«

Making a 100% Statically-Linked, Single-File Web App with React and Rust

This tutorial will cover the basics of creating a minimal React app which can be deployed as a statically-linked Rust binary. What this accomplishes is having all of your code, including HTML, JavaScript, CSS, and Rust, packaged into a single file that will run on pretty much any 64-bit Linux system, regardless of the kernel version or installed libraries.

Complete source is available on GitHub.

Why?

  • Simpler deployment: Having a static binary means you just have to copy the file to your servers and run it.
  • Cross-platform native GUI apps: One of the biggest challenges in creating a cross-platform GUI app is working with a GUI library that targets all the platforms you’re interested in. The approach here lets you leverage the user’s browser for this purpose. This is somewhat similar to what Electron accomplishes, but your backend is in Rust rather than JavaScript, and the user navigates to the app from their browser. There are certainly tradeoffs here, but it can work well for some apps. I was first introduced to this approach by syncthing, which is written in go but does a similar thing.
  • Because I’ve been obsessed with static linking for as long as I can remember and I’m not really sure why.

Prerequisites

Initialize the project directory

We’re going to let cargo manage the project directory for us. Run the following commands:

cargo new --bin react_rust_webapp
cd react_rust_webapp

Create the React app

First install React, Babel, and Webpack:

mkdir ui
cd ui
npm init -y
npm install --save react react-dom
npm install --save-dev babel-core babel-loader babel-preset-env babel-preset-react webpack webpack-cli

Then create the source files:

mkdir dist
touch dist/index.html
mkdir src
touch src/index.js

Put the following content in dist/index.html:

<!doctype html>
<html>
  <head>
    <title>Static React and Rust</title>
  </head>
  <body>
    <div id="root"></div>
    <script src="/bundle.js"></script>
  </body>
</html>

And set src/index.js to the following:

import React from 'react';
import ReactDOM from 'react-dom';

ReactDOM.render(
  <h1>Hi there</h1>,
  document.getElementById('root')
);

We will also need a .babelrc file:

{
  "presets": [
    "react",
    "env",
  ],
}

And a webpack.config.js file:

const path = require('path');

module.exports = {
  entry: './src/index.js',
  output: {
    filename: 'bundle.js',
    path: path.resolve(__dirname, 'dist')
  },
  module: {
    rules: [
      {
        test: /\.(js|jsx)$/,
        exclude: /node_modules/,
        use: {
          loader: 'babel-loader',
        }
      }
    ]
  }
};

You should now be able to test that the frontend stuff is working. Run:

npx webpack --mode development

This will generate dist/bundle.js. If you start a web server in the dist directory you should be able to successfully serve the example content.

Now for the Rust part.

Setting up the Rust backend

Move up to the react_rust_webapp directory:

cd ..

First thing we need to do is install a web framework. I found Rouille to be great for this simple example. I also really love Rocket.

Add rouille to your Cargo.toml dependencies:

[package]
name = "react_rust_webapp"
version = "0.1.0"

[dependencies]
rouille = "2.1.0"

Now modify src/main.rs to have the following content:

#[macro_use]
extern crate rouille;

use rouille::Response;

fn main() {
    let index = include_str!("../ui/dist/index.html");
    let bundle = include_str!("../ui/dist/bundle.js");
    rouille::start_server("0.0.0.0:5000", move |request| {

        let response = router!(request,
            (GET) ["/"] => {
                Response::html(index)
            },
            (GET) ["/bundle.js"] => {
                Response::text(bundle)
            },
            _ => {
                Response::empty_404()
            }
        );

        response
    });
}

What is this doing?

At compile time, include_str! reads the indicated file and inserts the contents as a static string into the compiled binary. This string is then available as a normal variable.

The rouille code just sets up two HTTP endpoints, “/” and “/bundle.js”. Instead of returning the files from the filesystem as we’d typically do with a web app, we’re returning the contents of the statics strings from the binary.

To learn more about using Rouille to do more advanced stuff refer to their docs.

Running it

Alright, now if all went well we should be able to run it. Make sure ui/dist/bundle.js has already been generated as instructed above. Then run:

cargo run

It should start a server on port 5000. If you navigate to http://localhost:5000 in your browser you should see “Hi there”.

Static linking

This part can be skipped if you don’t need 100% static linking. Rust statically links most libraries by default anyway, except for things like libc.

If you do want to proceed, you’ll first need to install musl libc on your system and ensure the musl-gcc command is on your PATH.

Then, rerun cargo as follows:

cargo run --target=x86_64-unknown-linux-musl

Production build

For smaller binaries, build bundle.js as follows (from with ui/):

npx webpack --mode production

And run cargo as follows:

cargo build --release --target=x86_64-unknown-linux-musl

You should end up with a statically linked binary in react_rust_webapp/target/x86_64-unknown-linux-musl/release/

Conclusion

This is just the basics. There’s a lot more you could do with this, including:

  • Use build.rs to automatically build the React app when you compile Rust.
  • Take the port number from the command line
  • Serialized (probably JSON) requests and responses
  • Run webpack as an npm script command
  • Target other OSes. I haven’t tried yet, but this should be mostly transferable to MacOS and Windows, thanks to the awesomeness that is Rust/Cargo and the universal availability of web browsers.