Tutorial: Django REST with React (Django 3 and a sprinkle of testing)

How to create a Django REST API? How to structure a Django project with React? Here's a practical introduction to Django REST with React. (Django 3)

Django REST with React

I gave a talk: "Decoupling Django with Django REST and React" at Pycon Italy X in Florence. Slides here!

Django REST with React: what you will learn

In the following tutorial you’ll learn:

  • how to build a simple Django REST API
  • how to structure a Django project with React

Django REST with React: requirements

To follow along with the tutorial you should have:

  • a basic understanding of Python and Django.
  • a basic understanding of JavaScript (ECMAScript 2015) and React.
  • a newer version of Node.js installed on your system

Ready? Let's get started!

Django REST with React: setting up a Python virtual environment, and the project

First things first make sure to have a Python virtual environment in place. Create a new folder and move into it:

mkdir django-react && cd $_

Once done create and activate the new Python environment:

python3 -m venv venv
source venv/bin/activate

NOTE: from now on make sure to be always in the django-react folder and to have the Python environment active.

Now let's pull in the dependencies:

pip install django djangorestframework

When the installation ends you're ready to create a new Django project:

django-admin startproject django_react .

Now we can start building our first Django app: a simple API for listing and storing contacts.

Django REST with React: building a Django application

A Django project can have many applications. Each application ideally should do one thing. Django applications are modular and reusable, if another project needs the same app over and over we can put that app in the Python package manager and install it from there.

To create a new application in Django you would run:

django-admin startapp app_name

In our case, still in the project folder run:

django-admin startapp leads

This will create our new leads app in the django-react folder. Your project structure now should be:

(venv) your@prompt:~/Code/django-react$ tree -d -L 1
.
├── django_react
├── leads
└── venv

Now let’s tell Django how to use the new app. Open up django_react/settings.py and add the app in INSTALLED_APPS:

INSTALLED_APPS = [
    'django.contrib.admin',
    'django.contrib.auth',
    'django.contrib.contenttypes',
    'django.contrib.sessions',
    'django.contrib.messages',
    'django.contrib.staticfiles',
    'leads.apps.LeadsConfig', # activate the new app
]

So far so good! In the next section we'll add our first model.

Django REST with React: creating a Django model

With the app in place it's time to create our first model. A model is an object representing your table's data. Almost every web framework has models and Django makes no exception.

A Django model may have one or more fields: each field is a column in your table. Before moving forward let's define our requirements for the lead application.

Since I'm collecting contacts I can think of a Lead model made of the following fields:

  • a name
  • an email
  • a message

(Feel free to add extra fields! Like phone for example). Let's not forget a timestamp field as well! Django does not add a created_at column by default.

Open up leads/models.py and create the Lead model:

from django.db import models

class Lead(models.Model):
    name = models.CharField(max_length=100)
    email = models.EmailField()
    message = models.CharField(max_length=300)
    created_at = models.DateTimeField(auto_now_add=True)

A quick note about models: take your time to check Django fields documentation. When planning a model try to choose the most appropriate fields for your use case. And with the model in place let's create a migration by running:

python manage.py makemigrations leads

and finally migrate the database with:

python manage.py migrate

Great! In the next sections we'll talk about serializers and views. But first a note about testing.

Django REST with React: a sprinkle of testing

At this point you may wonder "Valentino, how about testing?" Rather than annoying you with a TDD tutorial I'll give you some tips instead.

I've seen a ton of Django tutorials starting like so:

class SomeModelModelTest(TestCase):
    def setUp(self):
        SomeModel.objects.create(
            name=fake.name(),
            email=fake.email(),
            phone=fake.phone_number(),
            message=fake.text(),
            source=fake.url()
        )
    def test_save_model(self):
        saved_models = SomeModel.objects.count()
        self.assertEqual(saved_models, 2)

Don't do that. There's no point in testing neither a vanilla Django model nor the Django ORM. Here's a good starting point for testing in Django:

  • do not test Django built-in code (models, views, etc)
  • do not test Python built-in functions

Do not test what is already tested! So what should I test? Have you added a custom method to a Django model? Test it! Do you have a custom view? Test it! But how do I know what to test exactly?

Do yourself a favour. Install coverage:

pip install coverage

Then, every time you add some code to your application run coverage with:

coverage run --source='.' manage.py test

and generate the report:

coverage html

You'll see exactly what to test. If you prefer seeing the report on the command line run:

coverage report

Wait, are you still there? I'm impressed! Hold tight, in the next section we'll take a look at serializers!

Django REST with React: Django REST serializers

What is serialization? What is a Django REST serializer? Serialization is the act of transforming an object into another data format. After transforming an object we can save it to a file or send it through the network.

Why serialization is necessary? Think of a Django model: it's a Python class. How do you render a Python class to JSON in a browser? With a Django REST serializer!

A serializer works the other way around too: it converts JSON to objects. This way you can:

  • display Django models in a browser by converting them to JSON
  • make CRUD request with a JSON payload to the API

To recap: a Django REST serializer is mandatory for operating on models through the API. Create a new file named leads/serializers.py. The LeadSerializer takes our Lead model and some fields:

from rest_framework import serializers
from .models import Lead

class LeadSerializer(serializers.ModelSerializer):
    class Meta:
        model = Lead
        fields = ('id', 'name', 'email', 'message')

As you can see we're subclassing ModelSerializer. A ModelSerializer in Django REST is like a ModelForm. It is suitable whenever you want to closely map a Model to a Serializer.

Save and close the file. In the next sections we'll take a look at views and urls.

Django REST with React: setting up the controll... ehm the views

Coming from other frameworks you may find surprising that Django has no controllers.

A controller encapsulates logic for processing requests and returning responses. In the traditional MVC architecture there is the Model, the View, and the Controller. Example of MVC frameworks are Rails, Phoenix, Laravel.

Django is a MVT framework. That is, Model – View – Template. There are many types of views in Django: function views, class based views, and generic views.

Although some developers prefer function views in place of class based views I am a big fan of the latter. When I pick Django it's because I value development speed, DRY, less code.

I see no point in writing views by hand when there's already a set of sane defaults. Here's my rule of thumb:

Use function views only if the time spent customizing a generic view is more than the time spent writing the view by hand. As with plain Django, in Django REST framework there are many ways for writing views:

  • function based views
  • class based views
  • generic API views

For the scope of this tutorial I will use generic API views. Our simple app should:

  • list a collection of models
  • create new objects in the database

By taking a look at the generic API views documentation we can see that there's a view for listing and creating models: ListCreateAPIView, which takes a queryset and a serializer_class.

Open up leads/views.py and create the view:

from .models import Lead
from .serializers import LeadSerializer
from rest_framework import generics

class LeadListCreate(generics.ListCreateAPIView):
    queryset = Lead.objects.all()
    serializer_class = LeadSerializer

That is. With 3 lines of code we created a view for handling GET and POST requests. What's missing now? URL mapping! In other words we should map URLs to views.

How? Head over to the next section.

Django REST with React: setting up the rout... ehm the urls

Our goal is to wire up LeadListCreate to api/lead/. In other words we want to make GET and POST requests to api/lead/ for listing and creating models.

To configure the URL mapping include the app urls in django_react/urls.py:

from django.urls import path, include

urlpatterns = [
    path('', include('leads.urls')),
]

Next up create a new file named leads/urls.py. In this file we'll wire up LeadListCreate to api/lead/:

from django.urls import path
from . import views

urlpatterns = [
    path('api/lead/', views.LeadListCreate.as_view() ),
]

Finally let's enable rest_framework in INSTALLED_APPS. Open up django_react/settings.py and add the app in INSTALLED_APPS:

# Application definition

INSTALLED_APPS = [
    # omitted for brevity
    'leads.apps.LeadsConfig',
    'rest_framework'
]

Now you should be able to run a sanity check with:

python manage.py runserver

Head over http://127.0.0.1:8000/api/lead/ and you'll see the browsable API:

Django REST framework browseable API

NOTE: it is a good idea to disable the browseable API in production with this configuration:

REST_FRAMEWORK = {
    'DEFAULT_RENDERER_CLASSES': (
        'rest_framework.renderers.JSONRenderer',
    )
}

While there create some contact in the builtin form. In the next section we'll get into React.

Django REST with React: Django and React together

A lot of fellow Python developers struggle with a simple question. How to glue Django and React together?

Should React router take over the routing? Should React mount a component in each Django template? (If you want to lose sanity). I'd say "it depends". It depends on how much JavaScript do you need. But how much JavaScript is too much?

Jokes aside there are many ways for setting up a Django project with React. I see the following patterns (which are common to almost every web framework):

Option 1. React in its own "frontend" Django app: load a single HTML template and let React manage the frontend (difficulty: medium)

Option 2. Django REST as a standalone API + React as a standalone SPA (difficulty: hard, it involves JWT for authentication)

Option 3. Mix and match: mini React apps inside Django templates (difficulty: simple, but not so maintainable in the long run)

And here are my advices. If you're just starting out with Django REST and React avoid option 2. Instead go for option number 1 (React in its own "frontend" Django app) if:

  • you're building an app-like website
  • the interface has lot of user interactions/AJAX
  • you're ok with Session based authentication
  • there are no SEO concerns
  • you're fine with React Router

In fact keeping React closer to Django makes easier to reason about authentication. You can exploit the Django builtin authentication for registering and logging in users.

Use the good ol' Session authentication and do not worry too much about tokens and JWT.

Go for option number 3 (mini React apps inside Django templates) if:

  • the website doesn’t need much Javascript
  • SEO is a big concern and you can't use Node.js for Server Side Rendering

In the next section we'll go with the option 1.

Setting up React and webpack

We already know how to create a Django app so let's do it again for the frontend app:

django-admin startapp frontend

You'll see a new directory called frontend inside your project folder:

(venv) your@prompt:~/Code/django-react$ tree -d -L 1
.
├── django_react
├── frontend
├── leads
└── venv

Let's also prepare a directory structure for holding React components:

mkdir -p ./frontend/src/components

and static files:

mkdir -p ./frontend/{static,templates}/frontend

Next up we'll set up React, webpack and babel. Move in the frontend folder and initialize the environment:

cd ./frontend && npm init -y

Next up install webpack and webpack cli:

npm i webpack webpack-cli --save-dev

Now open up package.json and configure two scripts, one for production and one for development:

"scripts": {
  "dev": "webpack --mode development ./src/index.js --output ./static/frontend/main.js",
  "build": "webpack --mode production ./src/index.js --output ./static/frontend/main.js"
}

Close the file and save it. Now let's install babel for transpiling our code:

npm i @babel/core babel-loader @babel/preset-env @babel/preset-react --save-dev

Next up pull in React:

npm i react react-dom --save-dev

Now configure babel with a .babelrc (still inside ./frontend):

{
    "presets": [
        "@babel/preset-env", "@babel/preset-react"
    ]
}

And finally create a webpack.config.js for configuring babel-loader:

module.exports = {
  module: {
    rules: [
      {
        test: /\.js$/,
        exclude: /node_modules/,
        use: {
          loader: "babel-loader"
        }
      }
    ]
  }
};

Now we're ready to roll! (Welcome to modern frontend!).

Django REST with React: preparing the frontend app

First things first create a view in ./frontend/views.py:

from django.shortcuts import render


def index(request):
    return render(request, 'frontend/index.html')

Then create a template in ./frontend/templates/frontend/index.html:

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html>
<head>
  <meta charset="utf-8">
  <meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1">
  <title>Django REST with React</title>
</head>
<body>
<div id="app">
    <!-- React will load here -->
</div>
</body>
{% load static %}
<script src="{% static "frontend/main.js" %}"></script>
</html>

As you can see the template will call ./frontend/main.js which is our webpack bundle. Configure the new URL mapping to include the frontend in ./project/urls.py:

urlpatterns = [
    path('', include('leads.urls')),
    path('', include('frontend.urls')),
]

Next up create a new file named ./frontend/urls.py:

from django.urls import path
from . import views


urlpatterns = [
    path('', views.index ),
]

Finally enable the frontend app in ./project/settings.py:

# Application definition

INSTALLED_APPS = [
    # omitted for brevity
    'leads.apps.LeadsConfig',
    'rest_framework',
    'frontend', # enable the frontend app
]

At this point you can give it a shot on http://127.0.0.1:8000/ (while still running Django development server). You'll see a blank page for now.

In the next section we'll finally add React to the mix.

Django REST with React: the React frontend

To keep things simple we'll create a simple React component that will display our data. If you haven't got anything in the database it's a good moment to populate your application with some contact.

Run the development server and head over http://127.0.0.1:8000/api/lead/ to insert some leads.

Now create a new file in ./frontend/src/components/App.js. It will be a React component for fetching and displaying data:

import React, { Component } from "react";
import { render } from "react-dom";

class App extends Component {
  constructor(props) {
    super(props);
    this.state = {
      data: [],
      loaded: false,
      placeholder: "Loading"
    };
  }

  componentDidMount() {
    fetch("api/lead")
      .then(response => {
        if (response.status > 400) {
          return this.setState(() => {
            return { placeholder: "Something went wrong!" };
          });
        }
        return response.json();
      })
      .then(data => {
        this.setState(() => {
          return {
            data,
            loaded: true
          };
        });
      });
  }

  render() {
    return (
      <ul>
        {this.state.data.map(contact => {
          return (
            <li key={contact.id}>
              {contact.name} - {contact.email}
            </li>
          );
        })}
      </ul>
    );
  }
}

export default App;

const container = document.getElementById("app");
render(<App />, container);

NOTE: you can write the very same component as a function with the useEffect hook.

Save and close the file. Now create the entry point for webpack in ./frontend/src/index.js and import your component:

import App from "./components/App";

Now we're ready to test things out. Run webpack with:

npm run dev

start the development server:

python manage.py runserver

and head over http://127.0.0.1:8000/. (If you see "Something went wrong" make sure to migrate and populate your database)

You should finally see your data in a React component:

Simple React component

Pretty simple. But it works!

Django REST with React: testing the frontend

In the original version of this post I proposed Cypress for testing the React frontend. However, tools are subjective and not every team have the luxury to switch from Selenium.

If that's your case try to test the frontend with LiveServerTestCase in the Django app context.

Django REST with React: conclusions

In this tutorial we built a simple Django REST/React project. You learned how to:

  • build a simple Django REST API
  • structure a Django project with React
  • connect React to the Django REST API

Feel free to experiment by adding more features to the project (like authentication).

Just starting out with Django and Django REST? Make sure to check out Write an API for Almost Anything by Charlotte Mays and Django REST framework documentation.

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Valentino Gagliardi

Hi! I’m Valentino! Educator and consultant, I help people learning to code with on-site and remote workshops. Looking for JavaScript and Python training? Let’s get in touch!

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