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Setting up the Server

This tutorial will walk you through the steps to set up an instance of the ISLE server program to serve your students.


Running the server requires the following software tools:

  • git: version control
  • Node.js: JavaScript runtime (version >= 10.0)
  • MongoDB: NoSQL document database

The ISLE server should run on a POSIX-based system (preferably a Linux distribution). For this guide, we assume that you are on the latest Ubuntu LTS release. The steps will be similar for other distributions (e.g., Debian or CentOS), but might need to be slightly adapted.

Installing Node.js

We will use nvm (“Node.js Version Manager”) to install Node.js, the JavaScript runtime used by the ISLE server. nvm allows you to install the newest versions of Node.js (which are not currently available through apt) and manage multiple installations at once. Following the official nvm documentation, we can use curl or wget to download and run a script to install nvm in your home directory (specifically to ~/.nvm):

$ curl -o- | bash
$ wget -qO- | bash

To use nvm right away, you need to either log out and in again or source the ~/.profile file again:

$ source ~/.profile

To ensure that nvm is up and running, we can print its version

nvm --version

We can now install the latest LTS release of Node.js via

$ nvm install --lts

(Tip: running nvm ls-remote will print a list of all available versions)

This will also install npm, the official package manager used by Node.js to install external dependencies.

Installing MongoDB

Let's first run the following command to update the packages list to ensure that you have the most recent version of the listings:

$ sudo apt update

To install MongoDB, we can use apt since Ubuntu's package repositories include an up-to-date version of MongoDB:

$ sudo apt install -y mongodb

After installation, the database server should automatically be started. To check, run

$ sudo systemctl status mongodb

Installing git

You can install Git by running

$ sudo apt-get install git-core

Afterwards, you can clone the git repository to acquire the source code:

$ git clone

After changing into the new directory

$ cd isle-server

we can install its external dependencies via

$ npm install


You will now need to make a few changes to the contents of the isle-server directory. For example, you might have noticed that the files in the credentials folder have been encrypted (or rather transcrypted) to protect sensitive information. Please get in touch in case you would like to get access to our configuration.

Otherwise, you want to override the JSON files in this folder.

By default, we use Mailgun to send email notifications. The mailgun.json file should look as follows:

"user": "<user>",
"pass": "<pass>"

where <user> and <pass> are your Mailgun credentials.

The tokens.json file is a JSON file with two keys:

"writeAccess": "<instructor_key>",
"jwtKey": "<passphrase>"

The <instructor_key> should be replaced with a chosen key that can be handed to faculty to obtain instructor access to the server on the isle-dashboard. The <passphrase> can be any confidential string. It is used to sign the JSON web tokens used for user authentication.

Finally, you want to change the etc/config.json file. It looks like this:

"namespacesDirectory": "./../public",
"server": "",
"certificate": "/srv/ssl/isle_heinz_cmu_edu_cert.cer",
"key": "/srv/ssl/",
"mongodb": "mongodb://localhost/isle-db"

You should change the server field to the server address from where your requests will be processed. Since ISLE requires HTTPS, you will need a SSL certificate and key. The paths for the certificate and key should be entered into the certificate and key fields, respectively. You will need to receive these files from a certificate authority. Let's Encrypt is a popular certificate authority which generates certificates for free. You can leave the mongodb field as-is unless you desire to host your MongoDB instance on a separate database server than your ISLE application server.

Setting up nginx

We suggest to use nginx as the web server for the ISLE server program. You can obtain a recent version of the software via apt:

$ sudo apt install nginx

The isle-server repository contains server configuration files for use with nginx in the /etc/nginx sub-directory. To use the contents of this configuration directory in place of the existing nginx confinpm install -g npmguration directory, you can copy the contents of the configuration directory to /etc.

$ sudo cp -R /path/to/isle-server/etc/nginx /etc/nginx

Warning: you might want to backup an existing /etc/nginx directory first via sudo mv /etc/nginx /etc/nginx-backup.

After editing the ISLE server configuration located in sites-available to point to the correct certificate locations and changing the server name, create a symlink to enable it:

$ sudo ln -s /etc/nginx/sites-available/isle /etc/nginx/sites-enabled/isle

Finally, restart nginx.

$ sudo service nginx restart

Serving Compressed Files

To reduce the amount of data sent over the wire, we enable the lossless brotli compression algorithm, a successor to gzip. The latter is newer and not supported in nginx by default. To install brotli, run the following:

$ sudo apt-add-repository -y ppa:hda-me/nginx-stable
$ sudo apt-get update
$ sudo apt-get install brotli nginx nginx-module-brotli

To enable the Brotli module, we uncomment the following commands in /etc/nginx/nginx.conf:

    # ngx_brotli filter module - used to compress responses on-the-fly.
load_module modules/;
# ngx_brotli static module - used to serve pre-compressed files.
# Both modules could be used separately
load_module modules/;

We can then add Brotli compression by adding the following:

brotli on;
brotli_static on;
brotli_comp_level 11;
brotli_types text/plain text/css text/javascript application/javascript text/xml application/xml image/svg+xml application/json;

Start the ISLE server program

Navigate again into the isle-server directory. To start the server program in the background, we advise to use a program like pm2 to ensure that the process runs continuously. As sudo, install it with the command

npm install pm2 -g

With pm2, we can start the server as follows:

pm2 start lib/index.js --name isle-server

Automatically restart on reboot

To restart the ISLE server on system reboot, initialize the pm2 startup script via:

pm2 startup

You can save the currently running pm2 processes to the startup script via

pm2 save

The ISLE server should now be up and running and accept requests!

Afterwards, you will want to install the isle-dashboard on your remote server and locally install the isle-editor to author lessons.