Deploying Elixir

First off, there is probably a better way than what I am about to show you. These are simply a few things I’ve learned along the way building and running Elixir applications in production. They have worked for me. My projects are usually pretty simple, so I can’t speak to advanced topics like cluster deployments.

I’ve used Elixir off and on for the past few years. I can’t say I’ve used all the tools. I began with exrm and edeliver for both building and shipping releases. At the time I didn’t know much about Erlang and was ignorant of the compliation process. Since then I’ve found that distillery and docker, along with a few other things, are essential for my workflow.


  1. Application configuration with environment variables
  2. Version releases with git tags
  3. Use Docker to build
  4. Creating releases with distillery

Before we begin building releases we’ll need to tackle two common problems. Application configuration with environment variables and unique versioning (without manual changes).

Application configuration with environment variables

If you’ve ever created a release with environment variables in the config you probably already know what I am about to say.

# config/config.exs
use Mix.Config

config :app, Repo,
  database: System.get_env("DATABASE_NAME"),
  username: System.get_env("DATABASE_USER"),
  password: System.get_env("DATABASE_PASS"),
  hostname: System.get_env("DATABASE_HOST"),
  port:     System.get_env("DATABASE_PORT")
Don't do this.
defmodule HttpClient
  @token System.get_env("HTTP_CLIENT_TOKEN")
Or this.

Whatever value is in DATABASE_NAME is hardcoded into the release artifact at compile time. Once it is compiled you cannot change it. Ever.

Blog posts, articles, and Stackoverflow questions have all been written about compile time environment variables. Even Plataformatec wrote an article, How to config environment variables with Elixir and Exrm.

Most solutions say to use a secret file. Others, in the case of distilery, to define your variables in a string interpolated format user: "${DB_USER}". On startup you can pass an additional environment variable, REPLACE_OS_VARS=true and it will magically replace ${DB_USER} when whatever value exists in the DB_USER environment variable.

Both of these solutions are fine, but I prefer using environment variables the same way in Elixir as I do in other languages.

Now, I’ve read that using a env file to store environment variables isn’t the Elixir way and you should use approaches like Phoenix’s secrets file for managing per environment configurations. That’s cool. Not every project I create uses Phoenix though.

The best way that has worked for me is to use a config wrapper I first saw from bitwalker, which I modified for my own purposes. The end result works around the problem by pushing calls to System.get_env/1 down into a function and invoke it at runtime.

# config/config.exs
use Mix.Config

config :app, Repo,
  database: {:system, "DATABASE_NAME"},
  username: {:system, "DATABASE_USER"},
  password: {:system, "DATABASE_PASS"},
  hostname: {:system, "DATABASE_HOST"},
  port:     {:system, "DATABASE_PORT"}

# lib/repo.ex
defmodule Repo do
  use Ecto.Repo, otp_app: :app

  def init(_, config) do
    {:ok, Config.get(config)}
Do this instead.
defmodule HttpClient
  def token do
    Config.get(:app, :http_client_token)
Or this.


Before we create a release we should version our application. By default mix.exs includes a version string in your project definition.

# mix.exs
defmodule App.MixProject do
  use Mix.Project

  def project do
      version: "0.1.0",
Version 0.1.0

The version is used by build tools so it is important to change the version for each new release. Each release gets a new, incremental version tag, e.g. v1, v2, v3, etc.

During development the version does not matter. It does in production though, for a couple of reasons. First, distillery assumes each release has a unique version. Second, it is always a good idea to know what version of the application is running in production. You can pass the version information into your metrics, traces or logs.

I use git describe for the version suffix in production. More on that later.

# config/config.exs
config :myapp,
  version: System.get_env("APP_VERSION")

Note, Although we just talked about environment configuration, I didn’t use {:system, "APP_VERSION"} to define the version 😂. In this instance, I actually want to hardcode the version at compile time, unlike my other configuration variables.

# mix.exs
defmodule App.MixProject do
  use Mix.Project

  def project do
      version: version(),

  def version, do: Config.get(:myapp, :version) |> version
  def version(nil), do: "1.0.0+dev"
  def version(v), do: "1.0.0+#{v}"

If versioning with git describe seems too complex or it does not fit your needs you can always update the version by hand. As long as the version is unique between releases you should be okay.

diff --git a/mix.exs b/mix.exs
index a808289..d3374e4 100644
--- a/mix.exs
+++ b/mix.exs
@@ -3,7 +3,7 @@ defmodule App.MixProject do

   def project do
-      version: "0.1.0",
+      version: "0.2.0",
Update the version by hand, if that is easiest for you.

With configuration and versioning settled you’re ready to build a release.

Building a release

I divide my Dockerfiles into two main parts: runtime and build. Dockerfile.runtime contains the base image operating system, Elixir, and Erlang., inherits the base image and includes the application dependencies.

Separating the Docker files speeds up the build process from a few minutes to around 30 seconds.

Create base image for your target OS

Let’s assume you want to run on Ubuntu 16.04. Start with the ubuntu:16.04 and install Elixir and Erlang.

FROM ubuntu:16.04

ENV PATH /root/.asdf/bin:/root/.asdf/shims:$PATH


RUN apt-get update -qq && \
    apt-get upgrade -qq -y && \
    apt-get install -qq -y \
            git \
            curl \
            autoconf \
            build-essential \
            libgl1-mesa-dev \
            libglu1-mesa-dev \
            libncurses5-dev \
            libpng3 \
            libssh-dev \
            libwxgtk3.0-dev \
            m4 \
            unixodbc-dev \
            xsltproc fop

RUN rm -rf /var/cache/debconf/*-old && \
    rm -rf /var/lib/apt/lists/* && \
    rm -rf /usr/share/doc/*

RUN set -xe \
    && git clone ~/.asdf \
    && asdf plugin-add erlang \
    && asdf install erlang 21.0.1 \
    && asdf global erlang 21.0.1 \
    && asdf plugin-add elixir \
    && asdf install elixir 1.6.6 \
    && asdf global elixir 1.6.6 \
    && rm -rf /tmp/*
Dockerfile for installing Erlang 21.0.1 and Elixir 1.6.6 on Ubuntu 16.04

Built and tag it as ubuntu:erl-20.0.1_elixir-1.6.6.

$ docker build -f docker/Dockerfile.runtime -t ubuntu:erl-20.0.1_elixir-1.6.6 .

Create base image for the application

The second Dockerfile is based on the first. This image fetches and compiles the application dependencies, which shouldn’t change as often as the application code. That means we’ll only compile the application code when we create a release, which should only takes a few seconds as opposed to a few minutes if we’re compiling all the dependencies too.

FROM ubuntu:erl-20.0.1_elixir-1.6.6


ENV PATH /root/.asdf/bin:/root/.asdf/shims:$PATH

COPY lib $APP_PATH/lib
COPY mix.exs $APP_PATH
COPY mix.lock $APP_PATH
COPY deps $APP_PATH/deps
COPY config $APP_PATH/config

RUN mix local.hex --force
RUN mix local.rebar --force
RUN mix deps.get
RUN mix deps.compile
Dockerfile for compiling the application dependencies

Built and tag it.

$ docker build -f -t myapp .

Creating a release

Now we’re ready to create a release. I use distillery for this part. Upon installation it creates a configuration file.

environment :prod do
  set include_erts: true   # <--- Important
  set include_src: false
  set cookie: :"K(fqv)z4Sv~}0iVt1d$*Q<6:~tPxU4GE6J>_IMA2?zDR@j7aC/KLq6wm]=*{njIq"

It should provide the default options you’ll want, but be sure include_erts: is set to true.

The ERTS (the Erlang Runtime System) is a portable system responsible for running your application. The host machine does not need Erlang or elixir installed if you include the ERTS. As I mentioned before, this is why it is important to compile your code on the same operating system that you use in production.

Run mix release --env prod. Mount _build/prod/rel as a volume to the container and it will save the realese on your machine.

$ docker run -it --rm \
        -e APP_VERSION=$(git describe) \
        -v $(pwd)/_build/prod/rel:/app/_build/prod/rel \
        -v $(pwd)/mix.exs:/app/mix.exs \
        -v $(pwd)/mix.lock:/app/mix.lock \
        -v $(pwd)/config:/app/config\
        -v $(pwd)/lib:/app/lib \
        -v $(pwd)/rel:/app/rel \
        myapp:latest mix release --env prod

Compiling 53 files (.ex)
Generated myapp app
==> Assembling release..
==> Building release myapp:1.0.0+v1 using environment prod
==> Including ERTS 10.0.1 from /root/.asdf/installs/erlang/21.0.1/erts-10.0.1
==> Packaging release..
==> Release successfully built!
    You can run it in one of the following ways:
      Interactive: _build/prod/rel/myapp/bin/myapp console
      Foreground: _build/prod/rel/myapp/bin/myapp foreground
      Daemon: _build/prod/rel/myapp/bin/myapp start

Now we have a release ready for deployment 🎉.

$ ls -lh _build/prod/rel/myapp/releases/1.0.0+v1/myapp.tar.gz
-rw-r--r--  1 lthomas1  staff    20M Aug  1 03:51 _build/prod/rel/myapp/releases/1.0.0+v1/myapp.tar.gz

Let’s deploy 🚀


Deploying is straightforward at this point. We just need to hit a few more steps.

  1. Copy the build artifact to your server
  2. Extract the new release
  3. Stop the previously running release
  4. Start the new release

release directory

I like to keep my releases in a single directory and symlink to the current version.

$ pwd
$ ls -l
drwxrwxr-x 7 ubuntu ubuntu 4096 Jul 24 13:17 1.0.0+v10
drwxrwxr-x 7 ubuntu ubuntu 4096 Jul 25 01:09 1.0.0+v11
drwxrwxr-x 7 ubuntu ubuntu 4096 Jul 25 03:32 1.0.0+v11-2-g26120de
drwxrwxr-x 7 ubuntu ubuntu 4096 Jul 25 03:47 1.0.0+v11-4-geeef94f
drwxrwxr-x 7 ubuntu ubuntu 4096 Jul 25 04:25 1.0.0+v12
lrwxrwxrwx 1 ubuntu ubuntu   30 Aug  1 08:54 current -> /app/myapp/releases/1.0.0+v12


You can use whatever you want to initialize your application. I’m using systemd.

# /lib/systemd/system/myapp.service

ExecStart=/app/myapp/releases/current/bin/myapp foreground
ExecStop=/app/myapp/releases/current/bin/myapp stop

Sample systemd service definition for stopping, starting, and sourcing environment variables

Once defined, you can stop and start.

$ sudo systemctl stop myapp
$ sudo systemctl start myapp

Or view the logs.

$ sudo journalctl -u myapp
-- Logs begin at Thu 2018-08-01 04:52:17 UTC, end at Fri 2018-08-03 02:38:07 UTC. --
Aug 03 02:35:28 myapp systemd[1]: Stopping myapp...
Aug 03 02:35:30 myapp myapp[9581]: ok
Aug 03 02:35:33 myapp systemd[1]: Stopped myapp.
Aug 03 02:36:08 myapp systemd[1]: Started myapp.
Aug 03 02:36:11 myapp myapp[9873]: http://localhost:4001

A simple deploy script could look something like this.

$ scp _build/prod/rel/myapp/releases/1.0.0+v1/myapp.tar.gz
$ ssh 'mkdir -p /app/myapp/releases/1.0.0+v1 \
    && cp /tmp/myapp.tar.gz /app/myapp/releases/1.0.0+v1/ \
    && cd /app/myapp/releases/1.0.0+v1 \
    && tar xzvf /app/myapp/releases/1.0.0+v1/myapp.tar.gz \
    && sudo systemctl stop myapp \
    && cd /app/myapp/releases \
    && rm /app/myapp/releases/current \
    && ln -s /app/myapp/releases/1.0.0+v1 current \
    && sudo systemctl start myapp'
Sample deploy script for uploading, ectracting and starting an app


That’s it! Deploying Elixir apps certainly has a few gotchas and what I’ve outlined won’t work for everyone. Regardless of your solution it is important to develop good tooling around configuration, versioning, and building to match your production environment.

Happy deploying!