I’ll preface this by saying that although I’ve dabbled with Node, I don’t have anything in production right now that uses it. That being said, the way a Node web application runs – as a long-running external application instead of a module that’s part of the web server – is familiar enough for me to feel comfortable with the general principles.
How to use Node in production is actually a fairly broad topic, and a lot of it depends on exactly what the application is trying to do. It’s probably going to be useful to do some reading on Dev’s #node tag, but here’s my best high-level guidance.
So, what’s your Node app doing? Is it running a public web site? Responding to URLs for a publicly available service? Or is it an application that your front end application just calls for specific calculations? This impacts literally everything else.
A commodity PHP host won’t cut it for Node. You’re going to need one which allows for long-running applications. Generally that means a custom VM, or perhaps something that just allows you to deploy containers. That doesn’t have to be Digital Ocean or Heroku, though they do have the kind of set up you’re looking for.
Front end web server
There’s no requirement for a traditional web server, but it’s a common configuration. You can add middleware to Express to serve up static files, but it’s generally faster (and already written) to use Apache, Nginx, or something else to serve up files and act as a reverse proxy for the specific routes your application is handling.
This is a bit of a low-level implementation detail, but seeing as how others have touched on it…. I believe Express defaults to port 5000, but you can set it listen on whatever you want. If you’re using a front end server, you’d let the front end server handle port 80 and 443. If Express is handling all the traffic, then the Node app will need to handle those ports instead. (And note, I’m only assuming you’re using Express, that’s not required for a Node app that responds to HTTP requests; it’s just a very popular solution.)
Development vs. Production
I find it’s helpful if, to the extent possible, the development environment matches the production environment. You won’t install a compiler or an IDE on the production environment, but if the production environment will have a front end web server, it’s helpful to have the same front end web server running in the development environment. (I highly recommend you read about “The twelve-factor app for more about this topic, and other helpful guidance.)
“Automate all the things.” This has nothing to do with Node. If you can’t automate everything, automate as much as you can. Can’t use Travis, Jenkins, or a similar Continuous Integration tool? Go with a shell script.
I have personal experience with deployments which took three hours per environment and tended to result in production outage because the deployment instructions were a 12 page Word document. Those same deployments dropped to three minutes and stopped breaking production once we wrote a script to handle the config file changes.