Taming Configurations with node-convict – A Node.JS Holiday Season, part 7

This is episode 7, out of a total 12, in the A Node.JS Holiday Season series from Mozilla’s Identity team. Today it’s time to talk about configuration.

In this installment of “A Node.JS Holiday Season” series we’ll take a look at node-convict, a tool that helps manage the configuration of node.js applications. It provides transparent defaults and built-in typing to make errors easier to find and debug.

The Problem

There are two main concerns regarding application configuration:

  • Most applications will have at least a few different deployment environments, each with their own configuration needs.
  • Including credentials and sensitive information in source can be problematic.

These concerns could be addressed by initializing certain settings based on the environment, and using environmental variables for more sensitive settings. A common pattern used by node.js developers is to create a module that exports the configuration, e.g.:

var conf = {
  // the application environment
  // "production", "development", or "test
  env: process.env.NODE_ENV || "development",
 
  // the IP address to bind
  ip: process.env.IP_ADDRESS || "127.0.0.1",
 
  // the port to bind
  port: process.env.PORT || 0,
 
  // database settings
  database: {
    host: process.env.DB_HOST || "localhost:8091"
  }
};
 
module.exports = conf;

This works well enough, but there are additional concerns:

  • What if a setting was configured incorrectly? We can save headaches by detecting and reporting misconfigurations as early as possible.
  • How easily is it understood by Ops/QA/and other collaborators that may need to adjust settings or diagnose issues? A more declarative format that also embeds documentation can make lives easier.

Enter convict

Convict addresses these additional concerns by introducing a configuration schema where you can set type information, default values, environmental variables, and documentation for each setting.

With convict, the example from above becomes:

var convict = require('convict');
 
var conf = convict({
  env: {
    doc: "The applicaton environment.",
    format: ["production", "development", "test"],
    default: "development",
    env: "NODE_ENV"
  },
  ip: {
    doc: "The IP address to bind.",
    format: "ipaddress",
    default: "127.0.0.1",
    env: "IP_ADDRESS"
  },
  port: {
    doc: "The port to bind.",
    format: "port",
    default: 0,
    env: "PORT"
  },
  database: {
    host: {
      default: "localhost:8091",
      env: "DB_HOST"
    }
  }
});
 
conf.validate();
 
module.exports = conf;

The information is more or less the same, but encoded in the schema. Since all of the information is encoded in the schema, we can export it and display it in an easier to read format, and we can use it for validation. This declarative approach is what helps convict be more robust and collaborator friendly.

What’s in a Schema

You’ll notice four possible properties for each setting – each aiding in our goal of a more robust and easily digestible configuration.

  • Type information: the format property specifies either a built-in convict format (ipaddress, port, int, etc.), or it can be a function to check a custom format. During validation, if a format check fails it will be added to the error report.
  • Default values: Every setting must have a default value.
  • Environmental variables: If the variable specified by env has a value, it will overwrite the setting’s default value.
  • Documentation: The doc property is pretty self-explanatory. The nice part about having it in the schema rather than as a comment is that we can call conf.toSchemaString() and have it displayed in the output.

Layering Additional Configurations

The set of defaults becomes a base configuration on top of which you can overlay additional configurations, using conf.load and conf.loadFile. For example, you could conditionally overlay a JavaScript object with settings for a specific environment:

var conf = convict({
  // snip ... assume the same schema as above
});
 
if (conf.get('env') === 'production') {
  // use the production port and database host
  conf.load({
    port: 8080,
    database: {
      host: "ec2-117-21-174-242.compute-1.amazonaws.com:8091"
    }
  });
}
 
conf.validate();
 
module.exports = conf;

Alternatively, if you create a separate configuration file for each environment, you could simply overlay them with loadFile:

conf.loadFile('./config/' + conf.get('env') + '.json');

loadFile can also load multiple files at once, by passing in an array:

// CONFIG_FILES=/path/to/production.json,/path/to/secrets.json,/path/to/sitespecific.json
conf.loadFile(process.env.CONFIG_FILES.split(','));

Layering configurations with load and loadFile is useful if you have common settings for specific environments that don’t need to be set in environmental variables. Having separate, declarative JSON configurations can provide greater visibility of which settings should change between environments. And the files are loaded with cjson, so they may contain as many comments as you want for additional clarification.

Also note that environmental variables always take precedent, even after settings have been loaded using load or loadFile. To see what the current settings look like, you can serialize the whole thing using conf.toString().

V for Validation

Once the settings have been composed, you can perform validation to check that each setting’s value conforms to the correct format, as defined in the schema. Convict provides a few built-in formats such as "url", "ports", and "ipaddress", among others, and you may use one of JavaScript’s global constructors (e.g. Number) to designate a type. If you leave the format property out entirely, convict will check that the setting has the same type as the default value (according to Object.prototype.toString.call). For instance, the following three schemas are equivalent:

var conf1 = convict({
    name: {
      format: String
      default: 'Brendan'
    }
  });
 
// with no format specified, convict will assume it's the type
// of the default value
var conf2 = convict({
    name: {
      default: 'Brendan'
    }
  });
 
// a more succinct version
var conf3 = convict({
    name: 'Brendan'
  });

Additionally, there is an enum-style format as seen in the examples, in which you can specify an explicit set of acceptable values, e.g. ["production", "development", "test"]. Any value not in the list will fail validation.

In place of a built-in type, you can also provide your own format checking function. For example, the format function in this schema checks that the setting is a 64 character hex string:

var check = require('validator').check;
 
var conf = convict({
    key: {
      doc: "API key",
      format: function (val) {
        check(val, 'should be a 64 character hex key').regex(/^[a-fA-F0-9]{64}$/);
      },
      default: '3cec609c9bc601c047af917a544645c50caf8cd606806b4e0a23312441014deb'
    }
  });

Calling conf.validate() will throw an error with details on each setting that failed to validate, if there were any. This is important for avoiding redeployment after each individual configuration error. Using the configuration from the custom key format example, here’s what an error would look like:

conf.set('key', 'foo');
conf.validate();
// Error: key: should be a 64 character hex key: value was "foo"

Conclusion

Convict expands on the standard pattern of configuring node.js applications in a way that is more robust and accessible to collaborators, who may have less interest in digging through imperative code in order to inspect or modify settings. With the configuration schema, we can give project collaborators more context on each setting as well as provide validation and early failures when configuration goes wrong.

Previous articles in the series

This was part seven in a series with a total of 12 posts about Node.js. The previous ones are:

About Robert Nyman [Editor emeritus]

Technical Evangelist & Editor of Mozilla Hacks. Gives talks & blogs about HTML5, JavaScript & the Open Web. Robert is a strong believer in HTML5 and the Open Web and has been working since 1999 with Front End development for the web - in Sweden and in New York City. He regularly also blogs at http://robertnyman.com and loves to travel and meet people.

More articles by Robert Nyman [Editor emeritus]…


2 comments

  1. Aaron

    Interesting approach, I created something similar to convict with envalid: https://github.com/af/envalid/

    Definitely agree that most server programs should have their environment validated and cleaned, rather than randomly accessing process.env all around the codebase. Thanks for this series of posts, there have been a lot of good tips in them!

    March 8th, 2013 at 08:08

  2. Josh Schell

    Yo, thanks for this post. I was just dealing with this issue a month back when trying to push my app to dotcloud and to github. I have my own way of handling this but going forward this would be cleaner and easier to utilize for future projects.

    March 8th, 2013 at 09:06

Comments are closed for this article.