AJAX, events, WebSockets

In this tutorial we will learn how to use AJAX and WebSockets to code a single page app, a client-server application that runs from a single view.

We will take the client-only Connect Four application we coded in this tutorial, and we will transform it in a multi-user game app.

The references for this tutorial are:

Prepare your workspace

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

Our application will use no templates, and for the moment we do not need a database either.

The main page

The only view for the user will be served from the / URL. This will be a very simple static HTML page that loads a style sheet and the client script. Something along these lines:

<!Doctype html>
        <link rel="stylesheet" href="..." />
        <div id="main">
            Please, enable JavaScript.
        <script src="..."></script>
  1. Create a static HTML page as above (do not forget compulsory tags, such as <meta charset> and <title>), and serve it at the / URL, using express.static() (preferred) or app.sendFile() (see the reflector tutorial).

  2. Create the style sheet and the script (both empty, for the moment). Serve them using express.static() or app.sendFile().

    Test that everything works correctly by, e.g., changing the text “Please, enable JavaScript” to “Welcome to Connect Four!” upon page load.

Getting the user id

For the moment we will let the client choose its user name at page load, without creating a user account with a password.

  1. Upon loading the main page, show a popup asking for the user name. You can use the (synchronous, blocking, oldie but still goodie) function prompt to create the popup.

  2. When the user gives its name, save it in sessionStorage, so that the value is kept in memory as long as the browser stays open.

  3. Modify your code so that the popup is only shown if a username is not available in sessionStorage yet.

    You can use several browser tabs and/or private navigation (Shift+Ctrl+P in Firefox, Shift+Ctrl+N in Chrome) to do your tests. You can also empty the sessionStorage through the developer tools, or by issuing sessionStorage.clear() in the console.

  4. Change the text shown in the main page to “Hello …” when the user name is known (replaced the dots by the user name).

  5. GET method is handy for debugging, however we are changing the state of the server with the route connect/:user and a GET request should not change the state of the server. Turn GET into POST for this route.

Communicating the user id to the server

We will now use AJAX to send the user name to the server, so that it can create a list of all connected users.

We need a way to store the list of connected users on the server. Good practice would suggest that we store this list in a database (either a SQL database, or an in-memory key-value store, such as Redis). However, we will make it simple and store this list in a global variable in the server code. This technique is a bit fragile and prone to memory leaks, but works nevertheless.

  1. On the server side, create a global variable connected_users, initialized to the empty object:

    var connected_users = {};
  2. To conveniently represent the users, we will create a JavaScript class. Create a class named User with a very simple constructor:

    constructor(name) {
        this.name = name;
  3. Create a GET handler for the /connect/:user URL. When a request is received:

    • the username is recovered from the URL (use req.params);
    • a new User is created with the given name;
    • the user is added to connected_users, using the username as key:

      connected_users[name] = new User(name);

      This will allow us to lookup users in connected_users quickly.

    After the user is inserted in connected_users, send an acknowledgment message using res.json.

    Test your handler by manually visiting /connect/:user in your browser.

  4. On the client-side, now, use XMLHttpRequest or fetch() to send your username to /connect/:user. Wait for the acknowledgment message and log it to the console.

Getting the user list

  1. Create a new handler for the /userlist URL. It must take the contents of connected_users, transform them to a list, and send them via res.json().

    Hint: To transform a JavaScript object to a list, you can either write a for loop, or use Object.values.

  2. On the client side, after having successfully connected, use XMLHttpRequest or fetch() to get the user list. Using the DOM API, dynamically present the user list in the browser as a <table> containing one row per user.

    Test using several tabs. You can also ask a fried to connect to your app.

    Hint: for convenience, it is best to write a function, say createUserList, that takes the list of users as input and returns a DOM element representing the <table>. Then you can add this DOM element to the document by replacing the children of the div #main.

  3. Using setInterval(), update the list of users every 2 seconds.

Handling disconnections

  1. Create a POST handler for /disconnect/:user. When a request is received, the corresponding user is removed from connected_users. You can remove an element from an object by using

    delete connected_users[...]
  2. On the client side, listen for the beforeunload event that is fired when the browser window is closed. React by sending a beacon to /disconnect/:user (a beacon is like a POST AJAX request, but it is guaranteed to be sent even if the window is closing).

    Test your application using several tabs.

    Note: beforeunload is also fired when you reload the page, so expect a lot of disconnection events everytime you restart the server (as Glitch reloads the page automatically).

Enter WebSockets

We have reached the limits of the AJAX technique. We could keep using AJAX and short polling to write the full application, however this would quickly become messy, slow and error prone. Instead, we will replace our AJAX calls with WebSockets.

To handle WebSockets on the server side, we will use the ws module. On the client side, we will use the native WebSocket API. These two have a very similar interface.

Let’s start from the server. To load and configure the ws module, modify your application like thus:

var http = require('http');
var ws = require('ws');
var express = require('express');
var app = express();

// etc...

// We attach express and ws to the same HTTP server
var server = http.createServer(app);
var wsserver = new ws.Server({ 
    server: server,

// We define the WebSocket logic
wsserver.on('connection', function(wsconn) {
    console.log('Received new WS connection');
    wsconn.send('Hello world!');
    wsconn.on('message', function(data) {
    // etc...

// Watch out for this: app.listen would break ws!

On the client side, it is very easy to talk to this WebSocket server

var ws = new WebSocket('wss://' + window.location.host)

ws.addEventListener('open', function(e) {
    ws.send('Hi world!');
    ws.addEventListener('message', function(e) {

Warning: Take note of the minor differences:

Warning: The wss:// scheme is for WebSockets encrypted over TLS. This is only compatible with an HTTPS server. If you are developping locally, you must use ws:// instead.

  1. Remove the AJAX call to /connect/:user from the client. Replace it with a WebSocket message sending the user name to the server.

  2. On the server side, wait for this message and insert the user into connected_users.

  3. We will need to use the WebSocket channel to transfer many other messages, and the server and client must be able to distinguish them. Thus, it is not acceptable to send the username as plaintext data. Instead, we will serialize data using JSON.

    • On the client side, create a message with this structure:

      { type: 'new_connection', username: '...' }

      serialize it using JSON.stringify() and send it via the WebSocket.

    • On the server side, parse the message with JSON.parse(), check that the message type is new_connection, then create the new user.

  4. We need to keep track of which user is associated to which WebSocket connection. Store a reference to the current user inside the connection callback. Something like this:

    function(wsconn) {
        var myuser = null;
        wsconn.on('message', function(data) {
            myuser = new User(...);
  5. Remove the beacon to /disconnect/:user.

  6. On the server side, detect a disconnection by listening to the close event on wsconn. If myuser is not null, remove the user from connected_users.

Test your application using several tabs. Verify that connections and disconnections happen consistently.

Ditching short polling

We still haven’t removed the short polling to /userlist. We must now notify all WebSocket clients whenever a connection/disconnection happens.

  1. Remove the AJAX calls to /userlist from the client.

  2. By looking at this example, modify your server so that it broadcasts to all connected clients the list of users whenever a connection or disconnetion happens.

    Note: You must now use JSON.stringify() on the server, and JSON.parse() on the client. Like you did before, choose a meaningful type for this message.

  3. Modify your client so that it updates the list of users whenever it receives a new message.

Test your application using several browsers tabs.


We are ready to initiate a game. We need to encode the logic that allows one user to challenge another. Instead of broadcast messages to all users, we now need to send specific messages to each user.

  1. Modify your User class to hold three parameters:

    constructor(name, wsconn) {
        this.name = name;           // The user name
        this.wsconn = wsconn;       // The WS connection to the user browser
        this.state = 'AVAILABLE';   // An internal state
  2. In the server, modify the WebSocket message handler to pass the current connection to new User(...).

  3. The wsconn object is not serializable by JSON.stringify(); we must adapt our code. Add a .toJSON() method to the class User, like thus

    toJSON() {
        return {
            name: this.name,
            state: this.state,

    Modify the server code so that it uses serialize() when broadcasting the user list.

  4. Modify the client code producing the list of users, so that it puts next to the user names a column with “Challenge” buttons, like thus


    The buttons must be disabled if the user state is not AVAILABLE (you can enable/disable a button b via JavaScript by setting b.disabled to false/true).

    Add an event listener to the “Challenge” buttons: whenever a button is clicked, a WebSocket message is sent to the server, containing the name of the challenged user.

  5. In the server, add a .invite(opponent) method to the User class. This method takes another user (opponent) as parameter and does the following:

    • Checks that opponent is not this (a user can’t challenge itself);
    • Checks that opponent and this are both AVAILABLE;
    • Switches the state of both opponent and this to PLAYING;
    • Returns true;

    Modify the WebSocket message handler to handle challenge message types. When a new challenge request is received, it calls the .invite() method on the challenger user, then

    • Sends a WebSocket message to opponent to notify it of the new game;
    • If everything has gone well:
      • it sends a WebSocket message to this to notify it of the start of the game;
      • it broadcasts a message to all users with the updated list of users;
    • If there has been an error:
      • it sends a WebSocket message to this, explaining the error.
  6. Modify the client code to replace the user list with a message “You are playing with…” whenever a user is in PLAYING state.

Test your code using several browsers tabs.

Quitting the game

Before coding the game, let’s jump straight to the end of it.

  1. In the server, create a class Game representing a game between two users. For the moment, this class only has two fields: player1 and player2. By default, player1 is the challenged.

  2. Modify User.invite() so that it creates a new Game instance whenever a user challenges another. The Game instance will point to the two users, and each of the users will point to it.

  3. Add a “Quit” button under the “You are playing with…” message. When the user clicks it, send a quit message to the server.

  4. Add a .quit() method to the Game class. It resets the user states to AVAILABLE, and removes the references to itself.

  5. Add a .quit() method to the User class. It must:

    • Check that the user is PLAYING,
    • Call the .quit() method of the associated Game,
    • Return true if everything went well.

    Modify the WebSocket message handler to handle quit message types. When a new quit request is received, it calls the .quit() method, then it must

    • Notify the opponent that the game is over,
    • If everything has gone well:
      • send a WebSocket message to this to notify it of the end of the game;
      • broadcast a message to all users with the updated list of users;
    • If there has been an error:
      • send a WebSocket message to this, explaining the error.
  6. Modify the client so that it reverts to showing the list of users when a game has ended.

Let’s play

And we finally come to the real game. Using the code you wrote for the Connect Four tutorial, or this solution, you will make a full multi-user Connect Four app.

Instructions are going to become more approximate from now on.

  1. Below the “You are playing with…” message, show the game board.

  2. Store the state of the game in the Game class: a 6×7 grid, and a variable tracking which player plays next (player1 takes red and starts).

  3. Modify the click handler on the board so that:

    • If the move is valid (it’s the player’s turn, and the column is not full), a message is sent to the server through the WebSocket;
    • If the move is invalid, an error message is shown.
  4. Write the game logic in the server. When a move is received from the client, it must:

    • Check that the move is valid (checking on the client side is not enough);
    • Update the state;
    • Check if the move is a winning one.

    After doing the checks and updating the state, the server notifies both players of the new state.

  5. When the game is over, both clients show a message indicating the winner, and go back to the AVAILABLE state.

Test your application with several games simultaneously.

To go further (optional)

  1. Integrate the database from the previous tutorial:

    • The users authenticate with their username and password,
    • The colors of the tokens are chosen from the user preferences (the challenged user always gets it preferred color).
    • Keep track of the number of wins/losses in the database.
    • Show all this information in the user list.

    Warning: You will need to get values from the session in the WebSocket code. express-session does not work automatically with WebSockets. You will need this hack, as described here.

    var sess_storage = session({ 
        secret: "12345",
        resave: false,
        saveUninitialized: false,
    var wsserver = new ws.Server({ 
        server: server,
        verifyClient: function(info, next) {
            sess_storage(info.req, {}, function(err) {
                if (err) {
                    next(false, 500, "Error: " + err);
                } else {
                    // Pass false if you want to refuse the connection

    Then the session will be available in wsconn.upgradeReq.session.

  2. Use a more elaborate challenging system, based upon four states: AVAILABLE, INVITATION SENT, INVITATION RECEIVED and PLAYING. Allow a user to decline an invitation.

  3. Allow a user to quit a game by forfeiting (the game is considered lost for the user).

  4. Handle unexpected disconnections (forfeit the game if the user is playing).

  5. Allow playing many games simultaneously.

  6. We already mentioned that using global variables is fragile. In a real-world scenario, where Node.js is distributed on many cores (see the Cluster API), global memory is not even an option.

    Instead of using global state, you can use a database, for example an SQL one. However this is not the most efficient and practical solution.

    An in-memory NoSQL system, such as Redis, is more apt to the task. Its pub/sub system works perfectly with Node.js and server push.

    Replace global variables with a Redis database. You will have to go through the Redis manuals and the docs of the node_redis module.

    Redis is not available on Glitch. The simplest way is to develop locally.

Fork me on GitHub