Deploying your Phoenix app to Digital Ocean for beginners

By Jake Morrison in DevOps on Sat 26 May 2018

This is a gentle introduction to getting your Phoenix app up and running on a $5/month server at Digital Ocean. It starts from zero, assuming minimal experience with servers. It assumes you are running macOS. If you have any questions, open an issue on GitHub or ping me on the #elixir-lang IRC channel on Freenode, I am reachfh.

It is based on this working template and the principles in "Best practices for deploying Elixir apps". The README for the template is very similar, but goes into more depth.

It starts with a default Phoenix project with PostgreSQL database. First get the template running, then add the changes to your own project. This guide works with CentOS 7, Ubuntu 16.04, Ubuntu 18.04 and Debian 9.4. If you are not sure which distro to use, choose CentOS 7. The approach here works file dedicated servers and cloud instances as well.

It uses Ansible, which is an easy-to-use standard tool for managing servers. Unlike edeliver, it has reliable and well documented primitives to handle logging into servers, uploading files and executing commands.

Overall approach

  1. Set up the web server
  2. Set up a build environment on the server
  3. Check out code on the server from git and build a release
  4. Deploy the release to the web server

The actual work of checking out and deploying is handled by simple shell scripts which you run on the build server or from your dev machine via ssh, e.g.:

# Check out latest code and build release on server
ssh -A deploy@build-server build/deploy-template/scripts/

# Deploy release
ssh -A deploy@build-server build/deploy-template/scripts/

Set up dev machine

Check out the project from git on your local dev machine, same as you normally would:

git clone

Install build tools

Install Erlang, Elixir and Node.js according to the instructions on the Elixir website.

The code is tested with Erlang version 20.3, Elixir 1.6.6 and Node.js 8.2.1, so installing those versions is best. I generally recommend using ASDF to make your build environment more isolated and consistent, but it's not mandatory.

Confirm that it works by building the app the normal way:

mix deps.get
mix deps.compile
mix compile

You should be able to run the app locally with:

mix ecto.create
(cd assets && npm install && node node_modules/brunch/bin/brunch build)

iex -S mix phx.server
open http://localhost:4000/

Install Ansible

Install Ansible on your dev machine. On macOS, use pip, the Python package manager:

sudo pip install ansible

If pip isn’t already installed, run:

sudo easy_install pip

See the Ansible docs for other options.

Generate an ssh key

We use ssh keys to control access to servers instead of passwords. This is more secure and easier to automate.

Generate an ssh key if you don't have one already:

ssh-keygen -t rsa -b 4096 -C ""

Set a pass phrase to protect access to your key (optional but recommended). macOS and modern Linux desktops will remember your pass phrase in the keyring when you log in so you don't have to enter it every time.

Add the ~/.ssh/ public key file to your GitHub account. See the GitHub docs.

Set up a server

Go to Digital Ocean (affiliate link) and create a Droplet (virtual server).

  • Choose an image: If you are not sure which distro to use, choose CentOS 7
  • Choose a size: The smallest, $5/month Droplet is fine
  • Choose a datacenter region: Select a data center near you
  • Add your SSH keys: Select the "New SSH Key" button, and paste the contents of your ~/.ssh/ file
  • Choose a hostname: The default name is fine, but a bit awkward to type. Use "web-server" or whatever you like.

The defaults for everything else are fine. Click the "Create" button.

Add the host to the ~/.ssh/config file on your dev machine:

Host web-server

The file permissions on ~/.ssh/config need to be secure or ssh will be unhappy:

chmod 600 ~/.ssh/config

Test it by connecting to the server:

ssh root@web-server

If it doesn't work, run ssh with -v flags to see what the problem is. You can add more verbosity, e.g. -vvvv if you need more detail.

ssh -vv root@web-server

File permissions are the most common cause of problems with ssh. Another common problem is forgetting to add your ssh key when creating the Droplet. Destroy the Droplet and create it again.

Configure Ansible

Add the hosts to the groups in the Ansible inventory ansible/inventory/hosts file in the project:




[web-servers] is a group of web servers. web-server is the hostname from the Host line in your .ssh/config file. [build-servers] is the group of build servers. It can be the same as your web server. [db-servers] is the group of database servers, which can be the same.

If you are using Ubuntu or Debian, add the host to the [py3-hosts] group, and it will use the Python 3 interpreter that comes by default on the server.

The repo has multiple hosts in the groups for testing different OS versions, comment them out.

Set Ansible variables

The configuration variables defined in inventory/group_vars/all apply to all hosts in your project. They are overridden by vars in more specific groups like inventory/group_vars/web-servers or for individual hosts, e.g. inventory/host_vars/web-server.

Ansible uses ssh to connect to the server. These playbooks use ssh keys to control logins to server accounts, not passwords. The users Ansible role manages accounts.

The inventory/group_vars/all/users.yml file defines a global list of users and system admins. It has a live user (me!), change it to match your details:

  - user: jake
    name: "Jake Morrison"
    github: reachfh

 - jake

The inventory/group_vars/all/elixir-release.yml file specifies the app settings:

# External name of the app, used to name directories and the systemd process
elixir_release_name: deploy-template

# Internal "Elixir" name of the app, used to by release to name things
elixir_release_name_code: deploy_template

# Name of your organization or overall project, used to make a unique dir prefix
elixir_release_org: myorg

# OS user the app runs under
elixir_release_app_user: foo

# OS user for building and deploying the code
elixir_release_deploy_user: deploy

# Port that Phoenix listens on
elixir_release_http_listen_port: 4001

The inventory/group_vars/build-servers/vars.yml file specifies the build settings.

It specifies the project's git repo, which the Ansible playbook will check out on the build server:

# App git repo

Set up web server

Run the following Ansible commands from the ansible dir in the project.

Do initial server setup:

ansible-playbook -u root -v -l web-servers playbooks/setup-web.yml -D

In this command, web-servers is the group of servers, but you could also specify a specific host like web-server. Ansible allows you to work on groups of servers simultaneously. Configuration tasks are generally written to be idempotent, so we can run the playbook against all our servers and it will make whatever changes are needed to get them up to date.

The -u flag specifies which user account to use on the server. We have to use root to do the initial bootstrap, but you should generally use your own user account, assuming it has sudo. The -v flag controls verbosity, you can add more v's to get more debug info. The -D flag shows diffs of the changes Ansible makes on the server. If you add --check to the Ansible command, it will show you the changes it is planning to do, but doesn't actually run them. These scripts are safe to run in check mode, but may give an error during the play if required OS packages are not installed.

Set up the app (create dirs, etc.):

ansible-playbook -u root -v -l web-servers playbooks/deploy-app.yml --skip-tags deploy -D

Configure runtime secrets, setting the $HOME/.erlang.cookie file and generate a Conform config file at /etc/deploy-template/deploy_template.conf:

ansible-playbook -u root -v -l web-servers playbooks/config-web.yml -D

For ease of getting started, this generates secrets on your local machine and stores them in /tmp. See below for discussion about managing secrets.

At this point, the web server is set up, but we need to build and deploy the app code to it.

Set up build server

We assume this is the same as the web server, but it can be different.

Set up the server:

ansible-playbook -u root -v -l build-servers playbooks/setup-build.yml -D

This sets up the build environment, e.g. install ASDF.

Install PostgreSQL, assuming we are running the web app on the same server.

ansible-playbook -u root -v -l build-servers playbooks/setup-db.yml -D

Configure config/prod.secret.exs on the build server:

ansible-playbook -u root -v -l build-servers playbooks/config-build.yml -D

Again, see below for discussion about managing secrets.

Build the app

Log into the deploy user on the build machine:

ssh -A deploy@build-server
cd ~/build/deploy-template

The -A flag on the ssh command gives the session on the server access to your local ssh keys. If your local user can access a GitHub repo, then the server can do it, without having to put keys on the server. Similarly, if your ssh key is on the prod server, then you can push code from the build server using Ansible without the web server needing to trust the build server.

Build the production release:


That script runs:

echo "Pulling latest code from git"
git pull

echo "Updating versions of Erlang/Elixir/Node.js if necessary"
asdf install
asdf install

echo "Updating Elixir libs"
mix local.hex --if-missing --force
mix local.rebar --if-missing --force
mix deps.get --only "$MIX_ENV"

echo "Compiling"
mix compile

echo "Updating node libraries"
(cd assets && npm install && node node_modules/brunch/bin/brunch build)

echo "Building release"
mix do phx.digest, release

asdf install builds Erlang from source, so the first time it runs it can take a long time. If it fails due to a lost connection, delete /home/deploy/.asdf/installs/erlang/20.3 and try again. You may want to run it under tmux.

Deploy the release locally

If you are building on the web web server, then you can use the custom mix tasks in lib/mix/tasks/deploy.ex to deploy locally.

In mix.exs, set deploy_dir to match Ansible, i.e. deploy_dir: /opt/{{ org }}/{{ elixir_release_name }}:

deploy_dir: "/opt/myorg/deploy-template/",

Deploy the release:


That script runs:

MIX_ENV=prod mix deploy.local
sudo /bin/systemctl restart deploy-template

The build is being done under the deploy user, who owns the files under /opt/myorg/deploy-template and has a special /etc/sudoers.d config which allows it to run the /bin/systemctl restart deploy-template command.

Verify it works

Make a request to the app supervised by systemd:

curl -v http://localhost:4001/

Have a look at the logs:

systemctl status deploy-template
journalctl -r -u deploy-template

Make a request to the machine over the network on port 80 through the magic of iptables port forwarding.

You can get a console on the running app by logging in as the foo user the app runs under and executing:


You can also deploy to a remote machine using Ansible.

Managing secrets with Ansible

Ansible has a vault function which you can use to store keys. It automates the process of encrypting variable data so you can check it into source control, so only people with the password can read it.

There are trade-offs in managing secrets.

For a small team of devs who are also the admins, then you trust your developers and your own dev machine with the secrets. It's better not to have secrets in the build environment, though. You can push the prod secrets directly from your dev machine to the web servers. If you are using a third-party CI server, then that goes double. You don't want to give the CI service access to your production keys.

For secure applications like health care or finance, we need to tightly control access to production systems. Ideally nobody would log into production systems, and if they do, it should be logged. You can restrict vault password access to your ops team, or use different keys for different environments.

You can also set up a build/deploy server in the cloud which has access to the keys and configure the production instances from it. When we run in an AWS auto scaling group, we build an AMI with Packer and Ansible, putting the keys on it the same way. Even better, however, is to not store keys on the server at all. Pull them when the app starts up, reading from an S3 bucket or Amazon's KMS, with access controlled by IAM instance roles.

The one thing that really needs to be there at startup is the Erlang cookie, everything else we can pull at runtime. If we are not using the Erlang distribution protocol, then we don't need to share it, it just needs to be secure.

The following shows describes how you can use the vault.

Generate a vault password and put it in the file ansible/vault.key:

openssl rand -hex 16

You can specify the password when you are running a playbook with the --vault-password-file vault.key option, or you can make the vault password always available by setting it in ansible/ansible.cfg:

vault_password_file = vault.key

The ansible/inventory/group_vars/web-servers/secrets.yml file specifies deploy secrets.

Generate a cookie for deployment and copy it into the secrets.yml file:

openssl rand -hex 32 | ansible-vault encrypt_string --vault-id vault.key --stdin-name 'erlang_cookie'

That generates encrypted data like:

erlang_cookie: !vault |

Generate secret_key_base for the server the same way:

openssl rand -base64 48 | ansible-vault encrypt_string --vault-id vault.key --stdin-name 'secret_key_base'

Generate db_pass for the db user:

openssl rand -hex 16 | ansible-vault encrypt_string --vault-id vault.key --stdin-name 'db_pass'

This playbook configures the production server, setting the $HOME/.erlang.cookie file on the web server and generates a Conform config file at /etc/deploy-template/deploy_template.conf with the other vars:

ansible-playbook --vault-password-file vault.key -u $USER -v -l web-servers playbooks/config-web.yml -D

This playbook configures config/prod.secret.exs on the build server.

ansible-playbook --vault-password-file vault.key -u root -v -l build-servers playbooks/config-build.yml -D


Most apps use a database. The Ansible playbook playbooks/setup-db.yml creates the database for you.

Whenever you change the db schema, you need to run migrations on the server.

After building the release, but before deploying the code, update the db to match the code:


That script runs:

MIX_ENV=prod mix ecto.migrate

Surprisingly, the same process also works when we are deploying in an AWS cloud environment. Create a build instance in the VPC private subnet which has permissions to talk to the RDS database. Run the Ecto commands to migrate the db, build the release, then do a Blue/Green deployment to the ASG using AWS CodeDeploy.


Following are the steps used to set up this repo. You can do the same to add it to your own project.

It all began with a new Phoenix project:

mix deploy_template

Set up release

Generate initial files in the rel dir:

mix release.init

Modify rel/config.exs and vm.args.eex.

Set up ASDF

Add the .tool-versions file to specify versions of Elixir and Erlang.

Configure for running in a release

Edit config/prod.exs

Uncomment this so Phoenix will run in a release:

config :phoenix, :serve_endpoints, true

Add Ansible

Add the Ansible tasks to set up the servers and deploy code, in the ansible directory. Configure the vars in the inventory.

This repository contains local copies of roles from Ansible Galaxy in roles.galaxy. To install them, run:

ansible-galaxy install --roles-path roles.galaxy -r install_roles.yml

Add mix tasks for local deploy

Add lib/mix/tasks/deploy.ex

Add Conform for configuration

Add Conform to deps in mix.exs:

 {:conform, "~> 2.2"}

Generate schema to the config/deploy_template.schema.exs file.

MIX_ENV=prod mix

Generate a sample file:

MIX_ENV=prod mix conform.configure

Integrate with release by adding plugin Conform.ReleasePlugin to rel/config.exs:

release :deploy_template do
  set version: current_version(:deploy_template)
  set applications: [
  plugin Conform.ReleasePlugin