ewalk153 / webappfast-piku

piku experiments with "build a web app fast" prototyping

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Build a web app fast (with piku)

This repository is a fork of @amontalenti's original lightning talk tutorial, and the piku project recognizes his authorship and ownership rights (as discussed in #200). We are also very grateful for his contribution and sense of humor. πŸ˜„

Quick start πŸš€

The assumption here is that you have a development environment as follows:

  • a local Linux or Mac machine/VM which has an ssh client installed
  • a network-available homelab server, VPS, or cloud node with root access
  • a local Python environment, e.g. managed with pyenv and/or pipx

Given this environment, let's say I want to use piku. WIIFM? That is, "What's In It For Me?"

The goal here is to have Heroku-style deploys, with none of the Heroku (or dokku) style cognitive overhead. What is a Heroku-style deploy?

  • You write code in a local git repo.
  • You push to a "special" branch (in this case, called "piku") to deploy your code to a remote alpha/beta/staging environment, where your webapp is automatically mounted and running.
  • You can control aspects of that environment in a way that'll be easy to mirror in production, using source artifacts that are simple files like ENV (for env variables) and Procfile (for defining your app's entrypoints).
  • You can perform basic admin operations on your Heroku-like environment, such as viewing logs, destroying apps, restarting apps, and scaling apps (from 1 to N processes).

To get to this amazing end state, you'll need to start by bootstrapping a remote machine with the piku infrastructure.

This remote machine can be a locally-available homelab, live in a VPS, or live in the cloud. As a preliminary step, you might want to use a tool like ZeroTier to establish a secure network link with that remote node (in lieu of a VPN or reverse tunneling via SSH).

We'll refer to that machine as machine from here on out. Make sure you can ssh in, both as yourself, and as root:

$ ssh machine
$ ssh root@machine

If you can't, make sure to get ~/.ssh/authorized_keys set up in the right way, perhaps leveraging ssh-copy-id as necessary.

Once you can, you'll want to log in as root and run the piku bootstrap:

$ ssh root@machine
root@machine:~# curl https://piku.github.io/get | sh
... lots of output ...
... eventual success ...
<CTRL+D EOF to quit>
Connection to x.x.x.x closed.

You'll know piku is setup because you should now be able to ssh in with the piku user, and this will result in the piku CLI being shown to you. Try it:

$ ssh piku@machine
Usage: piku.py [OPTIONS] COMMAND [ARGS]...

The smallest PaaS you've ever seen

-h, --help  Show this message and exit.

apps              List apps, e.g.: piku apps
Connection to x.x.x.x closed.

Then, as a helper, you can install the piku CLI locally on your machine. Here, I installed it in ~/opt/bin, which is my own little directory for scripts, but you might find it convenient to put it in /usr/local/bin on many UNIX machines. Do this with a simple download from GitHub:

$ cd ~/opt/bin
$ wget https://raw.githubusercontent.com/piku/piku/master/piku
$ chmod a+rx piku

We'll come back to that later, it's mainly for convenience.

Your next step is to link this git repo to your piku node as a "remote". This is a one-liner:

$ git remote add piku piku@machine:webappfast

... and, with this addition, we can push to origin (which is GitHub) or piku (our ssh-accessible machine).

I find it's best to have your piku target set as the default upstream, and then only push to GitHub as you like. This gives you the option to use a git-based workflow "semi-locally" (with 2 copies, your machine and the piku remote), and then do squashing and even (gasp!) force-pushes as necessary to clean up history before pushing to GitHub (origin).

What is this magic?

Once piku is set up, it wires together some technologies and UNIX hacks quite elegantly. I'll walk through them in turn.

How is ssh piku@machine running... a piku CLI?

This is a pretty esoteric trick. It turns out, ~/.ssh/authorized_keys can be customized to pick the starting directory and even starting/shell command of any ssh session. What piku does is customize this to make the piku user run piku.py (that is, the piku Python command-line tool) upon ssh.

This Python command is, then, quite sophisticated. It gets wrapped by the local piku CLI you installed above, to basically run "remote" commands on your box, following the Heroku API pretty closely.

For those keeping score, this trick, alone, along with a simple shell wrapper, pretty much implements the entire concept of Python's fab (aka Fabric or fab-classic) tool, but with the Python layer moved to the other side of the SSH connection. This is sort of brilliant and mind-boggling. But, rather than having to re-implement the SSH protocol, via paramiko and similar, inside the fabric Python library, with this trick, we implement a "plain" CLI which gets "bootstrapped" onto the remote node, and then we execute the CLI over a plain SSH connection, thus leveraging the standard ssh client for all the client->server communication.

This means the CLI is "just" a standard Python CLI tool, one that is expected to be run "over" an ssh connection. Awesome!

Here is how that looks in the .authorized_keys file:

command="FINGERPRINT=SHA256:GW/2zbt... NAME=default \
/home/piku/piku.py \
no-port-forwarding \
ssh-rsa AAAAB...

Here is how the "command" feature is described in ssh docs:

Forces a command to be executed when this key is used for authentication. This is also called 'command restriction' or 'forced command'. The effect is to limit the privileges given to the key, and specifying this options is often important for implementing the principle of least privilege. Without this option, the key grants unlimited access as that user, including obtaining shell access.


How is the git remote string as simple as piku@machine:webappfast?

It seems very magical that when you do a git push using a remote described simply as piku@machine:webappfast that git will "just know" to make a git repo for you in the special directory /home/piku/.piku/repos/webappfast on the remote server, and treat that git repo as the remote. What the heck is going on here?

Well, when combined with the above trick, the piku.py command-line tool implements support for something known as the "git pack protocol", simply by virtue of supporting the subcommand git-receive-pack. This protocol is described in the pack-protocol.txt documentation, but the fact that it works is quite surprising.

Basically, on a "normal" UNIX system, a git push over the ssh protocol results in a receipt command on the other side of the ssh connection that is akin to:

env git-receive-pack

Where the env is a no-op shell environment. But, in our "restricted" forced command environment with piku.py, the command being run is:

/home/piku/piku.py git-receive-pack

And, of course, this works because piku.py implements a subcommand called git-receive-pack. The part after the : in the git push string, which is our "piku app name", gets sent as an extra parameter here, so it's really:

/home/piku/piku.py git-receive-pack webappfast

The code that implements this does a couple of things:

  • creates a repo if necessary in /home/piku/.piku/repos/APP
  • initializes the repo, if necessary
  • makes a post-commit hook in the repo config; this will matter later
  • shells out to git-receive-pack (with our new CWD) to actually receive the git data

Pretty amazingly fancy. By this trick, you push to piku@machine:app and you get a managed git repo under piku@machine:/home/piku/.piku/repos/app, with post-commit hooks already configured.

What does the post-commit hook do?

To make it possible to configure the application, and get it up-and-running, upon every git push, requires some serious git post-commit hook smarts. Of course, all the rest of that is implemented in piku.py as well.

When you push code to the piku remote, the post-commit-hook runs. This hook does a few things:

  • checks out the pushed commit of code into /home/piku/.piku/apps/APP
  • scans the source code to determine the "runtime", e.g. when it has requirements.txt, it's a Python runtime
  • creates an "env" for the app in /home/piku/.piku/envs/APP; for Python, this uses venv
  • installs dependencies (for Python, this is via requirements.txt and pip)
  • scans the ENV file to set environmental variables, 12-factor style
  • scans the Procfile file to determine which apps should be mounted, and how
  • as necessary, configures uwsgi (process manager), acme (certificate manager), and nginx (web server) from there
  • points the logs into /home/piku/.piku/logs/APP

What's great is that all of this can happen immediately upon git push, since we're already "ssh'ed in" to the remote machine. There is no need for a fab or ansible substrate.

At that point, the app should be running. But, the piku CLI gives you a few management options from there.

What does the remote filesystem look like?

I've added a little helper command to Makefile called make show, which will showcase the remote filesystem. Here is how mine looks with a single app configured, a simple Flask app using uwsgi to serve up web requests, nginx as the web server, and acme for managing the Let's Encrypt HTTPS certificate.

$ make show
piku run -- tree /home/piku/.piku -L 2
Piku remote operator.
Server: piku@machine
App: webappfast

β”œβ”€β”€ acme
β”‚   └── webappfast -> /home/piku/.acme.sh/zero.black
β”œβ”€β”€ apps
β”‚   └── webappfast/..
β”œβ”€β”€ envs
β”‚   └── webappfast/..
β”œβ”€β”€ logs
β”‚   └── webappfast/..
β”œβ”€β”€ nginx
β”‚   β”œβ”€β”€ webappfast.conf
β”‚   β”œβ”€β”€ webappfast.crt
β”‚   β”œβ”€β”€ webappfast.key
β”‚   └── webappfast.sock
β”œβ”€β”€ repos
β”‚   └── webappfast/..
β”œβ”€β”€ uwsgi
β”‚   β”œβ”€β”€ uwsgi.ini
β”‚   β”œβ”€β”€ uwsgi.log
β”‚   β”œβ”€β”€ uwsgi-piku.pid
β”‚   └── uwsgi.sock
β”œβ”€β”€ uwsgi-available
β”‚   └── webappfast_wsgi.1.ini
└── uwsgi-enabled
    └── webappfast_wsgi.1.ini

What makes this especially good vs e.g. rsync or fab?

In a way, git is the best possible deployment tool. When you use rsync or fab, you often try to get some of the benefits of using git with them, e.g. by doing a clean local checkout before making a source tree tarball to send over to the server, or before running an rsync command.

But, git already knows how to receive only the deltas between your local repo and the remote repo. So, it will always send only what it needs to over the wire. And, once they get over the wire, by doing a clean checkout of the source tree from the updated repo, you are guaranteed to only checkout version-controlled artifacts. You also have a pretty easy time doing a rollback: just push a past commit to the branch. Heck, you can even use git's own git revert command to keep even your rollback versioned.

The combination of the piku.py tool as a "smart git receiver" and also as a "smart git post-commit" hook means that you have arbitrary Python code hooked in to the two "interface points" with your server: code push and deploy. The fact that the command is also a "smart ssh substrate" means that you get ssh-based management commands basically "for free". For example:

piku restart
piku stop
piku destroy
piku logs

Are all commands available that restart the service, stop the service, destroy the service (cleaning up all the server configuration files and environments), and give you a tail on the logs for the service. Under the hood, these are just "plain" ssh commands talking to the remote piku.py file. How cool is that?

How does piku.py bootstrap itself?

Final bit of magic: this README glazes over the bootstrap step, but how does that work under the hood?

Well, this, too, is some Pythonic magic. Most of the smarts here are outsourced to ansible, a project that is itself written in Python and which is easy to get installed on any remote server, whether via built-in packages (e.g. apt). The bootstrap script installs ansible, and then runs some basic playbooks to get Python, nginx, uwsgi, git, and other required packages up-and-running on the server. It also uses ansible to set up the ssh tricks I document above into the piku user and /home/piku home directory. Simple as that!

piku mentions not just "wsgi" , but also "cron" and "worker"; what's that?

In an attempt to mirror the functionality of Heroku, and support webapp long-running sidecars, daemons, and cron-style repeated tasks, the Procfile format supported by piku supports more than just the wsgi directive.

Some basic docs on the Procfile format can be found here, but here is what you should know, in a nutshell:

  • use wsgi for Django, Tornado, Flask, and similar Python web apps; obviously, these get managed by uwsgi and then mounted behind nginx
  • use worker for daemons; these, it turns out, also get managed by uwsgi, since uwsgi can operate as a generic process manager, handling restarts, logging, and multi-worker spawning with built-in functionality similar to the supervisord tool that is often used alongside it
  • use cron for repeated web apps; believe it or not, this also gets managed by uwsgi, since uwsgi has cron-style tasks

This therefore explains the cleverness of piku: it outsources most of the "service management" functionality to uwsgi, and then outsources "edge HTTP" concerns to nginx (HTTP) and acme (certificates). By outsourcing code deployment to git and server management to ssh, there is no need for frameworks beyond stock Python 3 and the UNIX shell.

Where are the containers? Where is the orchestrator?

Bwahahahaha. There are no containers here, my friend. There are no orchestrators.

Sweet, sweet UNIX is all you need, you see!

Though containers can be quite nice to create a binary deploy artifact, of sorts, out of your entire environment, it's worth mentioning how much simpler this is than running your app under a container. Here, your app is nothing more than a directory of source code, done from a clean git checkout from a git branch. Your "environment" is defined using Python venvs, which provide much of the same benefit of containers, but at a fraction of the cognitive and machine cost. They are much lighter weight and easier to reason about, and they don't introduce any new networking, disk, or filesystem abstractions. Finally, though you might think about some sort of "orchestrator" for your "containers", here we have a "process manager" (uwsgi) for your "processes" (python).

The subprocesses are managed the UNIX way, and thus are introspectable in all the usual ways. The communication with other tools (like nginx) is happening via plain sockets. The logging is happening via plain text files. Everything is where it should be.

As for rollbacks and state, it's true that this whole setup isn't saying much about your database (e.g. Postgres, Redis, Elasticsearch), nor about your outside-of-the-source-tree production state. But, let's be honest: containers never really helped you with these issues in production, either. They were usually, if not always, managed separately. So, arguably, piku is focusing on the part of your deployment that can actually be managed for you in a set-it-and-forget-it way. To get your databases working and managed well, and supporting complex data migration and administration operations, you'll need to rely on the usual suspects: ansible, terraform, fabric.


piku experiments with "build a web app fast" prototyping


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