NGINX with Docker and Node.js — a Beginner’s guide

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This article was written as I was learning Nginx and Docker, and explains how to set up a Dockerized Node.js server with an Nginx reverse proxy. As a beginner myself, I think this article simplifies a lot of the concepts in a way that other tutorials don’t really do, so I hope people find it useful.

What is NGINX?

A lot of websites and tutorials define NGINX in the following way:

NGINX is an open-source web server that also serves as a reverse proxy and HTTP load balancer.

Web Server? Reverse Proxy? Load Balancer? These terms may be familiar to seasoned developers and engineers, but to a newbie, they are more confusing than helpful. So let’s break down the definition into parts.

NGINX is a web server

A web server is a piece of software that responds to HTTP requests made by clients (usually web browsers). The browser makes a request, and the web server responds with the static content (usually HTML) corresponding to that request.

NGINX is a reverse proxy

A reverse proxy is a server that sits in front of a group of web servers. When a browser makes an HTTP request, the request first goes to the reverse proxy, which then sends the request to the appropriate web server.

Some benefits of a reverse proxy:

Security: with a reverse proxy, the web server never reveals its IP address to the client, which makes the server more secure.

SSL Encryption (more security): encrypting and decrypting SSL communications is expensive, and would make web servers slow. The reverse proxy can be configured to decrypt incoming requests from the client and encrypt outgoing responses from the server.

Load Balancing: if a website is very popular, it’s unlikely that all the traffic is handled by a single web server. Usually, the website will be distributed across many web servers, with a reverse proxy in front of them. (see below for more on load balancing)

NGINX is a HTTP load balancer

A load balancer is responsible for routing client HTTP requests to web servers in an efficient manner. This prevents any individual web server from being overworked.

A load balancer can also be configured so that if a web server goes down, the reverse proxy will no longer forward requests to that web server

How to use NGINX as a reverse proxy for a local Node.js server (without Docker)

Now that we have a basic idea of what Nginx is used for, we can go ahead and see how it can be used as a reverse proxy for a simple Node.js server running locally. If you want to know how this works with Docker, skip to the next section.

First, make sure you have Nginx and Node.js installed on your local machine (I won’t go through the installation instructions here, but there are several resources online that go through the installation for both).

1. Creating a simple Node.js server

Create a directory for your application. Navigate to that directory on your terminal and type the following command to create a package.json:

npm init

Follow the steps on the terminal (clicking yes on all the options is fine). Then execute the following commands in the same directory. The first command creates the index.js file which is the entry point of our application, and the second command installs the express web framework.

touch index.js 
npm install express

Next, open your index.js file, and paste the following code in. All this code does is initialize a server listening on http://localhost:5000.

// index.jsconst express = require('express');
const app = express();
app.get('/', (req, res) => {
res.send('Hello World!')
app.listen(5000, () => console.log('Server is up and running'));

Run the server with the following command:

node index.js

On your web browser, you should see a blank white page with the words Hello, World!.

2. Set up Nginx

Now that we have a server running on port 5000, we can configure Nginx to proxy requests to it.

First to see what port Nginx is running on, you’ll need to locate the default nginx.conf file. Depending on the distribution, the file could be located in any of the following paths:

  • /etc/nginx/nginx.conf
  • /usr/local/nginx/conf/nginx.conf
  • /usr/local/etc/nginx/nginx.conf

When you locate the file, it will look something like this (I omitted a lot of lines and replaced them with …’s):

The important line to look at is the port that the default Nginx server is listening on. We see that it is listening on localhost port 80. To verify that Nginx is working, we can navigate to http://localhost:80. The following screen should appear:

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If the page doesn’t show up, it probably means Nginx hasn’t been started. A quick StackOverflow search should do the trick.

3. Configure Nginx to be a reverse proxy for the Node.js app

Now that we know Nginx works on our machine, it’s time to use it to create a reverse proxy for our Node.js app.

Without any changes, the nginx.conf by default has one server which listens on port 80 (or 8080 depending on what distribution you downloaded). But how do we proxy this so that requests to localhost:80 go to our desired Node.js app?

To do this, we need to add server blocks that are specifically configured to proxy traffic to our Node.js server. Notice the last line of the nginx.conf file:

include servers/*;

This line occurs within the http{} block. What this does is tells Nginx to look inside the servers folder (inside the nginx directory), for additional server blocks. This is where we will add our custom configuration.

Create a new file in the servers directory (I called it sample_node_app.conf but you can call it whatever you’d like).

cd servers
touch sample_node_app.conf

And paste the following configuration in:

This is a server block that defines the reverse proxy for our app running on http://localhost:5000. Going through it line by line:

  • We make the reverse proxy listen on port 80
  • Give the reverse proxy a name (nodeserver)
  • Set the location block for the root URL (“/”)
  • Inside the location block I use the proxy_pass directive to set the URL that we are forwarding requests to

What is a location block?

After Nginx determines which server block to use, it has to choose which location block will handle the request. A location block tells Nginx how it should handle requests for different URLs on the server.

location /blah {

If I had another location block like above, and visited http://localhost:80/blah, Nginx would use this configuration because the URL of the request matches the location block.

Running multiple Node.js Apps simultaneously?

So if I had another Node app running on localhost:8000, but I still wanted to use localhost:80 as my proxy, I could simply create a new location block and proxy requests to that other server.

To make that clearer: say I have two separate Node.js servers running, and I wanted both of them to be accessible through a reverse proxy running on localhost:80. It wouldn’t be possible to access them on the same URL (one URL needs to proxy to one server). So we can make different URLs on localhost:80 proxy to different Node servers.

Node server 1: running on localhost:5000

Node server 2: running on localhost:8000

The configuration could look like this:

The second Node.js server is running on port 8000, and can be accessed through the URL localhost:80/server2.

Visit localhost:80, and you should see the “Hello World!” server that we created. Congratulations! The Nginx server running on port 80 is officially serving as a reverse proxy for your Node app.

Dockerizing a Node.js app with NGINX using Docker-Compose

There are plenty of articles that explain the advantages of Docker. It has become really popular and its adoption has accelerated over the last 5 years. Needless to say, if you are an emerging software developer, Docker is definitely a technology you want to have in your toolkit.

I’m also assuming you have Docker Desktop installed on your machine for this part of the tutorial.

Docker just makes things cleaner. If you Dockerize the application we just created in the previous section, there is no need to change the Nginx config on our local machine since we will have our own dedicated Nginx container running. So let’s see how that works.

As of now, the app structure looks like this:

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We need to modify it slightly, so that all the files required to create the Node.js Docker container live in one folder, and all the files required to create the Nginx Docker container live in another folder. Simply create two folders inside the project root and move all the pre-existing files into the newly created “app” directory like below:

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Now it’s time to create Dockerfiles for each one. Before we do that, just a few quick definitions:

What is a Dockerfile?

  • A text document which tells Docker how to assemble an image.

What is a Docker image?

  • A packaged set of instructions that is used to create Docker containers

What is a Docker container?

  • A runnable instance of an image that is isolated from the system it is running on. The same Docker container can run on Windows, Mac, etc.

Dockerizing the Node.js App

First we will dockerize the Node.js app. Create a Dockerfile and a .dockerignore inside the app directory:

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The Dockerfile should look like this:

This is a pretty standard Dockerfile for a Node.js app. Let’s go through it line-by-line:

  1. Pull the Node.js image from Docker Hub
  2. Set the working directory that is used inside the container (usr/src/app is the standard for Node.js apps)
  3. Copy package.json files from our machine into the container’s working directory
  4. Run npm install
  5. Copy the all the files in the directory from local machine to the working directory (including node_modules)
  6. Expose port 5000. The app is running on port 5000 inside the container, so we can’t view it on our browser unless we expose the port
  7. Tell the image what command to run when the container is started

And in the .dockerignorefile add the following two lines:

The .dockerignore file is meant to be in the same directory as your Dockerfile and is intended to speed up the docker build command by excluding at build time some of the files that won't be used to build the docker image. We won’t be explicitly using docker build but we will be using docker-compose which handles the build process.

Dockerizing the Nginx proxy

A similar process is required to create an Nginx container.

First, we will create our own Nginx server configuration. Just like how we have Nginx running on our machine, an instance of Nginx will be running inside the container. Just as the Nginx running on your computer listens on a certain port, the Nginx instance will listen on a certain port inside the container, and we will configure it so that it proxies requests to our Node.js app running on port 5000 (which is exposed by our Node.js container).

Create a file called default.conf inside the nginx folder to store the configuration for the proxy. This is similar to how we created the sample_node_app.conf earlier. It should look like the following:

This should all look familiar. The one thing to point out is the proxy_pass directive. We are proxying requests to “http://nodeserver:5000” instead of localhost:5000. This is a result of something we do with docker-compose which will be explained a little further down.

Next, create a Dockerfile inside the nginx folder:

We pull the official nginx image from the Docker Hub. When we pull the image, we also get the default Nginx configurations (stored in nginx.conf) Remember how I said the nginx.conf file could be located in one of 3 places depending on the distribution? Well in the official nginx image, it is found in /etc/nginx.

There is also no folder called servers in the Docker distribution of Nginx. Instead we have a folder called conf.d which stores all custom configurations. The second command in the Dockerfile is copying the configuration we just wrote into that folder so the container’s Nginx can use it.

That’s it! Now, it’s time to use docker-compose to spin up the containers and have them work together.

Using docker-compose to coordinate the containers

Docker-compose is a really useful tool that lets us spin up multiple containers with a single command. It also creates a common network between the containers that they can use to communicate with one another.

All we have to do is create a file called docker-compose.yml that lists out what services make up the app and how we want to configure each container. See for a more in depth explanation.

Our docker-compose.yml will be comprised of two services: one for the Node.js app, and one for the Nginx server that is proxying requests to the Node.js app. Since there is proxying there is inter-service communication, so the containers will have to talk to each other.

Let’s create the docker-compose.yml file in the root directory:

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It will look like this:

As I said, there are two services, nodeserver and nginx.

I’ll explain each field below:

  • context: inside the build field, it tells docker-compose the path to find the Dockerfile for that service.
  • ports: contains the port mapping from the local machine to a port inside the Docker container. So for example the"80:80" mapping in the Nginx service means that if we visit http://localhost:80 on our browser, we are viewing whatever is being hosted on the port 80 inside the container. We know that port 80 is the correct one inside the container because the Nginx image listens there by default.

Now that we have a complete docker-compose file, we can go back to the default.conf file and clarify the proxy_pass directive.

We wrote that we will proxy requests to http://nodeserver:5000.

nodeserver is the name of the service/container that is running the Node.js app. Since they are running on the same “network” we can reference it this way.

And that’s it!

Now all we have to do is run the following command in the root directory:

docker-compose up --build

This will spin up the containers and also expose the ports so you can test on your browser. After the containers are up, you can type docker ps -a in the command line to see the running containers, and the ports they are running on:

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Now, if you visit http://localhost:80 on your web browser you should see the same Hello World! app, except now it is running on a Docker container, and the configuration for Nginx is completely self-contained. You didn’t have to touch your system’s Nginx configuration.

Note: make sure you stop your system’s instance of Nginx before running the Docker containers because the port 80 might conflict.

Next, I hope to do a tutorial about load balancing and how we can add a React.js frontend to the same docker-compose flow.

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