n8n Automation first look & setup

I came across n8n.io as a Zapier alternative that is free if you load it onto your computer/server, or you can use their cloud service at https://www.n8n.cloud/, I’ll discuss this later.

You can load it onto your own computer after loading Node.JS and I used VS Code terminal to run npm install n8n -g ( the -g is to install it globally so accessed from anywhere on drive).

Zapier allows you to have 3 step automatons for free, and if you add extra steps you have to pay for them. So I’m interested in exploring a free alternative.

Issues setting up on PC’s and Server

I had issues with loading it onto my surface laptop (still not resolved) but it loaded onto my surface Book Ok with a load of npm install sqlite3 -g done before running the above install again. You then run n8n in the terminal and it will open in a browser.

I’m also trying to load it onto my Windows VPS , I’m having issues on that as well. I have to install Python (from python.org) and also node.js and VS Code (good for coding and I find the terminal handy).

The reason I want it on my Server is that it can then run on a time based trigger, so I can have it continually running on the server. Which brings me to the cloud setup.

I’m having issues getting it loaded on MS server, I’ve loaded up python and tried running terminal in Admin mode, all to no avail to date.

n8n Cloud service.

This is a way to have the service up and running and not having to worry how to manage it, but there is a cost associated with doing that as shown in image below. This screen comes up when you are setting up a cloud account.

I will try the 30 day trial to test the service. I’ve signed on but not yet chosen the free plan. I’ll explore with my PC setup first and then will explore cloud setup after.

Running a trial programme

First workflow test- WordPress data to Spreadsheet

After getting it up and running on my Surface Book in the browser I thought I’d try a trial test based on a video I saw of someone who was using the WordPress regular node and pushing data to a spreadsheet.

I found that the WordPress node was in fact for WordPress.com, the WordPress site that allows you to have a free website, but its plugins are limited, so I’d migrated away from that a long time ago. So, first attempt a disappointment. It was not what I expected. I may have to try with the HTTP request node instead.

2nd Workflow – Extracting from a PDF file and pushing to another file

This workflow sort of worked, you start with a read binmary file that has a path to the file that you want to read, it only works with 2D pdf’s , not 3d pdfs, which is a shame. You then read PDF and it shows data in Table, binary (as PDF) or as JSON format, then write to Binary file.

I’d written file to .PDF and it could be viewed as PDF, if I set JSON as data type and selected a nested type (text) it would push out the information in text format. Unfortunately the PDF was 118 pages long and this locked up the browser trying to load the text so I stopped it.

YouTube & Google Sheets nodes

I tried a YouTube node and was looking up what the node could do in the docs and found that the info I wanted to pull out did not look as if I could reach. I have a script inside a Google Sheet (GAS script) so I thought I may be able to automate running that script, but when I looked at what the Google Sheets node could do it was pretty limited to writing, reading and appending data in sheets and info on workbooks , so another disappointment there too.

workflows

I also tried to use an existing workflow (https://n8n.io/workflows/635) to do this. This is a nice feature of the programme, it has workflows that others have built that you can use (https://n8n.io/workflows)

One really nice thing about pre-built workflows is that it has the code and you copy/paste (ctrl-V) into the browser screen and the nodes pop up in your setup. So easy to have the basic form ready to go.

Nodes

There are quite a few nodes, but many of them are for Apps that I wouldn’t use, so I’m not sure how useful they are. Go here to see the list of them.

There are some interesting ones, like Google Sheets, MS SQL so some Google, some Microsoft . I think the Excel will be the online Excel, but still a few useful nodes to play with.

So some spreadsheets and databases to play with. Also the Paypal, which may be interesting to try and integrate with. Also Gmail to send emails to notify about events.

Running processes

As you are linking to a lot of on-line services the API keys, authorisations etc are the bits that take a time to setup and debug, from what I can see in the videos. Making sure you are linked to the correct accounts and testing those links before you can pull/push data.

This makes the tutorials a bit limited as they only show you the idea of where they are getting the key/authorisations from, as they do not want you to link to their accounts , so they show you the examples after they’ve solved them and not the de-bugging process.

I did see one person using postman to do the testing of the get requests, which may be a simpler method of testing the authentication.

Tutorials

There seems to be quite good documentation on the nodes as well as a couple of video’s on You Tube, but not that many, and mainly basic ones for beginners. See here.

The node documentation, telling you what each node will do is quite useful, Doc page here. I was a bit disappointed in the limitations of some of the nodes I looked at.

How to use n8n and Raspberry PI to create workflows and automate APIs

An interesting article here on using Raspberry Pi to act as server, I may explore this later. A comment in it is you need to start n8n with the Tunnel added so that the Http requests will call externally.

n8n start –tunnel

So I need to consider that when starting for calling API’s. Also maybe Raspberry Pi would be a better server for the automation, depending on where I’m sending the data afterwards (to a file or to another service(eg Airtable).

Dashboard with n8n & smashing

I found this article while scrolling through n8n articles (actual article was on using HTTP request node). This is using smashing, a free dashboard that updates from API’s and n8n getting the info. I find this an interesting process and may need to look into it as a project. A good way to pull data from a database and display metrics.

HTTP Request Node โ€” The Swiss Army Knife

This is a good article on how to use HTTP request to get a web page and then focus on extracting part of the data from the page. So good for web scraping./ This is definitely a tutorial I want to follow. I might try it on the MoH covid data site for scraping and see if I can push it somewhere for using.

End comment

This is an interesting tool to explore as it has the potential of doing quite a lot of tedious processes. I’m interested in getting some workflows up and running. I am finding it a challenge trying to load it up on my server and PC’s and this is a bit of a nuisance.

I’d hoped to have a simple automation up and running that I found useful but to date have not found nodes that do things that I want.

In some ways I think this is like KNIME. I liked the idea that you could run automation’s on a server for free, unlike KNIME (which is way more powerful, but KNIME server is not cheap). Also Automation Workshop , which I do have running on the server, may be a method to do some automation’s that this programme can do.

Also, its a bit like node RED in browser interface and connecting nodes. I did have a wee look at it and wrote a brief article on it when I was exploring Rasperry Pi andf IoT devices, at the time I did not go further with it. It seems to be mainly used in the IoT envirnoment.

As it runs in the browser it will not appreciate large file, that’s why there was a bit of a lockup when I had the 118 pages of PDF. Sol that needs to be considered when using it. I think it works well with small amounts of data.

What triggered me off initially and struck a chord was the use of Zapier with GlideApps and I thought this may be an alternative, but I’m not sure if it is.

The coding is in JavaScript apparently and I’m wondering whether to try and do a deep dive into it or to let it lie for the moment. I think I have to become a bit more familiar with some of the other nodes and do a bit of research on them before I put it down.

Overall impression is that its a bit scrappy.