Templated Nginx configuration with Bash and Docker

Shoutout to @shakefu for his Nginx and Bash wizardry in figuring a lot of this stuff out.  I’d like to take credit for this, but he’s the one who got a lot of it working originally.

Sometimes it can be useful to template Nginx files to use environment variables to fine tune and adjust control for various aspects of Nginx.  A recent example of this idea that I recently worked on was a scenario where I setup an Nginx proxy with a very bare bones configuration.  As part of the project, I wanted a quick and easy way to update some of the major Nginx configurations like the port it uses to listen for traffic, the server name, upstream servers, etc.

It turns out that there is a quick and dirty way to template basic Nginx configurations using Bash, which ended up being really useful so I thought I would share it.  There are a few caveats to this method but it is definitely worth the effort if you have a simple setup or a setup that requires some changes periodically.  I stuck the configuration into a Dockerfile so that it can be easily be updated and ported around – by using the nginx:alpine image as the base image the total size all said and done is around 16MB.  If you’re not interested in the Docker bits, feel free to skip them.

The first part of using this method is to create a simple configuration file that will be used to substitute in some environment variables.  Here is a simple template that is useful for changing a few Nginx settings.  I called it nginx.tmpl, which will be important for how the template gets rendered later.

events {}

http {
  error_log stderr;
  access_log /dev/stdout;

  upstream upstream_servers {
    server ${UPSTREAM};

  server {
    listen ${LISTEN_PORT};
    server_name ${SERVER_NAME};
    resolver ${RESOLVER};
    set ${ESC}upstream ${UPSTREAM};

    # Allow injecting extra configuration into the server block

    location / {
       proxy_pass ${ESC}upstream;

The configuration is mostly straight forward.  We are basically just using this configuration file and inserting a few templated variables denoted by the ${VARIABLE} syntax, which are just environment variables that get inserted into the configuration when it gets bootstrapped.  There are a few “tricks” that you may need to use if your configuration starts to get more complicated.  The first is the use of the ${ESC} variable.  Nginx uses the ‘$’ for its variables, which also is used by the template.  The extra ${ESC} basically just gives us a way to escape that $ so that we can use Nginx variables as well as templated variables.

The other interesting thing that we discovered (props to shakefu for this magic) was that you can basically jam arbitrary server block level configurations into an environment variable.  We do this with the ${SERVER_EXTRA_CONF} in the above configuration and I will show an example of how to use that environment variable later.

Next, I created a simple Dockerfile that provides some default values for some of the various templated variables.  The Dockerfile aslso copies the templated configuration into the image, and does some Bash magic for rendering the template.

FROM nginx:alpine

  UPSTREAM=icanhazip.com:80 \

COPY nginx.tmpl /etc/nginx/nginx.tmpl

CMD /bin/sh -c "envsubst < /etc/nginx/nginx.tmpl > /etc/nginx/nginx.conf && nginx -g 'daemon off;' || cat /etc/nginx/nginx.conf"

There are some things to note.  First, not all of the variables in the template need to be declared in the Dockerfile, which means that if the variable isn’t set it will be blank in the rendered template and just won’t do anything.  There are some variables that need defaults, so if you ever run across that scenario you can just add them to the Dockerfile and rebuild.

The other interesting thing is how the template gets rendered.  There is a tool built into the shell called envsubst that substitutes the values of environment variables into files.  In the Dockerfile, this tool gets executed as part of the default command, taking the template as the input and creating the final configuration.

/bin/sh -c "envsubst < /etc/nginx/nginx.tmpl > /etc/nginx/nginx.conf

Nginx gets started in a slightly silly way so that daemon mode can be disabled (we want Nginx running in the foreground) and if that fails, the rendered template gets read to help look for errors in the rendered configuration.

&& nginx -g 'daemon off;' || cat /etc/nginx/nginx.conf"

To quickly test the configuration, you can create a simple docker-compose.yml file with a few of the desired environment variables, like I have below.

version: '3'
      context: .
      dockerfile: Dockerfile
    # Only test the configuration
    #command: /bin/sh -c "envsubst < /etc/nginx/nginx.tmpl > /etc/nginx/nginx.conf && cat /etc/nginx/nginx.conf"
      - "./nginx.tmpl:/etc/nginx/nginx.tmpl"
      - 80:80
    - LISTEN_PORT=80
    - UPSTREAM=test1.com
    - UPSTREAM_PROTO=https
    # Override the resolver
    # The following would add an escape if it isn't in the Dockerfile
    # - ESC=$$

Then you can bring up Nginx server.

docker-compose up

The configuration doesn’t get rendered until the container is run, so to test the configuration only, you could add in a command in the docker-compose file that renders the configuration and then another command that spits out the rendered configuration to make sure it looks right.

If you are interested in adding additional configuration you can use the ${SERVER_EXTRA_CONF} as eluded to above.  An example of this extra configuration can be assigned to the environment variable.  Below is an arbitrary snippet that allows for connections to do long polling to Nginx, which basically means that Nginx will try to hold the connection open for existing connections for longer.

error_page 420 = @longpoll;
if ($arg_wait = "true") { return 420; }
location @longpoll {
# Proxy requests to upstream
proxy_pass $upstream;
# Allow long lived connections
proxy_buffering off;
proxy_read_timeout 900s;
keepalive_timeout 160s;
keepalive_requests 100000;

The above snipped would be a perfectly valid environment variable as far as the container is concerned, it will just look a little bit weird to the eye.

nginx proxy environment variables

That’s all I’ve got for now.  This minimal templated Nginx configuration is handy for testing out simple web servers, especially for proxies and is also nice to port around using Docker.

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Top Five Reasons to Use a Hybrid Cloud

Hybrid cloud

Guest post by Aventis Systems

Cloud computing is increasing in popularity as business users have become more comfortable with cloud capabilities. According to a recent VMware report, some 15% of workloads currently reside in the public cloud, and 50% are projected to be running in the public cloud by 2030.

Some business customers will move completely to the public cloud, drawn by its ability to help them respond to changing business needs, align costs and stay on the cutting edge of innovation. But a complete move isn’t the best option for all customers. Some processes still simply run more efficiently and securely on on-premise hardware.

For many businesses, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Ultimately, using a mix of public clouds and private infrastructures is the best way for many companies to make the most of their resources while optimizing performance and productivity.

What Is a Hybrid Cloud?
A hybrid cloud is a combination of a private cloud platform designed for use by a specific organization and a public cloud provider like Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Google Cloud. These public clouds are shared by customers all over the world and are a cheaper alternative to buying physical servers.

Though the public and private cloud platforms operate independently from one another, they can communicate over an encrypted connection.

A hybrid approach enables data and applications to move between the public and private infrastructures. These are independent platforms, so businesses can store protected data on the private cloud while still leveraging applications that rely on that protected data on the public cloud.

In other words, your sensitive data stays out of the public cloud and on the private platform. The challenge is integrating the different public and private clouds and technologies in a way that is seamless for business users.

Here are some of the top benefits of a hybrid cloud approach, according to the experts at Aventis Systems:

1. Workload Flexibility
With hybrid cloud technology, your IT team has the flexibility to match resources with the infrastructure that best serves the needs of your business.

For example, an integrated hybrid cloud approach with VMware Cloud on AWS enables you to decide where to most effectively run workloads based on cost, risk and changing business needs. With the flexibility to move workloads onsite or offsite as needed, IT is able to better serve the business as a whole.

The ability for organizations to easily transition applications without having to re-platform them — along with the ability to effortlessly access and leverage native cloud services — enables businesses to create a flexible infrastructure in a constantly evolving IT landscape. When new technology becomes available or new trends emerge, businesses are agile enough to take advantage of them quickly.

2. Consistency and Scalability
VMware Cloud on AWS enables companies to leverage operational consistency, along with scalability, on one streamlined platform. By maintaining security and networking policies, along with consistent resource utilization both on- and off-premise, businesses can benefit most from a hybrid infrastructure.

Customers can strategically leverage and allocate company resources to get the most out of system functionality, while becoming better positioned for growth. As your business and capacity needs grow, a hybrid cloud infrastructure offers an easy way to scale to fit these complex needs.

3. Improved Security
Maintaining secure customer transaction data and personal information with a hybrid cloud infrastructure also offers a major benefit over an exclusively public platform. The hybrid approach enables specified servers to be isolated from specific security threats by allowing devices to be configured to communicate with them on a private network.

Where some compliance requirements prevent businesses from running payments in the cloud, for example, a hybrid cloud platform allows you to house secure customer data on a dedicated server, while maintaining the flexibility and convenience of online transactions.

4. Maximized Skillsets and Cost Optimization
Not only are hybrid clouds less expensive to manage, with VMware Cloud on AWS, business customers can also reap the benefits of utilizing their existing IT investments.

Hybrid cloud offerings integrate with your existing IT and use many of the same tools as those used on-premise. You can leverage the resources you already have without having to adopt new tools or acquire new hardware.

Additionally, an integrated hybrid cloud approach enables customers to better align their costs to business needs. Upfront costs can be balanced with recurring expenses, depending on the requirements.

5. Innovation
With a hybrid cloud approach, your business will have access to all of the resources on the public cloud without the burden of big upfront investments. With access to all the newest technologies and innovations, you can stay on the forefront of the latest capabilities.

As businesses become more comfortable and reliant on cloud capabilities, more and more companies will look for the right mix of public cloud and on-premise infrastructure models to increase efficiency and performance.

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Remote Jenkins builds using Github auth

Having the ability to call Jenkins jobs remotely is pretty slick and adds some extra flexibility and allows for some interesting applications.  For example, you could use remote builds to call a script from a chat app or from some other web application.  I have chosen to write a quick bash script as a proof of concept, but this could easily be extended or written in a different language via one of its language specific libraries.

The instructions for the method I am using assume that you are using the Jenkins freestyle build as I haven’t experimented much yet with pipelines for remote builds yet.

The first step is to enable remote builds for the Jenkins job that will be triggered.  There is an option in the job for “Trigger builds remotely” which allows the job to be called from a script.

trigger remote builds

The authentication token can be any arbitrary string you choose.  Also note the URL below, you will need that later as part of the script to call this job.

With the authentication token configured and the Jenkins URL recorded, you can begin writing the script.  The first step is to populate some variables for kicking off the job.  Below is an example of how you might do this.


Be sure to fill in these variables with the correctly corresponding values.  job_token should correspond to the string you entered above in the Jenkins job, auth should correspond to your github username/token combination.  If you are not familiar with Github tokens you can find more information about setting them up here.

As part of the script, you will want to create a Jenkins “crumb” using your Github credentials that will be used to prevent cross-site scripting attacks.  Here’s what the creation of the crumb looks like (borrowed from this Stackoverflow post).

crumb=$(curl -s 'https://'auth'@jenkins.example.com/crumbIssuer/api/xml?xpath=concat(//crumbRequestField,":",//crumb)')

Once you have your variables configured and your crumb all set up, you can test out the Jenkins job.

curl -X POST -H "$crumb" $jenkins_url/job/$job_name/build?token=$job_token \
  --user $auth \
  --data-urlencode json='
      {"name":"parameter1", "value":"test1"},
      {"name":"parameter2", "value":"test2"},
      {"name":"git_repo", "value":"'$my_repo'"},
      {"name":"git_tag", "value":"'$git_tag'"}

In the example job above, I am using several Jenkins parameters as part of the build.  The json name values correspond to the parameters.  Notice that I am using variables for a few of the values above, make sure those variables are wrapped in singe quotes to correctly escape the json.  The syntax for variables is slightly different but allows for some additional flexibility in the job configuration and also allows the script to be called with dynamic values.

If you call this script now, it should kick off a Jenkins job for you with all of the values you have provided.

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Tips for monitoring Rancher Server

Last week I encountered an interesting bug in Rancher that managed to cause some major problems across my Rancher infrastructure.  Basically, the bug was causing of the Rancher agent clients to continuously bounce between disconnected/reconnected/finished and reconnecting states, which only manifested itself either after a 12 hour period or by deactivating/activating agents (for example adding a new host to an environment).  The only way to temporarily fix the issue was to restart the rancher-server container.

With some help, we were eventually able to resolve the issue.  I picked up a few nice lessons along the way and also became intimately acquainted with some of the inner workings of Rancher.  Through this experience I learned some tips on how to effectively monitor the Rancher server environment that I would otherwise not have been exposed to, which I would like to share with others today.

All said and done, I view this experience as a positive one.  Hitting the bug has not only helped mitigate this specific issue for other users in the future but also taught me a lot about the inner workings of Rancher.  If you’re interested in the full story you can read about all of the details about the incident, including steps to reliably reproduce and how the issue was ultimately resolved here.  It was a bug specific to Rancher v1.5.1-3, so upgrading to 1.5.4 should fix this issue if you come across it.

Before diving into the specifics for this post, I just want to give a shout out to the Rancher community, including @cjellik, @ibuildthecloud, @ecliptok and @shakefu.  The Rancher developers, team and community members were extremely friendly and helpful in addressing and fixing the issue.  Between all the late night messages in the Rancher slack, many many logs, countless hours debugging and troubleshooting I just wanted to say thank you to everyone for the help.  The small things go a long way, and it just shows how great the growing Rancher community is.

Effective monitoring

I use Sysdig as the main source of container and infrastructure monitoring.  To accomplish the metric collection, I run the Sysdig agent as a systemd service when a server starts up so when a server dies and goes away or a new one is added, Sysdig is automatically started up and begins dumping that metric data into the Sysdig Cloud for consumption through the web interface.

I have used this data to create custom dashboards which gives me a good overview about what is happening in the Rancher server environment (and others) at any given time.

sysdig dashboard

The other important thing I discovered through this process, was the role that the Rancher database plays.  For the Rancher HA setup, I am using an externally hosted RDS instance for the Rancher database and was able to fine found some interesting correlations as part of troubleshooting thanks to the metrics in Sysdig.  For example, if the database gets stressed it can cause other unintended side effects, so I set up some additional monitors and alerts for the database.

Luckily Sysdig makes the collection of these additional AWS metrics seamless.  Basically, Sysdig offers an AWS integration which pull in CloudWatch metrics and allows you to add them to dashboards and alert on them from Sysdig, which has been very nice so far.

Below are some useful metrics in helping diagnose and troubleshoot various Rancher server issues.

  • Memory usage % (server)
  • CPU % (server)
  • Heap used over time (server)
  • Number of network connections (server)
  • Network bytes by application (server)
  • Freeable memory over time (RDS)
  • Network traffic over time (RDS)

As you can see, there are quite a few things you can measure with metrics alone.  Often though, this isn’t enough to get the entire picture of what is happening in an environment.


It is also important to have access to (useful) logs in the infrastructure in order to gain insight into WHY metrics are showing up the way they do and also to help correlate log messages and errors to what exactly is going on in an environment when problems occur.  Docker has had the ability for a while now to use log drivers to customize logging, which has been helpful to us.  In the beginning, I would just SSH into the server and tail the logs with the “docker logs” command but we quickly found that to be cumbersome to do manually.

One alternative to tailing the logs manually is to configure the Docker daemon to automatically send logs to a centralized log collection system.  I use Logstash in my infrastructure with the “gelf” log driver as part of the bootstrap command that runs to start the Rancher server container, but there are other logging systems if Logstash isn’t the right fit.  Here is what the relevant configuration looks like.

--log-driver=gelf \
--log-opt gelf-address=udp://<logstash-server>:12201 \
--log-opt tag=rancher-server \

Just specify the public address of the Logstash log collector and optionally add tags.  The extra tags make filtering the logs much easier, so I definitely recommend adding at least one.

Here are a few of the Logstash filters for parsing the Rancher logs.  Be aware though, it is currently not possible to log full Java stack traces in Logstash using the gelf input.

if [tag] == "rancher-server" {
    mutate { remove_field => "command" }
    grok {
      match => [ "host", "ip-(?<ipaddr>\d{1,3}-\d{1,3}-\d{1,3}-\d{1,3})" ]

    # Various filters for Rancher server log messages
    grok {
     match => [ "message", "time=\"%{TIMESTAMP_ISO8601}\" level=%{LOGLEVEL:debug_level} msg=\"%{GREEDYDATA:message_body}\"" ]
     match => [ "message", "%{TIMESTAMP_ISO8601} %{WORD:debug_level} (?<context>\[.*\]) %{GREEDYDATA:message_body}" ]
     match => [ "message", "%{DATESTAMP} http: %{WORD:http_type} %{WORD:debug_level}: %{GREEDYDATA:message_body}" ]

There are some issues open for addressing this, but it doesn’t seem like there is much movement on the topic, so if you see a lot of individual messages from stack traces that is the reason.

One option to mitigate the problem of stack traces would be to run a local log collection agent (in a container of course) on the rancher server host, like Filebeat or Fluentd that has the ability to clean up the logs before sending it to something like Logstash, ElasticSearch or some other centralized logging.  This approach has the added benefit of adding encryption to the logs, which GELF does not have (currently).

If you don’t have a centralized logging solution or just don’t care about rancher-server logs shipping to it – the easiest option is to tail the logs locally as I mentioned previously, using the json-file log format.  The only additional configuration I would recommend to the json-file format is to turn on log rotation which can be accomplished with the following configuration.

 --log-driver=json-file \
 --log-opt max-size=100mb \
 --log-opt max-file=2 \

Adding these logging options will ensure that the container logs for rancher-server will never full up the disk on the server.

Bonus: Debug logs

Additional debug logs can be found inside of each rancher-server container.  Since these debug logs are typically not needed in day to day operations, they are sort of an easter egg, tucked away.  To access these debug logs, they are located in /var/lib/cattle/logs/ inside of the rancher-server container.  The easiest way to analyze the logs is to get them off the server and onto a local machine.

Below is a sample of how to do this.

docker exec -it <rancher-server> bash
cd /var/lib/cattle/logs
cp cattle-debug.log /tmp

Then from the host that the container is sitting on you can docker cp the logs out of the container and onto the working directory of the host.

docker cp <rancher-server>:/tmp/cattle-debug.log .

From here you can either analyze the logs in a text editor available on the server, or you can copy the logs over to a local machine.  In the example below, the server uses ssh keys for authentication and I chose to copy the logs from the server into my local /tmp directory.

 scp -i ~/.ssh/<rancher-server-pem> user@rancher-server:/tmp/cattle-debug.log /tmp/cattle-debug.log

With a local copy of the logs you can either examine the logs using your favorite text editor or you can upload them elsewhere for examination.


With all of our Rancher server metrics dumping into Sysdig Cloud along with our logs dumping into Logstash it has made it easier for multiple people to quickly view and analyze what was going on with the Rancher servers.  In HA Rancher environments with more than one rancher-server running, it also makes filtering logs based on the server or IP much easier.  Since we use 2 hosts in our HA setup we can now easily filter the logs for only the server that is acting as the master.

As these container based grow up, they also become much more complicated to troubleshoot.  With better logging and monitoring systems in place it is much easier to tell what is going on at a glance and with the addition of the monitoring solution we can be much more proactive about finding issues earlier and mitigating potential problems much faster.

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Docker for Mac file system performance summary

One of the more controversial topics right now in the Docker community is the issue surrounding file system performance in the Docker for Mac application.

For a very long time users have been forced to use workarounds to speed up performance when dealing with slow read and write times.  For example, this thread has been open on the Docker forums for over a year now, describing the problem and various workarounds users have found during that time.  There have been blog posts describing various optimizations, as well as scripts and tools to alleviate some of the frustration around slow file system performance on Docker for Mac.

There is a great explanation from the Docker team that lays out the details of the file system performance issues and what the crux of the problem is right now.

At the highest level, there are two dimensions to file system performance: throughput (read/write IO) and latency (roundtrip time). In a traditional file system on a modern SSD, applications can generally expect throughput of a few GB/s. With large sequential IO operations, osxfs can achieve throughput of around 250 MB/s which, while not native speed, will not be the bottleneck for most applications which perform acceptably on HDDs.

The article later goes on to highlight the plan to improve performance along with a number of specific items for accomplishing this.

Under development, we have:

  1. A Linux kernel patch to reduce data path latency by 2/7 copies and 2/5 context switches
  2. Increased OS X integration to reduce the latency between the hypervisor and the file system server
  3. A server-side directory read cache to speed up traversal of large directories
  4. User-facing file system tracing capabilities so that you can send us recordings of slow workloads for analysis
  5. A growing performance test suite of real world use cases (more on this below in What you can do)
  6. Experimental support for using Linux’s inode, writeback, and page caches
  7. End-user controls to configure the coherence of subsets of cross-OS bind mounts without exposing all of the underlying complexity

Additionally, with the latest release of the Docker for Mac 17.04-ce-mac7 (April 6 2017) client, a new :cached flag has been introduced for volume mounts to help with read times for lots of files.  There is also work going on to introduce another :delegated flag to help speed up write times.

Initial user testing of the :cached flag has been good, and shown up to a 4x improvement in some cases.  You can follow this issue on Github to get the most up to date information.  There is some really good detail and discussion going on over there (towards the bottom of the issue is where the new flags are discussed).

Overall I think Docker has done a great job of keeping users informed and updated on the various aspects of the problem and has been steadily making progress in addressing the situation.  The container ecosystem is still very young so there will be growing pains along the way and I think the way that Docker has been handling things has been more than reasonable as they have consistently been making progress on addressing the issue and have been transparent in recent months about what’s going on and how they’re working on the problem.

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