Node-RED: Lecture 2 – Building your first flows

This lecture will introduce you to the Node-RED visual tool and get you started building your first flow. You’ll learn how to create simple flows, use debug nodes to track messages through the flows and how to use the function node to write simple JavaScript code that tailors the node to your specific needs.

This lecture will introduce you to the Node-RED visual tool and get you started building your first flow. You’ll learn how to create simple flows, use debug nodes to track messages through the flows and how to use the function node to write simple JavaScript code that tailors the node to your specific needs.

To get you started, you’ll be using a free cloud service that provides you with a preconfigured Node-RED setup and a wide range of built-in nodes. Later lectures will explain how to set-up Node-RED for yourself on devices such as a Raspberry PI.

At the end of this lecture you’ll be able to create your own simple flows, you’ll know your way around the Node-RED UI and you’ll be familiar with some of the basic built-in nodes that Node-RED offers.

FRED – Front end for Node-RED

FRED is a cloud service that we’ve created that allows you to sign up and use Node-RED without the hassle of downloading and installing on a device such as a PI. It makes it easy to get started with Node-RED by managing an instance of Node-RED for you, keeping the instance up to date with the latest code releases and applying bug fixes or patches. Also included is a set of extra Nodes that are contributed by the community, which add to the standard basic set you get when you install Node-RED yourself. However, FRED is just a wrapper for Node-RED, so anything you write in FRED will work on a Node-RED instance running on a Pi or a Beagleboard.

To begin our examples, make sure you have created your own Node-RED instance in the cloud by signing up for a free account at http://fred.sensetecnic.com.

After registering, make sure to activate your account via your email. You will not be able to log in until you validate your account.

The Node-RED UI

Once you have logged in to your FRED account, you’ll see the standard Node-RED UI which consists of three main panes, as shown in Fig 2.1

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 4.53.21 PM.png

Figure 2.1 The Node-RED UI  – showing the node palette (left), flow canvas (centre) and output pane (right)

The main pane is the flow creation workspace in the middle. This is where you drag and drop nodes and connect them with wires. Along the top of the workspace pane is a set of tabs. Each tab opens a previously created workspace and shows any flows created using that workspace.

On the left is the node pane that contains all the built-in nodes that your instance of Node-RED supports. In the example above, you are seeing the FRED node set which contains a large selection that has been added to the basic set that comes with Node-RED. In later lectures you will learn about these nodes and use them to develop new flows. As you can see, nodes are grouped into categories. Opening up a category shows the individual nodes.

On the right-hand side is the output pane that can be toggled between the info and debug tabs. When info is selected, documentation for the selected node is shown there.  When debug is selected, it will display the output of debug nodes, errors and warnings.

Above these three main panes is the usual toolbar, and on the right-hand side are three widgets, a deploy button, a user info icon and a pulldown menu for admin and control. You’ll look in more detail at the pulldown later in these lectures. The user info icon allows you to return to the FRED front page with links to tutorials, your account information, status and other information as well as to log out of the FRED service.

The Deploy button is used when a flow has been constructed and causes the flow to be deployed onto the Node-RED system and executed. You’ll be introduced to the details of what’s actually happening under the covers in lecture 5 and beyond. For now just treat the Deploy button as the way to get your flow running.

A quick tour of Node-RED nodes and messages

As you saw in lecture 1, Node-RED allows you to wire together nodes to create flows which carry out your programming task. Messages pass between nodes, moving from input nodes through processing nodes to output nodes. Let’s take a brief look at nodes, flows and messages.

There are three main  types of nodes:

  1. Input Nodes (e.g. inject)
  2. Output Nodes (e.g. debug)
  3. Processing Nodes (e.g. function)

basic-fred-intro-02

Figure 2.2 The main types of nodes: input, output and processing

Input nodes allow you to input data into a Node-RED application or “flow”. They have at least one output endpoint represented by the small grey square only on their right side. You use input nodes to connect data from other services, for example the  Twitter, Google, serial, websockets or tcp nodes, or to manually input data into a flow using the inject node.

Output nodes allow you to send data outside of a Node-RED flow. They have a single input endpoint on their left side. You use output nodes to send data to other services, for example via Twitter, tcp, serial or email nodes, or to use the debug node to output to the debug pane.

Processing nodes allow you to process data. They have an input endpoint and one or more output endpoints. They allow you to transform the data type (e.g. json, csv, xml) nodes, use the data to trigger a message (e.g. trigger, delay) nodes and to write custom code that uses the data received (e.g. function node).

Note that some nodes, like the inject and debug messages, have a button that allows you to actuate a node (in the case of the inject node) or to enable and disable a node (in the case of the debug node).

Flows consist of multiple nodes wired together, with output tabs linked to input tabs of the next node in the flow. Messages flow along the nodes carrying data from node to node.

Node-RED nodes consume input messages and produce output messages. Messages are JavaScript objects that contain at least a “payload” parameter, like this:

Listing 2.1 A basic Node-RED message structure

  1. msg = {
  2.   payload:”message payload”
  3. };

Nodes consume and produce messages, usually using msg.payload as the main placeholder for the data they consume and produce. However, messages can be extended to contain other parameters. For example, to set the topic of a message and add a new parameter, location, you could create a new msg object as shown in listing 2.2.

Listing 2.2 A more complex Node-RED message structure

  1. msg = {
  2.   payload:”message payload”,
  3.   topic:”error”,
  4.   location:”somewhere in space and time”
  5. };

Let’s use this knowledge to create your first flow.

Example 2.1 Building your first flow: Hello World

Let’s go ahead and start building your first flow so that you can see how simple it is to use the Node-RED UI to build and deploy a flow.

Let’s start with the easiest flow possible, a node to inject some information into the flow, wired to a debug node to see the output from the flow as a debug message. Once you have that running, you’ll build it up to the full Hello World flow.

Since this is the first time you’ll be shown how to actually build a flow, let’s start slowly and explain each step with a screen-shot. Once you’ve created your first flow and seen how easy it is, you’ll mostly be shown a single picture of the final flow rather than all the screenshots.

Let’s start with the simplest Node, the comment Node. You’ll find this in the function section of the node palette. Drag and drop a comment node onto the flow workspace as shown in Fig 2.3.

 

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 2.03.20 PM.png

 

Figure 2.3: Using a comment node is a great way to add visible comments into flows

 

Once you’ve done that, take a look at the info pane on the right (remember to switch to info if the debug tab is selected). You’ll see a little info on the node, including the node name, a unique ID, and a properties field with a description of the node. For the comment node there’s not much to say; however, more sophisticated nodes have a lot more info.

Double-click on the comment node, and you’ll see a configuration window (Fig 2.4) You can give the comment node a name and add detailed text if you like.

 

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 12.16.33 PM.png

Figure 2.4 Give the comment a name and add any info you want in the text box

 

Ok, now let’s add the first node that actually does something, an inject node. The inject node is used to generate input into a flow and is one of the first nodes in the node palette under input. If you drag and drop an inject node onto the flow workspace, and then look at the info tab, you’ll see the documentation for the inject node. Note that the name of the node on the workspace changes from inject to timestamp, because the default behaviour for the node is to inject a timestamp – the current time in milliseconds since January 1, 1970.

 

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 12.03.59 PM.png

Fig 2.5 The inject node allows you to insert events as messages, defaulting to a timestamp

 

You’ll also notice that the inject node (now named timestamp) has a blue dot top right and a grey square centre right. The blue dot indicates that the node hasn’t been deployed since it was last changed; the grey square is the output point for the node. This is where you attach ‘wires’ that route output message from the inject node to the next node in the flow.

To get a sense for the inject node and the whole flow deployment process, let’s add a debug node to see what happens, wire them together and then deploy the flow and test it.

Start by dragging a debug node from the node palette to the workspace. Again you can look at the info for the node.

Then you’ll wire the two nodes together. To do that, click on the grey output point for the inject node and, holding the mouse button down, drag towards the debug node. An orange wire appears, which you can then attach to the grey input point on the debug node.

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 12.40.55 PM.png

Figure 2.6 Wiring an inject node to a debug node

 

This is the simplest flow possible and will send the current timestamp to the debug node for display in the debug pane. Let’s try it!

Click the deploy button in the Node-RED window (top right). You’ll see a pop-up saying the flow has been successfully deployed. You will also notice that the blue dots on the nodes disappear, indicating there are no undeployed changes.

Now, before you try the flow, make sure the the debug tab is selected on the right pane. Then click on the left tab on the inject node and look at what appears in the debug pane.

 

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 12.48.44 PM.png

Figure 2.7 Debug output from your first flow – the time when you clicked the inject node.

 

As you can see, the inject node, when clicked, generates a timestamp (number of milliseconds since January 1, 1970), which is converted to a message and sent along the output wire, which is delivered to the debug node as an input message. The debug node’s default behaviour is to show any message it receives, which it does in the debug pane on the right.

Congratulations, you created and deployed your first flow!

Let’s now augment it a little to see what else we can do with this simple flow. Firstly, we’ll edit the inject node to deliver a text message rather than a timestamp. To do that, select the inject node in the flow and double-click it. You’ll see a configuration window like the one in Fig 2.8.

 

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 12.54.29 PM.png

Figure 2.8 Editing an inject node to send text instead of a timestamp

 

In the payload field, select string instead of timestamp and then type any string you like into the blank field below the payload field. As is traditional, let’s start with “Hello World – from my first NR flow!”

Once you’ve made the change, click ok to save the changes and take a look at the flow. You’ll see the blue dot has appeared on the inject node (which has also returned to being called inject rather than timestamp) to indicate that you have undeployed changes. Click the deploy button again to resolve that and then go ahead and click the tab on the inject node. If you look at the debug output you’ll see that instead of a timestamp, your text has been delivered as a message to the debug node, which displays it as usual.

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 1.01.40 PM.png

Figure 2.9 Sending a text message rather than a timestamp

 

As you can see, it’s very easy to wire up some simple nodes and get data to pass through your flow as messages. At this stage, you’ll probably be wondering a little about the messages that are flowing between nodes. The debug node can be used to examine them in more detail.

All messages in Node-RED have three default properties: the payload, which we are seeing above, a message topic, which is a user-defined string describing what the message is about (its topic, if you will) and an internal identifier. You can actually see this information if you edit the debug node configuration. Let’s do that and look at the output (Fig 2.10)

 

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 11.15.08 AM.png

 

Figure 2.10: setting the debug node to show the internals of a message

 

Select the debug node, double click and change the node output field to “Complete msg object”. If you then save this, deploy again and click the inject node, you will see in the debug pane a JSON structure that contains 3 fields: a “topic” which is currently blank, a “payload” which contains the string you set in the inject node and an internal ID field “_msgid”. Generally the internal message ID field isn’t used. However, both the topic and payload are used extensively when developing flows. You’ll see more of that later in the lecture series.

These fields are extensible, so you can define new message properties, for example, msg.location, which could be used to add the latitude and longitude values for the source of the message. Let’s take a look at that in the next example flow.

 

You can find the node-red description of this flow at:

https://github.com/SenseTecnic/nrguideflows/blob/master/lesson2/2-1-firstflow.json

Example 2.2 A second flow: weather alerts

In this example, which is similar to the one introduced in lecture 1, you’ll monitor the weather in your hometown and send yourself a tweet when the weather looks like it’s going to be good. You’ll use a built-in weather node – openweathermap – that retrieves the weather from openweathermap.org for the location you set it for. A simple function node will be used to check for ‘clear weather’ and a Twitter node will be used to send yourself a tweet when the weather looks good.

First you will need to get an API key at OpenWeatherMap. OpenWeatherMap offers a great service that provides detailed weather information for worldwide locations. Visit http://openweathermap.org/appid and follow the instructions as shown in the screenshots below.

 

 

You will need to sign up for an OpenWeatherAccount as shown below:

After signing up you will be redirected to your Home page where you will be able to access or re-generate your API Key. It should look something like this:

Now, let’s use that API key to build a weather alerts flow. Drag and drop a weather node from the left pane onto the workspace, as shown in Figure 2.11.

 

Figure 2.11. Drag and drop a weather node onto a blank workspace

 

If you select the info pane on the right, you can see a description of the openweathermap node with detailed information on how to configure and use it. Some interesting things to note:

  • It has a full JSON structure as its msg.payload, with quite a lot of weather detail, all presented as name:value pairs, e.g. wind speed and tempc
  • The node defines 3 new message properties, msg.location, msg.time and msg.data. As mentioned above, you are free to add properties to messages, and the openweathermap node has added these new properties to carry extra information associated with the message.

Let’s configure the node and look at the actual data structure it generates after it has queried your local weather. Start by double-clicking on the node and fill out the form with your location. Type your city and country in the fields. Add the API key you obtained from http://openweathermap.org/appid and click on “Ok” as shown in Fig. 2.12.

 

 

Figure 2.12. Set your city and country in the configuration form, use the API key you obtained in the step above.

 

Then drag and drop a debug node and wire it to the openweathermap node. Click on “Deploy” to see that the payload object from the openweathermap node in the debug pane.

 

Listing 2.3 The message payload for the openweathermap node is a JSON structure describing weather conditions, temperature, wind, cloud cover and sunrise times.

  1. {
  2.   “weather”: “Clear”,
  3.   “detail”: “sky is clear”,
  4.   “tempk”: 295.104,
  5.   “tempc”: 21.903999999999996,
  6.   “humidity”: 53,
  7.   “maxtemp”: 295.104,
  8.   “mintemp”: 295.104,
  9.   “windspeed”: 2.22,
  10.   “winddirection”: 273.007,
  11.   “location”: “Vancouver”,
  12.   “sunrise”: 1432038196,
  13.   “sunset”: 1432094081,
  14.   “clouds”: 8,
  15.   “description”: “Vancouver weather(49.25,-123.12) is Clear (sky is clear).”
  16. }

As you can see, the node delivers quite a lot of information about your local weather, all as the usual name:value pairs. For this example, you want to use the “weather” field which you’re going to test to see if it’s reported as “Clear”. If it’s “Clear” you’ll then send a tweet.

To program that logic, you’ll use a function node. You saw one of these in lecture 1, but without the details. Let’s see how they are used by dragging one onto the flow workspace and double clicking it to open up the node editor.

Figure 2.13. Add a function node and wire it to the openweathermap node.

Now double-click on the function node and type/copy this (Note if you use copy/paste – make sure you paste as plain text, wordpress sometimes inserts odd characters)

 

Listing 2.4 Function node “If Clear Weather”

  1. if (msg.payload.weather === “Clear”) {
  2.     msg.payload = “Clear skies ahead today!”
  3.     return msg;
  4. }
  5. return null;

Figure 2.14. Edit the function node adding the JavaScript shown in listing 2.4

Looking at Listing 2.4, you can see that this will parse the incoming message payload for the weather parameter and compare it to the string “Clear” (line 1). If it is equal, it will rewrite the message payload with your own string “Clear skies ahead today!” (line 2). Otherwise it will return a null message (line 5). This last bit is important because in Node-RED nodes ignore null messages.

You can do all sorts of things now, for example wire this message to an email node, or a pushbullet node. For this tutorial we will use the Twitter output node. Drag  a Twitter node onto the workspace, double-click and and fill out your Twitter account credentials as shown in Fig 2.15.

Figure 2.15. Set your Twitter account credentials into the node configuration

Once you’ve set up these credentials, Node-RED stores them and you can reuse them when you create another Twitter node in future flows.

Once you’ve wired up the flow, you can hit the deploy button and then watch your Twitter account to see the new tweet every time the weather is reported as clear.

Click on “Deploy”:

Figure 2.16. The full weather flow sending tweets if the weather report mentions clear skies.

Other useful UI features

One of the most useful features of the Node-RED UI is the ability to copy and paste nodes and even full flows using the standard cut’n’paste clipboard. Node-RED flows are simply coded as JSON strings and can be exported from a workspace, and imported into a workspace using the Node-RED pulldown menu in the top right of the Node-RED window.

Rather than building the flows in this example, or in fact anywhere in this lecture series, by hand yourself, you can simply copy them from our website and paste them into a workspace. After that all you need to do is configure them correctly, e.g. with credentials, and deploy them.

Let’s quickly show you how to do that.

Click on the link for this example which is at the end of the example below and look for the JSON code. Copy it to the clipboard using the usual CTL C or copy item in the edit menu.

Using the pulldown menu in the top right of the Node-RED window, select Import->Clipboard as shown in Fig 2.17

Screen Shot 2015-08-15 at 12.55.58 PM.png

Figure 2.17 Selecting the Import from Clipboard menu item in Node-RED

 

You will see a popup with an input field (Fig 2.18). Paste your clipboard into the input window and click OK.

 

Screen Shot 2015-08-15 at 12.56.27 PM.png

Figure 2.18 Pasting a flow into the import window of Node-RED

 

The new flow will appear in the current workspace and can be moved to a location and dropped. Once it’s in place, you can configure it as you would a flow you created yourself and deploy it.

 

You can find the node-red description of this flow at:

https://github.com/SenseTecnic/nrguideflows/blob/master/lesson2/2-2_weatheralerts.json

Summary

In this lecture you have created your first flows and seen how to wire together a set of basic nodes to achieve quite complex tasks. We’ve skipped over a few of the underlying details in order to get you going quickly, and we’ll return to those in lectures 3 and 4. However, so far you’ve seen how to use the Node-RED visual flow builder, the basic classes of input, output and processing nodes. You were given a brief overview of messages and how to use the function node to write your own JavaScript code to do simple processing on messages within a flow. In the next lecture, you’ll take a more in-depth look at the programming model of Node-RED and get a better understanding of the main programming elements and nodes and how to craft more complex flows using a variety of nodes.

 


About Sense Tecnic: Sense Tecnic Systems Inc have been building IoT applications and services since 2010. We provide these lectures, and FRED, cloud hosted Node-RED as a service to the community. We also offer a commercial version to our customers, as well as professional services. Learn more.


© Lea, Blackstock, Calderon

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 

5 thoughts on “Node-RED: Lecture 2 – Building your first flows”

  1. First of all thank you very much for a great programming guide. This is the only material which I was able to find for a completely noob NR users. But I have a remark.
    You said: “Now double-click on the function node and type/COPY this:” f2.4
    It took me a while to understand: WHY???? copy paste cant be deployed with the following error (The workspace contains some nodes that are not properly configured:)
    But the same text which I type from keyboard works without any troubles.
    Finally I found, that trouble is that your wordpress template changes quotes style which cant be understood by Java syntaxis. So copy paste doesnt work. In any way thanks, you force people to think a little, not just copy paste.

  2. Hi – I am using Node-Red at Fred but i do not see the OpenWeather node from the templates on the left. Has it been removed?

    1. Hi Stuart,

      you need to add the openweathermap to you palette. Click on the ad/remove nodes button on the left panel and then select the openweathermap node. Restart your instance and it will appear in your palette.

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