": "app.js",
  "scripts": {
    "offline": "sls offline start --skipCacheInvalidation"
    // right here!
  },
  "keywords": [],
  "author": "Adnan Rahić",
  "license": "ISC",
  "dependencies": {
    "body-parser": "^1.18.3",
    "express": "^4.16.3",
    "helmet": "^3.12.1",
    "mongoose": "^5.1.7",
    "serverless-http": "^1.5.5"
  },
  "devDependencies": {
    "serverless-offline": "^3.20.2"
  }
}

Once added, you can run the command npm run offline instead. A bit shorter and a lot easier to remember. Jump back to your terminal and go ahead and run it.

$ npm run offline

You’ll see the terminal tell you a local server has started on port 3000. Let’s test it out!

To test my endpoints I usually use either Insomnia or Postman, but feel free to use whichever tool you like. First, start out by hitting the POST endpoint to add a note.

insomnia post

Awesome! It works just as expected. Go ahead and try the GET request next.

insomnia get all

It works like a dream. Now, go ahead and try out all the other endpoints as well. Make sure they all work, and then, let’s get ready to deploy this to AWS.

Deployment

Would you believe me if I told you all it takes to deploy this API is to run a single command? Well, it does.

$ sls deploy

Back in the terminal, run the command above and be patient. You’ll see a few endpoints show up in the terminal. These are the endpoints of your API.

In the same way, as I showed you above, test these deployed endpoints once again, making sure they work.

Moving on from this, you may notice you have only deployed your API to the dev stage. That won’t cut it. We need to change the NODE_ENV and deploy to production as well. Open up the secrets.json file and change the second line to:

"NODE_ENV": "production",

This will propagate and set the environment of your Express API to production and the stage to production as well. Before deploying the production API let’s just delete the node_modules folder and re-install all modules with the --production flag.

$ rm -rf ./node_modules && npm i --production

This will make sure to install only the dependencies specified in the dependencies list in the package.json, excluding the ones from the devDependencies list.

Go ahead and deploy this with the same command as above.

$ sls deploy

Load testing

This wouldn’t be a proper tutorial for setting up a production API if we don’t do any load tests. I tend to use a tiny npm module for doing load tests as well. It’s called loadtest and can be installed with a simple command.

$ npm i -g loadtest

Note: Linux users will need to prefix the command with sudo.

Let’s start slow. The command we want to run is to hit the /api/notes path with a GET request 100 times with 10 concurrent users.

$ loadtest -n 100 -c 10 https://<id>.execute-api.eu-central-1.amazonaws.com/production/api/notes

It took roughly 5 seconds to serve all those requests, and it went flawlessly. You can rest assured that whatever scale of API you end up having it will auto-scale to the size you need and serve your users without any issues. Here’s an overview of the logs from this load test.

Dashbird function logs

This monitoring tool is called Dashbird. Let’s set it up so you can have a proper overview of your API too.

Monitoring

The issue of bad overview and not enough insight into what’s happening in your app is a real problem with serverless architectures. There are a couple of products out there that can really help mitigate this. Some of them are Dashbird, Datadog, Serverless, IOPipe among many others.

You’ve already had a quick start with the Serverless framework above. Let’s jump into setting up Dashbird as well. You can go to the official docs and go through the quick start or just follow along below.

1. Sign up

This seems quite logical I’d say. Go ahead and create an account here. No credit cards are required, create an account and you’re set to go.

After you sign up you’ll be redirected to an onboarding screen where you need to add a IAM Role ARN. Lucky for us, the Dashbird devs have created a CloudFormation stack for us that makes it stupidly easy to create the IAM Role.

2. Create a new AWS IAM Role for Dashbird

After you sign up, you’ll be redirected to the onboarding screen.

onboarding

Click on the create a new CloudFormation stack link and follow along with the steps.

select template

Everything you need to do is just keep on pressing next until you reach a checkbox named I Acknowledge that AWS CloudFormation might create IAM resources box. Check it and create the stack.

tick the checkbox

Once the CloudFormation stack is created you’ll see it in the console. Here you’ll just copy the ARN of the DashbirdIntegrationRole.

cloudformation

Well, that was simple.

3. Setup Dashbird with the created role

All you need to do is paste the Role ARN you copied above, and you’re ready to go. Dashbird will check if it has access to your AWS account. If everything is set up correctly, you are redirected to the app. Logs will start piling in within a minute.

Make sure to check your functions and check if the testing you carried out is visible on the graphs. That’s it, you’ve built a production-ready API, with an easy way to deploy and monitor your application. Give yourself a big pat on the back!

Wrapping up

This has been an adventurous journey! You’ve created a production-ready serverless API. Using serverless architectures can be scary. Mainly the services you’re not used too, such as Lambda and API Gateway.

The approach I showed above is the way I usually do it. Using Node.js and the frameworks, modules, and middlewares you’re used to already makes the transition into serverless much easier.

Luckily we have development tools like the Serverless Framework and observability tools such as Dashbird, which make it incredibly easy to be a developer.

If you missed any of the steps above, here’s the repository with all the code.

If you want to read some of my previous serverless musings head over to my profile or join my newsletter!

Or, take a look at a few of my articles right away:

Hope you guys and girls enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you liked it, slap that tiny heart so more people here on dev.to will see this tutorial. Until next time, be curious and have fun.


We aim to improve Dashbird every day and user feedback is extremely important for that, so please let us know if you have any feedback about these improvements and new features! We would really appreciate it!

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