E2: Elm + Express for full-stack web development

October 26, 2016

Elm is a delightful purely functional language for the browser. Express is a fast, unopinionated, minimalist web framework for Node.js. Put together they are a simple, scalable and easy starting point for full stack web development.

Following Christian Alfoni’s example with his ultimate Webpack setup, the following post to share with you a really awesome setup to start developing full stack web application using the E2 stack (Elm + Express).

Tl:dr: github.com/nickbalestra/E2

$ git clone https://github.com/nickbalestra/E2.git
$ cd E2
$ npm install
$ npm start
$ open http://localhost:3000

File structure

Before we get started let’s get an overview of the directory we are going to work with:

├── server/
│   ├── main.js
│   ├── routes.js
│   └── webpackServeBundle.js
├── src/
│   ├── elm/
│   │   └── Main.elm
│   └── static/
│       ├── styles/
│       ├── index.html
│       └── main.js
├── tests/
├── .gitignore
├── .node-version
├── README.md
├── elm-package.json
├── package.json
└── webpack.config.js

The Express server

If you are just going to use the Node server as a development tool for prototyping or actually run it in production you will need something to handle the requests from the browser. Express is great for that so lets go ahead and set up the server:


const path = require('path')
const express = require('express')
const app = express()
const isDevelopment = process.env.NODE_ENV !== 'production'
const port = isDevelopment ? 3000 : process.env.PORT

// API endpoints
const routes = require('./routes')
app.set('json spaces', 2)
app.get('/color', routes.color)

// Serving compiled elm client
if (isDevelopment) {
} else {
  app.use(express.static(path.join(__dirname, '/../dist')))
  app.get('*', (req, res) =>
    res.sendFile(path.join(__dirname, '/../dist/index.html'))

// Starting express
if (!module.parent) {
  app.listen(port, err => {
    if (err) console.log(err)
    console.log(`⚡  Express started on port ${port}`)

Two things are worth noticing here:

First we structured our routes following the routes separarion pattern, allowing us to easily extend and structure our API as we develop the project further. A quick look into out routes file will show that at the moment the server expose a single endpoint ‘color’:

exports.color = (req, res) => {
  const elmColors = [
  const random = Math.floor(Math.random() * elmColors.length)
  return res.json(elmColors[random])

Second, we made our server behaving differenly in order to support both dev and production environments.

// Serving compiled elm client
if (isDevelopment) {
} else {
  app.use(express.static(path.join(__dirname, '/../dist')))
  app.get('*', (req, res) =>
    res.sendFile(path.join(__dirname, '/../dist/index.html'))

If we are in development mode, we require the webpackServeBundle.js and initialize it by passing our express app. As the name suggest, it will handle configuring webpack, registering the usage of the webpackMiddleware and webpackHotMiddleware middlewares, so that webpack will compile and bundle our elm application in memory, serving it directly the in-memory build once we request the app trhough our browser.

Else, if in the production environment, we simply serve the app located in the dist folder that will be created once we run npm run build.

Development workflow

It come with Hot reload enabled, to get it up and running simply type in your terminal:

$ npm start
$ open http://localhost:3000.

Now start editing any file in ./src (i.e .elm source files or sass/css files).

Production workflow

$ npm run build
$ npm run prod
$ open http://localhost:3000

This will: - compile elm - compile sass, extract css applying prefixer on postprocessing - copy all the related bundles and files into a /dist directory. - start the server serving the production-ready assets

The Elm Client

A basic elm app structured around the Elm Architecture (Model-View-Update)hit the server on the http://localhost:3000/color endpoint (Which as we seen return a random Elm color in the exadecimal format). It then uses the returned color to simply set the background color of the whole app.

view : Model -> Html Msg
view model =
    div [ class "container", style [ ( "height", "100%" ), ( "background-color", model.color ) ] ]
        [ div [ class "actions" ]
            [ button [ class "btn", onClick ChangeColor ]
                [ span [] [ text "Elm, Gimme Colors!" ] ]

As Elm-format will take care of everything related to elm. For anything javascript related we relied on standardJS. On npm test standard will check every .js file inside the /server and /src directories making sure they all comply to the standard javascript style.

Please feel free to fork the repo and create your own boilerplate for prototyping using Elm and Express!

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