Giancarlo Buomprisco

Giancarlo Buomprisco

·10 min read

How to build production-grade Next.js projects

Learn the practices you should learn to build production-grade Next.js projects

Scenario: you built an MVP (or are about to), and it's time to ship it to your users. Unfortunately, you have no idea which steps to take before and after shipping your application to production.

In this article, I want to describe some of the steps that you should take to ship production-grade Next.js projects to your users, reduce common mistakes, monitor your application, and, ultimately, set you up for success.

The React Framework for Production

Vercel calls Next.js "The React Framework for Production" - and for a good reason: unlike many other web frameworks, Next.js requires little-to-no further optimization to deploy applications to production.

The Next.js developers have done a commendable job at minimizing the amount of work required to ship projects that are fast, efficient, and fully functional, and even more so if deployed with Vercel.

With that said, some development practices are universal and developers cannot overlook them; no framework will fully handle them for you.

In this article, I talk about:

  1. Architecture
  2. Environment Setup
  3. Error Handling
  4. Logging
  5. Smoke Testing and E2E

Architecture

Building your application with the right foundations can be crucial for your project's success; while it is essential not to stress too much on the technical details when venturing into an Agile project, it's undeniable that foundational mistakes are particularly nasty to fix later on.

This is one of the differences between design and architecture: typically, by "design", we mean the architecture of a smaller unit; instead, by "architecture" we mean the overall architecture of the main components of your project.

A design issue could be a bad implemented React component; an architectural problem, instead, could be choosing the wrong data model for your business domain, or a too specific abstraction, which will lead to complexity and migrations.

As you can imagine, architecture is something you would want to get right from the very beginning:

  1. Design mistakes are less severe and can be fixed along the way, as your app grows

  2. Architectural errors, instead, are broader and will cover large parts of your application

Of course, this isn't a simple task unless you want to spend considerable time building the perfect architecture.

I don't think this is what you want, especially if you're trying to get to market as fast as possible.

There are no magic rules about getting your architecture right, but a suggestion is to make as few decisions as possible: that's obviously accomplished by keeping the scope tight and focused as you grow.

From a purely technical perspective, it's essential to keep coupling to a minimum, so that a change to an architectural component doesn't affect the others.

Before clicking the deploy button and shipping your app, ask yourself: is there anything in the broader architecture that could prevent you from keeping shipping at a decent speed? Is the data model scalable? Is security tight?

Please take a good breath, think it over, and press that button.

Environment Setup

As you may know, we can define Next.js environment variables in a .env file.

As a best practice, you will also keep a list of files based on each environment, such as:

  • .env.local
  • .env.development
  • .env.staging
  • .env.production

Next.js is smart enough to figure out which environment variables file to serve, so we can be sure that the correct environment variables defined in each of these environments will be correct.

How does Next.js load your environment variables?

Next can automatically infer your environment files based on the names listed above.

Default environment variables

By default, .env is loaded first. That means, here, we can set the default environment variables that are shared across environments; unless a scoped file redefines them, they will be added regardless of the current environment.

We can check this file in our VCS, but we should not use it for storing secrets.

Local environment variables

We can define local environment variables in a file named .env.local. These are supposed to be scoped to a specific copy of your project, which means they're never shared (therefore, we should not check them in).

We can use this file for storing secrets, as it's only available in local copies. Remember to add .env.local to your .gitignore file.

Development environment variables

Whenever we run next dev, Next.js will load the file .env.development; this file will override the environment variables listed in the files above.

Production environment variables

Whenever we run next build, Next.js will load the file .env.production; just like the development file, this file will override the environment variables listed in the files above.

Here you should add the environment variables that will be used in your production environment; for example, the API KEY of your production Firebase project, etc.

Storing Private Environment Variables

Storing private environment variables (API keys, passwords, etc.) requires a lot of attention. The last thing you want is to leak your secret keys.

As you should never expose private data, and therefore cannot check this in with your code, we need to inject them from a safe location: commonly, it would be best if you defined these variables in your CI (or within your Vercel Console).

Unfortunately, this also presents some other risks even as a best practice. Risks that we can prevent, though.

Preventing undefined variables

One of the most common risks when deploying to production is that developers can forget to define these variables in their CI.

I recommended force-checking required variables by throwing errors at build-time.

By throwing errors when a required variable isn't defined, you can be sure that your code will fail during the build-phase, rather than at runtime, when it's too late.

if (!process.env.MY_ENV_VARIABLE) {
  throw new Error(
    `Environment variable MY_ENV_VARIABLE was not defined!`
  );
}

Or, better, we can define a reusable function to prevent undefined environment variables:

function requireEnvVariable(key: string) {
  const value = process.env[key];

  if (value) {
    return value;
  }

  throw new Error(`Environment variable ${key} was not defined!`);
}

const key = requireEnvVariable('PRIVATE_KEY');

In this way, you can ensure that deployments fail if a required environment variable is unset. Of course, you should also check that these are correct.

Error Handling

Any proper production-grade application should be resilient to runtime exceptions.

When building a new app, it's easy to overlook error-handling, as we're focused on writing as many features as possible in a short timeframe: this is justified if you're getting to market fast or if you are a small team/solo developer.

Depending on your needs, you can choose to defer error-handling to shortly after having shipped your MVP (besides marketing, of course).

Eventually, if your business is going anywhere, it will need to be resilient to errors, exceptions, and unexpected behavior.

Validating Payloads

Validating payloads is crucial to protecting your API routes against invalid data and can also streamline your Typescript code.

How - you say? By using Zod, an exceptional library that you can use to validate data and automatically assign the correct type to your data structures.

Zod can define a schema, which we use against objects to:

  1. validate the shape and their data types
  2. infer their interface

Thus, our code becomes safer and more readable - without dirty data and Typescript workarounds.

If you want to know more about Zod, I discussed it in the following article: Protect your Next.js API with Zod. Check it out!

Setting up a 404 and 500 error pages

The first and simplest step is to define the pages for when your users are met with 400 or 500 HTTP exceptions.

Next.js makes it easy: just define two new pages in the pages folder:

  • Not found exceptions: create the page pages/404.tsx
  • Server exceptions: create the page pages/500.tsx

While not a strict requirement (as Vercel takes care of it), it's undoubtedly a good practice not to show a super-basic page to your users.

Handle API Exceptions

Handling API exceptions is fundamental: we need to understand what is going on when the application encounters an error, and we want to avoid leaking any confidential data in stacktraces.

If you want to learn how I handle API errors in my Next.js apps, check out the article handling API errors in Next.js.

Logging

Logging deserves a whole blog post by itself.

Logging helps you debug and understand what happens when your users use your application, performance issues, unexpected behaviors, etc.

Use Sentry

Sentry is a SaaS for logging, tracing, and managing exceptions in both your client-side application and your API.

It's my go-to solution, although you can also use other providers such as Bugsnag.

Sentry offers a generous free plan with 5k events per month, which should be more than enough to get started.

Sentry does not sponsor me; I genuinely think using it is a no-brainer.

The only downside to using it is that its SDK is heavy; as such, can increase the size of your JS bundles: not ideal if you ask me.

There are some ways to work it around; lazy loading the JS SDK, for example, or using a thinner SDK that doesn't make use of all its features.

Use Pino

Pino is a lightweight logging library by the creators of Fastify. It's currently my go-to library for logging Node.js applications.

Typically, I abstract Pino behind a logger.ts service, such as the below:

// logger.ts

import pino from 'pino';

const logger = pino({
  browser: {},
  level: 'debug',
  transport: {
    target: 'pino-pretty',
    options: {
      colorize: true,
    },
  },
  base: {
    env: process.env.NODE_ENV,
    revision: process.env.VERCEL_GITHUB_COMMIT_SHA,
  },
});

export default logger;

The package pino-pretty makes the terminal output nicer on the eye but is not required.

Your application code can import and use Pino in the following way:

import logger from `~/lib/logger`;

function getUser(userId: string) {
  logger.log({ userId }, `Getting user details`);
}

Logging is like our application talking to us and telling us what it's doing. It's a vital step before going to production because, without it, we'd be wondering for ours what went wrong when users face issues, but, fortunately, we don't need to.

By thoroughly documenting our API requests, we can be confident that we can quickly piece things together in case of errors.

Logging is particularly critical when dealing with external requests:

  • third-party APIs
  • database requests
  • external servers
  • etc.

We have to make sure to log what we request (URL, method, etc.) and what is the response (status code, data).

Additionally, it's crucial to do so without leaking confidential data in our logs.

async function createSubscription(params) {
  logger.log({
    name: params.subscriptionName
  }, `Subscribing to plan...`);

  try {
    const result = await createPlanSubscription(params);

    logger.log({
      name: params.subscriptionName
      id: result.id,
    }, `Subscription successfully created!`);
  } catch(e) {
    logger.log({
      error: e.message,
    }, `Subscription not created.`);
  }
}

Typing long strings in our logic can get verbose; storing log events in a central file can be a good idea.

Smoke Testing and E2E

Software engineers with a strictly technical mindset will rage-close this page and go for a walk to calm down after reading this, but hear me out.

Developers who are rushing out their application to market (yes, there can be good reasons for this) would make a terrible mistake writing a complete test suite before the first release.

Unless you're part of an enterprise project or an extremely well-funded startup, chances are that velocity of shipping is of the utmost importance to your venture.

If you don't yet have a real business, it doesn't matter how many tests you have; without product-market fit, your application will ultimately fail.

So, is it wrong to write E2E tests before release? No, not exactly. Let me explain.

E2E testing for startups and solo developers should cover the most important features of your business; the critical parts that, if broken, would cancel any value proposition your application offers.

Building a 100% tested codebase is the perfect recipe to spend way long not building a real business, but writing smoke tests for your app's critical parts is an effective way to ship a production-grade application that solves your users' problems and lets you sleep better at night.

What parts of a business are critical?

  • Authentication: if your users can't sign in or up, there's not much they can do with your application. Yes, test authentication thoroughly.

  • Billing and Payments: while services like Paddle and Stripe help us with most of the heavy-lifting, wiring these services up is still a decent amount of work that you should take very seriously. In addition, there's little doubt that anything related to financial services needs testing.

  • Your value proposition: I don't know what this is, but you do.

Final Words

Shipping applications to production is always an exciting, stressful, yet incredible experience.

This guide is a starter list to help you understand what is essential to get right before you're ready to push that button to get your app into your users' hands; by no means it's complete or exhausting, but hopefully, it will help you achieve your goals.


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