Using Cloud Applications and Containers

6 min read

We can find a certain comfort while developing an application on our local computer. We debug logs in real time. We know the exact location of everything, for we probably started it by ourselves.

Make it work, make it right, make it fast – Kent Beck

Optimization is the root of all devil – Donald Knuth

So hey, we hack around until interesting results pop up (ok that’s a bit exaggerated). The point is, when hitting the production server our code will sail a much different sea. And a much more hostile one. So, how to connect to third party resources ? How do you get a clear picture of what is really happening under the hood ?

In this post we will try to answer those questions with existing tools. We won’t discuss continuous integration or complex orchestration. Instead, we will focus on what it takes to wrap a typical program to make it run as a public service.

A sample application

Before diving into the real problem, we need some code to throw on remote servers. Our sample application below exposes a random key/value store over http.

// app.js

// use redis for data storage
var Redis      = require('ioredis');
// and express to expose a RESTFul API
var express = require('express');
var app          = express();

// connecting to redis server
var redis = new Redis({
  host: process.env.REDIS_HOST || '',
  port: process.env.REDIS_PORT || 6379

// store random float at the given path'/:key', function (req, res) {
  var key   = req.params.key
  var value = Math.random();
  console.log('storing', value,'at', key)
  res.json({set: redis.set(key, value)});

// retrieve the value at the given path
app.get('/:key', function (req, res) {
  console.log('fetching value at ', req.params.key);
  redis.get(req.params.key).then(function(err, result) {
      result: result || err

var server = app.listen(3000, function () {
  var host = server.address().address;
  var port = server.address().port;
  console.log('Example app listening at http://%s:%s', host, port);

And we define the following package.json and Dockerfile.

  "name": "sample-app",
  "version": "0.1.0",
  "scripts": {
    "start": "node app.js"
  "dependencies": {
    "express": "^4.12.4",
    "ioredis": "^1.3.6",
  "devDependencies": {}
# Given a correct package.json, those two lines alone will properly install and run our code
FROM node:0.12-onbuild
# application's default port

A Dockerfile ? Yeah, here is a first step toward cloud computation under control. Packing our code and its dependencies into a container will allow us to ship and launch the application with a few reproducible commands.

# download official redis image
docker pull redis
# cd to the root directory of the app and build the container
docker build -t article/sample .
# assuming we are logged in to, upload the resulting image for future deployment
docker push article/sample

Enough for the preparation, time to actually run the code.

Service Discovery

The server code needs a connection to redis. We can’t hardcode it because host and port are likely to change under different deployments. Fortunately The Twelve-Factor App provides us with an elegant solution.

The twelve-factor app stores config in environment variables (often shortened to env vars or env). Env vars are easy to change between deploys without changing any code;

Indeed, this strategy integrates smoothly with an infrastructure composed of containers.

docker run --detach --name redis redis
# 7c5b7ff0b3f95e412fc7bee4677e1c5a22e9077d68ad19c48444d55d5f683f79
# fetch redis container virtual ip
export REDIS_HOST=$(docker inspect -f '{{ .NetworkSettings.IPAddress }}' redis)
# note : we don't specify REDIS_PORT as the redis container listens on the default port (6379)
docker run -it --rm --name sample --env REDIS_HOST=$REDIS_HOST article/sample
# > [email protected] start /usr/src/app
# > node app.js
# Example app listening at http://:::3000

In another terminal, we can check everything is working as expected.

export SAMPLE_HOST=$(docker inspect -f '{{ .NetworkSettings.IPAddress }}' sample))
curl -X POST $SAMPLE_HOST:3000/test
# {"set":{"isFulfilled":false,"isRejected":false}}
curl -X GET $SAMPLE_HOST:3000/test
# {"result":"0.5807915225159377"}

We didn’t precise any network informations but even so, containers can communicate. This method is widely used and projects like etcd or consul let us automate the whole process.


Performances can be a critical consideration for end-user experience or infrastructure costs. We should be able to identify bottlenecks or abnormal activities and once again, we will take advantage of containers and open source projects. Without modifying the running server, let’s launch three new components to build a generic monitoring infrastructure.

  • Influxdb is a fast time series database where we will store containers metrics. Since we properly defined the application into two single-purpose containers, it will give us an interesting overview of what’s going on.
    # default parameters
    export INFLUXDB_PORT=8086
    export INFLUXDB_USER=root
    export INFLUXDB_PASS=root
    export INFLUXDB_NAME=cadvisor
    # Start database backend
    docker run --detach --name influxdb 
      --publish 8083:8083 --publish $INFLUXDB_PORT:8086 
      --expose 8090 --expose 8099 
    export INFLUXDB_HOST=$(docker inspect -f '{{ .NetworkSettings.IPAddress }}' influxdb)
  • cadvisor Analyzes resource usage and performance characteristics of running containers. The command flags will instruct it how to use the database above to store metrics.
    docker run --detach --name cadvisor 
    # A live dashboard is available at $CADVISOR_HOST:8080/containers
    # We can also point the brower to $INFLUXDB_HOST:8083, with credentials above, to inspect containers data.
    # Query example:
    #     > list series
    #     > select time,memory_usage from stats where container_name='cadvisor' limit 1000
    # More infos:
  • Grafana is a feature rich metrics dashboard and graph editor for Graphite, InfluxDB and OpenTSB. From its web interface, we will query the database and graph the metrics cadvisor collected and stored.
    docker run --detach --name grafana 
        -p 8000:80 
        -e INFLUXDB_IS_GRAFANADB=true 
    # Get login infos generated
    docker logs grafana

 Now we can head to localhost:8000 and build a custom dashboard to monitor the server. I won’t repeat the comprehensive documentation but here is a query example:

# note: cadvisor stores metrics in series named 'stats'
select difference(cpu_cumulative_usage) where container_name='cadvisor' group by time 60s

Grafana’s autocompletion feature shows us what we can track : cpu, memory and network usage among other metrics. We all love screenshots and dashboards so here is a final reward for our hard work.


Development best practices and a good understanding of powerful tools gave us a rigorous workflow to launch applications with confidence. To sum up:

  • Containers bundle code and requirements for flexible deployment and execution isolation.
  • Environment stores third party services informations, giving developers a predictable and robust solution to read them.
  • InfluxDB + Cadvisor + Grafana feature a complete monitoring solution independently of the project implementation.

We fullfilled our expections but there’s room for improvements. As mentioned, service discovery could be automated, but we also omitted how to manage logs. There are many discussions around this complex subject and we can expect shortly new improvements in our toolbox.

About the author

Xavier Bruhiere is the CEO of Hive Tech. He contributes to many community projects, including Occulus Rift, Myo, Docker and Leap Motion. In his spare time he enjoys playing tennis, the violin and the guitar. You can reach him at @XavierBruhiere.


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