Containers + Buildpacks + Repositories = Autodeploy Services

This is a toolkit for turning virtual or physical machine infrastructure into a continuous deployment stack. Here are some of the observed problems in autodeployment:

Get Started

You need a git repository that defines your starphleet headquarters, you can start up by forking our base headquarters.

Keep track of where you fork it, you'll need that git url. Important: the git url must be network reachable from your hosting cloud, often the best thing to do is use public git hosting services.

I'm a big fan of environment variables, it saves typing repeated stuff. Paste in your url from above into your shell like this:


OK -- so that might not work for you, particularly if your STARPHLEET_HEADQUARTERS was a git/ssh url. To make that work, you need to have the private key file you use with github, something like mine:


And, you will want to be able to SSH to your ships, that's one of the big benefits!


Yeah, go ahead. Spam me, that's my real email :)

Locally, Vagrant

Vagrant is a handy way to get a working autodeployment system right on your laptop inside a virtual machine. Prebuilt base images are provided in the Vagrantfile for both VMWare, VirtualBox and Parallels. Great for figuring if your services will autodeploy/start/run without worrying about load balancing.

git clone
cd starphleet
vagrant up
vagrant ssh -c "ifconfig eth0 | grep 'inet addr'"

Note the IP address from the last command, you can see the dashboard at http://ip-address/starphleet/dashboard. This will take a few minutes the first time.

Super magic is happening here pulling in the STARPHLEET_HEADQUARTERS and STARPHLEET_PRIVATE_KEY specified before as environment variables.

If you would like to set the memory footprint of your ship you can run:


In the Cloud, AWS

Running on a cloud is ready to go with AWS. In order to get started, you need to have an AWS account, and the environment variables:

#these are to appease AWS
export AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID=xxx
#git url used to clone your headquarters
#set a key path here if you have a private headquarters
#a public key that goes with your private key, use this to ssh to ships

And, to get going

npm install -g starphleet-cli
starphleet --help

starphleet init ec2
starphleet add ship ec2 us-west-1
starphleet info ec2

This will take a bit to launch up the nodes, but note that once you have em running, additional service deployments are going to be a lot quicker as the virtual machines are already built. Way better than making new VMs each time!

All Running?

Once you are up and running, look in your forked headquarters at echo/orders. This is all it takes to get a web service automatically deploying: export PORT= to have a network port for your service autodeploy git_url to know what to deploy

Ordering up your own services is just as easy as adding a directory where the service will mount, and plopping in an orders file. Add. Commit. Push. Magic, any time that referenced git repo is updated, it will be redeployed to every ship watching your headquarters.


The grand tour so you know what we are talking about with all of our silly names.

The 12-Factor App

Starphleet owes a lot to the 12 factor app. Learn about it.


The top level grouping. You manage starphleet at this level. You can make as many phleets as you like to arrange different groupings of services.

Phleets are analagous to a single root URL, like would be one fleet, with multiple ships and multiple services.


A git repository that instructs a phleet how to operate. Using git in this way gives a versioned database of your configuation, allows you to edit and work with your own tools, and allows multiple hosting options.

Using git as the database avoids the need for a starphleet server.


No Fooling Important -- your <headquarters_url> git repo needs to be reachable by each ship running the starphleet software.

The simple thing to do is use a public git repository via https. If you really need a private repository, or security, you can specify a private key and access git via git+ssh.

And, in the cases when you need it, you can host your phleet and headquarters entierly inside your own firewall.


Our cute name for a host computer or virtual machine, it goes with the phleet metaphor. There are many ships in a fleet to provide scale and geographic distribution.


An individual program, run in a container, supported by a buildpack, on a ship, autodeployed across a phleet. Services provide your application functionality over HTTP, including the use of server sent events and websockets.

You can also order scheduled tasks, which may or may not offer a port and run on the clock with cron.


Check the main readme. In particular pay attention to the environment variables for public and private keys.


A headquarters instructs a phleet with orders to deploy and how to serve them. A headquarters is a git repository, and hosted in a location on the internet where each ship in the phleet can reach it. The easiest thing to do is host on github or bitbucket.

Mounting Services to URLs

The simplest possible phleet has a directory structure like:


Which will serve exactly one service at / as specified by orders. The path structure of the headquarters creates the virtual HTTP path structure of your services.

By default, all services are federated together behind one host name. This is particularly useful for single page applications making use of a set of small, sharp back end services, without all the fuss of CORS or other cross domain technique. This may not be what you expect if you are used to hooking up one hostname per service. (And there is a hostname per service override if needed)

As an example, imagine an application that has a front end, and three back end web services: /, /workflow, and /users.



Similar to good old fashioned Apache setups, you can put an .htpasswd file in each order directory, right next to orders. This will automaticially protect that service with HTTP basic, useful to limit access to an API.


An orders file is simply a shell script run in the context of starphleet, at a given path, to control the autodeployment of a service. You can put anything in the script you like, it is just a shell script after all, but in practice there are only two things to do:

export PORT
autodeloy <git_url>

Setting up orders as a shell script is to allow your creativity to run wild, but without you needing to learn a custom tool, DSL, scripting language, config database, or API.

No Fooling Important, autodeploy <git_url>, just like your <headquarters_url> needs to be reachable from each ship in the fleet.

You can specify your <git_url> like <git_url>#<branch>, where branch can be a branch, a tag, or a commit sha -- anything you can check out. This hashtag approach lets you specify a deployment branch, as well as pin services to specific versions when needed.


Starphleet provides a shared data directory to each container at /var/data inside the container. This is a mount back to the ship, and is a perfect place to store shared data files.

And, this data can be autodeployed. You set this up with a folder tree similar to mounting services, and in each directory, provide an orders script. As an example:


This will result in data looking like:

 ...synched files from remote
 ...synched files from remote

Individal remote scripts are really just shell scripts with a special autodeploy command:

autodeploy <git_url>


Jobs leverage cron and urls, implement your jobs as a service. Schedule them by hitting and url. This also lets you easily run the job manually with curl when needed.

The jobs file uses cron syntax, with the 'command' simply being an url:

* * * * * http://localhost/workflow?do=stuff
* * * 1 * http://localhost/workflow?do=modaystuff

This dodges a few common problems with cron that folks run into:


A big difference form other PaaS: the ships are yours, and you can ssh to them. Specifically, you can put as many public keys in the authorized_keys folder of your headquarters, one per file, to let in other users as you see fit via ssh.

These special users are called admirals, again sticking with our nautical theme.

Users get to a ship with ssh admiral@ship. The admiral account is a member of sudoers.

In practice, this open access to the base machine lets you do what you want, when you want, truly open. And if you use this power to somehow destroy a ship -- somebody has to wreck the ship -- you can always just add a new one.

And, even more fun -- the authorized_keys themselves are continuously deployed, just add and remove admirals by adding and removing public key files in your github repository. Updates in seconds.


Given any shell script script in your headquarters named containers/name, an LXC container name will be created on demand to serve as a STARPHLEET_BASE. This works by first creating an LXC container, then running your script on that container to set it up.

These custom build scripts are run as the ubuntu user inside the LXC container that is itself a snapshot built on top of starphleet's own base container.


Ships, when configured with an appropriate git url and private key, will push back their configuration here, one per ship. Individual ships are identified by their hostname, which by default is built from their ssh key fingerprint.

This ends up being a versioned database of your ships and where to find them on the network -- handy!


Ships themselves may need a bit of configuration, so any script in this directory that is executable will run when:

This is used to implement things such as dynamic DNS registration, in fact you can look at starphleet name ship ec2 in order to simulate dynamic DNS with Amazon Route53.

In practice, you can put anything you like in here. Be aware they run as root on the ship and you can easily destroy things.


Your app will need to talk to things: external web services, storage-as-a-service, databases, you name it. Starphleet goes back to basics and lets you set these through environment variables.

Some environment variables are just config, and some environment variables are really secrets, so starphleet provides multiple locations where you can keep variables, with different security thoughts.

Environment Variables

Name Value Description
PORT number This is an all important environment variable, and it is expected your service will honor it, publishing traffic here. This PORT is used to know where to connect the ship's proxy to your individual service.
PUBLISH_PORT number Allows your service to be accessible on the ship at http://<SHIP_DNS>:PUBLISH_PORT in addition to http://<SHIP_DNS/orders.
STARPHLEET_BASE name Either a name matching `HQ/containers/name, or an URL to download a prebuilt container image. Defaults to the starphleet provided base container
STARPHLEET_REMOTE <git_url> Set this in your .starphleet to use your own fork of starphleet itself
STARPHLEET_PULSE int Default 5, number of seconds between autodeploy checks
BUILDPACK_URL <git_url> Set this when you want to use a custom buildpack
NPM_FLAGS string Starphleet uses a custom npm registry to just plain run faster, you can use your own here with --registry <url>
AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID string Used for AWS access
AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY string Used for AWS access
EC2_INSTANCE_SIZE string Override the size of EC2 instance with this variable
STARPHLEET_DEPLOY_TIME date string Set in your service environment to let you know when it was deployed
STARPHLEET_DEPLOY_GITURL string Set in your service environment to let you know where the code came from


Services themselves can have variables, these are inspired by Heroku, and you keep them in the source repository of each service. These are the variables with the lowest precedence.

Literally, make a .env file in the root of your service.

This is usually where you specify a BUILDPACK_URL, but you can also put in other variables as you see fit.

Your services will often be hosted in public repositories, so the config you put in here should be about development mode or public settings.


The orders file itself is sourced for your service. This is where a service learns about PORT and autodeploy.

These settings are laid over the service, and provide the ability to set variables for a service in the context of a single phleet, compared to the service variables which are truly generic.


Starphleet wide environment variables are applied last, leading to the highest precedence. This is a great place to have your production usernames, passwords, and connection strings.

Different than most systems, Starphleet sticks with the git/files metaphor even for this configuration, rather than a command line to set/get variables. All the benefits of source control and using your own tools, and no additional server software is needed, making starphleet simpler and less to break.

As an example:

#all services will see this domain name
export DOMAIN_NAME=""
#every service is told to run at 3000 inside its container
export PORT=3000

Now, this is a file right in your headquarters. To keep these private you put your headquarters in a private, hidden repository than can only be reached by private key git+ssh.


Services are any program you can dream up that meet these conditions:

Unlike other PaaS which is trying to force you into a specific notion of scalable programming, starphleet gives you more freedom.

Services are run in LXC containers, and as such don't have acess to the entire machine, LXC containers can be thought of as a Linux environment without the kernel.

Containers are thrown away often, on each new version, and each server reboot. So, while you do have local filesystem access inside a container running a service, don't count on it living any lenght of time.


This is the most interesting feature, automatic upgrades, check the orders.


No need to code in nodemon or forever or any other keep alive system in your services, Starphleet will take care of it for you. Just run your service with a simple command line using Procfile or package manager specific features like npm start and npm install scripts.


And there is no need to watch the watcher, Starphleet monitors running services and restarts them on failure.


Each service repository can supply a healthcheck file, which contains an URL snippet http://:/. You supply the <snippet>, and if you don't provide it, the default is just blank, meaning hitting the root of your service.

As soon as a 200 comes back, you are good to go and the new service is put into rotation to take over future requests from the prior version.

You get 60 seconds for your service to return this 200 past when it is initially started.


Starphleet encapsualtes each service in an LXC container. Starting from a base container, you can create your own custom containers to speed up builds as needed.

Containers serve to create fixed, cached sets of software such as compilers, that don't vary with each push of your service.

Provided Container

The starphleet-base container is set up to run with buildpacks. It is built from a script.

Your Own Containers

There are two basic approaches: Save a container to a tarball reachable by URL Make a provision script and have each ship build

The tarball approach involves: 1. make an lxc container, however you see fit 2. use starphleet-lxc-backup to create a tarball of the container 3. publish the tarball wherever you can reach it via http[s] 4. use that published URL as STARPHLEET_BASE

The provision script approach involved: 1. make a script name in your headquarters ./containers/name 2. use that name as STARPHLEET_BASE


Containers will be cached, two sets of rules: script containers diff the script, so as you update the script the container will rebuild URL/tarball containers hash the URL, so you can old school cache bust by taking on ?xxx type verison numbers or #hash

Shared Filesystem

Each container mounts /var/data back to the ship, which allows you a place to save data that lives between autodeploys of your service. This is a great place to leave files that you don't want to recreate each time you push a new version.

This is also a way to use files to collaborate between services if you like.

But beware -- depending on your ship's disk size, you can fill up your disk and have all kinds of trouble if you abuse this. For example, if you really want a service that has a database process inside -- great -- just make sure you have enough space to do it!

This is not a distributed filesystem, just a local filesystem.


Buildpacks autodetect and provision services on containers for you without worrying about system or os level setup.

Huge thanks to Heroku for having open buildpacks, and to the open source community for making and extending them. The trick that makes the starphleet orders file so simple is the use of buildpacks and platform package managers to get your dependencies running.

Buildpacks serve to install dynamic, service specific code such as npm or rubygems that may vary with each push of your service.

Provided Buildpacks

Using the available Heroku buildpacks, out of the box starphleet with autodetect and provision a service running:

Ruby Python Node NGINX static

Testing Buildpacks

Sometimes you just want to see the build, or figure out what is going on.

Starphleet lets you directly push to a ship and run a service outside the autodeploy process via a git push, think Heroku.

You will need to have a public key in the authorized_keys that is matched up with a private key in your local ssh config. Remember, you are pushing to the ship -- so this is just like pushing to any other git server over ssh.

#the ship as a remote, the `name` can be anything you like
git remote add ship git@$SHIP_IP:name
#send along to the ship, this will build and serve
#printing out an URL where you can access it for test
git push ship master
#control C when you are bored or done


Services can expose WebSockets as well as HTTP. Note: due to how client libraries work, it is only usable mounted at /. Short explanation is that connection string it uses, which it looks like an URL, just plain isn't -- it picks out the host name and uses the path part as a namespace inside its messages rather than as an actual HTTP path.


This is really easy. Just commit and push to the repository referenced in the orders. Every ship will get it.


Again, this is really easy, just use git revert and pull out commits, then push to the repository referenced in the orders. Best thing is, this preserves history.

Self Healing

Each ship uses a pull strategy to keep up to date. This is different than other platforms where you push your software to deploy. Some folks will not like this, as it involves polling. Some folks think polling is evil. Noted. Here are the reasons:

Rolling Updates

As new versions of services are updated, fresh containers are built and run in parallel to prior versions with a drainstop. This means in process requests aren't interrupted like on other platforms.

OK -- so this is a bit idealistic. Lots of folks program in a database heavy way with no real notion of backward compatibility. Getting the full benefit of autodeployment and rolling upgrades requires you to think about your storage, and how different versions of code may interact with that. Or, totally ingore it -- you won't be any worse off that with other autodeploy systems, or classic 'off the air' deployment.


Each ship in the phleet runs every ordered service. This makes things nice and symmetrical, and simplifies scaling. Just add more ships if you need more capacity. If you need full tilt performance, you can easily make a phleet with just one ordered service at /. Need a different mixture of services? Launch another phleet!

Updating Starphleet on a Ship

Starphleet provides ssh trigged maintenance commands, which allow the authorized_keys specified admirals to perform maintenance. Assuming you have a private key configured in your ssh, and there is a matching public key in your headquarters, you can just:

ssh update@ship

Where ship is the ip or hostname of one of your ships. This will check for the latest version of starphleet and install it for you. Cool!

Linux Versions

The actual ships are provided as virual machine images in EC2, VMWare, and VirtualBox format. To keep things simple, these images are standardized on a single Linux version. Some folks who have varying preferences or notions about OS support contracts may not like this. Noted. All of starphleet is open, feel free to port it over anywhere you like.

In practice, packing things up as orders with buildpacks saves you from OS-ing around ships and just lets you focus on writing your services. Think a bit like Heroku, where the version of the OS is a decision made for you to save time.

EC2 Instance Sizes

Please, don't cheap out and go to small. The recommended minimum size is an m2.xlarge -- which is roughly the power of a decent laptop, so this is the default. You can change this with EC2_INSTANCE_SIZE.


Don't feel limited to just one phleet. Part of making your own PaaS is to give you the freedom to mix and match as you see fit.

Geo Scaling AWS

By default, starphleet sets up four zones, three US, one Europe. Ships are added explicitly to zones, and you aren't required to use them all. It's OK for you to set up just in one location if you like. Or even have a phleet with one ship.