Node Virtual Environments with nodenv


I’m becoming a huge fan of Node.js but deciding on the best option for working with versions and virtual environments can be a bit confusing. Much like everything else in the Node.js ecosystem, there are more than enough options to choose from. To cement my own understanding and perhaps provide some help to others I’ll outline how to use nodenv for managing virtual environments for Ubuntu. This should work equally for most Linux distros and Mac should be similar. Windows would require an alternate approach.

I’ll cover deployment considerations in another article.


I found nodenv to be fast, usable and very well documented. Additionally, it is forked from rbenv so provides a familiar interface for those also working in Ruby.

But before continuing, I’ll recognize three alternates which I considered and also tried.

  • nvm: This is the one you will see the most articles about. I did work for me in the short time I used it but I do see many open issues and generally I liked nodenv better.
  • nave: Very similar to nvm and it also seems good. However it wasn’t as user-friendly as either nvm or nodenv.
  • n: This is the only one I would explicitly not recommend at my time of writing this. It doesn’t have the functionality to easily manage virtual environments for a variety of projects (e.g. it only keeps one set of node_modules). It could be an option for managing node versions at the system-level only but I’d rather use an apt repository for that (see later).

I’ll also note that none of these options work on Windows - only OS X & Linux - so if you’re working on Windows you may consider nvm-windows or nodist. nodenv might work with MinGW/Cygwin.

Ubuntu 16.04 - Default apt-based install

Important: The next two commands are for demonstration only. You do not need to do them.

To install Node.js from the main Xenial repository at the system level you can either run apt install nodejs or apt install npm.

npm is the package manager for node and is required to work in the Node.js ecosystem more generally. However, we’ll get the later version of npm with nodenv later so let’s just install Node.js to keep things tidy.

sudo apt install nodejs

You can confirm that Node.js was installed:

$ nodejs -v

So is v4.2.6 a recent version? Not really. You can visit the to confirm.

It is active LTS but ending in 2017-03-31 so maybe we want something a touch more current? As of this writing v6.10.0 is the latest LTS version.

Installing nodenv & node-build plugin

There are a few steps to the nodenv install. However, it’s well worth it given the end result. I actually like how nodenv carries on the Unix & Node.js philosophies of program doing one thing well. For this reason, there are a few plugins required to get the functionality I desire.

First install & activate nodenv by cloning the git repo, appending the required lines to your .profile.

If you are using CentOS/REHL or Mac then you’ll need to edit your .bash_profile instead.

git clone ~/.nodenv
echo 'export PATH="$HOME/.nodenv/bin:$PATH"' >> ~/.profile
echo 'eval "$(nodenv init -)"' >> ~/.profile

Log out then log back in to confirm the install:

$ type nodenv
nodenv is a function
nodenv ()

As mentioned earlier nodenv is modular with plugins performing some of the essentials functions, including the actual building of node versions. We can install node-build and then list available versions.

$ git clone $(nodenv root)/plugins/node-build
$ nodenv install -l

Installing Node Versions & Packages

Now that we have nodenv and the node-build plugin, we can install multiple Node.js versions. Let’s install the latest LTS version (at time of this writing) and then activate it globally (for the logged in user).

nodenv install 6.8.0
nodenv global 6.8.0

You can confirm node & npm are installed:

$ npm version
{ npm: '3.10.10',
  ares: '1.10.1-DEV',
  http_parser: '2.7.0',
  icu: '58.2',
  modules: '48',
  node: '6.10.0',
  openssl: '1.0.2k',
  uv: '1.9.1',
  v8: '',
  zlib: '1.2.8' }

To install a global node module we do so as per usual, but we need to rehash to make it available from the command-line.

$ npm install -g mocha
$ mocha -V #without rehash
mocha: command not found
$ nodenv rehash
$ mocha -V

We can install the nodenv-package-rehash plugin to enable auotmatic rehashing.

$ git clone "$(nodenv root)"/plugins/nodenv-package-rehash.git
$ nodenv package-hooks install --all
$ npm install -g nodemon
$ nodemon -v

Installing Local Node Versions per Project

To start to see the power in nodenv let’s install a project locally for a specific project.

$ nodenv install 4.8.0
$ mkdir path/to/projects/hello-nodenv
$ cd path/to/projects/hello-nodenv
$ node -v #displaying global
$ nodenv local 4.8.0
$ node -v

This will write 4.8.0 to a .node-version file. When you cd into this directory nodenv will adjust the version shim (for details on how this works see the README).

Now all our npm scripts will work with the local version instead of the global version.

We can see how this works by:

  1. Create a new project with npm init
  2. In package.json add "start": "node index.js" within scripts
  3. Then create a simple program and run it
$ echo 'console.log("Hello from " + process.version);' > index.js
$ npm start
Hello from v4.8.0

Next steps - nodenv for deployment to production

How you install Node.js for deployment to production will vary based on your application’s overall architecture. If you deploy to Heroku, for example, the Node.js version and all dependencies will be installed automatically based on what is in your package.json file.

In other scenarios (deployment to cloud provider instance, for example), you can leverage nodenv to facilitate automatic installation of the correct Node.js version.

In the next article on this topic I will write on a simple production deployment using nodenv plus process management using pm2.

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