Deploying a prototype with JHipster

In my previous post, I looked at the minimal infrastructure for a hobbyist webapp in JHipster. Now I want to look at the process for putting a prototype into production.

What do I mean here by a prototype? I mean a simple first cut of a production site. It needs to be simple, while achieving the standards required of a professional site. It also needs to be better documented and reproducible than a one person hobby-site: I should be able to hand over the code and documentation to another developer and never have them call me for help.

The background to this post is a requirement to produce a simple platform for a local company. The work needs to be supportable by other people, as I don’t want to be the only person who can work on this. This project provided a good opportunity to look at moving beyond the hobby-site model.

Ultimately, the changes made on top of what was done last time are adding continuous integration; planning zero-downtime deployment; and sketching out a roadmap for the future.

Platform

In the previous post I discussed the trade-offs between AWS and Digital Ocean. AWS has powerful infrastructure, but is only worth taking on when the infrastructure costs are lower than the additional time needed to manage that infrastructure. There also needs to be a commitment to pay the ongoing platform costs, when long-term budget and timescales are not yet set. For the same reason, I dismissed the idea of a managed database, preferring the quick and cheap option of installing MySQL on the server.

For this initial prototype set-up, I think we are still at the stage where digital ocean has the lead. However, one of the downsides of this is losing a resilience in the system, so good monitoring needs to be in place.

Jenkins

As this is a professional site, the deployments need to be accountable – which means the builds need to be repeatable. JHipster provides support for setting up continuous integration, and this is so simple that it is inexcusable not to use it. By using Jenkins for production builds we can be sure these are done correctly, with no danger of files outside version control polluting the project.

I added a new digital ocean server using their Jenkins tutorials and soon had a CI server up-and-running. The first time I tried this, I had a few problems with the machine running out of memory, but assigning some virtual memory fixed this.

A basic change deployment process

A deployment process should be completely automated – that way you can be sure the process takes place the same way every time. However, if the process has not been automated, it does at least need to be documented.

If the process is not being automated at the start of a project, then some critical thought needs to be given as to when this will happen. As more features get added, performing an automated deployment only gets more complicated. It’s technical debt: over years, days can be lost on something like manual deployments, while time can’t be found to fix things there and then.

At this stage I am assuming a single production server, configured as in my previous post, ie with an Apache Server to handle HTTPS connections and proxy to the application server.

The deployment process should be clearly documented so that anyone working with the site can find it. That process will look something like this:

  • Create a ticket, summarising the changes that need to be made. You might not use Jira, but some sort of tracking system should be used, to provide a trail of events.
  • Define a series of (preferably automated) tests that will define whether the changes are successful.
  • Create a branch, add the tests and make the changes. Database updates must be backwardly-compatible and work with both the new and current version of the application (for example, take care removing columns).
  • If a code reviewer is available, they should review the changes before they are merged. If everything seems fine, the branch should be rebased against master then merged.
  • The changes are picked up by Jenkins and a production jar is produced.
  • The production jar is started using a new port via a command line option (-Dserver.port=XXXX). If database changes are included in liquibase, they will be applied at this point.
  • The Apache configuration is amended to point to this new version. Apache is then restarted
  • The old application server is removed.

We could use a load balancer for the deployments, which currently costs $10.80 a month on digital ocean. This would offer several more options for deployment, but these would also add costs and take more time to set up.

As we are using JWT, users don’t notice the switch of servers. There are issues with JWT, such as the difficulty of repudiating tokens when we need to end the session, but that is not an issue in this case.

Recovery

One of the most interesting trade-offs in these systems is between preparing for the possibility of error or dealing with the issues that actually occur. Getting a site close to 100% uptime is incredibly expensive – for example, what if the provider suffers an outage? should you be able to fall back to another cloud provider? Time/money might be better spent on getting things out there and exploring user responses.

I would suggest there are two important things to consider:

  • Given the time/money trade-off, what are acceptable SLAs for this simple site?
  • If the whole system were to be deleted, can the site be rebuilt in a sensible amount of time? How much data would be lost?

What’s missing

The above outlines what I would need for a minimum viable site deployment. There is some distance between this and what I would expect from a fully-featured production webapp. I will cover these in future posts:

  • A full continuous integration pipeline, including quality assurance tools such as Sonar and findbugs.
  • A more nuanced git branching strategy.
  • Spreading the site across multiple hosts, increasing the robustness and allowing scaling.
  • Capacity and error logging/alerting. This needs to be persistent, and to immediately communicate serious problems. Ideally, load spikes can be responded to automatically.
  • Better database recovery planning.
  • Clearer deployment tracking, so we can identify which version of the application a bug report occurred against.

The other thing to consider is at what point the savings would justify moving across to AWS.

Conclusion

The changes between this type of application and a hobbyist version are minimal, but JHipster supports us in getting continuous integration running, which is a great help. The main changes are tightening up the process, so that other people can become involved in this process as possible.

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