Mike Schaeffer's Blog

August 12, 2020

Like a lot of engineers, I have a handful of personal projects I keep around for various reasons. Some are useful and some are just for fun, but none of them get the same sort of investment as a funded commercial effort. The consequence of this is that it's all the more important to keep things as simple as possible, to focus the investment where it counts. Part of the way I achieve that is that I've spent some initial time putting together a standard packaging approach. I know, I know - "standard packaging approach" doesn't sound like "fun personal project" - but getting the packaging out of the way makes it easier to focus on the actual fun part - building out functionality. It's for that reason that I've also successfully used variants of this approach on smaller commercial projects too. Hopefully, this will be useful to you too.

Setting the state, the top level view is this:

  • Uberjar packaging of single binaries using Leiningen and a few plugins.
  • Standard scripts and tools for packaging and install.
  • Use of existing Linux mechanisms for service control.
  • A heavy tendancy toward 12 Factor principles.

What this gets you is a good local interactive development story and easy deployment to a server. I've also gotten it to work with Client side code too, using Figwheel

What it doesn't get you is direct support for large numbers of processes or servers. Modern hardware is fast and capable, so you may not have those requirements, but if you do, you'll need something heavier weight, to reduce both management overhead and costs. (In my day job, we've done some amazing things with Kubernetes.)

The example project I'm going to use is the engine for this blog, Rhinowiki. It's useful, but simple enough to be used as a model for a packaging approach. If you're also interested in strategies for managing apps with read/write persistance (SQL) and rich client code, I have a couple other programs packaged this way with those features. Even with these, the essentials of the packaging strategy are exactly the same as what I describe here:

Everything begins with a traditional project.clj, and the project can be started locally with the usual lein run.

Once running, main immediately writes a herald log message at info level:

(defn -main [& args]
  (log/info "Starting Rhinowiki" (get-version))
  (let [config (load-config)]
    (log/debug "config" config)
    (webserver/start (:http-port config)
                     (blog/blog-routes (blog/blog-init config)))
    (log/info "end run.")))

This immediately lets you know the process has started, logs are working, and which version of the code is running. These are usually the first things verified after an install, so it's good to ensure they happen early on. This is particularly useful for software that's not interactive or running on slow hardware. (I've run some of this code on Raspberry Pi hardware that takes ten or so seconds to get to the startup herald.)

The way the version is acquired is interesting too. The call to get-version is really a macro invocation and not a function call.

(defmacro get-version []
  ;; Capture compile-time property definition from Lein
  (System/getProperty "rhinowiki.version"))

Because macros are evaluated at compile time, the macroexpansion of get-version has access to JVM properties defined at build time by Leiningen.

The next step is to pull in configuration settings using Anatoly Polinsky's https://github.com/tolitius/cprop library. cprop can do more than what I use it for here, but here, I use it to load a single EDN config file. cprop lets the name of that file be identified at startup via a system proprety, making it possible to define a file for each server, as well as a local config file specified in: project.clj.

:jvm-opts ["-Dconf=local-config.edn"]

I've also found it useful to minimize the number and power of configuration settings. Every setting that changes is a risk that something will break when you promote code. Every setting that doesn't change is a risk of introducing a bug in the settings code.

I also dump the configugration to a log very early in the startup process.

(log/debug "config" config)

Given the importance of configuration settings, it's occasionally important to be able to inspect the settings in use at run-time. However, this log is written at debug level, so it doesn't normally print. This reduces the risk of accidentally revealing secret keys in the log stream. Depending on the importance of those keys, there is also much more you can do to protect them, if preventing the risk is worth the effort.

After all that's done, main transfers control over to the actual application:

(webserver/start (:http-port config)
                 (blog/blog-routes (blog/blog-init config)))

With a configurable application running, the next step is to get it packaged in a way that lets us predictably install it elsewhere. The strategy here is a two step approach: build the code as an uberjar and include the uberjar in a self-contained .tar.gz as an installation pacakge.

  • The installer package contains everything needed to install the software (the one exception being the JVM itself).
  • The package name includes the version number of the software: rhinowiki-0.3.3.tar.gz.
  • Files in the installation package all have a prefix (rhinowiki-install, in this case) to confine the installation files to a single directory when installing. This is to make it easy to avoid crosstalk between multiple installers and delete installation directories after you're done with an installation.
  • There is an idempotent installation script (install.sh) at the root of the package. Running this script either creates or updates an installation.
  • The software is installed as a Linux service.

The net result of this packaging in an installation/upgrade process that works like this:

tar xzvf rhinowiki-0.3.3.tar.gz
cd rhinowiki-install
sudo service rhinowiki stop
sudo ./install.sh
sudo service rhinowiki start

To get to this point, I use the Leiningen release task and the lein-tar plugin, both originally by Phil Hagelberg. There's a wrapper script, but the essential command is lein clean && lein release $RELEASE_LEVEL. This instructs Leiningen to execute a series of tasks listed in the release-tasks key in project.clj.

I've had to modify Leiningen's default list of release tasks, in two ways: I skip signing of tagged releases in git, and I invoke lein-tar rather than deploy. However, the full task list needs to be [completely restated in project.clj](https://github.com/mschaef/rhinowiki/blob/master/project.clj#L42), so it's a lengthy setting.

:release-tasks [["vcs" "assert-committed"]
                ["change" "version" "leiningen.release/bump-version" "release"]
                ["vcs" "commit"]
                ["vcs" "tag" "--no-sign" ]
                ["change" "version" "leiningen.release/bump-version"]
                ["vcs" "commit"]
                ["vcs" "push"]]

The configuration for lein-tar is more straightforward - include the plugin, and specify a few options. The options request that the packaged output be written in the project root, include an uberjar, and extract into an install directory rather than just CWD.

:plugins [[lein-ring "0.9.7"]
          [lein-tar "3.3.0"]]

;; ...

:tar {:uberjar true
      :format :tar-gz
      :output-dir "."
      :leading-path "rhinowiki-install"}

Give the uberjar a specific fixed name:

:uberjar-name "rhinowiki-standalone.jar"

And populate it with a few files additional to the uberjar itself - lein-tar accepts these files in pkg/ at the root of the project directory hierarchy. These files include everything else needed to install the application - a configuration map for cprop, an install script, a service script, and log configuration.

The install script is the last part of the process. It's an idempotent script that, when run on a server as sudo, guarantees that the application is installed. It sets up users and groups, copies files from the package to wherever they belong, and uses update-rc.d to ensure that the service scripts are correctly installed.

This breaks down the packaging and installation process to the following:

  • ./package.sh
  • scp package tarball to server and ssh in
  • Extract the package - tar xzvf rhinowiki-0.3.3.tar.gz
  • Change into the expanded package directory - cd rhinowiki-install
  • Stop any existing instances of the service - sudo service rhinowiki stop
  • Run the install script - sudo ./install.sh
  • (Re)Start the service - sudo service rhinowiki start

At this point, I've sketched out the approach end to end, and I hope it's evident that this can be used in fairly simple scenarios. Before I close, let me also talk about a few sharp edges to be aware of. Like every other engineering approach, this packaging strategy has tradeoffs, and some of these tradeoffs require specific compromises.

The first is that this approach requires dependencies (notably the JVM) to be manually installed on target servers. For smaller environments, this can be acceptable, for larger numbers of target VM's, almost definately not.

The second is that there's nothing about persistance in this approach. It either needs to be managed externally, or the entire persistance story needs to be internal to the deployed uberjar. This is why I wrote sql-file, which provides a built in SQL database with schema migration support. Another approach is just to handle it altogether externally, which is what I do for Rhinowiki. The Rhinowiki store is a git repository, and it's managed out of band with respect to the deployment of Rhinowiki itself.

But these are both specific problems that can be managed for smaller applications. Often times, it's worth the costs associated with these problems, to gain the benefits of reducing the number of software components and moving pieces. If you're in a situation like that, I hope you give this approach a try and find it useful. Please let me know if you do.