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Have you ever dealt with a long term project, involving the embedding of a lot of (circular) dependencies, that ends up taking a full day to install locally, only to debug a small feature? Of course you have! We all know the awkward situation when you delay starting the debugging session simply because you don’t want to run it locally.

Well, here’s the good news: you don’t have to do that. Thanks to remote debugging, you can run your environment on your staging servers 1) and work on it from your IDE! Let’s look at how.

Web Development ecosystems have evolved a lot over the last few years. Not only frameworks and tooling, but often whole environments. The most visible change over the last 4 years has been the massive adoption of VSCode as the main IDE used by most of Web Developers. Using Electron, based on JavaScript, sustained by Microsoft Open Source teams, with improved stability and a real performance peak, and backed by a large community providing a lot of extensions, it’s probably the best bet for your day-to-day tool.

A really cool tool provided by the Microsoft Dev team is a set of extensions allowing you to work on remote machines using various protocols, like the venerable SSH! Thanks to our platform, which gives you SSH access by default, you can exploit these extensions easily.

Start your engines! Here’s the complete guide!


First, you need VSCode (of course). Please note that the Remote Extensions can only work with the official release, not the OSS edition as this uses non-free components. Install this using your regular package manager (on Linux), or download the correct version for your OS.

You also need to enable key-based SSH access on your alwaysdata account. You can refer to the official documentation on Using SSH Keys if you’re not comfortable with the process.

We recommend you rely on the SSH config file to declare your hosts, which will be easier to use inside VSCode. On your local machine, create a $HOME/.ssh/config file with the following content:

Replace the [ad-account] with your alwaysdata’s account name, and set the path to your SSH private key according to your local setup.

On Windows, you may have to refer to this config file in the extension setup.

Ensure your SSH connection is ready by running $ ssh alwaysdata in your terminal. If you’re logged onto alwaysdata’s servers, you’re ready!

On the Server From Your Couch

Launch VSCode and go to the Extensions Panel (Ctrl+Shift+X) and install the Remote — SSH and Remote — SSH: Editing Configuration Files.

Now, using the Remote Explorer Panel, or the Command Palette > Remote-SSH: Connect to Host… (F1), activate the connection to the alwaysdata host. After a while 2), you will be connected to the remote alwaysdata server. You can see it in the Status Bar with the green notification SSH: alwaysdata. Let’s do a test and try to File > Open… a file or folder: your Palette explorer should now display your remote environment! You can also see that the console (Ctrl+`) is set to your remote environment too.

Congratulations! You’re now remotely working from your local IDE to your remote alwaysdata account, without any differences! Now begins the real journey on How to Remotely Full-Stack Debugging Your App.

A quick note before diving in: when you’re working remotely on our servers with the Remote — SSH Extension, VSCode considers the remote folder you’ve opened as the current workspace (as it does with local projects). In order to do this, it saves its config files in the usual .vscode hidden directory at the root of your remote project. We really recommend ignoring this folder in your versioning tool (like .gitignore) and not removing it from your remote environment.

In this guide, when we refer to some settings, they’re workspace related, so are saved in this remote folder. Thanks to VSCode internals, the Remote Explorer Panel memorizes your remote workspaces, allowing you to reopen them quickly when you wish to start a new remote debugging session.

JavaScript: One Language to Rule Them All

To illustrate this guide, we choose to focus on one language for both the backend and frontend. This is for example purposes only, and you can work on any kind of architecture you want. Just install the right debugger in VSCode, and you’ll be fine. Keep in mind that alwaysdata supports any kind of language you want, so feel free to pick the best choice for your needs!

Thanks to our marketplace, you can deploy a boilerplate of a large range of backend Web frameworks right from your account. In your administration panel, go to the Web > Sites section, click the Install an application button, pick up Express.js by clicking the gear wheel, and follow the installer instructions.

Now you have an Express.js app! Click on your URL to open a new window pointing to your brand new site, you should see the famous Hello World! welcome message! Now let’s work on it from our local IDE.

A first thing to notice is how the same codebase will be used in different contexts: development and production. The site you’ve just accessed is a production version. We will work on the same codebase but run it from the SSH access, in development mode. This means every change we’ll make won’t be up on the production version until you restart your site from your administration panel.

This difference production vs development is only valid for persistent process languages, like Node.js, Python, Ruby… Transient state languages, like PHP, are systematically re-run on every request, so your changes will be applied immediately, without the need to restart your site.

In VSCode, open your remote workspace by activating the alwaysdata connection and open the folder just created by the marketplace installer. You’re ready to dev!

To be able to run our app in development mode, let’s first add a debug runner. Open the package.json file and add a debug script:

As our app expects the PORT environment variable to know which port to listen to, let’s try running it from the VSCode integrated terminal: PORT=3000 npm run debug. You should see a message that your app is ready. But you can’t access the remote port from your local machine!

Fortunately, VSCode Remote Extension allows you to declare local port to forward 3) to your remote environment. In the Remote Explorer Panel, add a new port to the Forwarded Ports section. Enter 3000. Now, you should be able to point your browser to http://localhost:3000, and access your remote app in debug mode!

To avoid entering the forwarded ports each time you start a session, in the local users’ preferences, tick the Remote: Restore Forwarded Ports option (or enter "remote.restoreForwardedPorts": true into your local User/settings.json file).

Fine, we’re now able to run our app from VSCode and access it locally through forwarded ports. Now let’s see how to really work and debug it!

Run, Fail, Then Run Again

See Behind the Code

Let’s run our app attached to the VSCode debugger. It allows you to set breakpoints, and inspect your call stack, even remotely! Install the Debugger for Chrome extension. We will also edit our debug script to run it with inspect mode enabled:

We run the inspector on an uncommon port to avoid any conflicts, especially with the final part of this guide. Feel free to ignore it right now however.

Now we need a debug task that will run our app and attach the debugger to it. Go to the Run and Debug Panel (Ctrl+Shift+D). The panel is actually empty. Click the create a launch.json link, and select Node.js in the opened Palette. The action will create a new .vscode/launch.json file in your remote environment (you can see it from your Explorer Panel). Fill it with the following configuration:

Here are some interesting settings:

  • runtimeExecutable: we run the app through npm
  • runtimeArgs: here’s our debug script; we also add the script-prepend-node-path to avoid warnings due to the node binary path in the filesystem, which is specific to the alwaysdata architecture
  • port: the port we previously choose to attach our node’s inspector to
  • env: the expected environment variables, here the port the Express.js app want to listen to

We’re now ready to run our app with the debugger. Launch the Debugger with the green arrow in the Run Panel (or hit F5). Your npm debug script is run by VSCode, and you can still access your app in your browser.

Now open the app.js file, and put a breakpoint on the res.send line (6) by clicking the gutter (or hit F9 when highlighting the line). Reload your browser. Your app should pause just before executing the res.send instruction and you can analyze and debug your app from the Run and Debug Panel!

Lazy Times for Overbooked Developers

Sadly, having to re-run your app each time you edit the files is more than a bit tedious. Let’s configure hot reloading on the server-side:

  1. Install Nodemon on your project from the integrated terminal: npm install --save-dev nodemon
  2. Edit the debug script in the package.json file to run the app with nodemon: NODE_ENV=development nodemon --inspect=9321 --exitcrash app.js
  3. Edit the debugger configuration in the launch.json file by adding the "restart": true option, allowing the debugger to re-attach each time nodemon restarts the app

Now run the debugger configuration again and reload your browser: you should be able to reach the app. Edit the Hello World! string and save the file. Your app is automatically reloaded and the debugger re-attached. Reload your browser: you’ve got the new message!

As developers, we’re often lazy: let’s configure the browser to reload itself when the server app is reloaded too:

  1. Install livereload in your project: npm install --save-dev livereload connect-livereload
  2. The livereload injector needs you to serve a valid HTML page to be able to inject the livereload script. Let’s add Pug as a template engine, and Helmet to manage security headers for our served pages: npm install --save pug helmet
  3. Configure your app to render Pug templates, and enable LiveReload in development mode:
  4. Create a views/index.pug file at the root of your project:
  5. In the Remote Explorer Panel > Forwarded Ports Section, add a new port to forward: 35729, allowing your browser to access the livereload server.

Now run the debugger configuration again. Reload your browser, it should enable the LiveReload mode (visible as a WebSocket request in the Network Panel). Edit the message sent to the template. At the save, the app will be restarted, the debugger reattached to it, and your browser reloaded without any actions from your side!

Debugger on Every Floor

All in One

VSCode offers a large choice of extensions, giving you a fully integrated experience. So why not run and control our testing browser from our IDE directly? It’s time to install the Browser preview Extension.

Let’s create a debugger configuration ready to run the Browser Preview. In your launch.json file, add a new configuration after the Server Debug Mode one:

Obviously running the Browser Preview without running the app in the background is perfectly useless. So let’s create a Compound that will run both from our debugger. Still in the launch.json file, add a compounds entry right after the configurations one:

Now in your Run and Debug Panel, select the Client/Server configuration, and run it. Your app is started in development mode with Nodemon and attached to the debugger, and a Browser Preview Panel should open, pointing to the app address 4).

Run, Forest!

We’ve got a Browser Preview, attached to the internal debugger. Let’s see what we can do with it!

  1. Create a static/js/main.js file at your project root level, with the following content:
  2. Update our index.pug, load a main.js script into the page:
  3. Now edit our app.js to serve static files:

If you run the app right now, you should be able to click on the title and see the alert box popping in the VSCode notifications. But you can’t access the files in the debugger, because it needs to be aware of the location of the files.

Edit the Browser Preview: Launch Configuration in launch.json file and add the mapping to the files:

Now run the debugger task again. Add a breakpoint in the main.js file. Click the title. Your script is paused and you can inspect the call stack from the integrated debugger inspector!

Let’s finish by enabling live reloading of frontend assets too. Update the app.js file by adding the LiveReload watch instruction after creating the livereloadServer:

You can now edit the main.js file and have your browser reloaded automatically!

This was a long journey and a long article just to give you some of the basics of Full-Stack Remote Debugging. What’s incredibly useful is the possibility of keeping your codebase in your alwaysdata account, freeing your local environment of the complex stack to maintain.

You can run your code remotely in development mode, attach the backend to the local debugger, run your Web app in a Browser container, and run a second debugger in parallel, attached to this preview!

This gives you the ability to test and debug in a production-like environment with all the modern tooling you may expect. Even more fun: when your debugging session is done, you just have to restart your Site from your alwaysdata administration panel and your changes are online!

As previously mentioned, thanks to the VSCode ecosystem, debuggers are available for many modern backend languages like Python, Ruby, PHP, and more. No need to stick to JS, you can use this guide with any kind of language you host on your account.

We hope this will help you to improve your daily workflow. Want to know more about advanced use-cases of your alwaysdata account? Let us know in comments about how we can help you reach new levels in your everyday tasks!


1Maybe provisioned by your teammates DevOps
2During which VSCode installs the needed components remotely and starts a remote development server in the background.
3SCode relies on Port Forwarding and needs the SSH Server to have AllowTCPForwarding enabled. We at alwaysdata disable this for security reasons, but we’ve fortunately found a way to run VSCode Port Forwarding without compromising security issues!
4Due to the way compounds are run, the Browser Preview may point to about:blank page instead of http://localhost:3000. There’s a workaround related to the ability to run pre-tasks (see the issue). While waiting for the fix, you can manually update the address to load your app in the Preview Panel.