Web applications represent a major category of serverless usage. When used with single-page application (SPA) frameworks for front-end development, you can create highly responsive apps. With a serverless backend, these apps can scale to hundreds of thousands of users without you managing a single server.

In this 3-part series, I demonstrate how to build an example serverless web application. The application includes authentication, real-time updates, and location-specific features. I explore the functionality, architecture, and design choices involved. I provide a complete code repository for both the front-end and backend. By the end of these posts, you can use these patterns and examples in your own web applications.

In this series:

  • Part 1: Deploy the frontend and backend applications, and learn about how SPA web applications interact with serverless backends.
  • Part 2: Review the backend architecture, Amazon API Gateway HTTP APIs, and the geohashing implementation.
  • Part 3: Understand the backend data processing and aggregation with Amazon DynamoDB, and the final deployment of the application to production.

The code uses the AWS Serverless Application Model (SAM), enabling you to deploy the application easily in your own AWS account. This walkthrough creates resources covered in the AWS Free Tier but you may incur cost for usage beyond development and testing.

To set up the example, visit the GitHub repo and follow the instructions in the README.md file.

Introducing “Ask Around Me” – The app for finding answers from local users

Ask Around Me is a web application that allows you to ask questions to a community of local users. It’s designed to be used on a smartphone browser.

 

Ask Around Me front end application

The front-end uses Auth0 for authentication. For simplicity, it supports social logins with other identity providers. Once a user is logged in, the app displays their local area:

No questions in your area

Users can then post questions to the neighborhood. Questions can be ratings-based (“How relaxing is the park?”) or geography-based (“Where is best coffee?”).

Ask a new question

Posted questions are published to users within a 5-mile radius. Any user in this area sees new questions appear in the list automatically:

New questions in Ask Around Me

Other users answer questions by providing a star-rating or dropping a pin on a map. As the question owner, you see real-time average scores or a heat map, depending on the question type:

Ask Around Me Heatmap

The app is designed to be fun and easy to use. It uses authentication to ensure that votes are only counted once per user ID. It uses geohashing to ensure that users only see and answer questions within their local area. It also keeps the question list and answers up to date in real time to create a sense of immediacy.

In terms of traffic, the app is expected to receive 1,000 questions and 10,000 answers posted per hour. The query that retrieves local questions is likely to receive 50,000 requests per hour. In the course of these posts, I explore the architecture and services chosen to handle this volume. All of this is built serverlessly with cost effectiveness in mind. The cost scales in line with usage, and I discuss how to make the best use of the app budget in this scenario.

SPA frameworks and serverless backends

While you can apply a serverless backend to almost any type of web or mobile framework, SPA frameworks can make development much easier. For modern web development, SPA frameworks like React.js, Vue.js, Angular have grown in popularity for serverless development. They have become the standard way to build complex, rich front-ends.

These frameworks offer benefits to both front-end developers and users. For developers, you can create the application within an IDE and test locally with hot reloading, which renders new content in the same context in the browser. For users, it creates a web experience that’s similar to a traditional application, with reactive content and faster interactive capabilities.

When you build a SPA-based application, the build process creates HTML, JavaScript, and CSS files. You serve these static assets from an Amazon CloudFront distribution with an Amazon S3 bucket set as the origin. CloudFront serves these files from 216 global points of presence, resulting in low latency downloads regardless of where the user is located.

CloudFront/S3 app distribution

You can also use AWS Amplify console, which can automate the build and deployment process. This is triggered by build events in your code repo so once you commit code changes, these are automatically deployed to production.

A traditional webserver often serves both the application’s static assets together with dynamic content. In this model, you offload the serving of all of the application assets to a global CDN. The dynamic application is a serverless backend powered by Amazon API Gateway and AWS Lambda. By using a SPA framework with a serverless backend, you can create performant, highly scalable web applications that are also easy to develop.

Configuring Auth0

This application integrates Auth0 for user authentication. The front-end calls out to this service when users are not logged in, and Auth0 provides an open standard JWT token after the user is authenticated. Before you can install and use the application, you must sign up for an Auth0 account and configure the application:

  1. Navigate to https://auth0.com/ and choose Sign Up. Complete the account creation process.
  2. From the dashboard, choose Create Application. Enter AskAroundMe as the name and select Single Page Web Applications for the Application Type. Choose Create.Auth0 configuration
  3. In the next page, choose the Settings tab. Copy the Client ID and Domain values to a text editor – you need these for setting up the Vue.js application later.Auth0 configuration next step
  4. Further down on this same tab, enter the value http://localhost:8080 into the Allowed Logout URLs, Allowed Callback URLs and Allowed Web Origins fields. Choose Save Changes.
  5. On the Connections tab, in the Social section, add google-oauth2 and twitter and ensure that the toggles are selected. This enables social sign-in for your application.Auth0 Connections tab

This configuration allows the application to interact with the Auth0 service from your local machine. In production, you must enter the domain name of the application in these fields. For more information, see Auth0’s documentation for Application Settings.

Deploying the application

In the code repo, there are separate directories for the front-end and backend applications. You must install the backend first. To complete this step, follow the detailed instructions in the repo’s README.md.

There are several important environment variables to note from the backend installation process:

  • IoT endpoint address and Cognito Pool ID: these are used for real-time messaging between the backend and frontend applications.
  • API endpoint: the base URL path for the backend’s APIs.
  • Region: the AWS Region where you have deployed the application.

Next, you deploy the Vue.js application from the frontend directory:

  1. The application uses the Google Maps API – sign up for a developer account and make a note of your API key.
  2. Open the main.js file in the src directory. Lines 45 through 62 contain the configuration section where you must add the environment variables above:Ask Around Me Vue.js configuration

Ensure you complete the Auth0 configuration and remaining steps in the README.md file, then you are ready to test.

To launch the frontend application, run npm run serve to start the development server. The terminal shows the local URL where the application is now running:

Running the Vue.js app

Open a web browser and navigate to http://localhost:8080 to see the application.

How Vue.js applications work with a serverless backend

Unlike a traditional web application, SPA applications are loaded in the user’s browser and start executing JavaScript on the client-side. The app loads assets and initializes itself before communicating with the serverless backend. This lifecycle and behavior is comparable to a conventional desktop or mobile application.

Vue.js is a component-based framework. Each component optionally contains a user interface with related code and styling. Overall application state may be managed by a store – this example uses Vuex. You can use many of the patterns employed in this application in your own apps.

Auth0 provides a Vue.js component that automates storing and parsing the JWT token in the local browser. Each time the app starts, this component verifies the token and makes it available to your code. This app uses Vuex to manage the timing between the token becoming available and the app needing to request data.

The application completes several initialization steps before querying the backend for a list of questions to display:

Initialization process for the app

Several components can request data from the serverless backend via API Gateway endpoints. In src/views/HomeView.vue, the component loads a list of questions when it determines the location of the user:

const token = await this.$auth.getTokenSilently()
const url = `${this.$APIurl}/questions?lat=${this.currentLat}&lng=${this.currentLng}`
console.log('URL: ', url)
// Make API request with JWT authorization
const { data } = await axios.get(url, { headers: { // send access token through the 'Authorization' header Authorization: `Bearer ${token}` }
}) // Commit question list to global store
this.$store.commit('setAllQuestions', data)

This process uses the Axios library to manage the HTTP request and pass the authentication token in the Authorization header. The resulting dataset is saved in the Vuex store. Since SPA applications react to changes in data, any frontend component displaying data is automatically refreshed when it changes.

The src/components/IoT.vue component uses MQTT messaging via AWS IoT Core. This manages real-time updates published to the frontend. When a question receives a new answer, this component receives an update. The component updates the question status in the global store, and all other components watching this data automatically receive those updates:

 mqttClient.on('message', function (topic, payload) { const msg = JSON.parse(payload.toString()) if (topic === 'new-answer') { _store.commit('updateQuestion', msg) } else { _store.commit('saveQuestion', msg) } })

The application uses both API Gateway synchronous queries and MQTT WebSocket updates to communicate with the backend application. As a result, you have considerable flexibility for tracking overall application state and providing your users with a responsive application experience.

Conclusion

In this post, I introduce the Ask Around Me example web application. I discuss the benefits of using single-page application (SPA) frameworks for both developers and users. I cover how they can create highly scalable and performant web applications when powered with a serverless backend.

In this section, you configure Auth0 and deploy the frontend and backend from the application’s GitHub repo. I review the backend SAM template and the architecture it deploys.

In part 2, I will explain the backend architecture, the Amazon API Gateway configuration, and the geohashing implementation.