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VPS Ruby on Rails Hosting

ODM Technology Post

In this post we will configure Ruby on Rails deployment on a Digital Ocean VPS.

Our final hosting setup will be:

WARNING: This tutorial assumes a familiarity with the Linux command line, server administration, and Rails configuration.

Background Information

A VPS is a Virtual Private Server. In our case, a virtualized Ubuntu Linux server used to host the ODM websites. Before developing the new version of I wanted to move our sites from their existing Rackspace VPS to a fresh VPS with Digital Ocean.

On our existing VPS we are hosting close to 30 websites, the majority of which are not ODM projects. Some of these sites run PHP, some are Rails, and a few run Perl. The idea was to create two VPSs, isolating all PHP sites on one and all Rails sites on the other (while decommissioning the Perl sites). Our decision to move from Rackspace to Digital Ocean was based on price as well as on the simplicity of the Digital Ocean admin dashboard. The 512MB plan on Digital Ocean is only $5 a month. Nice.

Automation and Config Management

This post does not rely on a configuration management tool. I figured I'd be done setting up the server long before I'd figured out the intricacies of Puppet, Chef, or Ansible.

That said, if you can see yourself setting up multiple servers following this tutorial, you may wish to look into one of the automated provisioning solution listed in the previous paragraph. Also, if you only plan on hosting one Rails app on your VPS, Digital Ocean's one-click Rails install might be the easiest solution. Their one-click install uses RVM instead of rbenv and Unicorn in place of Passenger.

Step 1 - Create the Droplet

Digital Ocean (DO) calls their VPS instances Droplets. Once you have a DO account you can create new droplets by clicking on the 'Create' button in your admin dashboard. I selected the following options:

* I started with a 1GB droplet to speed up the config process and later scaled back down to 512MB.

Step 2 - User Setup

Once the droplet was created, I was emailed a root username and password. I was then able to SSH to the server as root using Putty. My first order of business was to create a new user with sudoer privileges, and then lock root out of SSH access:

adduser serveruser

The second command opens up the sudoers file to which I added:

serveruser    ALL=(ALL:ALL) ALL

I then edited the /etc/ssh/sshd_config file to add:

PermitRootLogin no

And then I restarted ssh and logged back in with my serveruser user:

sudo service ssh restart

From now on when I need to run a command as root I will proceed the command with sudo.

Not shown in this tutorial: How to use SSH keys with Digital Ocean Droplets.

Step 3 - Create a Swap File

Some of the following steps require compilation and so it's nice to have a swap file on the server. By default DO droplets to not have swap files, but adding one isn't difficult. I created a 1GB swapfile:

sudo dd if=/dev/zero of=/swapfile bs=1024 count=1024k
sudo mkswap /swapfile
sudo swapon /swapfile
sudo chown root:root /swapfile
sudo chmod 0600 /swapfile

Then open /etc/fstab with sudo privs and add:

/swapfile       none    swap    sw      0       0 

I then set the swappiness to 25:

echo 25 | sudo tee /proc/sys/vm/swappiness
echo vm.swappiness = 20 | sudo tee -a /etc/sysctl.conf

Step 4 - Install Required Packages

Let's start by upgrading all the pre-installed packages:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade

You may need to reboot after that:

sudo reboot

Then we install all the packages we need

sudo apt-get install -y python-software-properties python
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:chris-lea/node.js
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install curl git g++ make nodejs libsqlite3-dev postgresql postgresql-contrib postgresql-server-dev-9.1 gconf2 libcurl4-openssl-dev imagemagick

(Added Python for the handy add-apt-repository command. Added node.js for CoffeeScript support in Rails.)

Step 5 - PostgreSQL Setup

Switch to the postgres user:

sudo su postgres

Add a database role/user with a password:

createuser --pwprompt

You're going to need the role/password details again in step 8.

Add a new database where myapp is the name of the Rails app you will be deploying:

createdb myapp_development
createdb myapp_test
createdb myapp_production

Switch back to the serveruser:


Step 6 - Install Ruby and Rails

We are going to install Ruby by way of rbenv.

curl | bash

This command will provide you with lines to add to your .bashrc. Add those lines and reload the file:

source ~/.bashrc

Get the required dependencies:

rbenv bootstrap-ubuntu-12-04

Install Ruby (the latest version at the time of this post was 2.1.1):

rbenv install 2.1.1
rbenv global 2.1.1

Test your install with version switch:

ruby -v

And then install Rails using gem:

gem install rails

Step 7 - Install Passenger & Nginx:

First we install the Phusion Passenger gem:

gem install passenger 

And then the Nginx web server:

sudo passenger-install-nginx-module

That command will likely fail to execute, in which case you need to find the full path to executable using:

which passenger-install-nginx-module
sudo /full/path/to/passenger-install-nginx-module

Set up the startup scripts for Nginx:

wget -O
sudo mv /etc/init.d/nginx
sudo chmod +x /etc/init.d/nginx
sudo /usr/sbin/update-rc.d -f nginx defaults

Start Nginx:

sudo service nginx start

Step 8 - Install Your Rails App

Create the /var/www folder and give it permissions.

sudo groupadd www-pub
sudo usermod -a -G www-pub vagrant 
sudo chown -R serveruser:www-pub /var/www
sudo chmod 2775 /var/www

And then place your Rails app in the /var/www folder. I did so by clone the github repo:

git clone

Not shown in this tutorial: Setting up your SSH keys for GitHub.

Step 9 - Configure Your App for Postgres

Remove sqlite from the Gemfile and replace it with the pg gem. And then update:

bundle update

Edit the config/database.yml for use with Postgres using the role/password you created in step 5.

Don't forget to run your migration!

Step 10 - Configure Nginx to Host Your Rails App

To test your app, here's simple /opt/nginx/conf/nginx.conf server block:

server {
    listen       80;
    server_name  localhost;
    passenger_enabled on;
    rails_env development;
    root /var/www/winnipegelection/public;

If you've mapped your droplet to a domain, replace localhost with the name of your domain.

Step 11 - Extra Security stuff:

Enable the ufw Firewall to only permit web (port 80) and ssh (port 22) traffic:

sudo ufw default deny incoming
sudo ufw default allow outgoing
sudo ufw allow ssh
sudo ufw allow www
sudo ufw enable

At this point you might also want to install fail2ban. I found the following two tutorials helpful:

Be cautious with fail2ban. You don't want to lock yourself at of your own server.

Step 12 - Test Your Sever

Congrats! At this point you should be able to load your Rails app via a web browser. When testing your app be sure to trigger actions that both read and write to your database to ensure that Postgres is properly configured.

Keeping Your System Up To Date

When you connect via SSH to your droplet a login message will let you know if there are pending security updates. To download and install these updates, run the following commands:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

After which you may have to restart your droplet:

sudo reboot

To keep rbenv up to date:

rbenv update

To list newly available Ruby versions:

rbenv install -l

To install a new version:

rbenv install <version number>
rbenv global <version number>
rbenv rehash

To install a new version of Rails, update your Rails project Gemfile and then run:

bundle update
rbenv rehash

To install a new version of Phusion Passenger:

gem update passenger
which passenger-install-nginx-module # To determine the path
sudo /path/from/previous/command/passenger-install-nginx-module

Notice that you have to re-install Nginx when upgrading passenger. At the end of the Nginx install you will be supplied with the new passenger_root and passenger_ruby settings for your /opt/nginx/conf/nginx.conf. After updating the Nginx conf file you can restart Nginx.

sudo service nginx restart