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Adding external services to a Ruby on Rails project with docker-compose

The first part in this series went over the basics of setting up a new Rails app using Docker. Part one also showed how to leverage docker-compose in setting up your application to be run. This second part of the series will take a deeper look into taking docker-compose further to architect a more complex Rails application. Most Rails applications utitlize several external services to augment the core Rails service. Follow along to see how to add databases and web servers to create a more complete package.

Adding Postgresql

As with most Rails applications, you’ll need to store your data somewhere. With Docker, adding any database you want becomes trivial. Since you define services within your docker-compose.yml file, you won’t have to worry too much about installing databases manually. Postgresql is usually a popular choice when it comes to Rails and databases. You can add a Postgresql server to you application by including the following to the bottom of docker-compose.yml.

    image: postgres
      - POSTGRES_PASSWORD=postgres
      - /var/lib/postgresql/data	

The next time you start up your application (docker-compose up), this will tell docker compose to create a new service called db and use the image called postgres. This db service also has a volume mounted. This means that the directory specified by /var/lib/postgresql/data will persist if or when the service container gets removed. This directory happens to be where Postgres stores it data.

Interacting with Postgresql

Having direct access to your database is really useful during development. Here are two ways you can interact with your Postgres database.

Start a psql console by running the following command from your host computer:

docker-compose exec db psql -U postgres postgres

This will start a command line interface to Postgres. With this. you can issue SQL statements directly to the database server. This command uses the exec docker command, which differs slightly from run. When commands are executed with exec they do not start up a separate container process, but instead run within the context of an already running contianer. This allows the psql command to connect to the socket file that the actual Postgres server is running on in its container.

If you get an error saying that a container cannot be found:

ERROR: No container found for db_1

That means you need to start at least the db service by running:

docker-compose up db

When the db container starts up, it will create the database and a user postgres with the password specified, postgres.

If you use GUI tools to interact with databases, the db service will need a bit more configuration. Since the database server is running in the context of a container, your GUI tool isn’t exactly able to see it directly. To facilitate a connection, add the following configuration to your docker-compose.yml file:

      image: postgres
        - POSTGRES_PASSWORD=postgres
+     ports:
        - 15432:5432
        - /var/lib/postgresql/data

By default, Postgres runs on port 5432. This means that an application may connect to Postgres on that port number. However, Docker containers run within their own isolated network infrastructure. By defining a host port in the docker-compose.yml file, you are telling Docker to “bind” the db container’s port of 5432, to the host port of 15432. Now with your GUI tool, you can connect to your localhost on port 15432.

Connecting from Rails

Now that you have a Postgres database running, you can configure Rails to use it as the database. For the purposes of demonstration, connect to the db under the development environment. This is accomplished by modifying your config/database.yml file in your Rails project directory. Look for the development entry and modify it as follows:

  adapter: postgresql
  host: db
  username: postgres
  password: postgres

The host db maps to the db service defined in docker-compose.yml. The neat thing here is that docker-compose has it’s own internal DNS system which you can use to refer to anywhere in the context of a container.

Adding Redis

Adding a Redis instance to your architecture follows much of the same path. Do this by adding the following changes to docker-compose.yml:

    image: redis
      - 16379:6379

Start the redis service with the docker-compose command:

docker-compose up redis

This will start the redis server binding the container to ports 16379 on the host machine.

Interacting with Redis

Now you can also start interacting with Redis using tools you are already familiar with. If you have any GUI tools, you can connect to your local port of 16379. If you want to open a comand line redis prompt, use the following:

docker-compose run --rm redis redis-cli -h redis

This docker command issues a new redis container and starts the redis-cli command line tool, passing the host argument -h redis. You’ll notice that this host matches the name of the service defined in your docker-compose.yml file. Docker compose provides this internal host name lookup as part of its networking infrastructure. So anytime you need to refer to one of your services within your system, you can use its service name.

Connecting from Rails

Similar to Postgres, you may need some sort of configuration in Rails to connect to Redis. Depending on your specific need, this differs. Most uses of Redis just requires the use of a REDIS_URL environment variable. In these cases, you can add this as part of your docker-compose.yml file:

      - REDIS_URL=redis://redis:6379

You’ll notice that this URL is made up of the redis hostname, as well as the port 6379 as configured in the redis service.

Adding Nginx

An integral part to any web application is going to be the web server. Although the default web server shipped with Rails, Puma, can handle web requests on it’s own, it’s often not enough with any real world load. A dedicated web server helps queue web requests as they arrive so that they can be processed by your Rails application. These web servers are made to handle high loads and effectively manage the amount of traffic that gets processed by Rails.

Adding Nginx can be added easiliy, however, configuring it is sometimes a daunting task. You’ll find that the easiest way to setup Nginx is mounting the configuration directory with our service definition. Add the following to your docker-compose.yml file:

    image: nginx
      - ./nginx/conf.d:/etc/nginx/conf.d
      - app
      - 80:80

Try starting up your application. The nginx service should start up just fine, but won’t actually do anything. You’ll need to do a bit of configuration to tell it how to respond to requests and where to find your Rails application.

Configuring Nginx

There is a lot to know about confguring an Nginx web server, however, in this section, you’ll only need to go over some of the basics. First you’ll need to create a configuration file that’ll go in a directory in your project folder under nginx/conf.d. You’ll notice that this directory gets mounted to /etc/nginx/conf.d in the Docker container. This is a special (default) location that Nginx will look in for configuration files. Create a file here and call it rails.conf with the following contents:

server {
  listen      80;
  listen [::]:80;
  server_name _;

  location / {
    proxy_pass http://app:3000;
    proxy_set_header X-Forwarded-For $proxy_add_x_forwarded_for;
    proxy_set_header Host $http_host;
    proxy_set_header X-Forwarded-Proto $scheme;
    proxy_redirect off;

Restart your docker-compose application. Once everything is up and running, you should be able to navigate to http://localhost in a browser. This should send a request to Nginx which then gets proxied to your Rails application. In the above configuration you’ll notice that Nginx is listening on port 80, this should correspond to the “internal port mapping” in your docker-compose.yml file port configuration for the web service. The second port is the internal one. The proxy_pass directive is telling Nginx to forward to a host named app, which is the named service for your Rails app. One neat thing here is that internal DNS for docker-compose comes with it’s own load balancing techniques. You can scale up your app service to run multiple containers of the service within docker-compose. Ngnix will continue proxying requests to the app service, but docker-compose will take care of balancing the requests between any running containers of the app service!

What’s Next

This tutorial should give you a brief introduction into how add more services to your application architecture. Having everything defined in your docker-compose.yml file makes it easy to keep track of your Rails application dependencies. This makes it easier to reproduce development environments for yourself and your teammates.

The next series in this tutorial will show you what it takes to take your application to production. You’ll see how setting up your architecture in docker-compose translates into a production environment. By leveraging a development environment that closely resembles productions goes a long way in making changes easier. Stay tuned!

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