Deploying Ruby on Rails Apps on Kubernetes

In Part 1 in this series, we’ve setup our accounts, installed the required tools we need to deploy our Rails application to a Kubernetes cluster. We’ve even started working on our Rake file that we’re using to document our steps and interface with our cluster. In this post, we’ll expand our Rake file to deploy our application to the cluster. In this walkthrough, we’ll accomplish the following:

  1. Deploy two instances of our Rails application to the cluster.
  2. Setup a load balancer to direct traffic to our running Rails applications
  3. Enable SSL on your website with Let’s Encrypt.

An introduction to Kubernetes components

A Kubernetes cluster is made up of components and are created through a declarative way using Yaml files, which as Rubyist, we’re already familiar with. We’re going to store our Yaml files in the root directory of our Rails application called /kube. All we need to get our website up and running is seven Yaml files:

$ ls -la kube/


We’ll expand on all of the above. First up, is a Service. A Service is going to expose our application (running as Pods). To put simply, the Service tells our cluster what port our application is going to run on and allows connections to it.

# kube/service.yml

apiVersion: v1
kind: Service
  name: myapp-service
    - port: 3000
    app: myapp
    tier: app

Pretty simple, right? Let’s revisit our Rake file and add a task that will apply our Service component to our cluster. We’re going to add a setup task that will be responsible for applying all our configuration files to the cluster. Kubernetes is smart enough to know if a configuration file has changed or not. If the configuration file hasn’t change our cluster will simply ignore it.

# lib/tasks/kube.rake

desc 'Apply our Kubernete components'
task :setup do
  kubectl "apply -f #{Rails.root}/kube/service.yml"

In the root of our Rails application, let’s run the setup task and see what happens

$ rake kube:setup
service/myapp-service created

$ rake kube:list
NAMESPACE     NAME               TYPE        CLUSTER-IP       EXTERNAL-IP   PORT(S)    AGE
default       kubernetes         ClusterIP      <none>        443/TCP     3h34m
default       myapp-service      ClusterIP   <none>        3000/TCP    2m19s
kube-system   kube-dns           ClusterIP     <none>        53/UDP      3h34m

As you can see, Kubernetes assigned our service an IP address and the port number we wanted. Now it’s time to get your Rails app running in the cluster on that port number with the Docker image we built in part one of this series.

Kubernetes component: Deployment

Here we’re introducing a new configuration to our setup. A Deployment. This is where the magic really happens. Our deployment configuration tells our cluster a few things:

  1. The location of our Docker image we built (DockerHub in our case).
  2. The port number the Rails application is running on.
  3. The environment variables it needs to run.
  4. The number of pods, or instances to start (Two in our case).
# ./kube/deployment.yml

apiVersion: apps/v1
kind: Deployment
  name: myapp-deployment
    app: myapp
    tier: app
  replicas: 2
  minReadySeconds: 5
    type: RollingUpdate
      maxSurge: 1
      maxUnavailable: 1
      app: myapp
      tier: app
        app: rubytags
        tier: app
        - name: docker-registry
      - name: myapp
        image: littlelines/myapp
        imagePullPolicy: Always
        - containerPort: 3000
        - name: RAILS_LOG_TO_STDOUT
          value: 'true'
        - name: SECRET_KEY_BASE
          value: '$SECRET_KEY_BASE'
        - name: RAILS_ENV
          value: '$RAILS_ENV'
        - name: DATABASE_USERNAME
          value: '$DATABASE_USERNAME'
        - name: DATABASE_PASSWORD
          value: '$DATABASE_PASSWORD'
        - name: DATABASE_HOST
          value: '$DATABASE_HOST'
        - name: DATABASE_PORT
          value: '$DATABASE_PORT'

Some notes about environment variables

One sticky point with Kubernetes is that it doesn’t really have a great way with dealing with sensitive data in our configuration files locally. We don’t want to save database passwords for example in our yaml files because eventually we want to commit these files to Github. Following a suggestion in a Github issue about this predicament, we can use the envsubst command-line tool to substitute the placeholders in deployment.yml with real values.

In our Development configuration, you can see that we have placeholders for our environment variables such as $DATABASE_USERNAME. We need a way to substitute that with the real database user name when we apply this configuration to the cluster. We can again call on our Rake task to help us with this.

Since we’re in a Rails application already, most likely we’re already using environment variables and also likely is that we have the dotenv gem installed too. We can create a new .env file in the root directory called .env.production.cluser. These will hold the environment variables needed for our production server. For now, let’s add our database user name:

# ./.env.production.cluster


It’s important that we add this file to our .gitignore file so that we don’t check it into source control. In our Rake file we can tell dotenv which .env file to look for by adding this line near the top of our Rake file.


Now we have environment variables to work with, we can use envsubst command line tool to substitute our placeholders in our configuration files. This is how we would traditionally do this on the command line:

$ export DATABASE_USERNAME='deployer'
$ envsubst < kube/deployment.yml | kubectl apply -f -

That’s going to be too cumbersome to write each time. Plus we want it to pull values from our .env.production.cluser file. So let’s update our Rake task to make this simpler. We’re going to write a apply method that will to the heavy lift for us.

def apply(configuration)
  if File.file?(configuration)
    puts %x{envsubst < #{configuration} | kubectl apply -f -}
    kubectl "apply -f #{configuration}"

Great. Now we can simply add all the production environment variables to our .env.production.cluster file and our new apply method with substitute the placeholders in the Deployment file will those values.

But, we have one more thing to take care of first. You may have noticed the imagePullSecrets key in our configuration file, this is a special key that we need in order for our cluster to authenticate with Docker Hub so that it can pull our Docker image into it and run it. To add our DockerHub credentials to the cluster we can execute the following command:

$ kubectl create secret docker-registry regcred --docker-server=<your-registry-server> --docker-username=<your-name> --docker-password=<your-pword> --docker-email=<your-email>

Rather than having to remember this, again we can add this to our Rake file and make use of our new environment variable support. We’ll add this to our rake kube:setup task:

desc 'Apply our Kubernete configurations to our cluster'
task :setup do
  # Store our Docker Hub credentials in the cluster so that we can pull our Docker image
  sh %Q(
    kubectl create secret docker-registry regcred \
      --docker-server=#{ENV['DOCKER_REGISTRY_SERVER']} \
      --docker-username=#{ENV['DOCKER_USERNAME']} \
      --docker-password=#{ENV['DOCKER_PASSWORD']} \
      --docker-email=#{ENV['DOCKER_EMAIL']} \
      || true # <-- prevent error hear from exiting our rake task
  # Apply our Service component
  apply "kube/service.yml"

  # Apply our Deployment component
  apply "kube/deployment.yml"

Pulling it all together, our rake kube:setup task adds our Docker Hub credentials to the cluster and applies our Service and Deployment configuration. If all went well, we should have two Pods with our Rails application.

NAMESPACE     NAME                                 READY   STATUS    RESTARTS   AGE
default       myapp-deployment-76c674bb79-4jw9b    1/1     Running   0          21m
default       myapp-deployment-76c674bb79-6xbnz    1/1     Running   0          21m

This is a huge step. At this point, we have our Rails application running in a cluster! But, how can we see the application running in the browser? We need two things: One, a web server running on port 80 that will connect to our application running on port 3000 and two, a load balancer to accept incoming requests from the internet and distribute them equally between our two running applications.

Lucky for us, Kubernetes has a built‑in configuration for load balancing, called Ingress, that defines rules for external connectivity to our services. We simply need to build a Ingress component that will tell how to connect to our service. We’re going to be using the Nginx Ingress Controller for both our web server and for load balancing.

Kubernetes component: Ingress

# kube/ingress.yml
kind: Ingress
  name: myapp-ingress
  namespace: default
  annotations: nginx
  - hosts:
    secretName: myapp-tls
  - host: $DNS_WEBSITE
      - path: /
          serviceName: myapp-service
          servicePort: 3000

Remember, we’ll need to add DNS_WEBSITE environment variable e.g. to env.production.cluster so that envsubst will replace it before sending it to the cluster. Now let’s add a couple more commands our Rake file’s setup task:

# Install Nginx Ingress Controller on our cluster.
apply ""

# Add the load balancer:
apply ""

# Apply our Ingress that will connect the new load balancer to our service
apply "kube/ingress.yml"

Let’s take a look at the results:

$ kubectl get pods -n ingress-nginx

NAME            TYPE           CLUSTER-IP       EXTERNAL-IP      PORT(S)
ingress-nginx   LoadBalancer   80:30979/TCP,443:31642/TCP

$ kubectl get services -n ingress-nginx

NAME               HOSTS        ADDRESS          PORTS     AGE
myapp-ingress   80, 443   22m

As you can see we have a new load balancer with an IP address! This is the external IP we can used to load the application. We take this time to update our DNS records and point our domain, ‘’ in this case, to this new ip address. And since we have our service running with the host reflecting the correct domain name, our Nginx configuration is setup to accept requests for this host address.

Securing our website with Let’s Encrypt SSL certificates

Now it’s time to secure our connection so that your application will run under SSL. To do this, we’ll be using cert-manager to manage certificates. It will ensure certificates are valid and up to date, and attempt to renew certificates automatically.

In order to create a SSL certificate, we first need a Certificate component to tell Let’s Encrypt what website domain we want to encrypt.

# kube/certificate.yml

kind: Certificate
  name: myapp-tls
  namespace: default
  secretName: myapp-tls
    name: letsencrypt-prod
    kind: ClusterIssuer
    name: letsencrypt-prod

And a Cluster Issuer component to issue to certificate. This includes our domain name and how we’re going to verify that we are the owners of our domain.

# kube/cluster-issuer.yml

kind: ClusterIssuer
  name: letsencrypt-prod
    email: $ADMIN_EMAIL
      name: letsencrypt-prod
    - selector:
          - $DNS_WEBSITE
            name: digitalocean-dns
            key: access-token

In order for cert-manager to begin issuing certificates, the ClusterIssuer needs a way to validate we are the owner of the domain. In my case, DigitalOcean is managing the DNS records for my domain so I’m using my API token that I’ve previously created to authenticate as documented here.

apiVersion: v1
kind: Secret
  name: digitalocean-dns
  namespace: cert-manager
  access-token: ${DIGITAL_OCEAN_TOKEN}

Our token must be decoded in our cluster first.

$ echo -n 'EXAMPLE_DIGITAL_OCEAN_TOKEN' | base64

# Add our tokent to .env.production.cluster

Finally let’s update our rake kube:setup task and run it. It will now install cert-manager and add our DigitalOcean token, Certificate, and ClusterIssuer to our cluster:

# Install cert-manager
kubectl 'create namespace cert-manager'
apply ""

# Add the Digital Ocean token to the cluster
apply "kube/secret-digital-ocean.yml"

# Add our certificate
apply "kube/certificate.yml"

# Add the certificate issuer
apply "kube/cluster-issuer.yml"

After running rake kube:setup, the cert-manager should have made a API call to the DigitalOcean API with our decoded token and verified that our domain name e.g is managed in my DigitalOcean account and is valid. This process is a little tricky at first and I spent a lot of time getting this to work. I recommend reading up on the ACME documentation on Solving Challenges. I’ve found that the DNS01 challenge providers work better if you’re using a supported providers such as Cloudflare, Amazon’s Route53, and DigitalOcean.

If cert-manager is able to successfully verify the domain name ownership, it will issue a brand new certificate. We see it by running describe certifiate

$ kubectl describe certificate

Name:         myapp-tls
Namespace:    default
Labels:       <none>
API Version:
Kind:         Certificate
  Creation Timestamp:  2020-04-03T01:56:12Z
  Generation:          1
  Resource Version:    224072
  Self Link:           /apis/
  UID:                 6195af34-1306-4985-bae3-757e7b90c35c
  Dns Names:
  Issuer Ref:
    Kind:       ClusterIssuer
    Name:       letsencrypt-prod
  Secret Name:  myapp-tls
    Last Transition Time:  2020-04-10T01:57:17Z
    Message:               Certificate is up to date and has not expired
    Reason:                Ready
    Status:                True
    Type:                  Ready
  Not After:               2020-07-10T00:57:16Z
Events:                    <none>

Now we can load our website in a browser and boom, our website running and is secured! At this point, we have a working website running in a Kubernetes cluster and we have a good set of rake tasks that makes it easy to deploy new updates. Checkout the next part in this series: Scaling Ruby on Rails Apps with Kubernetes to learn how easy it is to scale your application has usage grows.