PCS JS Immersion

Redis and Heroku

Today we'll learn about Redis, a key-value store useful as a cache and for certain other purposes.

Key-Value Stores

A key-value store operates sort of like a JavaScript object: it associates some key, typically a string, with some value, which may be a string or a more complex data structure. In Redis, keys are always strings, and values are one of a few Redis datatypes: a String, a List, a Hash, or a Set (actually, there are a few others, but we won't worry about them).

  • Strings in Redis are very similar to the strings you've worked with in JavaScript.
  • Lists in Redis are very similar to JavaScript arrays.
  • Hashes in Redis are a mapping from strings to strings. This is much like an Object in JavaScript, except that you can't nest it deeply. Values can only be strings.
  • Sets are a useful mathematical construct: an unordered collection of values that either are or are not present.

Using Redis as a Cache

One of the most common ways to use Redis is as a caching layer. Rather than bogging your database down with dozens or thousands of requests for the same records, you can cache frequently-requested data in Redis. Since Redis is a significantly simpler system than PostgreSQL, it can respond to simple requests for data much more quickly.

The other thing that makes Redis good for caching is that you can set a TTL (Time To Live) on keys. The nature of cached data is to become outdated, so by setting a TTL you can limit that risk. You can add a TTL to a Redis key using the expire command, or with a couple extra arguments to set:

// the TTL is given in seconds
client.set("some key", "some val", function() {
    client.expire("some key", "10", function() {
        // do something now that the key has been set
client.set("some key", "some val", "ex", "10", function() {
    // do something now that the key has been set

Exercise: Cache some data in your microblog

  • Install Redis with brew install redis
  • Before you can use Redis with node, you'll need to start the server from your terminal: redis-server
  • Install the redis node module with npm install --save redis
  • Update one of your pages so that:
    1. If the needed data is in the cache, the page is rendered from the cache.
    2. If the necessary data is not cached, it's fetched from the database and added to the cache before rendering the page.
  • I suggest the "latest tweets from this user" page as a good candidate for caching, if you have one.

Cache Invalidation

Once you start caching things, you'll quickly see a problem: adding new data to the database doesn't necessarily add new data to the cache. For example, if you're looking at a "latest tweets from this user" page, you won't see their very latest tweets until the cached data's TTL expires. The cache has become stale.

As Phil Karlton noted, it's very hard to write software that hits the cache when the cache is right, and skips the cache when the cache is wrong. There are a few approaches for getting close (again, using the "latest tweets" example):

  • Invalidate the cache for a user whenever they tweet. This avoids a stale cache, but throws out a lot of mostly-valid data.
  • Update the cache whenever you update the database. Again, this avoids a stale cache, but ends up caching data that may not be requested often enough to merit it.
  • Set a fairly short TTL and just live with occasional stale cache hits. This can be ok for high-traffic sites with a lot of fluctuation, but can also mean a lot of cache misses that could've been correct hits.

Exercise: cache invalidation

Choose one of the approaches above and implement it for your microblog.

Other Redis Features

Redis is useful as more than just a cache. For example, suppose you wanted to limit the rate at which people can attempt to log in, to prevent them brute-forcing other users' passwords. You can accomplish that with the Redis incr command:

// in the login handler...
router.post('/login', function(request, response) {
    // create a rate-limit key based on the username and the current
    // clock-minute. Note that this is a little different from "in the
    // last 60 seconds".
    var username = request.body.username,
        currentMinute = new Date().getMinutes(),
        rateLimitKey = username + ':' + currentMinute;

    // increment the number of login attempts. If this is the first
    // attempt, there won't be a key, so `incr` will set it to 0.
    redisClient.incr(rateLimitKey, function(attempts) {
        // If there've been too many attempts, lock the user out.
        if (attempts >= MAX_ATTEMPTS) {
                {error: 'Rate limit exceeded; please wait to try again'});
        } else {
            // set an expiration on the login-attempt key, so that an
            // attempt at 4:05 doesn't hang around to foil an attempt
            // at 5:05
            redisClient.expire(rateLimitKey, '60', function() {
                // check username and password here; do the login


Today we're going to publish something very basic to Heroku. We'll optionally set up a domain name via Namecheap to work with the site.

Exercise: Get started with Heroku

Follow the Getting Started With Node.js guide in Heroku's documentation. As a quick walkthrough, try the steps below (summarized from the setup instructions).

heroku login
heroku keys
  • Set up a sample repo:
cd [somewhere above new repo]
git clone https://github.com/heroku/node-js-getting-started.git
cd node-js-getting-started/
sudo npm install
git config --list
  • Check the apps listed in Heroku dashboard

  • Link repo to a new heroku app:

heroku create
git config --list
heroku status
heroku apps --help
heroku apps
heroku apps:rename <myname>-helloworld
heroku apps
  • Send to heroku:
git push heroku master
  • Test it on heroku:
heroku open
  • Destroy the remote app:
heroku apps:destroy -app <myname>-helloworld
git config --list
  • Test it again (visit old URL)
heroku open
heroku apps
git config --list
  • In the Dashboard, make a temporary app (-helloworld).

  • Relink repo to new heroku app:

heroku git:remote -a <myname>-helloworld
heroku open
git config --list
  • Deploy again:
git push heroku master
heroku open

Follow those steps when you're ready to deploy your current project repo:

cd <project>
<create or copy Procfile>
git add Procfile
git commit...
heroku git:remote -a <capstone-app>
git push heroku master

Adapting your code for Heroku

If you're in the habit of running your NodeJS-based servers locally, you'll probably need to make a few small changes to get them running on Heroku.

Port numbers

You can't pick your own port number; instead, you should give priority to an environment vaiable called "PORT", which Heroku can set when it runs your server. Wherever you are specifying a port number like this:

app.set('port', 5000);

You should change it to this:

app.set('port', (process.env.PORT || 5000));

Config files with private keys

Since it's a security breach to check private access keys into your repo, you won't be able to use a config.js in the usual way. Instead, you'll have to set the keys individually in Heroku environment variable like so:

heroku config:set HEROKU=true SAMPLEKEY=whatever DBKEY=secret

Then in your server code, add something like this:

var config = (process.env.HEROKU)? // if Heroku environment...
    { //...build config object using config/environment vars
        dbKey:     process.env.DBKEY,
        sampleKey: process.env.SAMPLEKEY
    } : //else load module

Exercise: create a Heroku app for your portfolio site

Using what you've learned from the "getting started" guide, create and deploy a Heroku app for another Node or Express application you've built in class.

Optional exercise: Custom Domain Name

Create an account with Namecheap (or another registrar of your choice). Pick and buy a reasonably-priced domain name for your site. You can be stodgy like me and go for your-name.com, or get something a little more fun.

Once you've purchased a domain name, you need to make a CNAME record that points to your weird heroku url (e.g. warm-ice-73259.heroku.com).

Finally, tell Heroku about the domain. (Until you do, Heroku will respond with "no such app"). You can do it from the command line with heroku domains:add DOMAIN, or in the "Domains" section of the Heroku web interface.