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This is the beginning of my first subscriber-only article on The Code Barbarian's Patreon. The article goes into much more depth than normal tech articles and has enough content to fill an ebook, so the whole article is only available to Patreon subscribers. If you like this article, please consider subscribing on Patreon to support future in-depth guides. The next article, "Building Distributed Locking with Node.js and MongoDB", ships on January 15, 2018!

Over the last 5 years, Express has become the de facto web server framework for Node.js. I wouldn't be surprised if the MEAN stack had something to do with it, because when I first evaluated Express in mid 2012, I compared it against its then biggest competitors like Geddy and Tower. Geddy and Tower have since faded into dim memory, but Express has exploded in popularity. I immediately loved Express' simplicity and elegance: middleware is the one fundamental concept for adding logic to Express. Plugins are just middleware, so dropping in a plugin is always as simple as app.use(plugin). Once I understood middleware and the APIs available for requests and responses, apps mostly wrote themselves.

I find the best way to really master a framework is to write your own. Really diving into the internals of a framework gives you a deeper intuition for how to use the framework than years of reading the documentation. I love open source because documentation often stretches the truth or omits important details, but the source code never lies.

In this article, I'll walk you through building a simplified Express clone called Espresso in 4 steps. First, you'll see how to implement a rudimentary middleware pipeline. Then you'll see how Express implements routing. Next, you'll see how Express' recursive routing structure is implemented with a separate router class. Finally, you'll see some limitations of using Express with async/await and how Express might improve its support for async/await.

Step 1: Getting Started With Middleware

First, let's implement rudimentary support for Express middleware, without any routing. Modulo error handling middleware, all Express middleware is a function that takes 3 parameters: the request req, the response res, and the next() function. Middleware is executed sequentially on each request, and next() is how you tell Express to kick off the next middleware. If a middleware doesn't call next(), it should make sure to call res.end() to send the HTTP response to the client.

app.use(function myMiddleware(req, res, next) {
  res.end('Hello, world');

Everything is middleware, even routes are just sugar for pushing middleware onto the stack. In the Express internals, the use() function converts the middleware function into a 'Layer', which is just an object wrapper around the middleware function. The use() function then pushes the layer onto the 'stack', which is just an array of layers. With that in mind, let's create the Espresso class and create a use() function:

const http = require('http');

class Espresso {
  constructor() {
    this._stack = [];

  use(middleware) {
    if (typeof middleware !== 'function') {
      throw new Error('Middleware must be a function!');

Espresso also needs to be able to create an HTTP server that executes all middleware on every request. Express has the listen() function for this, which just wraps Node.js' built-in http.createServer() function. Here's how Espresso implements this listen() function:

listen(port, callback) {
  const handler = (req, res) => {
    // `this.handle()` executes all middleware defined on this Espresso
    // app instance, will implement this method next!
    this.handle(req, res, err => {
      if (err) {
        res.end('Internal Server Error');
  return http.createServer(handler).listen({ port }, callback);

The handle() method used above is responsible for executing every middleware. Internally, Express routers have a similar handle() method that executes middleware that matches a request. For this first step, Espresso won't implement routing, it will just execute all middleware that was passed in to app.use(). Here's how you can implement the handle() method by calling next() recursively.

handle(req, res, callback) {
  let idx = 0;

  const next = (err) => {
    // If an error occurred, bypass the rest of the pipeline. In Express,
    // you would still need to look for error handling middleware, but
    // this example does not support that.
    if (err != null) {
      return setImmediate(() => callback(err));
    if (idx >= this._stack.length) {
      return setImmediate(() => callback());

    // Not the same as an internal Express layer, which is an object
    // wrapper around a middleware function. Using the same nomenclature
    // for consistency.
    const layer = this._stack[idx++];
    setImmediate(() => {
      try {
        // Execute the layer and rely on it to call `next()`
        layer(req, res, next);
      } catch(error) {


You can find the whole Espresso class on GitHub. You can also find associated mocha tests here. Let's see the Espresso class in action with a simple "Hello, World" example in a mocha test using axios as an HTTP client.

const Espresso = require('../lib/step1');
const assert = require('assert');
const axios = require('axios');
const cors = require('cors');

describe('Espresso', function() {
  let server;

  afterEach(function() {
    // Make sure the server doesn't stay running after the tests are done
    server && server.close();

  it('works in the basic Hello, World case', async function() {
    const app = new Espresso();
    // Add some very simple middleware
    app.use((req, res, next) => {
      res.end('Hello, world!');
    server = app.listen(3000);

    const res = await axios.get('http://localhost:3000');
    assert.equal(, 'Hello, world!');

To show that this is actually sufficient to reproduce the basics of Express middleware, let's plug in an actual Express plugin into Espresso and see it in action. The CORS module is an Express plugin that sets the AccessControlAllowOrigin header for enabling cross-origin resource sharing, otherwise known as making an HTTP request from Chrome to a server that has a different hostname or port than the one currently in your URL bar. Here's a test that shows using cors() with Espresso works as intended with no additional changes.

it('works with real Express middleware (CORS)', async function() {
  const app = new Espresso();
  app.use((req, res, next) => {
    res.end('Hello with CORS');
  server = app.listen(3000);

  const res = await axios.get('http://localhost:3000');

  // This is the header that `cors()` should set
  assert.equal(res.headers['access-control-allow-origin'], '*');
  assert.equal(, 'Hello with CORS');


That's the first of 4 steps to building your own Express from scratch. The Express code base may seem baffling at first. I've been using Express for years and even then the difference between req.url and req.originalUrl never clicked for me until I wrote this article. But, once you grok the core principles, you'll be able to easily debug baffling issues and perhaps even contribute to Express itself.

If you liked this article, you can help support my efforts to synthesize the Node.js ecosystem into easily digestible chunks, and get access to this and future articles, by subscribing on Patreon. January 2018's article is titled "Building Distributed Locking with Node.js and MongoDB".