Have you ever setup a Rails production environment from scratch, by hand? If you had, I share your pain every time when a new project started.

The process is often repetitive. To me, it seems to be a waste to do it manually every time. It also consumes time and attention. It would be great if I could spend them on tasks that bring more values to clients.

To minimize such waste, I have written two Chef cookbooks to automate the process:

  • rackbox - to provision rack-based web server (Nginx as front server, Unicorn and Passenger as upstream app servers, rbenv as ruby version manager).
  • databox - to provision database server (supports MySQL and PostgreSQL).

Getting started

In this post, I will show you a step-by-step guide on how to use the cookbooks together with knife-solo to provision a remote server in 4 steps:

  1. setup Chef Solo environment
  2. modify config file
  3. provision remote server
  4. tweak Capistrano deploy.rb

A working example in also available at teohm/kitchen-example.

1. Setup Chef Solo environment

  • Install Chef Solo tools on local machine.
  • Download Chef cookbooks to local machine.
  • Install chef-solo on remote server.

Install Chef Solo tools

Let’s create a new directory,

mkdir chef-kitchen
cd chef-kitchen

and a Gemfile.

source "https://rubygems.org"

gem "knife-solo", ">= 0.3.0pre3"
gem "berkshelf"

I recommend knife-solo >= 0.3 as it includes a few major fixes and improvements.

Now, install the ruby gems.

bundle install

Finally, setup a kitchen directory structure with knife-solo.

bundle exec knife solo init .

Download Chef cookbooks

I use Berkshelf to manage cookbooks. So we need a Berksfile,

site :opscode

cookbook "runit", ">= 1.1.2"  # HACK: force-use this version
cookbook "databox"
cookbook "rackbox"

(I added a hack here to force berkshelf to use runit 1.1.2 required by rackbox. Still looking for a better solution.)

We can now download cookbooks with berks install.

bundle exec berks install --path cookbooks/

Install chef-solo on remote server

bundle exec knife solo prepare testbox

In this example, testbox is a host I setup in my ~/.ssh/config:

Host testbox
  User ubuntu
  Hostname ec2-51-221-13-121.ap-southeast-1.compute.amazonaws.com
  IdentityFile ~/.ssh/testbox_ec2.pem

2. Customize config file

  • Download config example
  • Customize config file

Download config example

curl https://raw.github.com/teohm/kitchen-example/master/nodes/host.json.example --output nodes/testbox.json

Modify config file (JSON)

The config file starts with a run_list. You specify a list of cookbook recipes here. Chef will run them in the same order in this list.

It is followed by cookbook attributes. You can modify these attributes. A full reference of attributes are described in each cookbook’s README (see appbox, databox, rackbox).

  "run_list": [
  "appbox": {
    "deploy_keys": ["ssh-rsa 5bnmu23890fghghjk"],
    "admin_keys": ["ssh-rsa 456789fghjkvbn567"]
  "databox": {
    "db_root_password": "welcome!",
    "databases": {
      "mysql": [
        { "username": "app1",
          "password": "app1",
          "database_name": "app1_production" }
      "postgresql": [
        { "username": "app2",
          "password": "app2",
          "database_name": "app2_production" }
  "rackbox": {
    "ruby": {
      "versions": ["1.9.3-p385", "1.9.2-p320"],
      "global_version": "1.9.3-p385"
    "apps": {
      "unicorn": [
        { "appname": "app1",
          "hostname": "app1.test.com" }
      "passenger": [
        { "appname": "app2",
          "hostname": "app2.test.com" }

3. Provision remote server

bundle exec knife solo cook testbox

It uploads the kitchen directory and runs chef-solo on the remote server. Chef-solo will then takeover and execute the run list to setup everything.

What do we get at this point?

Basically, it’s done!

We have a full-stack, rack-based server with:

  • 3 user accounts (deploy, devops, apps)
  • rbenv as ruby version manager
  • nginx as front-server
  • unicorn, passenger-standalone as upstream app servers, managed by runit
  • postgresql, mysql installed and databases created
  • all apps will be stored in /home/apps/

4. Tweak Capistrano deploy.rb

Now, it’s ready to deploy a Rack-based app to the remote server!

I have two example Rails apps available on Github:

There are a few minor tweaks required in Capistrano deploy.rb, as listed below.

I will explain the tweaks in details next time. Meanwhile, check out the complete working examples at: app1/config/deploy.rb and app2/config/deploy.rb

Login as deploy user

set :user, "deploy"

Deploy to /home/apps

set :deploy_to, "/home/apps/#{application}"

Load rbenv in Capistrano

default_run_options[:shell] = '/bin/bash --login'

Run bundler with --binstubs

require 'bundler/capistrano'
set :bundle_flags, "--deployment --binstubs"
set :bundle_without, [:test, :development, :deploy]

Restart app with runit sv

namespace :deploy do
  task :start do
    run "sudo sv up app1"
  task :stop do
    run "sudo sv down app1"
  task :restart, :roles => :app, :except => { :no_release => true } do
    run "sudo sv restart app1"


If you are interested on using the cookbooks, or have an idea/feedback/question about this topic, feel free to drop me (@teohm) a message. Pull requests and issue reports are definitely welcomed!