User accounts

In this tutorial we are going to learn how to connect to and query a (SQL) database, and how to store the extracted information in a session. We will use these technologies to build a simple app for managing user accounts.

We will use the module express-session for handling sessions, and the database abstraction layer knex for querying the database.

The references for this tutorial are

Preparing your workspace

Create a new Node app on Glitch. Install the following packages through package.json:

Note: The sqlite3 module won’t work if you develop locally on Windows. Fortunately, Knex is compatible with all flavors of SQL (MySQL, Postgres, MariaDB, …), so you can have your application talk with any of these servers with very few code changes. Follow the instructions in the docs.

Building the schema

For a starter, we need a database, and some tables in it. Glitch supports SQLite natively, so that’s what we’re going to use. However, we cannot create the tables at the moment we start the application, as those instructions would be executed at every restart.

Instead, we are going to write a separate script to initialize the database with the tables we need.

  1. Create a script named db_init.js, containing the following code:

    var knex = require('knex')({
        client: 'sqlite3',
        connection: {
            filename: ".data/db.sqlite3"
        debug: true,

This code creates a SQLite file named db.sqlite3 in the folder .data (a hidden folder on Unix systems, and a special folder on Glitch), and initiates a connection. We can now query the connection by operating on the knex object. For example, we can read the contents of a table, using the async/await syntax (see the lesson on using databases):

async function foo() {
    var rows = await knex.raw('SELECT * FROM bar');
  1. Using a raw CREATE TABLE statement in db_init.js, or using the schema builder, create a table named users, with the following columns:

    • login: type varchar(255), primary key,
    • pass: type varchar(255) NOT NULL.
  2. To be sure to terminate the program, add a call to knex.destroy() after the table creation.

    Warning: knex.destroy() is an asynchronous call, like knex.raw(). To call the two functions in order, and avoid race conditions, be sure to await for them (and thus put the two calls inside an async function).

Of course, nothing is going to happen if you don’t run the script. We will use Glitch’s Linux console to do the sysadmin magic. In the bottom left corner, click “Tools”, then “Console”.

A Linux terminal opens in a new window. Run your script by typing

node db_init.js

Some debug messages will appear. If things have gone well, you can check that your database was created and populated by issuing the command

sqlite3 .data/db.sqlite3 .schema

Damn! I need to update the schema

The schema we chose for our users table was too minimalist: we need to add more columns. SQL offers a ALTER TABLE command to modify a table, and we could in principle run it from a Node script, or directly from the SQLite command line. However, this does not play very well with the idea of having a script to run just once to initialize the database. Instead, we are going to modify db_init.js so that it erases the database and recreates the table. This way, we can easily update the script and rerun it whenever we need a fresh state.

  1. Modify db_init.js to:

    • first drop the table users (use DROP TABLE IF EXISTS to avoid errors),
    • then (re)-create the table users with the following columns:
      • login: type varchar(255), primary key,
      • pass: type varchar(255) NOT NULL,
      • name: type varchar(255),
      • color1: type varchar(10),
      • color2: type varchar(10).

    Rerun db_init.js via the console and verify that the table users is recreated correctly.

  2. The (asynchronous) function knex('users').columnInfo() returns a description of the columns of the users table. Add a call to .columnInfo() to db_init.js to show the structure of the users table after it has been created.

  3. Add some default users to the table by using a INSERT INTO statement.

  4. Print the contents of the table on the console by using a SELECT statement (Note: the rows obtained by SELECT are returned as a list of JavaScript objects by Knex).

The Web app

We are now ready to write our web application. We keep it very simple: we want to be able to create a new user, log in, and show the list of users.

  1. Initialize the server with the usual Express skeleton (with body-parser and nunjucks configured). Add the following import to help with debugging asynchronous code:


    Add a Knex configuration section as done in db_init.js. Add (emtpy) routes for the URLs /, /signin, /logout and /userlist.

  2. Write the handler for /userlist. It must select all rows from the users table, and show them in a HTML table.

  3. Replace the text of the color1 column with a rectangle colored in the same color. If color1 is NULL use a default color. The result may look something like this:

    Login Name Color
    kasparov Garry Kasparov
    karpov Anatoly Karpov

    Hint: for the colored rectangle you can use a <span> with fixed height and width and the display: inline-block property.

Creating users

The /signin route will let us create a new user. For this we use a HTML form, and a POST request. In the handler for the POST request we will need to send a INSERT INTO query with user supplied parameters. We recall that the knex.raw() method takes an optional second argument, which is a list of replacement values for prepared statements, like thus:

await knex.raw('INSERT INTO users VALUES (?, ?, ?, ?, ?)',
               [ 'karpov', 'checkmate', 'Anatoly Karpov', 'green', 'black' ]);

Alternatively, you can use the query builder.

  1. Create a Nunjucks template for a web form for creating a new user, and serve it at the /signin URL. It must contain a login field, a password field, a name field, a favorite color and a secondary color (try type=color for the color fields!). The form must use the POST method (method attribute) and it must send the data back to /signin (it is enough to leave the action attributed empty).

  2. Create a POST handler for /signin where you take the values sent in the form and insert then in the users table, only if the login and the password field are non-empty (an empty field in a form is read as an empty string '' in req.body). After the insertion has succeeded, redirect to / (using res.redirect()).

    If one of the fields is empty, do not insert in the database, and send instead the same form template, with a message explaining what error happened (use the template engine to show the message). Using the template engine, you can also pre-fill the fields with the values that had been sent.

    Test with the “Network” tool of the browser’s developer tools.

Errors may happen when you do SQL queries, and we cannot let them crash our application. For example, a user may try to create an account for a login that already exists (violating the PRIMARY KEY constraint). To handle errors, you can use a try ... catch:

try {
    await knex.raw('INSERT INTO ...');
} catch (error) {
  1. Handle errors in your code. If the error is a violation of the primary key constraint (inspect the error in the console, and find out the error code for this violation), send back the form with an explanatory message. For any other error, send back the form with a generic message.

Login and sessions

We come to the last part: handling logins. We will show a login form at the / URL, and redirect to /userlist upon successful login.

Since we are moving between different handlers, we need a way to keep the information that the user is logged in across many requests. We cannot, and do not want to, transfer the username and password with every request, hence we will use a session mechanism.

As seen in the sessions lesson, we must start by configuring the Express app with

var session = require('express-session');

    secret: '12345',
    resave: false,
    saveUninitialized: false,

Then the session will be available in every handler at req.session.

  1. Write a handler for / that shows a form similar to this one:

    login: password:
  2. Like you did for /signin, write a second handler for POST requests to /. The handler checks whether the pair login-password corresponds to a user in the database, then:

    • if login and password are wrong, it shows again the form with an error message;

    • if they are correct, it saves the login, the name and the colors in the session, and redirects to /userlist.

  3. Modify / so that it immediately redirects to /userlist if the user is already logged in.

  4. Modify /userlist so that it redirects to / when the user is not logged in, and so that it shows in bold the current user.

  5. Write the /logout route to log the user out. For that, it is enough to put a special value in the session (for example, set the login to null); when a handler detects this special value, it treats the request as an unauthenticated one.

  6. Add a link to /logout in the /userlist view.

Advanced stuff (optional)

Here are some optional questions to better master Knex and sessions.

  1. In /signin, ask for the password twice, and only accept the new user if the two password fields match.

  2. We have mostly used knex.raw() in this tutorial, however knex has a very convenient query builder to construct SQL statements with a more object-oriented syntax. Read the docs and replace your raw queries with built ones. You can also try Schema building in db_init.js.

  3. It is very bad practice to store cleartext passwords in the database: what you if suffer a data breach and your database is divulged?

    Instead, it is preferable to store hashed passwords: an irreversible transformation of the cleartext password, so that the cleartext is only seen in transit, but never stored. The hash computation must happen on the server, and must be salted with a secret, otherwise the technique is no safer than storing cleartext passwords.

    If this is done properly, not even the administrator will be able to recover the cleartext passwords. A misunderstanding of this technique was at the origin of the famous leak of 150M Adobe passwords in 2013 :

    It’s best not to roll your own crypto, as it is easy to make mistakes. Use instead trusted ready-made solutions, such as the bcrypt module.

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