Server-side rendering React apps — a primer

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When it comes to the architecture of a React app there are many choices to make. Depending on your existing tech stack and the experience that you want to create for your end users you can wind up with a wide range of different setups. If your aim is to augment a server-rendered app and gradually migrate some components into React, you’re probably best off by keeping your existing server stack and rendering React only in the client. If you’re starting from scratch, however, you have more options:

  • You can use Create React App to build a single-page app without having to spend time on learning and setting up tooling like Webpack.

  • You can use a framework like Next.js or Gatsby to render your app statically or on the server. This means that you don’t need to learn Webpack, but you do need to learn to use the chosen framework.

  • You can copy one of the many starter kits and adapt it to your needs. Out of the three options, this one is probably the most problematic for beginners, since the line between your code and the boilerplate becomes very blurred.

I personally think that you can go with any of the above options, but each of them comes with its own set of trade-offs, as frameworks always do. The main issues are usually leaky abstractions and framework-specific limitations, along with the lack of understanding about the underlying technologies that often comes with using frameworks in general.

In this article, we will explore how to server-render a React app along with client-side hydration, which is in effect a server-rendered single-page app.

Server-side rendering without a build step

Server-side rendering React apps is in essence quite simple. All you need is Node.js and the React packages themselves, which you can install with Yarn:

yarn init && yarn add react react-dom

The above commands will create a new package.json file and install the dependencies. With that done, you can create a file called server.js with the following contents:

const http = require('http');const React = require('react');const { renderToString } = require('react-dom/server');
const server = http.createServer((req, res) => {  const app = React.createElement('h1', null, 'Hello, world!');  const html = renderToString(app);  res.end(html);});

When run, the above code creates a server that responds to all requests with an HTML document of <h1>Hello, world!</h1> (open http://localhost:3000 in your browser).

The main things to notice about the above snippet is how it differs from a client-side app. In the browser, we would use render, which mounts a react instance into a DOM node, instead of renderToString, as we do here.

Another thing to notice is that we used React.createElement over JSX. Using JSX, which is definitely the standard way of writing React code, would’ve required us to use Babel, while the point here was to show how simple the basics are. In addition, most people don’t stop there but also introduce Webpack or another build tool. We’ll explore these in the next step.

Adding a build step: Pulling in Webpack and Babel

For a more realistic and developer-friendly setup, we’re going to have to install Webpack and Babel:

yarn add webpack babel-core babel-loader babel-preset-env babel-preset-react

With these dependencies out of the way, we’re going to refactor our previous app to be a stand-alone module. This will be useful later when we import it separately in both the server and the client modules. Create a new file called app.js:

import React from 'react';
export default () => <h1>Hello, world!</h1>;

Now we can define an entry point for our application that imports this App component. Go ahead and create client.js:

import React from 'react';import { hydrate } from 'react-dom';
import App from './app';
hydrate(<App />, document.getElementById('root'), () => {  console.log('App hydrated in the client!');});

As the name of the module suggests, the above code should only run in the browser. There should be no major changes compared to a regular client-rendered React app, except that we use hydrate rather than render, and provide a callback as a third argument, which will show a message in the console to tell us that the application has been rerendered, or hydrated. You might also have noticed that we’re now using ECMAScript module import statements and JSX, which are both supported by the new tooling we installed.

We can now update our original server module to serve the built client bundle to the front end and include it in a script tag. The server.js file should now be updated as follows (green demarks a new line; red a removed line):

const http = require('http');const React = require('react');const { renderToString } = require('react-dom/server');import http from 'http';import React from 'react';import { renderToString } from 'react-dom/server';import fs from 'fs';
import App from './app';
const clientScript = fs.readFileSync('./build/client.js', {  encoding: 'utf-8',});
const server = http.createServer((req, res) => {  const app = React.createElement('h1', null, 'Hello, world!');  const html = renderToString(app);  res.end(html);  if (req.url === '/client.js') {    res.end(clientScript);  } else {    const html = renderToString(<App />);    res.end(`      <div id="root">${html}</div>      <script src="./client.js"></script>    `);  }});

The server module imports our App component, just like our client module, and wraps it in a div with the same Id as in the client module earlier. Besides this, there aren’t many changes; mainly plumbing in order to serve the client module from a future build directory, which takes us to the last step. We need to set up Webpack with a configuration that builds our client and server modules. Create a file called webpack.config.js:

const path = require('path');const webpack = require('webpack');
const shared = {  output: {    path: path.resolve('./build'),    filename: '[name].js',  },  module: {    rules: [      {        test: /.js$/,        loader: 'babel-loader',        exclude: /node_modules/,        options: {          presets: ['env', 'react'],        },      },    ],  },  plugins: [    // Use the NODE_ENV environment variable to determine whether    // we use the production or development version of React.    // Defaults to development when unset.    new webpack.EnvironmentPlugin({      NODE_ENV: 'development',    }),  ],};
module.exports = [  Object.assign({}, shared, {    target: 'web',    entry: {      client: './client',    },  }),  Object.assign({}, shared, {    target: 'node',    entry: {      server: './server',    },  }),];

The above file defines two Webpack configuration objects: one for the client module and one for the server module. The content of the configuration itself is mostly boilerplate and out of the scope of this article, but if you’re interested you may read about the basic Webpack concepts. It’s worth noting that minification is left out of the config because we can use the --optimize-minimize command-line argument instead, and the config automatically uses the development or production React build as appropriate, based on the NODE_ENV environment variable.

With all of this out of the way—a new app.js and client.js, a modified server.js and a Webpack config—we can build the app and run the server:

yarn webpack && node build/server.js

If you now open http://localhost:3000 in the browser with the developer tools open, you’ll see a message in the console saying that the application was hydrated, as determined by our client module.

Routing with React Router

Our application is now rendered on the server and the client, but it isn’t very useful. After all, it’s only saying “Hello, world!”, despite our growingly complex setup. For something a tad more useful, we’re going to add React Router into the mix:

yarn add react-router react-router-dom

This will install the latest version of React Router, which at the time of writing is version 4. The library has been criticized somewhat harshly for frequent API changes, and while it now takes full advantage of the React component model, it wasn’t always so. Previously, the library was mostly used as a DSL to define routes, but now it feels much more powerful. The new API might seem a bit foreign at first, but as you explore their wonderful documentation you might see the flexibility it provides.

For our purposes, which is to demonstrate how we can integrate SSR (server-side rendering) and React Router, we shan’t go into too much detail about the intricacies of the routing API or its advanced use cases. Instead, we will create three pages: a “home” page and an “about” page, along with a “not found” page. To that end, let’s update our app.js:

import React from 'react';import { Link, Route, Switch } from 'react-router-dom';
const App = () => (  <div>    <Switch>      <Route exact path="/" render={() => <h1>Home page</h1>} />      <Route path="/about" render={() => <h1>About page</h1>} />      <Route render={() => <h1>Not found</h1>} />    </Switch>
    <p>Links:</p>    <ul>      <li>        <Link to="/">Home page</Link>      </li>      <li>        <Link to="/about">About page</Link>      </li>    </ul>  </div>);
export default () => <h1>Hello, world!</h1>;export default App;

The above code uses Switch to select at most one of the routes defined within it and Route to determine what is rendered on a given route. Below it, we set up a couple of links to the pages we’ve created. However, this is not enough on its own; we will also need to update our client.js module to use BrowserRouter:

import React from 'react';import { hydrate } from 'react-dom';import { BrowserRouter } from 'react-router-dom';
import App from './app';
hydrate(<App />, document.getElementById('root'), () => {  console.log('App hydrated in the client!');});hydrate(  <BrowserRouter>    <App />  </BrowserRouter>,  document.getElementById('root'),);

Finally, we need to handle routes on the server.

import http from 'http';import fs from 'fs';import React from 'react';import { renderToString } from 'react-dom/server';import { StaticRouter } from 'react-router';
import App from './app';
const clientScript = fs.readFileSync('./build/client.js', {  encoding: 'utf-8',});
const server = http.createServer((req, res) => {  if (req.url === '/client.js') {    res.end(clientScript);  } else {    const html = renderToString(<App />);    const context = {};    const html = renderToString(      <StaticRouter location={req.url} context={context}>        <App />      </StaticRouter>,    );    res.statusCode = context.status || 200;    res.end(`      <div id="root">${html}</div>      <script src="./client.js"></script>    `);  }});

If you now run yarn webpack && node build/server.js and navigate to http://localhost:3000 again, you’ll see that the application has the following properties:

  • The “home” page is rendered by default and you can navigate to an “about” page. If you navigate to a page that doesn’t exist you will get the “not found” page.

  • The client never does a full page refresh, it simply updates the content of the page as you navigate around. This is consistent with single-page apps.

  • You can always access a page directly by URL, that is, the server always responds with the appropriate page, be it the “home” page, the “about” page or a non-existent page.

As you can see, we have effectively implemented a server-rendered, single-page app. I believe that a configuration based on these ideas can provide an optimal user experience and performance, and it’s not at all necessary to use a framework to do these things for us. The example application that we have built is very simple, but the approach scales to a medium-sized and large app as well. However, there are some further optimizations to be made and chief among them is route and component-based code splitting. I will write about these performance optimization techniques in a later post.

The final source code for the example application that we have built is available on GitHub.

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