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Set up a new Node.js project with Express >4.0: a newb's guide

And my article is deprecated!

As of just writing this, Express 4.0 was released and there are points in there that no longer matter. So, this remains as a great >4.0 article.

Node.js is the red-hot new hotness! You can't throw a stick on the internet without hitting someone talking about Node. But why? For one, it's built on JavaScript which is completely ubiquitous. So, why not build a development stack and server on JavaScript? I would argue that the installation is almost painless while the terseness of the language is not.

While you can create apps 100% from Node.js, the Express framework is a great tool that helps you solve many standard problems without having to write boilerplate code.

Node.js is here and it's not going anywhere anytime soon. So if you are new to Node.js, Express, and even JavaScript in general, this is a great newb's step-by-step guide to get started.

Get Node Installed

There are a handful of ways you can install Node into your system ranging from a pre-packaged installer to source. Somewhere in here you will find a way that works best for you.

Click and install

The people at Node.js have built a great installer. Simply go to, download their installer and get it done.

ProTip: further down you may have to run a separate step for installing NPM, last I heard, this is part of the Node GUI install package. If you used the Node GUI Installer, you shouldn't have to run a separate process to install NPM.

Why doesn't everyone use this? Simply put, when you need to get closer to the metal you typically require more control. Also, upgrading tools for specific environments is more in your control. These package GUI installers don't take those things into consideration.

Installing closer to the metal

Reading Installing Node and npm is a good start. In there the author links to a series of ways that you can install Node and NPM as well. This is some bare-metal programming shit. Command line and shell scripts. Great stuff!

Keep in mind, this is written by the people at Joyent, the peeps that gave us Node. They are pretty metal!

Installing Node from source is pretty intense as it requires you to clone the repo and then make Node. If that's not cool for you, there are other ways.

A good alternative to shell scripts and make files is Homebrew for Mac users. Installing Homebrew requires Ruby to be installed, but the process is pretty simple:

$ ruby -e "$(curl -fsSL"

Once you have Homebrew installed, then following the directions from Installing Node, NPM and Express on OSX from Scratch is the next best place to start. The scenario goes something like this:

$ brew install node

But ... let's say that you already have Node installed, how can you tell?

$ node --version

Running this command, if you have Node installed, will tell you the version installed.

What if you need to update Node? If you are using Brew, there a three steps (read more). To break this down, these steps will update your local index of Brew, prepare it for next steps and then upgrade your version of Node. Pretty simple.

brew update
brew doctor
brew upgrade node

What about NPM? For this it is suggested to run the shell script using curl:

$ curl | sh

Again, you can always run npm --version to see what version you are running. If you need to upgrade, simply run the curl command it is will download and update NPM.

Telling your system where Node is

This is very important. Depending on how you have your Bash set up, you may want to put this into your .bashrc or bash_profile. If you do not have a .bashrc or bash_profile, it is ok to just create them. If Bash is totally new to you, I'd suggest reading life-inside-terminal first.

You need tell Bash where Node is by updating the $PATH variable. In your file you may have the following:

export PATH=/usr/local/bin:$PATH

Basically, you need to point Bash to where the code for Node lives.


When you have existing paths in the $PATH variable, adding a new path is delineated by the : character. Adding the Node path would possibly look like the following:

export PATH=$HOME/local/node/bin:/usr/local/bin:$PATH

But remember, your environment may be different depending on how you install all the things. For example, my $PATH looks like this, Node and NPM is installed in my /usr/local/bin path.


If you are installing Node for the first time and things like node --version returns an error, be sure to validate where Node was installed and make sure that you have PATH updates correctly.


express web application framework for node

Getting started with Express is pretty exhaustive. No doubt, a great read. But I am going to try and boiled this down into the basic steps to get Node and Express up and running.

To get Express installed, now that Node and NPM is installed, we can use it's magical package install solutions. Because we will want Express available as an executable from everywhere within our environment, pass in the -g flag for 'global'.

$ npm install -g express

Depending on how you installed Node/Express, you may or may not have permission to install something globally. If you encounter errors during the install or after, you may need to use the sudo command:

$ sudo npm install -g express

Using sudo, your computer will ask for your account password.

Using Express

Now that Express is installed, using it is very simple. You can create a project just about anywhere on your computer. For simplicity sake, I am going to crate my new app on my Desktop.

To generate our first Node/Express app called donuts, we will run the following:

$ express donuts

There are other flags you can pass in to alter the setup, but for now we will go with the defaults.

GREAT! You just created your first app! Go celebrate! In your terminal, you should see the following output:

14:34:33: Desktop$ express donuts

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

   install dependencies:
     $ cd donuts && npm install

   run the app:
     $ node app

14:34:37: Desktop$ 

In the last few lines, there are some instructions. The fist one we need to run is the command to install your new app's dependencies. Running npm install inside the dir of your new project folder of donuts will execute the package.json file. If you were to open that up, you would see the following:

  "name": "application-name",
  "version": "0.0.1",
  "private": true,
  "scripts": {
    "start": "node app.js"
  "dependencies": {
    "express": "3.4.4",
    "jade": "*"

Pretty simpleton read and understand. The only thing I am going to point out is that by default Express uses Jade as it's templating language. There are other templating languages you can use, but I highly suggest using Jade.

Notice that express is a dependency even though we have Express installed globally? The reason is simple. Now that we did use Express to build the app, wherever the app goes, Express needs to be installed too. Wherever it gets deployed too or if someone clones your project. If they don't have Express installed, running npm install will make them install it and then your app will run.

Ok, let's do what it said. You can either run the cd donuts && npm install as instructed, or do each step independently. It doesn't matter.

Once you run that command, you should see a whole lot of good things happen.

npm http GET
npm http GET
npm http 200
npm http GET
npm http 200
npm http 200
npm http GET
npm http 200

GREAT! Looking in your new dir, you should see the following:


If you are interested, you can also run npm ls to see a tree of all your dependencies.

├─┬ express@3.4.4
│ ├── buffer-crc32@0.2.1
│ ├─┬ commander@1.3.2
│ │ └── keypress@0.1.0
│ ├─┬ connect@2.11.0
│ │ ├── bytes@0.2.1
│ │ ├── methods@0.0.1
│ │ ├─┬ multiparty@2.2.0

Run your new app

At this point you have the bare bones for a new Node/Express app. To get things up and running, you simply need to run:

$ node app.js

You should see:

Express server listening on port 3000

To see your new website, go to:


Is there an error?

At the time of writing this, the default layout template installed using Jade has a bug in it.

Line 1 of the file has doctype 5. This is depreciated. You need to open the ./views/layout.jade file and edit line 1 to be doctype html.

What's in app.js?

Open the app.js file and I am going to quickly talk about a few things.

The following lines are some boilerplate things, you can delete them.

var user = require('./routes/user');

app.get('/users', user.list);

The following are things that establish how your app is working:

var express = require('express');   // framework
var routes = require('./routes');   // where routes will be defined
var http = require('http');         // protocol 
var path = require('path');         // node module to resolve paths

The following is what sets the port of your local app, feel free to change that if needed.

app.set('port', process.env.PORT || 3000);

This line is what turns on the server logger in the terminal.


Further down, you will see this for instructions you only want to fire in development mode:

if ('development' == app.get('env')) {

You could delete that previous line and put it in the development mode instructions like so if you only want this to run in dev mode.

if ('development' == app.get('env')) {

The following line is what tells Node where your static assets are located. Things like CSS, images and JavaScript.

app.use(express.static(path.join(__dirname, 'public')));

The following line is what tells Node where the root route is:

app.get('/', routes.index);

Fun with routes

Now that we have some basic understanding of how the app.js file works, lets get into setting up some routes.

Just some basics first. In the current setup, var routes = require('./routes'); is setting a variable to the path of ./routes to look for where all the RESTful routes will be kept.

Right now, there is an index.js file in the routes/ dir. In the app.js file, there is the line app.get('/', routes.index);.

What this is doing is, Node has ./routes loaded into memory. When it get to the line where app.get is stating that the path of / is defined in the value of index inside the key of routes.

In the index.js file, you will see exports.index, what's that?

module.exports is the object that's actually returned as the result of a require call.

Basically, the return of this function is set equal to this export object. Kind of like an alias.

In index.js it is going to look for the index file and pass in the value for the title variable.

exports.index = function(req, res){
  res.render('index', { title: 'Express' });

If we were to make this more simple, we could comment out the following lines:

var routes = require('./routes');
app.get('/', routes.index);

Then in the app.js file, let's add the following. Make sure it is above the server line http.createServer(app)

Let's break this down. app.get is the function that will 'get' the URL path of /. Then we need to crate a function that will make a req or request, res or response, and next for chaining events.

app.get('/', function(req, res, next) {

Ok, now that we have that frame of a route, we need to pass in what we want into the function. One thing we can do is res.render() and this will output the rendered HTML from our Jade template and any arguments we pass into it.

res.render('index', { title: 'Express' });

Another thing we can do is res.send() and what ever we put in there will get sent directly to the browser. For example:

res.send('holy crap')

NOTE: When we make changes to the app.js file we need to go back to terminal, kill the app and restart it. Once you restart the server, go to the browser and then refresh the browser.

Using the res.send() we can do fun things like even send in JSON objects.

res.send({'name':'Bob Goldcat', 'age': '41'})

Restart, refresh and open the inspector. Open the 'network' tab and sure enough, app type application/json. Cool.

Ok, let's get this back so that it is using the correct routes for this app. But, let's make is more personal. Update the title object to something like It's a jelly!

Restart, refresh and POW!

app.get('/', function(req, res, next) {
  res.render('index', { title: "It's a jelly!" });

Now, let's say that we want to add a new view to the site. We have a couple of steps here to make this work. First being, we need to add the route.

app.get('/foo', function (req, res, next) {
  res.render('foo', { title: "This is totally foo"});

Then we need to add the new file to the /views directory. What's interesting to note here is that this is not a file based URL. This is a RESTful URL path. The first argument is /foo, this is the URL path that the app will look for. Inside the res.render() function, the first argument is the file name, in this case it is foo.

Remember, this is a templating language and we want to make sure that this new view uses all the goodness that we have in our layout.jade file.

extends layout is a Jade concept that will extend layout.jade into the new view file.

block content, again, is a Jade concept for interjecting content into the extended layout file for the final view. Removing any of the following concepts will break how this UI is rendered to the browser.

extends layout

block content
  h1= title
  p This is some serious foo right here!

Let's say that over time marketing comes back and says that we need a new canonical URL, something like this-article-is-really-foo. Cool, we can make this change really easy and not break any links out in the internet already. Just add:

app.get('/this-article-is-really-foo', function (req, res, next) {
  res.render('foo', { title: "This is totally foo"});

Now, /this-article-is-really-foo and /foo both point to the same file of foo.

Will you really define your routes in the app.js file?

Ok, this is fun, but when building a real app, you will not want to define your routes inside the app.js file. Unless it is a really small site with very few routes, you will want to put all these instructions into a separate file.

The boilerplate solution that was installed when we ran the generator is one way to go, but there is a slightly simpler approach, but is still pretty rock solid.

Remember how we commented out these following lines? Let's delete them.

// var routes = require('./routes');
// var routes = require('./routes/user');

Also, if app.get('/', routes.index); is still in app.js, let's get rid of that too.

Down where we have been writing our routes, as long as it is above http.createServer(app) you are ok, put in the following line:


Up at the top, for var app, you will need to update

var app = module.exports = express();

Now, open /routes/index.js and pretty much delete everything in there. First, put in the following line so that this file will reference the app.js file:

app = require('../app');

Then below that, let's take all the routes we wrote in the app.js file and place them in this new file.

Please, make the restarts stop!

Ok, making changes in the app.js file and having to restart the server is pretty lame. How make better? Node works this way because at server start, it loads all it's resources into memory and then on request it will then pass in that data using callbacks. That's what makes it fast. But in development, this is crap! How make better? The answer is Nodemon!

Monitor for any changes in your node.js application and automatically restart the server

npm install -g nodemon

Now, instead of running node app.js you will run nodemon app.js.

Start your server and then make some simple edits to your app.js file and watch how Nodemon watches for this and restarts your server for you.


For those who like this kind of thing, in your .bash_profile you can create an alias like so:

alias node="nodemon"

Some may say "HOW DARE YOU OVER-RIDE A NATIVE COMMAND!!!" Whateva! It's your damn computer, do what you want!

One word of warning though, remember that you did this. If there is a case where things just go weird, you will want to comment out that alias so that you can get your alerts all straightened out.

404 errors?

Ok, people get things wrong and we need to have a way to handle that. Let's open up the app.js file and just below the require('./routes'); line, let's add the following:

app.use(function (req, res, next) {
  res.render('404', { url: req.originalUrl });

Using the app.use() function, we are going to pass in another function much like creating a URL path using request, response and next.

Looking for a 404 status by using the res.status(404); function and passing in 404 as the argument we will then go to res.render and pass in the template file we want to use and pass in the incorrect URL.

This code assumes that you know that this will be a HTTP response. If there is a case where this is not always true, you could update this with an if statement like the following:

app.use(function (req, res, next) {
  if (req.accepts('html')) {
    res.render('404', { url: req.originalUrl });
  } else {


Express with Node makes it really simple to set up a web app in just a few minutes. With some custom configurations, you can clean up unused boilerplate code and be up and running in no time.

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Great tutorial ! - what was great that it all worked as was explained. Being new to node.js and Express I have tried several other
examples / tutorials and found then to have many errors. Thanks a lot.

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this does not work when i start my app.js. maybe this needs an update??

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Useful one ever

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