Hosting toy Rails and Django apps using Passenger

I like writing small self-contained applications, and I like writing then using nice high-level application frameworks like Django and Rails. Alas, I also like being able to run these services for the foreseeable future, and that’s a lot harder than writing them is. Running a single Rails or Django application consumes an appreciable chunk of the memory on my tiny colo, and I currently have about 5 projects I really want running all the time (this could easily grow to 50 if I had a sufficiently good way of hosting them). Ideally, I’d never stop hosting these things. Otherwise what’s the point?

It’s sometimes tempting to just write all my toys in PHP. I’m certain that PHP has the mind-share that it does primarily because it’s so incredibly easy to deploy. Ease of development is utterly trumped by ease of deployment for anything not written for internal use only for a large company. tar is easier to use than mongrel, so there are more deployed PHP apps than Rails apps. But I’m not that desperate. I like my nice frameworks.

I tried Heroku as an external host for my apps for a bit, and it’s great. Very easy to start things, very easy to leave them up, and the free hosting plan is perfectly adequate for your average web application. Alas, there are a couple of raw edges that only really became apparent after using them for a few weeks. Firstly, they want to charge me for using custom domains, and I’m not willing to park my apps on domains that don’t belong to me. Secondly, their service goes through odd periods of 500 errors. This doesn’t bother me – what does bother me is that there is no official reaction to any of the complaints about it on what seems to be the official mailing list. Finally, quite a lot of the things I do need cron scripts, for polling services, etc, and the heroku crons (a) aren’t very reliable that I’ve found, and (b) cost money. So I’m edging away from them recently. Would still recommend them for prototyping, not sure I’d want to host anything Real there just yet.

(An aside – I’m not unwilling to pay any money at all. I will happily pay money for things that matter. But these apps are toys. The average number of users they have is ‘1’. I’m not willing to pay a fiver a month per application to be able to host them on my domain rather than Heroku’s domain. A fiver a month for all of them at once? Sure. But the Heroku payment model assumes that you have a small number of apps that you care about, rather than a large number of apps that you don’t.)

Anyway, my current attempt at solving this problem is Phusion Passenger (via mattb), which does exactly what I want, for Rails apps. It’s an Apache 2 or nginx module, and it’s trivially easy to install, unless you’re using Debian, which I am. Short verison? It was a lot easier to totally ignore the debian packaging system except to install ruby, then build rubygems and everything else I needed from source. Sigh. I understand there are horrible philosophical differences underlying this pain. But it’s still pain.

Once installed, you can just point your domain’s DocumentRoot at a Rails app’s ‘public’ folder, and the Right Thing happens – files in public are served directly, other requests will cause a rails process to be started, and serve your app. Enough idle time, and it’ll shut down again. Magic. My favourite part is that it’ll start up the application server as the user who owns the ‘environment.rb’ file of your application, meaning that your app is running as your user, and can do things like write files into temp folders that don’t need sudo to be able to delete again.

Not all of my projects are Rails apps, though. jerakeen.org is a Django app, for instance (this week, anyway). Unexpectedly, it turns out that Passenger will do the same thing for Django apps, though it’s not as well documented. I have a file called passenger_wsgi.py in the root folder of my Django application folder. It looks something like this (if you use this, you’ll need to change the settings module name):

import sys, os
current_dir = os.path.dirname( os.path.abspath( __file__ ) )
sys.path.append( current_dir )
os.environ['DJANGO_SETTINGS_MODULE'] = 'mydjango.settings'
import django.core.handlers.wsgi
application = django.core.handlers.wsgi.WSGIHandler()

And in my Apache config file, I have this:

<VirtualHost *:80>
  ServerName jerakeen.org
  ...
  DocumentRoot /home/tomi/web/jerakeen.org
  PassengerAppRoot /home/tomi/svn/Projects/mydjango

and thus are all my toy projects now brought up and down on demand. I’m happy again. Till next week, probably. ONWARDS.