Deploy a React app with sass using Nginx

2655 words, 13 minutes to read

A couple of days ago (at the time of writing), I started my newest side project. It's a portfolio showcasing my (very very very) amateur photography. It's written in React.js with Sass and I have to say it was extremely enjoyable to work on. Unsurprisingly though, I ran into some issues while deploying to production, which after a lot of head banging against every possible flat surface I could find, I managed to sort. So this post will be about how to make React.js work with sass in production and how to serve the project using Nginx as a front end web server.

We'll be using the official starter kit / CLI tool provided by the facebook team called create-react-app.

You can install it by running the following command:

npm install -g create-react-app

Adding Sass to a React project

Including sass in a React app can be done in two ways: You can either eject the project and manually modify the webpack config files or you can follow the procedure in the official docs. I've personally chosen to go with the first approach. You can just follow the steps in this tutorial to get up and running.

Note: If you went with the second approach, you can just skip the following and directly jump to the next section

Once you've done that, open the config/ file, locate the rules section under module.exports and add the following snippet to it.

    test: /\.sass$/,
    use: ExtractTextPlugin.extract({
        fallback: require.resolve("style-loader"),
        use: [require.resolve("css-loader"), require.resolve("sass-loader")]
    include: paths.appSrc,

This config will be executed when you call npm run build. If you don't do this, you'll end up with an empty css file.

Important note

Before building the project for the first time, we must first unregister the service worker. Doing this will ensure that the static assets aren't cached by the client's browsers. It's important because if you skip this step, any subsequent change / build you'll deploy won't necessarily be reflected right away client side. (I'm not knowledgable enough on service workers to provide details on this behaviour, but it's something to note. If you really need service workers in your project, you might want to explore other solutions to avoid asset caching).

Your index.js file should now look something like this:

import { unregister } from './registerServiceWorker'
import App from './App';
ReactDOM.render(<App />, document.getElementById('root'));

Building the project

This is the part where we actually build our project. By building I mean compiling all React files and their related dependencies, transpiling them into vanilla Javascript, compiling sass files into css, minifying them etc ... To do this, we can simply run npm run build and voila ! You should have a brand new build folder in your project.

Creating our deploy script

Your app is now compiled and ready to be served. Now is a good time to start thinking about deployment strategies. In this basic scenario (and quite frankly, most scenraios), you really just want to upload the build folder to a remote server and have it accessible as a static site.

You can use ftp to transfer the files and it would be perfectly acceptable, but it's not the most flexible solution. The alternative is to use a CLI utility called rsync (which is available on mac and linux, not sure about windows). With rsync, you can synchronise files and folders within the same computer or across machines you have ssh access to.

Here's the command we would run to synchronise the build folder to a server on the internet:

# Asssuming we're inside the project folder
rsync -avP build/ username@remote_ip:/destination/path

Let's break down this command:

-a means archive, which is a shortcut for multiple switches. It recursively syncs all files and subfolders within build to the destnation path, keeping the modification dates, permissions and other metadata unchanged.

-v means verbose. It just outputs the steps to the screen so you can see what happens in real time.

-P stands for progress. This is particularly useful in this case because you rely on a network connection to sync the files. Using this option will display a progress bar for each file in the queue.

But you don't want to keep doing all of that every time we want to push now do you ?

Thankfully, you can use create a bash script to automate this process a litte bit. Here's how mine looks like:


echo "[log] - Merging branch to master"
git checkout master && git merge develop && git push origin master
echo "[log] - Merge completed"

echo "[log] - Compiling project to build folder ..."
npm run build
echo "[log] - Build process done"

echo "[log] - Deploying files to server"
rsync -avP build/ user@host:/destination/path
echo "[log] - Deployment completed"

echo "[log] - Switching to develop"
git checkout develop
echo "[log] - Done!"

Again, let's walk through that script section by section:

  1. I checkout to master, merge develop and push. This ensures that my master branch is always up to date with the latest version of my working codebase.
  2. I execute npm run build which, as previously explained, will create the build directory with our compiled, ready to be deployed files.
  3. I use rsync to copy over the contents of the build folder to the destination path in the remote machine I administer. (notice the trailing slash after build/, this tells rsync to copy the contents of the folder and not the folder itself).
  4. I switch the current working branch back to develop so that I can start developing without accidentally altering the state of master.

Obviously this is very basic and in a more complex project, you'd have to run unit tests and do other things your project requires.

Finally, you need to give executable permissions to the file by running:

sudo chmod +x

Now all you have to do when you want to deploy your project to production is run


Serving our site with Nginx

Note: this assumes your server is running ubuntu or any other debian based distro

Ok, so if you've followed the steps correctly, you should have your project files uploaded to your remote server. Now we need to use Nginx to make the site accessible to the internet.

First, create a new config file inside /etc/nginx/sites-available.

cd /etc/nginx/sites-available
touch mywebsiteconfig # File extension is not required in this case

Next step is to edit the file using either vim or nano (sudo privileges may be required).

server {

    listen 80;

    location / {
        root /path/to/your/project;
        index index.html index.htm;

        default_type "text/html";

    access_log /var/log/nginx/mywebsite_access.log;
    error_log /var/log/nginx/mywebsite_errors.log;

If you're not familiar with Nginx, let me explain what you just copied.

  1. We created a server block to hold our configuration and keep it separate from other configs we may add in the future (like https for example).
  2. We declare the listen directive which tells nginx to listen on port 80.
  3. We set the server_name to our domain name. This tells nginx to apply the config settings to any incoming request from any of listed urls.
  4. Finally, we specify the paths to both the access and error logs. It's optional but highly recommended, so that you know exactly where to look when errors happen. This will save you a tonne of time when troubleshooting issues in the future.

Close the file and exit nano or vim.

Nginx keeps its configuration files in two separate directories: /etc/nginx/sites-available and /etc/nginx/sites-enabled. It will serve any website whose configuration file is in the latter folder.

All you have to do now is create a symlink (think of it like a shortcut to an app in a desktop GUI) to your config, and store it in sites-enabled. That way, if you ever decide to shut down the site, you'll simply need to delete the symlink and you're good.

Before creating the symlink, it's good measure to check if the configuration file has any errors in it. To check for errors just run the following command:

sudo nginx -t

It will scan all of your config files and check for errors (and return them to you if there are any).

Now you can create the symlink by executing:

sudo ln -s /etc/nginx/sites-available/mywebsite /etc/nginx/sites-enabled

Note: If you decide to use service workers with your project and you're still running into caching issues, you should know that Nginx can also be used as a static assets server. I haven't looked into this scenario yet. I might test that approach in the future and detail the process in another post.

Lastly, reload nginx and your website should now be accessible via its URL (provided you correctly setup the DNS settings with your domain name registrar)

sudo service nginx reload

If you read this article all the way through, thanks for sticking with me ! You can send me questions, remarks, or comments on twitter, I'm @aaqaishtyaq on twitter.