Beerpad Hackathon: Hosting with Heroku

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When I started planning out Beerpad, I wanted to focus on fun beer ideas. I'm perfectly capable of setting up an environment for a Rails application to run in, but I didn't want to waste a morning doing a bunch of chores and have nothing but a "Hello World" page to show for it. Once I had my designs, I wanted to prototype the juicy real features right away. Enter Heroku. Heroku is a service for hosting Ruby webapps. I've been interested in the service since I saw Adam Wiggins demo it at a SVC Ruby Meetup. Heroku is a one-stop service for starting a database-backed, Rack compatible, Ruby webapp. They use git to version control your code, Thin to serve your traffic, and Postgresql to store your data. They also have add-ons that webapps may find useful. I've been looking for an excuse to play with the service, and Beerpad fit the bill perfectly. Follow the jump for my experiences.


Before I got started, I read through their well-written documentation. It's good to get a high-level architectural overview of Heroku's infrastructure to appreciate how much plumbing the service abstracts. If you're familiar with deploying a Rails app on a Linux system and use git as your VCS, the learning curve isn't steep. That said, because Heroku manages your entire software stack, there'll more than one layer that you'll need to reference when you're first starting out.

Getting Started

The first step was to generate my blank Rails project. I chose to use postgresql locally to mirror the production environment closer, and also because I had it setup for previous projects. Once I verified my application ran locally, I added Heroku as a git remote source and pushed. The really cool part here is that Heroku uses git's post receive hook to package your dependencies with Gem bundler and deploy it on their infrastructure.

How's it drive?

As someone who has deployed several different Rails apps with capistrano and different requirements, my jaw dropped when I saw in my terminal:

-----> Heroku receiving push
-----> Gemfile detected, running Bundler
       All dependecies are satisfied
       Locking environment
-----> Rails app detected
-----> Installing Exceptional plugin from
-----> git://
-----> Installing quick_sendgrid plugin from
-----> git://
-----> Installing New Relic plugin...done.
       Compiled slug size is 7.6MB
-----> Launching.......... done deployed to Heroku

With a simple "git push heroku", Heroku resolved my gem dependencies, installed add-ons to handle exception reporting, emails, and performance monitoring, and restarted the app servers.

Sure, I've accomplished all of these things before with my other apps, but each of those tasks had to be thought out separately, written, and maintained. I love the git workflow abstraction. You design, you test, you code, you push, and voila! Your app's online. Rinse and repeat, and you have an amazing prototyping tool. I don't miss configuring capistrano, databases, and postfix. I don't miss having separate credentials for github, amazon web services, monitoring, and servers.

Rattles and Squeaks

As much as I love the service up to this point, not everything was smooth sailing. At one point, when I pushed the code, Beerpad would barf up a completely cryptic backtrace. Trying to access the app via the online dashboard would cause the dashboard to barf with a 500 server error. Emailing back and forth with support indicated that it was a known bug they're working on, and the fix was to delete and re-add my project.

Now I didn't mind the outage because Beerpad is a toy application with zero traffic, but if my bread and butter app mysteriously died and the fix after 24 hours was to delete and re-add, heads would've rolled.

Another annoyance is only 100 lines of logs are kept. Down the line, I can imagine an add-on to address this, but in the meantime, people sent their log data to external services. This works, but definitely isn't in the spirit of removing plumbing responsibilities from the user.

Would I pay for it?

Definitely. Without a doubt, I see Heroku's value. It consolidates several services into one, adds a functional dashboard, and has room for extensibility. It saves you a ton of time on plumbing unrelated to your webapp. If you're starting a new Ruby webapp, whether personal or commercial, you'd be nuts to duplicate the work the Heroku guys have done. On top of that, because you won't have a dedicated systems team (read: $$$), you'll end up doing a much worse job.

If you have an existing app and a well defined deployment process, the story changes. Replacing one good process with another is a lot of work and might not be worth it. But that decision needs to be weighed on a case by case basis. For new projects, Heroku is freaking awesome.

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