Disappearing Development: DIY Review Apps With AWS Fargate and GitLab

First we begin, as is traditional for Review Apps it seems, with some acknowledgments. Review Apps are definitely not a new concept. This post is inspired by GitLab’s implementation, which was in turn inspired by Heroku and before that Fourchette by Rainforest QA. I look forward to the next citation in the chain :)

What Are Review Apps?

You can click on any of the links above to go deep into what Review Apps mean to all those different organisations. For the purposes of this post, we’ll simply define a Review App as:

a fully functional deployment of your application/system in an environment dedicated to reviewing updates or changes currently being made to that application/system

Why are they good?

To put it briefly: Feedback. To be able to iterate rapidly and ship frequently, you need feedback. The earlier the better. Review Apps allow us a chance to take a peek, or test features/changes in a fully functional environment. Hopefully spotting bugs, or allowing corrections to be made early in the cycle. Also being able to deploy Review Apps quickly, is what makes them so effective.

How do they work?

Let’s put this in the context of the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC)

SDLC: An Example

As development progresses, features are integrated via a Source Control Management System, such as GitLab . Then CI/CD systems take over and build any artifacts for the application before deploying it to an environment where it then runs. In this illustration, first to a staging or test environment, before some “all good” signal is given to then deploy to a production environment.

With Review Apps, the last two steps of staging and production deployments are not performed. Instead, a single isolated change (could be a single commit, feature branch, or an un-merged Merged Request), is deployed to a temporary staging environment.

Great, sign me up!

In the case of our primary DevOps platform GitLab, Review Apps are a built in feature and are available if you also run your applications on top of Kubernetes with their integration . But we run on AWS, and in particular we use ECS to run our applications. This ruled out using GitLab’s off the shelf solution. So I thought, OK we’re halfway there with ECS, we must be able to make this ourselves?

What to Build?

Given enough AWS services it is possible to make anything! But, I was lazy, and wanted to do as little work as possible. The first place to save work, as with the way GitLab do their Review Apps, was to attach our implementation to the various automatic actions which happen on git push/merge events. Using the triggered GitLab-CI system was a good choice for us.

As we already run containerised workloads on ECS, we already have a portable stateless unit of our application. This was already being built and deployed to ECS for us by GitLab-CI. So ECS was a sensible platform to build our solution on.

The Infrastructure

The simplicity of the concept of Review Apps masks the complexity of the implementation. Forgetting about specific vendors, a Review App system must do at least the following:

  • Listen to events (manual or automated) which trigger a Review App deployment
  • Build any artifacts for the application, and store them
  • Provision computing resources to run the Review App
  • Deploy the Review App
  • Notify people where to find the Review App
  • Listen to events which trigger the end of a Review App
  • Clean up any computing resources
…yeh, me neither

hmmm, this sounds like a lot of work. I’m not into that. How could I avoid as many of these steps as possible?

My Options

a) Provision a small dedicated ECS Cluster for Review Apps

The Good

  • Don’t need to manage computing resources

The Bad

  • Caps the number and size of Review Apps without manually adjusting cluster size
  • Always on EC2 instances, that will be used less than 0.1% of the time…I’m not made of money!

b) Run on “spare” space in other ECS clusters

The Good

  • Less wasting of computing resources
  • No guarantee that the IAM policies of the cluster are what we need

The Bad

  • Now I have to be aware of cluster capacity, and adjust deployments accordingly
  • Potentially have to dynamically assign IAM roles to clusters, or allow a more open set of security permissions (either suck!)

c) Option A but with spot instances

The Good

  • Lower absolute cost

The Bad

  • Spot instance availability is not guaranteed
  • Changing the size of the cluster is at best manual, and at worst involves setting up ASGs, CloudWatch Alarms and Lambdas all over the place*

*I was wrongly under the impression that I’d not need to do any cluster management with a spot fleet. I thought spot EC2 instances would scale themselves up and down, depending on the workload being run on the cluster. I thought this because I also have an AWS Batch based process, and I can see it has a dedicated ECS cluster which sits at 0 instances until the batch job runs. After a brief back and forth with an AWS SA I met at a partner event, I realised this was some magic sauce AWS Batch does by itself (…probably ASGs, CloudWatch Alarms and Lambdas all over the place).

d) Use AWS Fargate

The Good

  • The “serverless” of ECS, no resources to manage at all
  • I enter the AWS halls of fame for having a genuine use case for Fargate

The Bad

  • Fargate does have a price premium per hour over EC2 backed clusters
Finding the Good in the Bad and the Ugly

Out of all the options, D made the most sense for this task. Even if Review Apps were used for 8 hours every working day Mon-Fri, that is still cheaper than the always on EC2 clusters. (You could make it cheaper with Spot Instances and scaling. But that all has to be built and managed by us.)

With Fargate, we do nothing except command the application to exist or not. Given that in reality Review Apps will be on very infrequently relative to the number of working hours in a day, that trade off is worth it. Fargate it was!

Not satisfied with having removed the task of managing infrastructure, I also wanted to not have to manage starting up and taking down the application…am I asking too much?

Well maybe I was, but I had good reason. We can certainly use the GitLab CI process to deploy and start our Review App on Fargate. However, this process runs once and only once. There is no way to keep the job running, or listen to any further outside actions and run further jobs to end the Review App.

GitLab does have a very rich API which lets you do a lot of things, and also has quite a decent set of webhooks you can use in your project. However, this would inevitably mean building something to trigger events, and then also to listen to events in AWS which then control the Review App (see prior comments about “Lambdas all over the place”). I didn’t want to do that either.

I thought it would probably be fine to just let the App run for some period of time and then bring it down regardless. I’d not have to build anything for people to interact with to start/stop the Review App. Such as buttons to click or Slack Chatbots. My assumption is that someone who wants the Review App can trigger its deployment, and will actually want to see it then and there. Plus you can always run the CI job again to relaunch the Review App anyway.

I thought OK, I’ve done a pretty good job of removing a lot of work for this project. Time to stop being lazy and throw up a generic CWEvent + Lambda Setup to bring the app down after some period of time.

Then a Brainwave!

I remembered that with ECS, if you define a Task and not a Service , when the command it was started with exits, the Task is ended. Does this mean that for Fargate, if I start the Review App as a Task, when it stops running that the associated infrastructure would also go away too? To my joy, the answer was YES!

All I needed to do was find a way to end the process after a time limit. Since I’d decided to not build any external system to this, it would have to happen within the the Docker container itself.

Bash to the rescue

The process running within a Docker container is just the result of a command being run by the default shell for the system. This is usually Bash.

At first I Googled things along the lines of “Bash callback script”. There must be something in Bash that can let me execute some other commands in a controlled way I thought? Then I found the timeout command. This utility should be present in most Linux based systems . It lets you write

timeout <time-period> <command>

and have the SIGTERM signal sent to your target command process after the time period ends.

As Jeff Goldblum famously says in the film Jurassic Park: “Bash finds a way”.

Wrapping it all up and Integration with GitLab

If you already use ECS like us, it’s not too much effort to tweak your setup to allow a Fargate cluster to run your workload. We also use the ecs-cli to interact with the AWS ECS services.

For our demo Review App, let’s take the example of a Python webapp running uWSGI as one container, paired with an NGINX container proxy in-front of it.

This would be our docker-compose.yml file:

version: '2'

    mem_limit: 250000000
    image: xxxxxxxxxxxx.dkr.ecr.eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/nginx
      - 80:80
      driver: awslogs
        awslogs-group: ecs-fargate
        awslogs-region: xx-xx-1
        awslogs-stream-prefix: server
      - socket:/var/run/www/

    mem_limit: 500000000
    image: xxxxxxxxxxxx.dkr.ecr.eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/backend
    command: ['timeout', '30m', 'uwsgi','--ini','uwsgi.ini']
      driver: awslogs
        awslogs-group: ecs-fargate
        awslogs-region: xx-xx-1
        awslogs-stream-prefix: backend
      - socket:/var/run/www/


Here we have the timeout in the command value for the Python webapp. Since some of the values required by Fargate are not supported in the standard docker-compose.yml specifications, we need a further ecs-params.yml file:

version: 1
  ecs_network_mode: awsvpc
  task_execution_role: <execution role>
  task_role_arn: <task role>
    cpu_limit: 512
    mem_limit: 1GB
      essential: true
      essential: true
        - subnet-xxx
        - sg-xxx
      assign_public_ip: DISABLED

Note: If you’re coming from “regular” ECS, then setting up Fargate can be a bit confusing, and introduce some new terms. See this AWS guide for help.

It is very important to mark at least the container which is using the timeout as essential: true. This way, when the command exits, ECS will know that it must exit the entire task and stop all other containers.

Turning to our GitLab-CI setup, this is the step in our .gitlab-ci.yml which uses the ecs-cli to start the Fargate task:

  image: python:3.6
  stage: deploy
  retry: 2
    - apk update && apk add curl
    - curl -o /usr/local/bin/ecs-cli https://s3.amazonaws.com/amazon-ecs-cli/ecs-cli-linux-amd64-v1.16.0
    - chmod +x /usr/local/bin/ecs-cli
    - ecs-cli compose --region xx-xx-1 --cluster fargate-test --project-name hello-world --file docker-compose.yml --ecs-params ecs-params.yml up --launch-type FARGATE
    - ecs-cli ps --region xx-xxx-1 --cluster fargate-test --desired-status RUNNING | grep nginx | awk '{match($0,/[0-9]+\.[0-9]+\.[0-9]+\.[0-9]+/); ip = substr($0,RSTART,RLENGTH); print "Staging Review App at http://" ip}'
    - merge_requests
  when: manual

In the script step, the first command is what actually starts the Fargate task using ecs-cli compose. The second command uses the ecs-cli ps command, with some help from grep and awk, to print out the IP of the Review App*.

*If you have deployed your Fargate task in a public subnet, and have assigned it a public IP address. Getting that public IP address is a little bit more difficult. One way is to first get the private IP address as above, and then use the aws ec2 describe-network-interfaces command with a filter applied for that private IP address. Here are a couple of SO answers which talk about it further: 1 , 2 .


What does all this look like to us at 9fin?

Well the end result is that for every merge request, there is an optional gitlab-ci pipeline which allows anyone to run it and deploy a Review App to our staging environment. At the end of the CI job, there is a handy message in the terminal telling you where to go to find this Review App. In 30 minutes, the app will be gone, without a trace.

GitLab CI Pipleine
GitLab CI Job Terminal Output
What did I learn?

My desire to not manage infrastructure for non-critical things is really quite strong. Maybe AWS are onto something with this whole “serverless” thing! Obligatory XKCD.


End note: This was initially presented as part of a broader talk at the GitLab Commit Conference in London on the 9th October 2019. Link to the accompanying GitLab Commit conference talk: https://youtu.be/t0Eh1sq9r5s

Co-founder & CTO