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Deploy NestJS with Docker, Heroku, and GitHub Actions

nestjs docker heroku github actions banner

The NestJS Cloud-Native Toolchain

NestJS has made its way onto the API development scene with robust support for RESTful and GraphQL queries. Thanks to its opinionated approach and MVC pattern enforcement, we're able to quickly stand up API services and have them immediately available for consumption by our users. Though working with NestJS is well documented, focusing on deploying containerized NestJS microservices is not. We're going to cover the fastest way to get a live API microservice running with NestJS and Docker while creating a CI/CD pipeline with GitHub Actions to deploy to Heroku.

Want to follow along? Check out the sample repo.

Creating a NestJS Example Project

Firstly, we'll need to spin up a local NestJS example project using the CLI. Documentation can be found on the official site, but the steps will be covered below. As a prerequisite, you'll need Node and npm available to you.

Firstly, install the Nest CLI with npm and create a project. The CLI can be invoked with the nest command.

npm i -g @nestjs/cli
nest new nestjs-example-project

If more insight is needed on the tooling and setup of NestJS, visit the official documentation as we will not be covering that in this walkthrough. There are going to be a few intersecting pieces, so take it slow and follow the steps to have a working project by the end of this tutorial.

Select your preferred package manager. I'm partial to npm and that's what this tutorial is based on.

install nest with npm

The project will complete set up, and you'll have a shiny new NestJS project set up.

nest select npm

By default, NestJS launches applications on port 3000. This can be modified in the /src/main.ts file as seen in the screenshot.

nestjs default port

Start your NestJS application in dev mode for live reloading.

npm run start:dev

Once confirmed that the application starts up as expected, send a GET request to the root path at localhost:3000 and a "Hello World!" with a status code of 200 should be returned. This can be tested with Postman, cURL, or any tooling of your choice. The cURL command is as follows.

curl -X GET 'localhost:3000'

The response should print similar to below. Stop the instance before moving on ctrl/cmd + c.

curl localhost

Add your NestJS Repository to GitHub

Log in to GitHub and create a new repository. Press Create repository to complete this. I named the repository nestjs-docker-heroku-github_actions-example.

github create new repository

Come back to your terminal and complete the steps outlined by GitHub to push up your local branch (or follow the steps below).

git init
git add .
git commit -m "first commit"
git branch -M main
git remote add origin<INSERT_YOUR_GITHUB_ORG>/nestjs-docker-heroku-github_actions-example.git
git push -u origin main

Configuring the NestJS Dockerfile

Next, we'll look at configuring the NestJS Dockerfile. At the root of your application, create a Dockerfile.

touch Dockerfile

The Dockerfile will be broken into two steps.

  1. Build the NestJS project
  2. Create a new docker image with only the necessary components for Docker to run a NestJS project.

The steps will be separated with the # --- moniker within the Dockerfile itself.

Copy the Dockerfile configuration into your local repository. See the description for each of the commands below.

FROM node:16.8-alpine3.11 as builder
WORKDIR /home/node
COPY . /home/node
RUN npm ci \
&& npm run build \
&& npm prune --production
# ---
FROM node:16.8-alpine3.11
ENV NODE_ENV production
USER node
WORKDIR /home/node
COPY --from=builder /home/node/package*.json /home/node/
COPY --from=builder /home/node/node_modules/ /home/node/node_modules/
COPY --from=builder /home/node/dist/ /home/node/dist/
CMD ["node", "dist/main.js"]

FROM node:16.8-alpine3.11 as builder creates a base layer image from an alpine-based node image on Docker Hub.

ENV NODE_ENV build sets the environment variable for NODE_ENV.

WORKDIR /home/node sets the current directory within the base layer image.

COPY . /home/node copies all our local files within the current directory to the /home/node directory within the base layer image.

RUN npm ci && npm run build && npm prune --production can be broken down into three specific npm commands.

npm ci is similar to npm i except it's a clean install that skips some user-specific steps that shouldn't affect a production build.

npm run build is a shortcut script (is it, really?) for the nest build command. Check the package.json for other scripts.

npm prune --production is a tree shake to remove unused packages. The --production flag will get rid of any packages defined in a project's devDependencies.

USER node sets the current user to a user named node.

COPY --from=builder /home/node/package*.json /home/node/ and the rest of the copy commands take the build from the initial docker image which we named builder on line 1 and moves them to our new, minified image. CMD ["node", "dist/main.js"] tells docker which command NestJS needs to run when the container is spun up.

Make sure you have a package.json for the 'npm ci' command. The package.json can be generated with 'npm i'. DO NOT have a node_modules or dist directory otherwise you will have permission errors as they were generated outside of your docker application

Building the NestJS Docker Container

Test out the new Dockerfile, but be sure to delete the node_modules and dist folders if they exist otherwise access errors like below will hinder you.

[Error: EACCES: permission denied, unlink 'dist/app.controller.d.ts']
errno: -13,
code: 'EACCES',
syscall: 'unlink',
path: 'dist/app.controller.d.ts'
You will need to have Docker installed before proceeding. Check out the guide to installing Docker and Docker Compose
docker build -t nestjs-docker-example .

This command creates your docker image based on the Dockerfile at your current terminal location. the -t is to assign a tag. In our case since none is defined, it will get the latest denomination you'll see in the screenshot below.

After a few minutes, you should have a successful output message.

docker build nest image

To further validate that your image is ready, check that the image exists locally.

docker images

The output should print the new image.

docker images

Run the NestJS Docker Development Server

With the image created, use docker to run the command to build and launch a container to test that all the steps covered are working as expected.

docker run -p 3000:3000 nestjs-docker-example

The application should spin up with some logs. Re-run the cURL command from earlier to ensure that we're still getting the correct response. Everything should look the same, even though we're now running a containerized instance of NestJS.

Stop the container and let's continue on to get the NestJS application ready for Heroku and GitHub Actions.

Now, be sure to add, commit, and push your changes to GitHub. This was completed in the above step if you need a refresher.

Setting up Heroku For Your NestJS Docker Container

Login to the Heroku site and create a new application.

create a new app in heroku

Name it whatever you like, as long as it's unique, and select Create new app.

name heroku app

We're done with Heroku for now, but will need to revisit it to grab your API key, so don't close the tab.

Heroku GitHub Actions YAML For CI/CD

Checkpoint! So far, we've bootstrapped a NestJS application, created a docker container for it, and created the application space on Heroku. Good job making it this far!

Switching back to your terminal, create a new folder structure to house the GitHub Actions YAML (.yml) within the nestjs-example-project and then create the file itself. The folder structure is non-negotiable, this is where GitHub will look for your workflow.

github workflow directory structure

Paste the following into your file.

name: Deploy
- main
runs-on: ubuntu-latest
- uses: actions/checkout@v2
- uses: akhileshns/heroku-deploy@v3.12.12
heroku_api_key: ${{secrets.HEROKU_API_KEY}}
heroku_app_name: "<YOUR_HEROKU_APP_NAME>"
heroku_email: "<YOUR_HEROKU_EMAIL>"
usedocker: true

name: Deploy defines the name of the GitHub Action workflow

on: push: branches:- main determines the trigger for your GitHub Action. In this case, whenever a push or merge is made to the main branch. You may need to modify this if you still use the master nomenclature.

jobs: build: runs-on: ubuntu-latest defines which operating system and version of the OS the action should be run on.

steps: is the meat of the file and outlines the individual actions GitHub needs to take to successfully deploy your application.

- uses: actions/checkout@v2 calls a pre-built action from the GitHub Actions Marketplace to check out your branch. You could write this out manually.

- uses: akhileshns/heroku-deploy@v3.12.12 is another pre-built action that will run your Dockerfile steps. This can also be manually created if you need any customization. Feel free to check out this post for instructions.

with: indicates any variables the action needs to complete the specified script. In our case, we need to provide heroku_api_key, heroku_app_name, heroku_email, and set the boolean usedocker.

Update The NestJS Application To Bind To a Random Heroku Port

Unfortunately, Heroku decides which port will be allotted to your application and sets the PORT environment variable on the host. Up until now, we've been using 3000 without much trouble but this changes. Update the /src/main.ts file to be able to handle a random port.

import { NestFactory } from '@nestjs/core';
import { AppModule } from './app.module';
const PORT = process.env.PORT || 3000;
async function bootstrap() {
const app = await NestFactory.create(AppModule);
await app.listen(PORT);

const PORT = process.env.PORT || 3000 allows us to look for the environment variable. If it doesn't exist the application will default to 3000. This way, we don't break local development either.

await app.listen(PORT) just grabs the port that's set and passes it to the app to look for requests.

Setting Up GitHub Actions Secrets

Though we've configured our application repository now, unfortunately, we won't be able to pass this pipeline without setting up our heroku_api_key unless you hardcoded it in the steps above. This is a bad idea, mainly because it would be source controlled in plain text and there are enough horror stories as to what could happen there.

Retrieve and Set the Heroku API Key

Go back to Heroku and grab your API key from the Account settings page. Press Reveal and copy the key.

Heroku API key

Head to GitHub and then your repository secret settings to add the key. Press New repository secret to add your key and once completed, it should appear in the Repository secrets section.

github add repository secret

Trigger the GitHub Action

We should be ready to trigger our GitHub Action and have our NestJS Docker application deploy on Heroku with this next step. All you need to do is add, commit, and push up your changes (namely the GitHub Actions workflow) and your pipeline should automatically trigger!

github workflow overview

Clicking on the workflow will give you more details and logs about your run.

github workflow logs

You can also watch your Heroku logs for your application to see the status, but you should expect it to take a couple of minutes to populate after the GitHub Actions workflow.

heroku logs

Once the pipelines finish and your state has changed to up, select the Open app button on Heroku to see your "Hello World" displayed in all its glory!

heroku dashboard open app button

Good job on completing the tutorial!

deployed heroku application

NestJS Docker Production Environment

For a production environment, it is not recommended that you use Docker as a standalone offering. This guide, combined with a robust container orchestration tool like Kubernetes, will help create a resilient production deployment with NestJS.