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Deploy Your Own REST API in 30 Mins Using mLabs and Heroku

This article was first published on the Heroku Dev Center

The MEAN stack is a popular web development stack made up of MongoDB, Express, AngularJS, and Node.js. MEAN has gained popularity because it allows developers to program in JavaScript on both the client and the server. The MEAN stack enables a perfect harmony of JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) development: MongoDB stores data in a JSON-like format, Express and Node.js facilitate easy JSON query creation, and AngularJS allows the client to seamlessly send and receive JSON documents.

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MEAN is generally used to create browser-based web applications because AngularJS (client-side) and Express (server-side) are both frameworks for web apps. Another compelling use case for MEAN is the development of RESTful API servers. Creating RESTful API servers has become an increasingly important and common development task, as applications increasingly need to gracefully support a variety of end-user devices, such as mobile phones and tablets. This tutorial will demonstrate how to use the MEAN stack to rapidly create a RESTful API server.

AngularJS, a client-side framework, is not a necessary component for creating an API server. You could also write an Android or iOS application that runs on top of the REST API. We include AngularJS in this tutorial to demonstrate how it allows us to quickly create a web application that runs on top of the API server.

The application we will develop in this tutorial is a basic contact management application that supports standard CRUD (Create, Read, Update, Delete) operations. First, we’ll create a RESTful API server to act as an interface for querying and persisting data in a MongoDB database. Then, we’ll leverage the API server to build an Angular-based web application that provides an interface for end users. Finally, we will deploy our app to Heroku.

So that we can focus on illustrating the fundamental structure of a MEAN application, we will deliberately omit common functionality such as authentication, access control, and robust data validation.

Prerequisites

To deploy the app to Heroku, you’ll need a Heroku account. If you have never deployed a Node.js application to Heroku before, we recommend going through the Getting Started with Node.js on Heroku tutorial before you begin.

Also, ensure that you have the following installed on your local machine:

Source Code Structure

The source code for this project is available on GitHub at https://github.com/sitepoint-editors/mean-contactlist. The repository contains:

  • package.json — a configuration file that contains metadata about your application. When this file is present in the root directory of a project, Heroku will use the Node.js buildpack.
  • app.json — a manifest format for describing web apps. It declares environment variables, add-ons, and other information required to run an app on Heroku. It is required to create a “Deploy to Heroku” button.
  • server.js — this file contains all of our server-side code, which implements our REST API. It’s written in Node.js, using the Express framework and the MongoDB Node.js driver.
  • /public directory — this directory contains all of the client-side files which includes the AngularJS code.

See the Sample Application Running

To see a running version of the application this tutorial will create, you can view our running example here: https://sleepy-citadel-45065.herokuapp.com/

Now, let’s follow the tutorial step by step.

Create a New App

Create a new directory for your app and use the cd command to navigate to that directory. From this directory, we’ll create an app on Heroku which prepares Heroku to receive your source code. We’ll use the Heroku CLI to get started.

$ git init
Initialized empty Git repository in /path/.git/
$ heroku create
Creating app... done, stack is cedar-14
https://sleepy-citadel-45065.herokuapp.com/ | https://git.heroku.com/sleepy-citadel-45065.git

When you create an app, a git remote (called heroku) is also created and associated with your local git repository. Heroku also generates a random name (in this case sleepy-citadel-45065) for your app.

Heroku recognizes an app as Node.js by the existence of a package.json file in the root directory. Create a file called package.json and copy the following into it:

{
  "name": "MEAN",
  "version": "1.0.0",
  "description": "A MEAN app that allows users to manage contact lists",
  "main": "server.js",
  "scripts": {
    "test": "echo "Error: no test specified" && exit 1",
    "start": "node server.js"
  },
  "dependencies": {
    "body-parser": "^1.13.3",
    "express": "^4.13.3",
    "mongodb": "^2.1.6"
  }
}

The package.json file determines the version of Node.js that will be used to run your application on Heroku, as well as the dependencies that should be installed with your application. When an app is deployed, Heroku reads this file and installs the appropriate Node.js version together with the dependencies using the npm install command.

To prepare your system for running the app locally, run this command in your local directory to install the dependencies:

$ npm install

After dependencies are installed, you will be ready to run your app locally.

Provision a MongoDB Database

After you set up your application and file directory, create a MongoDB instance to persist your application’s data. We’ll use the mLab hosted database, a fully managed MongoDB service, to easily provision a new MongoDB database:

When you create a mLab database, you will be given a MongoDB connection string. This string contains the credentials to access your database, so it’s best practice to store the value in a config variable. Let’s go ahead and store the connection string in a config var called MONGOLAB_URI:

heroku config:set MONGOLAB_URI=mongodb://your-user:your-pass@host:port/db-name

You can access this variable in Node.js as process.env.MONGOLAB_URI, which we will do later.

Now that our database is ready, we can start coding.

Connect MongoDB and the App Server Using the Node.js Driver

There are two popular MongoDB drivers that Node.js developers use: the official Node.js driver and an object document mapper called Mongoose that wraps the Node.js driver (similar to a SQL ORM). Both have their advantages, but for this example we will use the official Node.js driver.

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