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Using Google Compute Engine to run a Node.js app

In this new installment of Technically Speaking, we bring to you another article talking about the features of the Google Cloud platform. This article would walk you through the procedure for setting up a Node.js server app from a GitHub repository. Then we are going to deploy it on a Google Compute Engine instance.

As the GitHub repository, we are going to select UPchieve/web. This is the front-end web app portion of a homework help platform called UPchieve. We think this is a highly relevant platform to know about in the current day. Platforms that encourage remote learning are becoming increasingly important in lieu of the global pandemic. We are hoping to release an article detailing the deployment of the server portion. So, you or your educational institute can continue delivery of material.

Requirements

You will be expected to create the virtual machine instance on the Google Compute Engine dashboard which is a straightforward and very quick procedure. The walk through is using a VM instance running Debian 9 (OS can be selected during the creation process). But the idea should be the same regardless of the paltform.

Procedure

First, you need to access an SSH connection to the VM instance. There are several ways to do it but we will go the default way and select a browser-based SSH terminal. This can be accessed by going to the VM Instances page and clicking on the SSH button as shown in the screenshot.

Screenshot of the VM Instances page showing the location of the SSH button

If you have more than one instance, make sure you select the correct one!

Installing Git

This is the first thing we have to do if we are going to deal with GitHub repositories. The method would be quite familiar for the average Linux user:

sudo apt update
sudo apt install git
git --version

The last command is of course to verify that the installation was successful.

Installing Node.js

To install Node.js, we need to add the PPA to our system before installation. To do this, we need to first install curl.

sudo apt-get install curl software-properties-common
curl -sL https://deb.nodesource.com/setup_13.x | sudo bash -
sudo apt-get install nodejs

Make sure you replace the version number with the version number you want (preferably the latest version) before you execute the command.

Cloning the repository

We will clone the repo onto the instance. This is done using:

git clone https://github.com/UPchieve/web.git
cd web

If you plan on on cloning from a private repository, use the same command. The difference will be that you will be prompted for the GitHub login details.

Installing Dependencies

Next, we need to install the app’s dependencies. This simply means that we are going to create and populate the app’s node_modules folder. All of this is automated (thank God!) and can be executed by running;

npm install

Deployment

You are ready to run the Node.js app! To run a development build, simply run;

npm run dev

If you got to this point in the procedure, you should be able to at the least, run the app on the localhost.

Configuring the Firewall

To allow external access to our VM instance, so that anyone can view our awesome app, wee need to configure the firewall. By default, the Google Compute Engine restricts external access to the instance.

To do this, go to the Network interfaces detail of the VPC Network Compute section by clicking on the following menu option from the VM Instances page:

Click on the Firewall rules option in the right hand side drawer. Then click on Create Firewall rule button on the top.

Give any name for the rule you want to. And make sure the other options match the options as per the screenshot:

Google Compute Engine add firewall page
The options to select for our firewall

You should be able to access the Node.js app using <externalIp>:8080 where external IP mentioned on the VM Instances page. If it still does not work, make sure that both these options are unchecked on the VM Instances details page:

If they are not, click on the Edit button at the top to edit the details.

Configuring the App

Depending on the app you choose to deploy, there might be certain configuration options to modify. In the case of the UPchieve/web app, we need to point it to the server of our UPchieve server. To do this, we need to edit the Environment files which are used to provide the server location…etc.

vim .env.development

The command above can be run to edit the environment variables used when running in the development mode. For production mode, please use .env.production instead. If you are new to vim, you can watch this crash course in vim.

Edit the file so that it points to the server you want.

You can run the development build again and see the changes. My deployed app has an end-result that looks a little like…this

UPchieve deployed on the Google Compute Engine
UPchieve web app up and running!

Deploying a Production Build

The UPchieve web app is based on the VueJS platform. Therefore, we follow VueJS production build generation options. To create a production build, run;

npm run build

This would create a dist folder that can be served via HTTP. To do this, we need to run;

npm install -g serve
sudo serve -s -l 80 dist

This will serve the app over the default HTTP port (80) so you can simply enter the IP address without having to explicitly mention the port. To serve on this port, you need elevated access.

But in practice, we will have to serve our application on both HTTP and HTTPS (443) ports. We can specify multiple ports for the serve command;

sudo serve -s -l 80 -l 443 dist

Setting up SSL

At this point, if you tried accessing the HTTPS version of the app, you would immediately get an SSL protocol error. If you have a rough idea about how SSL works, this shouldn’t come as a surprise for you. We need to install an SSL certificate.

The SSL procedure is a bit of a lengthy affair. There are certificate authorities (CAs) that grant paid certificates as well as ones that are free. You can get a free certificate from Let’s Encrypt. The recommended way of setting up an SSL certificate from Let’s Encrypt is using Certbot. They have detailed instructions on their site. In brief, you just have to run two commands;

sudo apt-get install certbot
sudo certbot certonly --standalone

Certbot will ask some questions including prompting for an email address and domain/sub domain (if you are registering a sub domain, enter the sub domain, ex: app.example.com).

The last command will generate a public key and a private key. The paths to the both the keys will be listed at the end. To add SSL support to our server command, we need to add some extra parameters referencing the keys.

sudo serve -s -l 80 -l 443 --ssl-cert /etc/letsencrypt/live/<domain>/fullchain.pem --ssl-key /etc/letsencrypt/live/<domain>/privkey.pem dist

Both of these paths will be listed out for you. And <domain> will be replaced by the domain or sub domain you selected.

Now, you would have a production ready instance of UPchieve on your Cloud VM. There is a few more problems however. How do you make sure the script runs continuously even when the SSH terminal is closed? How do you ensure that service starts with at startup – if a restart occurs how would the server start back up? These are questions on their own and deserve their own article!

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