Not Building Erlang

Thu Jun 28, 2012

So I've spent the past few days playing around with various ways of building Erlang projects, and it's taken me from mild frustration to fuck-everything-about-this mode. Here is the synopsis of ways that you should not build an app, despite what you may have heard to the contrary.


Like I said last time, every single tutorial that I've found so far has run me up against an error when the time comes to actually generate a working system. I've had no help so far, and without that generation step, rebar is essentially a poor-man's make script fused with a poor-man's quickproject-for-Erlang. This is true both of the build in their repos, and of the one in their downloads.

I'm not saying "it doesn't work", because I've successfully used the rebar application called nitrogen, I'm saying it has yet to work for me, despite the fact that I've tried following five separate pieces of allegedly correct documentation for it. It may work for you, but I'm not inclined to bet on it.


If you take a look at what rebar is actually supposed to do, you'll find that a lot of it can be done from within a running Erlang process. systools and release_handler ostensibly help you put together a production build of your environment and deploy it. And the word "ostensibly" in that sentence should tell you how that went.

Here's the process you're supposed to follow:

  1. arrange your project in the OTP style (with src, ebin, priv and rel directories at minimum, an app file in src to describe your application, and your compiled beams all going into ebin)
  2. compile your project
  3. create a rel file
  4. use systools:make_script/2 to generate the script and boot files for local running (test those, if you like)
  5. create an appup file to tell Erlang what needs to change between some previous deployment and this one
  6. use systools:make_relup/3 to generate a relup file1
  7. use systools:make_tar/1 to generate a tar.gz file of your entire project
  8. copy that tar file up to your server
  9. if this is your first release, just untar it and run erl -boot releases/<release-name>/start, otherwise use release_handler:unpack_release/1, release_handler:install_release/1 and release_handler:make_permanent/1 to perform a running upgrade

This process gave me some trouble around steps 3, 5 and 6, and finally errored outright at step 9. The problem I was having with the earlier pieces all involved what I've come to think of as The Erlang Bureaucracy. That's when a piece of the process requires you, the human, to formally, manually and accurately type out a whole bunch of list-based information that the machine has access to. The rel file was a particularly annoying example. Here's what one looks like


It should also be named example-1.1.rel, in case you thought you had any choice on that front. Like I said, it's implied in the documentation that you ought to be writing this down, but in fact, the template is very straightforward

   {"<application name>_rel", "<application version>"},
   {erts, "<erts version>"},
   [{<appname>, "<version>"} for each required application]}

and every single piece of information there can be automatically generated by an Erlang node that's already running your system. If you wanted to define a shortcut for yourself, you'd do it like so:

make_rel_file(AppnameAtom) ->
    AppnameStr = atom_to_list(AppnameAtom),
    {_, _, V} = lists:keyfind(AppnameAtom, 1,
    ActiveApps = lists:map(fun ({App, _Description, Ver}) -> {App, Ver} end,
    Rel = {release, {AppnameStr ++ "_rel", V},
           {erts, erlang:system_info(version)},
    RelFilename = lists:append(["rel/", AppnameStr, "-", V, ".rel"])
    file:write_file(RelFilename, io_lib:format("~p.", [Rel])).

Granted, this means you need to settle for version names like "1.1" rather than "Porkchop Sandwiches", but that's still a damn sight easier than typing it out yourself every time.

appups are sort of understandable, until you realize that if the system had access to your git repository, it could easily tell what had changed since last time, leaving you to merely specify the tricky manual parts. If you follow, you may also be beginning to suspect that the Smalltalk guys had the right of it., but I digress.

After getting past the bureaucratic rings Erlang sets up, I generated a system using systools:make_tar/1, unpacked it and tested the fucker out. And it worked! It started up my application along with sasl just by doing erl -boot rel/example-1.1/releases/1.1/start! And I could upgrade it on the fly, and it was fucking wonderful with fucking *rainbows **everywhere***!!

And then I copied the tar file up to my remote server, took the same steps on the same release of Erlang/OTP+erts, and got a stack dump. Ho hum. Well, at least it worked on my machine, amirite?

What worked

What ended up working was just copying my application folder up (minus the src and rel folders, just to save space), and then running

erl -pa ebin -pa include -eval 'lists:map(fun (App) -> application:load(App), application:start(App) end, [required_app1, required_app2, example]).'

It's simple, it's stupid, and it won't make it easy for me to upgrade later, but it worked, and that's more than I could say for the documented approaches. So that's that. I fucking give up. I'm sure someone out there would be shaking their head if they saw this, but "automatic" release management is not worth the kinds of headaches that this has been causing. It seems like doing anything other than the simplest possible thing with the Erlang ecosystem forces you to keep track of all kind of semi-transparent, undocumented internal state which is improperly set by default. State Is Hard, at the best of times, so I'm going to go ahead and avoid it until I another masochistic urge to lose another six hours or so.

  1. This oddly requires an unpacked copy of both your previous version and this version; they both need to be named <yourproject>.app, so be prepared to do some directory trickery.

Creative Commons License

all articles at langnostic are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Reprint, rehost and distribute freely (even for profit), but attribute the work and allow your readers the same freedoms. Here's a license widget you can use.

The menu background image is Jewel Wash, taken from Dan Zen's flickr stream and released under a CC-BY license