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How does a Dokku work?

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There are many implementations for running code in a way pioneered by Heroku which is basically this:

  1. Push a web service, let’s call it catmeow, to a remote git repository.
  2. The remote side “checks out” the git repository locally (on the server).
  3. The remote side runs some framework-specific init code.
  4. The remote side runs the server.

The catmeow service is generally configured through environment variables, writes logs to stdout and follows most of the points in 12factor.net.

There is a very simple yet woking implementation of this model called dokku which we’re going to investigate instead of Heroku. Dokku is not as powerful as Heroku, missing e.g. auto-scaling, but it is Free Software and super understandable.

Here we look at how your local git commit is transformed to a running web service.

The catmeow local git repository

This isn’t a Heroku tutorial but let’s assume you have the following on your laptop:

$ ls
catmeow.py  requirements.txt  Procfile
$ cat requirements.txt
$ cat Procfile
web: python catmeow.py

catmeow.py looks like this:

import os, flask
app = flask.Flask(__name__)
def catmeow():
    return "Cat dreams meow.."
app.run(host='', port=int(os.environ.get('PORT', 5000)))

We can now create a git repository and push to our Dokku instance (for this demo we picked the standard digital-ocean one):

[email protected]$ git add requirements.txt Procfile catmeow.py
[email protected]$ git commit -m"Do cats dream of meow?"

So far we have been very standard. Now we’re going to push our remote Dokku instance. Pushing triggers a fair amount of output which we’ll work through in the remainder of this post.

The push

Git uses ssh behind the scenes. Superficially a push looks like this:

[email protected]$ git remote add dokku [email protected]:catmeow
[email protected]$ git push --set-upstream dokku master
Counting objects: 5, done.
Delta compression using up to 4 threads.
Compressing objects: 100% (3/3), done.
Writing objects: 100% (5/5), 486 bytes | 0 bytes/s, done.
Total 5 (delta 0), reused 0 (delta 0)

If git is using ssh then why can’t you login to Heroku or Dokku with ssh? The answer can be found in the server’s .ssh/authorized_keys file:

[email protected]:/home/dokku# cat .ssh/authorized_keys
         NAME=admin `cat /home/dokku/.sshcommand`
no-port-forwarding ssh-rsa AAAAB3NzaC1[...]

Note the command, no-user-rc etc. parts before the actual ssh-rsa key? ssh allows specifying a bunch of options for each authorized key. All of the options above are necessary for a reasonably secure setup but the real magic happens in command.

command exports a few environment variables and then calls the content of /home/dokku/.sshcommand:

[email protected]:/home/dokku# cat .sshcommand

Aha! Whenever git logs in with ssh it doesn’t talk to another git command; it talks to Dokku. How does Dokku know what to do when git talks to it? Looking at the code we see it’s a little bit involved:

  1. If Dokku is called with git-receive-pack (i.e. from a git push) for the first time then it installs a pre-receive-hook.
  2. Dokku then invokes git-shell with all the original arguments, thus running the normal git push flow.
  3. The pre-receive hook is called after git has received all data. The hook is a shell script which calls dokku git-hook.
  4. dokku git-hook clones the current master into a temporary directory and then finally calls dokku receive.


The last bit I described looks like this:

-----> Cleaning up ...
remote: Cloning into '/tmp/tmp.3Au5pwF45H'...
-----> Building catmeow ...
remote: warning: You appear to have cloned an empty repository.
remote: done.
remote: HEAD is now at 05902bc... Do cats dream of meow?
-----> Cleaning up ...
remote: Cloning into '/tmp/tmp.3Au5pwF45H'...
-----> Building catmeow ...
remote: warning: You appear to have cloned an empty repository.
remote: done.
remote: HEAD is now at 05902bc... Do cats dream of meow?

There are clearly a lot of moving parts before Dokku can use the catmeow commit we just pushed.

The dokku receive story

The remaining steps are fairly straight forward. Dokku has cloned the repository so it has an actual directory with your code in it. We see:

-----> Python app detected

This output comes from a separate package called buildstep. The build step runs in a docker container, hence the name Dokku. The rest is just standard Heroku build pack action. Installing some pip etc.:

-----> Stack changed, re-installing runtime
-----> Installing runtime (python-2.7.8)
-----> Installing dependencies with pip
       Downloading/unpacking flask (from -r requirements.txt (line 1))
       Running setup.py (path:/tmp/pip_build_u21387/flask/setup.py) egg_info for package flask
       [ snipping out a lot of irrelevant output.. ]
-----> Discovering process types
       Procfile declares types -> web
-----> Releasing catmeow ...
-----> Deploying catmeow ...
=====> Application deployed:
To [email protected]:catmeow
 * [new branch]      master -> master

One last interesting note is that Dokku has an interesting plugin system that allows e.g. reconfiguring nginx after a push or creating PostgreSQL containers so it’s not just a toy.