Alexa is checking your list

20. December 2016 2016 0

Author: Matthew Williams
Editors: Benjamin Marsteau, Scott Francis

Recently I made a kitchen upgrade: I bought an Amazon Dot. Alexa, the voice assistant inside the intelligent puck, now plays a key role in the preparation of meals every day. With both hands full, I can say “Alexa, start a 40-minute timer” and not have to worry about burning the casserole. However, there is a bigger problem coming up that I feel it might also help me out on. It is the gift-giving season, and I have been known to get the wrong things. Wouldn’t it be great if I could have Alexa remind me what I need to get for each person on my list? Well, that simple idea took me down a path that has consumed me for a little too long. And as long as I built it, I figured I would share it with you.

Architecting a Solution

Now it is important to remember that I am a technologist and therefore I am going to go way beyond what’s necessary. [ “anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” — anon. ] Rather than just building the Alexa side of things, I decided to create the entire ecosystem. My wife and I are the first in our families to add Alexa to their household, so that means I need a website for my friends and family to add what they want. And of course, that website needs to talk to a backend server with a REST API to collect the lists into a database. And then Alexa needs to use that same API to read off my lists.

OK, so spin up an EC2 instance and build away, right? I did say I am a technologist, right? That means I have to use the shiniest tools to get the job done. Otherwise, it would just be too easy.

My plan is to use a combination of AWS Lambda to serve the logic of the application, the API Gateway to host the REST endpoints, DynamoDB for saving the data, and another Lambda to respond to Alexa’s queries.

The Plan of Attack

Based on my needs, I think I came up with the ideal plan of attack. I would tackle the problems in the following order:

  1. Build the Backend – The backend includes the logic, API, and database.
    1. Build a Database to Store the Items
    2. Lambda Function to Add an Item
    3. Lambda Function to Delete an Item
    4. Lambda Function to List All Items
    5. Configure the API Gateway
  2. Build the User Interface – The frontend can be simple: show a list, and let folks add and remove from that list.
  3. Get Alexa Talking to the Service – That is why we are here, right?

There are some technologies used that you should understand before beginning. You do not have to know everything about Lambda or the API Gateway or DynamoDB, but let’s go over a few of the essentials.

Lambda Essentials

The purpose of Lambda is to run the functions you write. Configuration is pretty minimal, and you only get charged for the time your functions run (you get a lot of free time). You can do everything from the web console, but after setting up a few functions, you will want another way. See this page for more about AWS Lambda.

API Gateway Essentials

The API Gateway is a service to make it easier to maintain and secure your APIs. Even if I get super popular, I probably won’t get charged much here as it is $3.50 per million API calls. See this page for more about the Amazon API Gateway.

DynamoDB Essentials

DynamoDB is a simple (and super fast) NoSQL database. My application has simple needs, and I am going to need a lot more friends before I reach the 25 GB and 200 million requests per month that are on the free plan. See this page for more about Amazon DynamoDB.

Serverless Framework

Sure I can go to each service’s console page and configure them, but I find it a lot easier to have it automated and in source control. There are many choices in this category including the Serverless framework, Apex, Node Lambda, and many others. They all share similar features so you should review them to see which fits your needs best. I used the Serverless framework for my implementation.

Alexa Skills

When you get your Amazon Echo or Dot home, you interact with Alexa, the voice assistant. The things that she does are Alexa Skills. To build a skill you need to define a list of phrases to recognize, what actions they correspond to, and write the code that performs those actions.

Let’s Start Building

There are three main components that need to be built here: API, Web, and Skill. I chose a different workflow for each of them. The API uses the Serverless framework to define the CloudFormation template, Lambda Functions, IAM Roles, and API Gateway configuration. The Webpage uses a Gulp workflow to compile and preview the site. And the Alexa skill uses a Yeoman generator. Each workflow has its benefits and it was exciting to use each.

If you would like to follow along, you can clone the GitHub repo:

Building the Server

The process I went through was:

  1. Install Serverless Framework (npm i -g serverless)
  2. Create the first function (sls create -n <service name> -t aws-nodejs)The top-level concept in Serverless is that of a service. You create a service, then all the Lambda functions, CloudFormation templates, and IAM roles defined in the serverless.yaml file support that service.Add the resources needed to a CloudFormation template in the serverless.yaml file. For example:Refer to the CloudFormation docs and the Serverless Resources docs for more about this section.
  3. Add the resources needed to a CloudFormation template in the serverless.yaml file. For example:
    Refer to the CloudFormation docs and the Serverless Resources docs for more about this section.
  4. Add the IAM Role statements to allow your Lambda access to everything needed. For example:
  5. Add the Lambda functions you want to use in this service. For example:
    The events section lists the triggers that can kick off this function. **http** means to use the API Gateway. I spent a little time in the API Gateway console and got confused. But these four lines in the serverless.yaml file were all I needed.
  6. Install serverless-webpack npm and add it to the YAML file:
    This configuration tells Serverless to use WebPack to bundle all your npm modules together in the right way. And if you want to use EcmaScript 2015 this will run Babel to convert back down to a JavaScript version that Lambda can use.  You will have to setup your webpack.config.js and .babelrc files to get everything working.
  7. Write the functions. For the function I mentioned earlier, I added the following to my items.js file:
    This function sets the table name in my DynamoDB and then grabs all the rows. No matter what the result is, a response is formatted using this createResponse function:
    alexa_6Notice the header. Without this, Cross Origin Resource Sharing will not work. You will get nothing but 502 errors when you try to consume the API.
  8. Deploy the Service:

    Now I use 99Design’s aws-vault to store my AWS access keys rather than adding them to a rc file that could accidentally find its way up to GitHub. So the command I use is:

    If everything works, it creates the DynamoDB table, configures the API Gateway APIs, and sets up the Lambdas. All I have to do is try them out from a new application or using a tool like Paw or Postman. Then rinse and repeat until everything works.

Building the Frontend


Remember, I am a technologist, not an artist. It works, but I will not be winning any design awards. It is a webpage with a simple table on it and loads up some Javascript to show my DynamoDB table:


Have I raised the technologist card enough times yet? Well, because of that I need to keep to the new stuff even with the Javascript features I am using. That means I am writing the code in ECMAScript 2015, so I need to use Babel to convert it to something usable in most browsers. I used Gulp for this stage to keep building the files and then reloading my browser with each change.

Building the Alexa Skill

Now that we have everything else working, it is time to build the Alexa Skill. Again, Amazon has a console for this which I used for the initial configuration on the Lambda that backs the skill. But then I switched over to using Matt Kruse’s Alexa App framework. What I found especially cool about his framework was that it works with his alexa-app-server so I can test out the skill locally without having to deploy to Amazon.

For this one I went back to the pre-ECMAScript 2015 syntax but I hope that doesn’t mean I lose technologist status in your eyes.

Here is a quick look at a simple Alexa response to read out the gift list:



And now we have an end to end solution around working with your gift lists. We built the beginnings of an API to work with gift lists. Then we added a web frontend to allow users to add to the list. And then we added an Alexa skill to read the list while both hands are on a hot pan. Is this overkill? Maybe. Could I have stuck with a pen and scrap of paper? Well, I guess one could do that. But what kind of technologist would I be then?

About the Author

Matt Williams is the DevOps Evangelist at Datadog. He is passionate about the power of monitoring and metrics to make large-scale systems stable and manageable. So he tours the country speaking and writing about monitoring with Datadog. When he’s not on the road, he’s coding. You can find Matt on Twitter at @Technovangelist.

About the Editors

Benjamin Marsteau is a System administrator | Ops | Dad | and tries to give back to the community has much as it gives him.