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Forms, File Uploads and Security with Node.js and Express

By Mark Brown

JavaScript

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If you’re building a web application, you’re likely to encounter the need to build HTML forms on day one. They’re a big part of the web experience, and they can be complicated.

Typically the form-handling process involves:

  • displaying an empty HTML form in response to an initial GET request
  • user submitting the form with data in a POST request
  • validation on both the client and the server
  • re-displaying the form populated with escaped data and error messages if invalid
  • doing something with the sanitized data on the server if it’s all valid
  • redirecting the user or showing a success message after data is processed.

Handling form data also comes with extra security considerations.

We’ll go through all of these and explain how to build them with Node.js and Express — the most popular web framework for Node. First, we’ll build a simple contact form where people can send a message and email address securely and then take a look what’s involved in processing file uploads.

A contact form with email and message with validation errors

As ever, the complete code can be found in our GitHub repo.

Setup

Make sure you’ve got a recent version of Node.js installed. node -v should return 8.9.0 or higher.

Download the starter code from here with Git:

git clone -b starter https://github.com/sitepoint-editors/node-forms.git node-forms-starter
cd node-forms-starter
npm install
npm start

Note: The repo has two branches, starter and master. The starter branch contains the minimum setup you need to follow this article. The master branch contains a full, working demo (link above).

There’s not too much code in there. It’s just a bare-bones Express setup with EJS templates and error handlers:

// server.js
const path = require('path');
const express = require('express');
const layout = require('express-layout');

const routes = require('./routes');
const app = express();

app.set('views', path.join(__dirname, 'views'));
app.set('view engine', 'ejs');

const middlewares = [
  layout(),
  express.static(path.join(__dirname, 'public')),
];
app.use(middlewares);

app.use('/', routes);

app.use((req, res, next) => {
  res.status(404).send("Sorry can't find that!");
});

app.use((err, req, res, next) => {
  console.error(err.stack);
  res.status(500).send('Something broke!');
});

app.listen(3000, () => {
  console.log('App running at http://localhost:3000');
});

The root url / simply renders the index.ejs view:

// routes.js
const express = require('express');
const router = express.Router();

router.get('/', (req, res) => {
  res.render('index');
});

module.exports = router;

Displaying the Form

When people make a GET request to /contact, we want to render a new view contact.ejs:

// routes.js
router.get('/contact', (req, res) => {
  res.render('contact');
});

The contact form will let them send us a message and their email address:

<!-- views/contact.ejs -->
<div class="form-header">
  <h2>Send us a message</h2>
</div>
<form method="post" action="/contact" novalidate>
  <div class="form-field">
    <label for="message">Message</label>
    <textarea class="input" id="message" name="message" rows="4" autofocus></textarea>
  </div>
  <div class="form-field">
    <label for="email">Email</label>
    <input class="input" id="email" name="email" type="email" value="" />
  </div>
  <div class="form-actions">
    <button class="btn" type="submit">Send</button>
  </div>
</form>

See what it looks like at http://localhost:3000/contact.

Form Submission

To receive POST values in Express, you first need to include the body-parser middleware, which exposes submitted form values on req.body in your route handlers. Add it to the end of the middlewares array:

// server.js
const bodyParser = require('body-parser');

const middlewares = [
  // ...
  bodyParser.urlencoded({ extended: true }),
];

It’s a common convention for forms to POST data back to the same URL as was used in the initial GET request. Let’s do that here and handle POST /contact to process the user input.

Let’s look at the invalid submission first. If invalid, we need to pass back the submitted values to the view (so users don’t need to re-enter them) along with any error messages we want to display:

router.get('/contact', (req, res) => {
  res.render('contact', {
    data: {},
    errors: {}
  });
});

router.post('/contact', (req, res) => {
  res.render('contact', {
    data: req.body, // { message, email }
    errors: {
      message: {
        msg: 'A message is required'
      },
      email: {
        msg: 'That email doesn‘t look right'
      }
    }
  });
});

If there are any validation errors, we’ll do the following:

  • display the errors at the top of the form
  • set the input values to what was submitted to the server
  • display inline errors below the inputs
  • add a form-field-invalid class to the fields with errors.
<!-- views/contact.ejs -->
<div class="form-header">
  <% if (Object.keys(errors).length === 0) { %>
    <h2>Send us a message</h2>
  <% } else { %>
    <h2 class="errors-heading">Oops, please correct the following:</h2>
    <ul class="errors-list">
      <% Object.values(errors).forEach(error => { %>
        <li><%= error.msg %></li>
      <% }) %>
    </ul>
  <% } %>
</div>

<form method="post" action="/contact" novalidate>
  <div class="form-field <%= errors.message ? 'form-field-invalid' : '' %>">
    <label for="message">Message</label>
    <textarea class="input" id="message" name="message" rows="4" autofocus><%= data.message %></textarea>
    <% if (errors.message) { %>
      <div class="error"><%= errors.message.msg %></div>
    <% } %>
  </div>
  <div class="form-field <%= errors.email ? 'form-field-invalid' : '' %>">
    <label for="email">Email</label>
    <input class="input" id="email" name="email" type="email" value="<%= data.email %>" />
    <% if (errors.email) { %>
      <div class="error"><%= errors.email.msg %></div>
    <% } %>
  </div>
  <div class="form-actions">
    <button class="btn" type="submit">Send</button>
  </div>
</form>

Submit the form at http://localhost:3000/contact to see this in action. That’s everything we need on the view side.

Validation and Sanitization

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There’s a handy middleware called express-validator for validating and sanitizing data using the validator.js library. Let’s add it to our app.

Validation

With the validators provided, we can easily check that a message and a valid email address was provided:

// routes.js
const { check, validationResult, matchedData } = require('express-validator');

router.post('/contact', [
  check('message')
    .isLength({ min: 1 })
    .withMessage('Message is required'),
  check('email')
    .isEmail()
    .withMessage('That email doesn‘t look right')
], (req, res) => {
  const errors = validationResult(req);
  res.render('contact', {
    data: req.body,
    errors: errors.mapped()
  });
});

Sanitization

With the sanitizers provided, we can trim whitespace from the start and end of the values, and normalize the email address into a consistent pattern. This can help remove duplicate contacts being created by slightly different inputs. For example, ' Mark@gmail.com' and 'mark@gmail.com ' would both be sanitized into 'mark@gmail.com'.

Sanitizers can simply be chained onto the end of the validators:

// routes.js
router.post('/contact', [
  check('message')
    .isLength({ min: 1 })
    .withMessage('Message is required')
    .trim(),
  check('email')
    .isEmail()
    .withMessage('That email doesn‘t look right')
    .bail()
    .trim()
    .normalizeEmail()
], (req, res) => {
  const errors = validationResult(req);
  res.render('contact', {
    data: req.body,
    errors: errors.mapped()
  });

  const data = matchedData(req);
  console.log('Sanitized:', data);
});

The matchedData function returns the output of the sanitizers on our input.

Also, notice our use of the bail method, which stops running validations if any of the previous ones have failed. We need this because if a user submits the form without entering a value into the email field, the normalizeEmail will attempt to normalize an empty string and convert it to an @. This will then be inserted into our email field when we re-render the form.

The Valid Form

If there are errors, we need to re-render the view. If not, we need to do something useful with the data and then show that the submission was successful. Typically, the person is redirected to a success page and shown a message.

HTTP is stateless, so you can’t redirect to another page and pass messages along without the help of a session cookie to persist that message between HTTP requests. A “flash message” is the name given to this kind of one-time-only message we want to persist across a redirect and then disappear.

There are three middlewares we need to include to wire this up:

// server.js
const cookieParser = require('cookie-parser');
const session = require('express-session');
const flash = require('express-flash');

const middlewares = [
  // ...
  cookieParser(),
  session({
    secret: 'super-secret-key',
    key: 'super-secret-cookie',
    resave: false,
    saveUninitialized: false,
    cookie: { maxAge: 60000 }
  }),
  flash(),
];

The express-flash middleware adds req.flash(type, message), which we can use in our route handlers:

// routes
router.post('/contact', [
  // validation ...
], (req, res) => {
  const errors = validationResult(req);
  if (!errors.isEmpty()) {
    return res.render('contact', {
      data: req.body,
      errors: errors.mapped()
    });
  }

  const data = matchedData(req);
  console.log('Sanitized: ', data);
  // Homework: send sanitized data in an email or persist to a db

  req.flash('success', 'Thanks for the message! I‘ll be in touch :)');
  res.redirect('/');
});

The express-flash middleware adds messages to req.locals which all views have access to:

<!-- views/index.ejs -->
<% if (messages.success) { %>
  <div class="flash flash-success"><%= messages.success %></div>
<% } %>

<h1>Working With Forms in Node.js</h1>

You should now be redirected to the index view and see a success message when the form is submitted with valid data. Huzzah! We can now deploy this to production and be sent messages by the prince of Nigeria.

Sending Email with Node

You might have noticed that the actual sending of the mail is left to the reader as homework. This is not as difficult as it might sound and can be accomplished using the Nodemailer package. You can find bare-bones instructions on how to set this up here, or a more in-depth tutorial here.

Security considerations

If you’re working with forms and sessions on the Internet, you need to be aware of common security holes in web applications. The best security advice I’ve been given is “Never trust the client!”

TLS over HTTPS

Always use TLS encryption over https:// when working with forms so that the submitted data is encrypted when it’s sent across the Internet. If you send form data over http://, it’s sent in plain text and can be visible to anyone eavesdropping on those packets as they journey across the Web.

If you’d like to find out more about working with SSL/TLS in Node.js, please consult this article.

Wear Your Helmet

There’s a neat little middleware called helmet that adds some security from HTTP headers. It’s best to include right at the top of your middlewares and is super easy to include:

// server.js
const helmet = require('helmet');

middlewares = [
  helmet(),
  // ...
];

Cross-site Request Forgery (CSRF)

You can protect yourself against cross-site request forgery by generating a unique token when the user is presented with a form and then validating that token before the POST data is processed. There’s a middleware to help you out here as well:

// routes.js
const csrf = require('csurf');
const csrfProtection = csrf({ cookie: true });

In the GET request, we generate a token:

// routes.js
router.get('/contact', csrfProtection, (req, res) => {
  res.render('contact', {
    data: {},
    errors: {},
    csrfToken: req.csrfToken()
  });
});

And also in the validation errors response:

router.post('/contact', csrfProtection, [
  // validations ...
], (req, res) => {
  const errors = validationResult(req);
  if (!errors.isEmpty()) {
    return res.render('contact', {
      data: req.body,
      errors: errors.mapped(),
      csrfToken: req.csrfToken()
    });
  }

  // ...
});

Then we just need include the token in a hidden input:

<!-- view/contact.ejs -->
<form method="post" action="/contact" novalidate>
  <input type="hidden" name="_csrf" value="<%= csrfToken %>">
  <!-- ... -->
</form>

That’s all that’s required.

We don’t need to modify our POST request handler, as all POST requests will now require a valid token by the csurf middleware. If a valid CSRF token isn’t provided, a ForbiddenError error will be thrown, which can be handled by the error handler defined at the end of server.js.

You can test this out yourself by editing or removing the token from the form with your browser’s developer tools and submitting.

Cross-site Scripting (XSS)

You need to take care when displaying user-submitted data in an HTML view as it can open you up to cross-site scripting(XSS). All template languages provide different methods for outputting values. The EJS <%= value %> outputs the HTML escaped value to protect you from XSS, whereas <%- value %> outputs a raw string.

Always use the escaped output <%= value %> when dealing with user-submitted values. Only use raw outputs when you’re sure that it’s safe to do so.

File Uploads

Uploading files in HTML forms is a special case that requires an encoding type of "multipart/form-data". See MDN’s guide to sending form data for more details about what happens with multipart form submissions.

You’ll need additional middleware to handle multipart uploads. There’s an Express package named multer that we’ll use here:

// routes.js
const multer = require('multer');
const upload = multer({ storage: multer.memoryStorage() });

router.post('/contact', upload.single('photo'), csrfProtection, [
  // validation ...
], (req, res) => {
  // error handling ...

  if (req.file) {
    console.log('Uploaded: ', req.file);
    // Homework: Upload file to S3
  }

  req.flash('success', 'Thanks for the message! I’ll be in touch :)');
  res.redirect('/');
});

This code instructs multer to upload the file in the “photo” field into memory and exposes the File object in req.file, which we can inspect or process further.

The last thing we need is to add the enctype attribute and our file input:

<form method="post" action="/contact?_csrf=<%= csrfToken %>" novalidate enctype="multipart/form-data">
  <input type="hidden" name="_csrf" value="<%= csrfToken %>">
  <div class="form-field <%= errors.message ? 'form-field-invalid' : '' %>">
    <label for="message">Message</label>
    <textarea class="input" id="message" name="message" rows="4" autofocus><%= data.message %></textarea>
    <% if (errors.message) { %>
      <div class="error"><%= errors.message.msg %></div>
    <% } %>
  </div>
  <div class="form-field <%= errors.email ? 'form-field-invalid' : '' %>">
    <label for="email">Email</label>
    <input class="input" id="email" name="email" type="email" value="<%= data.email %>" />
    <% if (errors.email) { %>
      <div class="error"><%= errors.email.msg %></div>
    <% } %>
  </div>
  <div class="form-field">
    <label for="photo">Photo</label>
    <input class="input" id="photo" name="photo" type="file" />
  </div>
  <div class="form-actions">
    <button class="btn" type="submit">Send</button>
  </div>
</form>

Try uploading a file. You should see the File objects logged in the console.

Populating File Inputs

In case of validation errors, we can’t re-populate file inputs like we did for the text inputs (it’s a security risk). A common approach to solving this problem involves these steps:

  • uploading the file to a temporary location on the server
  • showing a thumbnail and filename of the attached file
  • adding JavaScript to the form to allow people to remove the selected file or upload a new one
  • moving the file to a permanent location when everything is valid.

Because of the additional complexities of working with multipart and file uploads, they’re often kept in separate forms.

Uploading Files with Node

Finally, you’ll notice that it’s been left to the reader to implement the actual upload functionality. This is not as difficult as it might sound and can be accomplished using various packages, such as Formidable, or express-fileupload. You can find bare-bones instructions on how to set this up here, or a more in-depth tutorial here.

Thanks for Reading

I hope you enjoyed learning about HTML forms and how to work with them in Express and Node.js. Here’s a quick recap of what we’ve covered:

  • displaying an empty form in response to a GET request
  • processing the submitted POST data
  • displaying a list of errors, inline errors and submitted data
  • checking submitted data with validators
  • cleaning up submitted data with sanitizers
  • passing messages across redirects with a flash message
  • protecting yourself against attacks like CSRF and XSS
  • processing file uploads in multipart form submissions.

Let me know how you get on via Twitter!

Hello. I'm a front end web developer from Melbourne, Australia. I enjoy working on the web, appreciate good design and working along side talented people I can learn from. I have a particular interest in visual programming so have fun working with SVG and Canvas.

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