Serverless Functions the Fast Way

Learn what they are, and how to create and deploy them in minutes with Netlify Functions

Jason Lengstorf
Jun 23, 2020 · 9 min read

For frontend developers, one of the biggest hurdles to creating full-blown web apps is the backend. In fact, there are often multiple hurdles hiding in the backend. For example, how do you process form submissions? And how can you store data?

It might seem that you need to create and manage a full-blown server in order to handle these types of use cases. But what if you could handle form submissions, requests to and from a database, and other server-like activities with a single JavaScript function, deployed with two lines of configuration?

Photo by Alvan Nee on Unsplash

With “serverless functions,” you can do exactly that. In other words, yes, it’s possible to create complete backends — which can handle many server-like activities — using only JavaScript functions.

In this tutorial, we’ll learn what serverless functions are, how to create them, and how we can deploy them in seconds with Netlify Functions!

What is a serverless function?

Serverless functions are a way to encapsulate event-driven, server-like logic without the boilerplate steps of setting up a full-blown server. Serverless functions can talk to databases, call third-party services, process user input, and more. They cannot store data themselves or keep a long-running process available.

What does “serverless” mean?

A serverless function doesn’t actually mean there’s no server. It means that you, the developer, are not responsible for setting up or managing the server infrastructure — all you need to worry about is the actual business logic that needs to be performed!

Now, let’s get started with the tutorial, which will walk through these five steps:

  1. Create your first serverless function
  2. Deploy the functions to Netlify
  3. Handle form data
  4. Send authorized requests to third-party APIs
  5. Deploy the form

1. Create your first serverless function

Let’s start by creating the simplest possible serverless function and getting it deployed to the internet. This should take about 5 minutes. 🤯

Create the project and function file

On your computer, create a new folder for the functions to live in.

# create a new folder
mkdir serverless-functions-the-fast-way
# move into the new folder
cd serverless-functions-the-fast-way/

Next, make a functions folder in the new folder.

# create a directory called functions
mkdir functions

Inside the functions folder, create a new file called hello-world.js — this will be our serverless function!

# create the file for your first serverless function
touch functions/hello-world.js

Inside hello-world.js, add the following code:

exports.handler = async () => {
return {
statusCode: 200,
body: 'Hello world!',
};
};

This is a complete serverless function. No joke. This JavaScript function returns an HTTP status code of 200 (for “OK”) and a plain text body of “Hello world!”.

Now that we’ve created the serverless function, let’s get set up to test it locally!

Set up Netlify

First, we need to install the Netlify CLI on our computer and log in to make sure we have access to our Netlify account:

# install the Netlify CLI
npm i -g netlify-cli
# log into your Netlify account
ntl login

💡 Note: if you don’t already have a Netlify account, you can set one up for free using your GitHub, GitLab, Bitbucket, or email address in a few seconds.

Next, create netlify.toml at the root of our project.

# create a Netlify config file in the project root
touch netlify.toml

Inside netlify.toml, we configure Netlify Functions by adding two lines of config:

[build]
functions = "functions"

This tells Netlify that we want to enable Netlify Functions and that it should look in the functions folder to find them. Once we’ve set this, Netlify will do the rest!

Start the server

We have access to a local development server called Netlify Dev that supports serverless functions. To run it, we’ll use the CLI:

ntl dev

This starts up a local server with our serverless function available for testing.

use local developer server called Netlify Dev

Send a request

Netlify makes serverless functions accessible by URL using the format {SITE_URL}/.netlify/functions/{FUNCTION_FILE_NAME} — this means that our test function is available locally at http://localhost:8888/.netlify/functions/hello-world. We can try out our serverless function by sending a request with Postman.

try out the serverless function by sending a request with Postman

We can see that the result comes back with a “200 OK” response and the text “Hello world!” — success! We’ve just written and tested our first serverless function!

2. Deploy the functions to Netlify

Next, let’s get this function live at a public URL so it can be used from anywhere in the world.

Create a new GitHub repository and push your code to it

First, go to your GitHub account and create a new repository.

create a new GitHub repository

Next, we need to:

  • Initialize the project folder as a Git repository
  • Add the GitHub repo as its remote origin
  • Add all the files and commit them
  • Push the code to our GitHub repo
git init# NOTE: don’t forget to add your own username and repo here!
git remote add origin git@github.com:yourusername/serverless-functions-the-fast-way.git
git add -A
git commit -m 'first serverless function!'
git push origin master

Initialize a new Netlify site

Now that our code is available on GitHub, we need to initialize a new Netlify site. Using the CLI, this takes a single command:

ntl init

The CLI will guide us through creating a new site and then show us our new site’s URL and other details. Choose “Create & configure a new site” when prompted. We don’t need a build command and we’re going to keep static files in the repo root, so we can keep the default answers to those CLI’s prompts.

initialize a new Netlify site

Once the site is live, we can send a request to the live function by replacing http://localhost:8888 with our new Netlify site URL!

send a request to our new Netlify site URL

We’re using the Postman API Client in this example, but this also works if we visit our function in the browser. (You can see my function by visiting https://pedantic-perlman-2f1bba.netlify.app/.netlify/functions/hello-world.)

At this point, we’ve successfully built, tested, and deployed a serverless function. Not bad for writing 6 lines of JavaScript and 2 lines of config!

3. Handle form data

To take our serverless functions to a more practical place, let’s create a simple HTML form that will allow our site visitors to search for an image, which we’ll get using the Unsplash API.

Create an HTML form

To start, let’s create an HTML file at the root of our project called index.html. Inside, create a form with a single field, named query, that takes a search query as input and submits to a serverless function called search that we’ll create next.

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html lang="en">
<head>
<meta charset="UTF-8" />
<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0" />
<title>Search for a Photo!</title>
</head>
<body>
<main>
<h1>Search for a Photo!</h1>
<form action="/.netlify/functions/search" method="POST">
<label for="query">Search</label>
<input type="text" id="query" name="query" />
<button>Submit</button>
</form>
</main>
</body>
</html>

Create a serverless function

Next, add a new function called search.js in the functions folder and add the following, which uses Node’s built in querystring module to parse the form data and returns it:

const qs = require('querystring');exports.handler = async (event) => {
const { query } = qs.parse(event.body);
return {
statusCode: 200,
body: JSON.stringify({ query }),
};
};

To test, stop the server if it’s still running (press control + C), then run ntl dev and send a POST request to http://localhost:8888/.netlify/functions/search with a URL-encoded body of query=corgi. The function will respond with the query.

send a request to the new search function

Now we need to send this query off to Unsplash to get photos back.

4. Send authorized requests to third-party APIs

Because requests to the Unsplash API require private credentials, we can’t send requests from the client-side — that would expose the credentials and allow anyone to impersonate us when making API calls. Fortunately, serverless functions can make requests with credentials securely, which means we can safely use our Unsplash API key in our serverless function to search.

💡 Heads up! Joyce Lin and I talked all about keeping sensitive credentials secure in Jamstack apps on Learn With Jason. Check it out for more details!

Get an API key

Head over to https://unsplash.com/developers and sign in, create an app, and get your access key.

create a demo Unsplash app and get your access key

Add the API key as an environment variable in the Netlify app

Next, we need to store the Unsplash access token as an environment variable for our Netlify site. This is done through the Netlify web app, which we can quickly open through the CLI:

ntl open

Inside the app UI, click “Settings”, then “Build & deploy”, then “Environment”, and add a new environment variable called UNSPLASH_API_TOKEN with the access token as its value.

add the Unsplash token as an environment variable in Netlify

Update the function

Now that we have the access token in our environment, we can update the function to send search requests to Unsplash.

First, let’s initialize our project with a package.json and install node-fetch so we can make requests using the Fetch API.

# create a package.json for this project
npm init -y
# install dependencies
npm install node-fetch

Next, let’s refactor our function to make a secure request to Unsplash and return the results as JSON.

To test this, run ntl dev — note that the environment variable is loaded automatically for local testing!

run the local server, and note the environment variable is loaded automatically

We can re-run our POST request and we’ll see the Unsplash response come back.

run the request, which invokes the search function that uses the Unsplash access token

Return HTML

In addition to JSON you can return HTML (or any content type, really)! Let’s refactor our function to return an HTML <img> tag to display the first image returned from Unsplash.

After saving this change — note that ntl dev automatically reloads the function when we save — we can re-run our POST request again and see that the image HTML is returned!

run the request again to see the image HTML returned

5. Deploy the form

The last step is to deploy our search form to production.

To start, we need to add node_modules to the .gitignore file.

# Local Netlify folder
.netlify
+ node_modules

Next, let’s commit the rest of our new files.

git add -A
git commit -m 'add search form and function'
git push origin master

The site will automatically rebuild because we pushed changes to Git. We can see it rebuilding if we open up the Netlify web app.

see the Netlify app’s deploy status

Once the site finishes deploying, visit the live site and we’ll see our search form.

visit the deployed site

Enter in a search term and press the submit button and we’ll see an Unsplash image!

search for corgis

We’ve now written, tested, and deployed two serverless functions, as well as sent authenticated requests to third-party APIs. That’s a whole bunch of back-end-style code without having to build, configure, or manage any actual back-ends!

This is just the beginning

This tutorial covered the essentials of building and deploying serverless functions with Netlify. From here, you have all the building blocks to create anything you can imagine using serverless functions.

Whether you want to build serverless microservices, create a Stripe-powered Jamstack e-commerce store, or do something entirely new and different, the principles you’ve learned in this tutorial will help get you there!

Next steps

Better Practices

For individual engineers to the largest teams, Better…

Better Practices

For individual engineers to the largest teams, Better Practices is intended to distill knowledge from the Postman community. This is a place to learn about modern software practices together! Read more: https://medium.com/better-practices/introducing-better-practices-e9cf14cf0c88

Jason Lengstorf

Written by

⚡️ a.k.a. Blitz Jackson 📺 host of learnwithjason.dev 📝 blog: lengstorf.com 🎨 art: dribbble.com/jlengstorf 🥑 now: @Netlify ⏳ prev @gatsbyjs @IBM he/him

Better Practices

For individual engineers to the largest teams, Better Practices is intended to distill knowledge from the Postman community. This is a place to learn about modern software practices together! Read more: https://medium.com/better-practices/introducing-better-practices-e9cf14cf0c88

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