How to Create a Simple Web-Based Chat Application

9 min read Markus Kohler on Jan 19, 2024

Real-time systems and messaging platforms have become essential to our daily routines, enabling instantaneous user communication. From text messages and emails to group chats in Microsoft Teams, Slack, or WhatsApp, we all have our preferred platforms to maintain constant communication with friends and colleagues. These chat applications are ubiquitous and integrated into almost every modern real-time application due to their immediate response times and extensive capabilities.

The increasing reliance on chat applications is due to their numerous benefits. For example, they allow faster decision-making, improved collaboration, and enhanced productivity. Moreover, chat platforms record all conversations, making tracking progress easier and referring to previous discussions. Additionally, these applications are becoming more sophisticated, incorporating features like video and voice calls, and screen and file sharing, making them even more versatile for various uses. Overall, chat applications have become indispensable tools for modern communication and collaboration.

Why Build a Simple Web-Based Chat Application

There is a high demand for new and innovative chat applications that cater to specific needs.

Web-based chat applications can be customized to suit different industries and businesses, providing a unique platform for users to communicate and collaborate. For example, a chat application designed for healthcare professionals can incorporate specific features such as secure messaging (HIPAA Compliant) and video consultations, making it more efficient and effective for medical practitioners.

Building a chat application can also provide lucrative business opportunities, potentially generating revenue through advertisements, subscriptions, and in-app purchases. Furthermore, as technology advances, the possibilities for chat applications are endless, with the potential to incorporate cutting-edge features such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

Benefits of a simple web-based chat application

Many benefits can come from building a simple web-based chat application. Simply, a chat application makes it easy to communicate with people anywhere in the world by sending and receiving messages. With a web chat application, users can receive the same engaging and lively interactions through custom messaging features, just as they would in person. This also allows users to converse on your platform instead of looking elsewhere for a messaging solution. Whether it's private chat, group chat, or large-scale chat, adding personalized chat features to your app can help ensure your users have a memorable experience.

A web-based chat application can offer convenience that other forms of communication cannot. Users can access the application from anywhere with an internet connection, making it easy to stay connected on the go. Furthermore, web-based chat applications can be designed to work seamlessly with other applications, allowing users to switch between different tools and functions without interrupting their conversations.

Build vs Buy a simple web-based chat application

The decision of whether to develop an in-house chat solution or opt for a vendor-provided solution is a significant one. For some organizations, the availability of developers in-house or on retainer at a contracting firm may make the prospect of developing and owning a fully customized chat or messaging solution appealing. Alternatively, purchasing an existing chat solution with an as-a-service pricing model can offer numerous advantages, but it also comes with challenges. However, a plug-and-play chat provider is a third option for adding chat functionality to a software product. This option may suffice for specific applications, as it offers UI features that fit all sizes and simplified back-end integrations.

Before committing to either build or buy chat functionality, it’s essential to consider your business’s core value proposition, appropriately prioritizing chat relative to the main problems you intend to solve for your customers. Although it provides prosperous benefits, it is rarely a critical business differentiator.

From the outside, chat may seem like a straightforward component to incorporate into your current infrastructure. However, building it from scratch can take up the same, if not more, development power as an entirely new product and development resources are both costly and finite. In most situations, it is more important to prioritize the core value proposition rather than working on a chat. Now let's answer the question: how do you save on cost and time while still achieving a fully customizable chat solution that can be incorporated into your web application?

To achieve a fully customizable chat solution that can be easily integrated into any web application while saving on cost and time, you can leverage the benefits of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). IaaS is a cloud-based computing model that allows you to rent computing resources such as servers, storage, and networking components on a pay-as-you-go basis. By using IaaS, companies can avoid the upfront costs of building and maintaining their infrastructure and instead focus on developing their core value propositions. This model helps scale your infrastructure quickly, according to their needs and requirements.

Things to Consider When Building a Web-Based Chat Application

Building a real-time chat application requires careful planning and consideration to ensure the application meets the desired functionality and user experience. Below we will explore some considerations when building a real-time chat application from scratch or using an IaaS service.

Engaging Real-time Messaging Features

Chat applications today are more complex than sending and receiving messages. Users will always want some other functionality when using an in-app chat. A digital web-based chat application with real-time messaging features enables users to have an authentic and interactive experience.

Features like message reactions, stickers, emojis, GIFs, voice calls and video chat provide a way to engage your users directly on your app instead of external platforms creating a more connected experience.

Other functionalities like identifying active users, mobile push notifications, and message history—to name a few—also add to that immediacy by automatically detecting the presence of users in a real-time chat application or calling users back to your current application. For instance, Presence lets users know when their friends, fellow players, or collaborators are online. This is especially important and should be considered for a web-based application because it will keep people on your website rather than migrating to another application that offers a more immersive experience when chatting with friends or collaborators.

Robust User Authentication and Authorization System

With today’s technology, simple chat applications tend to have a more advanced authentication system due to the number of chats that can be created. Whether it is a public chat room, group chat, or 1-1 chat, there are restrictions on who has access to specific conversations allowing your users to see particular messages.

If you are considering building a chat from scratch and using technologies such as Socket.IO there will have to be a level of channel architecture applied on top of the communication layer. Channels would be isolated for data transmission for each chat of every type. Only authenticated users or users that created the channel/chat could access and invite people to the current channel.

The second layer of protection is identity authentication achieved by a dynamic token authentication system such as JSON Web Tokens (JWT). A token is a short-lived access key, which is generated by the app’s backend server and allows users to access channels they have been invited or have access to. Logic in the backend server would have to be implemented to parse the token into channel-identifiable objects specifying which channels the users can publish (send a message) to or subscribe to (read messages from).

Encryption is another security layer that can be applied on top of the data transmission and data storage layer. This depends on the transmission protocol; you can implement Transport Layer Security (TLS) or Web Socket Secure (WSS) to achieve the functionality to run a private chat in your web application.

Using an IaaS service such as PubNub, it is built using channel separation architecture and offers an Access Manager that includes configurations for identity authentication so all messages and channels are protected and, when configured, will be up to the user discretion on what type of chat they would like to create.

Scalability of your Real-Time Chat Application

When designing a web-based chat application from scratch, scalability should be a top consideration to ensure the chat can handle a growing user base and increased traffic.

The backend architecture should be designed to handle many concurrent users and messages. A scalable architecture may use a distributed database, load balancers, and caching mechanisms to manage high traffic and improve performance. As the number of users and messages grows, the storage requirements will also increase. Choosing a database system that can handle large volumes of data and can be easily scaled up as needed is essential.

How to build a simple web-based chat application

To build the client side of your web app, download an integrated development environment (IDE) such as Visual Studio Code and choose a specific framework or use HTML, CSS, and Javascript. Frameworks for web applications include React or Angular, which integrate more advanced state management techniques to make development easier.

Once you’ve downloaded the latest version of Visual Studio Code, create a project by creating .html, .css and .js files in the project directory. Usually, the core files to any vanilla javascript project are named app.js, index.html, and main.css. If you copy the absolute path of the index.html file and paste it into your browser, your code will now display and run. For a more detailed setup of a Vanilla JavaScript project, check out the Visual Studio Code tutorial to get started with web development. Using a framework, you can follow a tutorial for getting started with React or Angular.

Now we must choose the server-side language and hosting service we plan to use to handle communications. For example, let's create our first web server using Node.js. Once we have installed Node.js, we want to create a Node.js project using the command “npm init” from our terminal. After creating a new project, we can open it using Visual Studio Code and create a file called index.js which will deal with hosting the server on localhost. After creating a new project, we can open it using Visual Studio Code and follow the Node.js getting started guide for hosting a server locally.

We will want our front-end infrastructure to communicate over a WebSocket protocol with our server so we can communicate in real-time between two client applications. In this case, we must familiarize ourselves with implementing and understanding WebSocket terminology inside Node.js. We need to install a WebSocket library, ws for WebSocket implementation, express for creating a simple HTTP server, and nodemon to track changes in our code and restart the server. With all this setup, we can now implement the logic of creating a simple web-based chat application. For more information on implementing WebSockets in node.js, check out our Node.js WebSocket Programming Examples.

While it is certainly possible to implement WebSocket functionality using the libraries mentioned above, PubNub offers a number of advantages that can make it a more useful choice for implementing real-time communication in your application. One of the key benefits of using PubNub is that it provides a fully-managed infrastructure for real-time communication. This means that you don't need to worry about setting up and managing your own WebSocket servers, as PubNub takes care of all of that for you. This can save you a lot of time and effort, especially if you're not familiar with the intricacies of WebSocket implementation.

Simple web-based chat application examples

Web-based chat applications like Messenger, Microsoft Teams, or Slack implement custom chat applications to create unique user experiences. However, with PubNub, companies don’t have to set up and scale the infrastructure. 

  • JavaScript Group Chat Application: A simple web-based group chat application using the Javascript SDK that allows you to send messages over PubNub in real-time. This repository is written using PubNub messaging and was achieved in only ten lines of code (excluding styling). You can also download the repository from our GitHub.

  • Group Chat using React Chat Components: This group chat application, using the one-size-fits-all Chat Components, allows users to start direct 1-1 chats and group chats. It is written using the Framework React and our React Chat Components. Check out our Github to download the repository.

Getting started with PubNub for your web-based chat application

PubNub is an IaaS service that can achieve a fully customizable chat solution using one of our SDKs that can be integrated into your web application quickly and cost-effectively. You can leverage PubNub to build real-time messaging features into their application. Ultimately, this strategy can help companies to save time and money while delivering a high-quality chat solution to their customers.

PubNub has the following features built-in into its API and can meet the specific needs of your applications.

  1. Publish: Send messages whenever user input is updated, such as text updates, emoji reactions, sent files, and other complex metadata.

  2. Subscribe: Receive new messages to refresh users' screens.

  3. Presence: Update and detect the online status of users.

  4. Message Persistence: Display any received messages once users login to the app or track project and document revisions.

  5. Mobile Push Notifications: Notify mobile users who are away from the app about any chat messages, project updates, or application updates.

  6. App Context: Store information about your user in one place without setting up or calling your database.

  7. Access Manager: Restrict access for private conversations, channel rooms, documents, and projects for specific users.

  8. Functions: Translate messages, censor inappropriate messages, announce the arrival of new users, and notify other users of mentions.

  9. Events & Actions: Centrally manage events in your application’s ecosystem and trigger business logic without code.

To begin using PubNub to power your web-based real-time chat app, you must first create a PubNub account and download PubNub’s JavaScript SDK. The SDK integrates seamlessly into your application and allows you to connect to PubNub’s real-time communication platform.

  1. Sign in or create an account to create an app on the Admin Portal and get the keys to use in your application. Learn how to do so by following this how-to on creating keys.

  2. Download the JavaScript SDK by following the instructions in the documentation to install any necessary PubNub dependencies for your messaging app.

  3. Follow the SDKs getting started documentation to configure a PubNub object to begin publishing and subscribing to channels.