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Cover image for Bring RethinkDB's realtime magic to the frontend with GraphQL

Bring RethinkDB's realtime magic to the frontend with GraphQL

saschat profile image Sascha Updated on ・11 min read

In a recent post we explored how RethinkDB's built-in reactivity is a perfect fit to write a chat app with Socket.io. In this article you will learn how to use GraphQL subscriptions instead, to access RethinkDB's reactive nature in the frontend.

RethinkDB is a realtime document database. It is easy to use and schema-less, just like MongoDB. In addition, you can subscribe to queries and get notified when data changes, making it the perfect choice for realtime applications.

You can also try the running app, or check out the code repository.

Application setup

We will build a Node.js app, so you need to have node and npm installed. If you want to deploy your app to Heroku, you will also need a Heroku account, as well having their CLI installed. To run your app locally, you need to install and run a RethinkDB instance.

We will use a simple Node.js server and a Vue.js frontend. Since the frontend needs to be build, we will create a Vue app with the Vue CLI:

$ vue create -d rethink-chat
$ cd rethink-chat

This will create a Node project, create a Vue.js skeleton, and initialize a git repository.

Prepare a Heroku app

In order to deploy the application to Heroku we need to create a Heroku app:

$ heroku create

We will also need a RethinkDB instance to store and subscribe to the chat messages sent between users. You can do this via the RethinkDB Cloud add-on as follows:

$ heroku addons:create rethinkdb

The RethinkDB Cloud add-on is currently in alpha. Request an invite for your Heroku account email.

Building the server

We will create our server in the server directory. So to start, lets create the directory and install the required dependencies:

$ mkdir server
$ npm install rethinkdb apollo-server-express graphql morgan lorem-ipsum

Now, let us set up the Node.js server. Create an index.js file and add the following server skeleton. We use an Express.js server to serve the frontend and the Apollo GraphQL server to access and subscribe to chat messages.

// server/index.js

// Setup Express server
const express = require("express");
const app = express();
const http = require("http").createServer(app);

// Logging middleware
var morgan = require("morgan");
app.use(morgan("combined"));

// Serve frontend
app.use(express.static("dist"));

// Lazy RethinkDB connection
// ...

// Setup Apollo (GraphQL) server
// ...

// HTTP server (start listening)
const listenPort = process.env.PORT || "3000";
http.listen(listenPort, () => {
  console.log("listening on *:" + listenPort);
});

This skeleton serves a static frontend from the dist folder. This is where the compiled Vue.js app is located which we will create later. In addition our server needs to do three things:

  1. Handle connections to the RethinkDB database
  2. Setup the Apollo server
  3. Create a GraphQL schema including type definitions and resolvers

RethinkDB connection

We manage our RethinkDB connection lazily, i.e., we only create the (re-)connection when it is actually needed. The connection parameters are parsed from environment variables, or the defaults are used.

// server/index.js
// ...

// Lazy RethinkDB connection
var r = require("rethinkdb");
let rdbConn = null;
const rdbConnect = async function () {
  try {
    const conn = await r.connect({
      host: process.env.RETHINKDB_HOST || "localhost",
      port: process.env.RETHINKDB_PORT || 28015,
      username: process.env.RETHINKDB_USERNAME || "admin",
      password: process.env.RETHINKDB_PASSWORD || "",
      db: process.env.RETHINKDB_NAME || "test",
    });

    // Handle close
    conn.on("close", function (e) {
      console.log("RDB connection closed: ", e);
      rdbConn = null;
    });

    console.log("Connected to RethinkDB");
    rdbConn = conn;
    return conn;
  } catch (err) {
    throw err;
  }
};
const getRethinkDB = async function () {
  if (rdbConn != null) {
    return rdbConn;
  }
  return await rdbConnect();
};

On Heroku, the RethinkDB Cloud add-on will set the environment variables. For a locally running instance of RethinkDB, the defaults should work.

Apollo GraphQL server setup

As mentioned earlier, the frontend is static. We do however need to access the data in a chat room. This will be handled by Apollo, the most used GraphQL server.

// server/index.js
// ...

// Setup Apollo (GraphQL) server
const { ApolloServer } = require("apollo-server-express");
const { typeDefs, resolvers } = require("./schema.js");
const graphqlServer = new ApolloServer({
  typeDefs,
  resolvers,
  context: async (arg) => {
    const conn = await getRethinkDB();
    return {
      conn: conn,
    };
  },
});
graphqlServer.applyMiddleware({ app });
graphqlServer.installSubscriptionHandlers(http);

This will create an Apollo server using the type definitions and resolves defined in our schema file (next section). We also connect to RethinkDB and pass the connection to our GraphQL context so it can be used in any incoming request.

Create a GraphQL schema

The main logic of the server resides in defining the GraphQL types and implementing their resolvers. We need to be able to preform three different actions, namely

  • Query chat messages in a room
  • Send a chat message to a room
  • Subscribe to new chat messages in a room

First, we create the GraphQL types. This consists of a Chat message type and the three mentioned actions, namely the chats query, the sendChat mutation, and the chatAdded subscription.

// server/schema.js

// GraphQL type definitions
const { gql } = require("apollo-server-express");
exports.typeDefs = gql`
  type Chat {
    user: String
    msg: String
    roomId: String
    ts: Float
  }

  type Query {
    chats(room: String!): [Chat]
  }

  type Mutation {
    sendChat(user: String!, message: String!, room: String!): Chat
  }

  type Subscription {
    chatAdded(room: String!): Chat
  }
`;

// GraphQL resolvers
// ...

Second, we need to resolve these actions, i.e., implement the code that they invoke. The query and the mutation are fairly straight-forward and are implemented as a simple RethinkDB query. The subscription however, requires an async iterator. This is basically a spell to turn the RethinkDB magic into GraphQL subscription magic. In more earthly terms, the async iterator wraps the RethinkDB change feed so we can subscribe to it via GraphQL.

// server/schema.js

// GraphQL type definitions
// ...

// GraphQL resolvers
const r = require("rethinkdb");
exports.resolvers = {
  Subscription: {
    chatAdded: {
      async subscribe(parent, args, context, info) {
        return new RethinkIterator(
          r.table("chats").filter({ roomId: args.room }),
          context.conn,
        );
      },
    },
  },
  Mutation: {
    async sendChat(root, args, context) {
      const chatMsg = {
        user: args.user,
        roomId: args.room,
        msg: args.message,
        ts: Date.now(),
      };
      await r.table("chats").insert(chatMsg).run(context.conn);
      return chatMsg;
    },
  },
  Query: {
    async chats(parent, args, context, info) {
      const cursor = await r
        .table("chats")
        .filter({ roomId: args.room })
        .orderBy(r.desc("ts"))
        .run(context.conn);
      return await cursor.toArray();
    },
  },
};

// Async iterator to access the RethinkDB change feed
const { $$asyncIterator } = require("iterall");
class RethinkIterator {
  constructor(query, conn) {
    this.cursor = query.changes().run(conn);
  }

  async next() {
    const val = await (await this.cursor).next();
    return { value: { chatAdded: val.new_val }, done: false };
  }

  async return() {
    await (await this.cursor).close();
    return { value: undefined, done: true };
  }

  async throw(error) {
    return Promise.reject(error);
  }

  [$$asyncIterator]() {
    return this;
  }
}

With the server set up, let's move to the frontend.

Creating the frontend

We already created the Vue.js app skeleton we will use for the frontend. However, since our server implements a standard GraphQL backend, you might as well use React or any other frontend framework that supports GraphQL.

Our frontend will use two views, one for the home page and one for the chat room as well as a router to navigate between the two. For this lets add a router to the Vue skeleton and install all required dependencies. Adding a router to the Vue app will warn you about uncommited changes (proceed anyway) and ask if you want history mode (no).

$ vue add router
$ npm install apollo-client apollo-link-http apollo-link-ws apollo-cache-inmemory vue-apollo
$ npm install sass sass-loader --save-dev

Our Vue app is located in the src folder and will be structured as follows: the entry point is in main.js and gets the GraphQL client configuration from graphql.js. Our main file also mounts App.vue which displays views selected by the router in router/index.js. Our app contains two views, views/Home.vue and views/ChatRoom.vue.

src
├── main.js
├── graphql.js
├── App.vue
├── router
│   └── index.js
└── views
    ├── Home.vue
    └── ChatRoom.vue

Main app and router

In a first step, let us modify the main app, home view, and router files that where initialized in the skeleton Vue app. In main.js we import the Apollo GraphQL client we will define further down and add it to our Vue app. In addition we will also create a random chat username for the user.

// src/main.js

import Vue from "vue";
import App from "./App.vue";
import router from "./router";
import apolloProvider from "./graphql";

Vue.config.productionTip = false;

// Initialize random username
window.username = Math.random().toString(36).substring(2, 8);

// Create and mount Vue app
new Vue({
  router,
  apolloProvider,
  render: (h) => h(App),
}).$mount("#app");

Our App.vue is even simpler than the skeleton, it just shows the router view and has some styling.

<!-- src/App.vue -->

<template>
  <div id="app">
    <router-view />
  </div>
</template>

<script>
export default {
  name: "App",
};
</script>

<style lang="scss">
// See styles at https://github.com/mostlytyped/rethink-chat-graphql/blob/master/src/App.vue
</style>

In our router/index.js we basically replace the "About" route with our "Room" route.

// src/router/index.js

import Vue from "vue";
import VueRouter from "vue-router";
import Home from "@/views/Home";
import ChatRoom from "@/views/ChatRoom";

Vue.use(VueRouter);

const routes = [
  { path: "/", name: "Home", component: Home },
  { path: "/:roomId", name: "Room", component: ChatRoom },
];

const router = new VueRouter({
  routes,
});

export default router;

In the home view we remove the HelloWorld component and add a form that allows us to join a room.

<!-- src/views/Home.vue -->

<template>
  <div class="main">
    <form v-on:submit.prevent="gotoRoom">
      <label>
        Username:
        <input v-model="user" type="text" />
      </label>
      <label>
        Room:
        <input v-model="room" type="text" />
      </label>
      <button>Join</button>
    </form>
  </div>
</template>

<script>
export default {
  name: "Home",
  data() {
    return {
      user: window.username,
      room: "lobby",
    };
  },
  methods: {
    gotoRoom() {
      window.username = this.user;
      this.$router.push({
        name: "Room",
        params: { roomId: this.room },
      });
    },
  },
};
</script>

<style scoped lang="scss">
// See styles at https://github.com/mostlytyped/rethink-chat-graphql/blob/master/src/views/Home.vue
</style>

Now that we stuffed the skeleton with the bits an pieces we need, let us tackle the real meat of the frontend, the GraphQL client and the chat room view.

GraphQL client

When our frontend loads we need to initiate the GraphQL client. In our example we use Apollo, the most used GraphQL client, which has good Vue.js integration with the vue-apollo package.

// src/graphql.js

import Vue from "vue";
import VueApollo from "vue-apollo";
import ApolloClient from "apollo-client";
import { createHttpLink } from "apollo-link-http";
import { InMemoryCache } from "apollo-cache-inmemory";
import { split } from "apollo-link";
import { WebSocketLink } from "apollo-link-ws";
import { getMainDefinition } from "apollo-utilities";

Vue.use(VueApollo);

// HTTP connection to the API
const httpLink = createHttpLink({
  // For production you should use an absolute URL here
  uri: `${window.location.origin}/graphql`,
});

// Create the subscription websocket link
const wsLink = new WebSocketLink({
  uri: `wss://${window.location.host}/graphql`,
  options: {
    reconnect: true,
  },
});

// Split link based on operation type
const link = split(
  ({ query }) => {
    const definition = getMainDefinition(query);
    return (
      definition.kind === "OperationDefinition" &&
      definition.operation === "subscription"
    );
  },
  wsLink, // Send subscription traffic to websocket link
  httpLink, // All other traffic to http link
);

// Create apollo client/provider with our link
const apolloClient = new ApolloClient({
  cache: new InMemoryCache(),
  link: link,
});

const apolloProvider = new VueApollo({
  defaultClient: apolloClient,
});

export default apolloProvider;

Since we will use GraphQL subscriptions, our Apollo setup is a bit more complicated than usual. This is because normal GraphQL should be performed over HTTP but subscription updates will be pushed over a WebSocket.

The chat room view

The final piece of the frontend will be the ChatRoom view. Here we actually get to use the GraphQL client we just initialized. This view basically shows a list with all the items in the chats variable and provides a form to send a chat message to the backend.

<!-- src/views/ChatRoom.vue -->
<template>
  <div class="chatroom">
    <ul id="chatlog">
      <li v-for="chat in chats" v-bind:key="chat.ts">
        <span class="timestamp">
          {{
            new Date(chat.ts).toLocaleString(undefined, {
              dateStyle: "short",
              timeStyle: "short",
            })
          }}
        </span>
        <span class="user">{{ chat.user }}:</span>
        <span class="msg">{{ chat.msg }}</span>
      </li>
    </ul>
    <label id="username"> Username: {{ user }} </label>
    <form v-on:submit.prevent="sendMessage">
      <input v-model="message" autocomplete="off" />
      <button>Send</button>
    </form>
  </div>
</template>
<script>
import gql from "graphql-tag";

export default {
  name: "ChatRoom",
  data() {
    return {
      chats: [],
      message: "",
      user: window.username,
      handle: null,
    };
  },
  methods: {
    sendMessage() {
      const msg = this.message;
      this.$apollo.mutate({
        mutation: gql`
          mutation($user: String!, $msg: String!, $room: String!) {
            sendChat(user: $user, room: $room, message: $msg) {
              ts
            }
          }
        `,
        variables: {
          user: this.user,
          msg: msg,
          room: this.$route.params.roomId,
        },
      });
      this.message = "";
    },
  },
  apollo: {
    chats: {
      query: gql`
        query FetchChats($room: String!) {
          chats(room: $room) {
            msg
            user
            ts
          }
        }
      `,
      variables() {
        return {
          room: this.$route.params.roomId,
        };
      },
      subscribeToMore: {
        document: gql`
          subscription name($room: String!) {
            chatAdded(room: $room) {
              msg
              user
              ts
            }
          }
        `,
        variables() {
          return {
            room: this.$route.params.roomId,
          };
        },
        // Mutate the previous result
        updateQuery: (previousResult, { subscriptionData }) => {
          previousResult.chats.unshift(subscriptionData.data.chatAdded);
        },
      },
    },
  },
};
</script>

<style scoped lang="scss">
// See styles at https://github.com/mostlytyped/rethink-chat-graphql/blob/master/src/views/ChatRoom.vue
</style>

The sendMessage method is bound to the sendChat GraphQL mutation. As for the chats variable, the binding is a bit more involved. We bind it to the GraphQL chats query and in addition we use the chatAdded subscription to keep the variable up to date.

Now we have a working server and frontend. The last thing we need is to make sure the chats table actually exists in the RethinkDB database when we run the app.

Database migration

The app does not work without a chats table. We thus need a database migration that adds the table.

// server/migrate.js

var r = require("rethinkdb");

r.connect(
  {
    host: process.env.RETHINKDB_HOST || "localhost",
    port: process.env.RETHINKDB_PORT || 28015,
    username: process.env.RETHINKDB_USERNAME || "admin",
    password: process.env.RETHINKDB_PASSWORD || "",
    db: process.env.RETHINKDB_NAME || "test",
  },
  function (err, conn) {
    if (err) throw err;

    r.tableList().run(conn, (err, cursor) => {
      if (err) throw err;
      cursor.toArray((err, tables) => {
        if (err) throw err;

        // Check if table exists
        if (!tables.includes("chats")) {
          // Table missing --> create
          console.log("Creating chats table");
          r.tableCreate("chats").run(conn, (err, _) => {
            if (err) throw err;
            console.log("Creating chats table -- done");
            conn.close();
          });
        } else {
          // Table exists --> exit
          conn.close();
        }
      });
    });
  },
);

This migration checks if the chats table exists, and if it is missing, it creates it.

A simple chat bot

As we saw, one of RethinkDBs great features is the baked in reactivity that allows us to subscribe to queries. This feature also comes in handy when creating a simple chat bot. The bot simply needs to subscribe to changes in the chats table and react to them whenever appropriate.

Our Lorem bot will reply with a random section of Lorem Ipsum whenever prompted with @lorem. The bot subscribes to the chats table and scans the beginning of the message. If it starts with @lorem, it will reply with a message in the same room.

// server/lorem-bot.js

const LoremIpsum = require("lorem-ipsum").LoremIpsum;
const lorem = new LoremIpsum({
  sentencesPerParagraph: {
    max: 8,
    min: 4,
  },
  wordsPerSentence: {
    max: 16,
    min: 4,
  },
});

// Run Lorem bot
const runBot = function (conn) {
  console.log("Lorem bot started");
  r.table("chats")
    .changes()
    .run(conn, (err, cursor) => {
      if (err) throw err;
      cursor.each((err, row) => {
        const msg = row.new_val.msg.trim().split(/\s+/);
        // Is the message directed at me?
        if (msg[0] === "@lorem") {
          let num = 10;
          if (msg.length >= 1) {
            num = parseInt(msg[1]) || num;
          }
          r.table("chats")
            .insert({
              user: "lorem",
              msg: lorem.generateWords(num),
              roomId: row.new_val.roomId,
              ts: Date.now(),
            })
            .run(conn, function (err, res) {
              if (err) throw err;
            });
        }
      });
    });
};

// Connect to RethinkDB
const r = require("rethinkdb");
const rdbConnect = async function () {
  try {
    const conn = await r.connect({
      host: process.env.RETHINKDB_HOST || "localhost",
      port: process.env.RETHINKDB_PORT || 28015,
      username: process.env.RETHINKDB_USERNAME || "admin",
      password: process.env.RETHINKDB_PASSWORD || "",
      db: process.env.RETHINKDB_NAME || "test",
    });

    // Handle close
    conn.on("close", function (e) {
      console.log("RDB connection closed: ", e);
      setTimeout(rdbConnect, 10 * 1000); // reconnect in 10s
    });

    // Start the lorem bot
    runBot(conn);
  } catch (err) {
    throw err;
  }
};
rdbConnect();

Deploy the application to Heroku

To deploy our working application and bot to Heroku we need to create a Procfile. This file basically tells Heroku what processes to run.

// Procfile

release: node server/migrate.js
web: node server/index.js
lorem-bot: node server/lorem-bot.js

The release and web processes are recognized by Heroku as the command to run upon release and the main web app respectively. The lorem-bot process is just a worker process that could have any name.

Deploy the app to Heroku with

$ git add .
$ git commit -m 'Working rethink-chat app'
$ git push heroku master

You will need to manually enable the lorem-bot process in your Heroku app. You can do so on the Resources tab.

Conclusion

In less than 15 minutes we managed to create and deploy a chat application with a simple bot. This shows the power and ease of use of RethinkDB. The ability to subscribe to queries makes it easy to build a reactive app and can easily be integrated with GraphQL. Further, Heroku makes deployment a breeze, and with the RethinkDB Cloud add-on you will never have to do the tedious work of managing a database server yourself.

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