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Making Django, Elastic Beanstalk and AWS RDS Play Well Together

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Making Django, Elastic Beanstalk and AWS RDS Play Well Together

Let's see just what it takes to get a secure Django app up and running with AWS with this tutorial using Elastic Beanstalk.

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A couple of days ago I decided I should learn a bit more hands-on AWS stuff. So I created a free tier AWS account, and looked around. I decided I'd take a common use case: deploy a web application to Elastic Beanstalk and add a domain and SSL.

Setting Up Tools

Step 1: reading documentation. AWS has a lot of documentation, and it is mostly written in a friendly manner with easy-to-follow instructions. Based on the documentation I opted for using the command line Elastic Beanstalk tool. To use this you need Python and pip. You can install it with the command

pip install awsebcli -upgrade


If you are having a permissions problem with doing this, you can throw in a " -user " flag at the end of that command. This will install the tool you need to create and manage EB environments from your command line. Since it is a Python utility it works on Windows, as well as Mac and Linux. Installing this did not pose any hiccups. You can read more about how to set this tool up and updating your system path here.

Before using it you need to set it up. Issue the command

eb init.


This will give you a prompt asking for a number of things, likethe region to set up in, etc.

Learning point: if you want to set up a database, such as MySQL, in the EB environment, you should use the database option when issuing the next command. Anyway to set up your environment, use

eb create


If you want a database in your environment add the  -db flag with the desired options; you cannot create the database in the EB Console (web-based interface) afterward, at least not for micro instances that are allowed in the free tier. According to someone on Stack Overflow, this is a bug in AWS that you can wait for them to fix — or use the command line option (supposedly that works but it is not what I did).

If you create a database in your EB environment, your DB will be terminated, too, if you terminate that environment. You may not want that, so you can consider setting up an external database and connecting to it outside of EB. That is what I did, and there's more about that a little further down this post.

Creating a Django App

To have something to deploy I created a Django app. This is an asocial network; you can post things with links and hashtags but you can't follow other users or anything like that. It has user management and uses the default Django admin system and authentication system (session based). I called it woodscreaming and you can view it here.

Setting up a Virtual Environment

First, to avoid mixing up things and creating a requirements file that works, create a virtual environment. For this I like to use the tool virtualenv  (works on all platforms, can be installed with pip if you don't have it):

virtualenv -python=python venv


"venv" is the name of your virtual environment. Everything you install when the environment is active will be contained in that environment, and you have all dependencies under control (think of it like a semi-container-solution). To activate the environment on Linux/Mac:

source venv/bin/activate


On Windows:

venv\Script\activate


When you have all the dependencies your app needs in place, run

pip freeze > requrements.txt


This creates a requirements.txt file that EB will use to install your app in the cloud.

Adding EB Configuration Files to the Django Project

To make things work, you also need to add some EB-specific configuration files to your Django project. Create a folder named ".ebextensions" in your project's root folder. In this folder, you will need to add a "django.config" file with the following contents:

option_settings:
  aws:elasticbeanstalk:container:python:
    WSGIPath: projectname/wsgi.py


Of course, you need to change the word "projectname" into the name of your project. This tells EB where to find your wsgi file. This file describes how the web server should be set up and is a Python standard.

You should also tell EB to run migrations to get your data models to work with your database. Adding a file (I called it "db-migrate.config") to the .ebextensions folder fixes this. Here's what you need to add to that file:

container_commands:
  01_migrate:
    command: "django-admin.py migrate"
    leader_only: true
option_settings:
  aws:elasticbeanstalk:application:environment:
    DJANGO_SETTINGS_MODULE: discproject.settings

You should also create a folder called ".elasticbeanstalk." The command line client will populate this with a YAML file called "config.yml" that tells EB what resources are needed (you don't need to edit this file yourself).

That's it to begin with — some changes need to be made when adding an RDS database and setting up HTTP to HTTPS forwarding.

Deploying to EB

Deploying to EB is very easy; you simply deactivate your virtual environment by issuing the command "deactivate" and then you run

eb deploy


It now zips your source, uploads it to AWS and installs it and provisions the resources defined in your config.yml file. It takes a while, and then it is done. Then you can see your web app online by issuing the command

eb open


The app will get its own URL automatically, of the format "something.aws-region.elasticbeanstalk.com". It does not get an SSL certificate (https) automatically — you will need to set up a custom domain for that (more about that later). Anyway, opening it up shows the web app running in the cloud and I am able to use it.

Dev Database vs. Prod Database

By default django-admin.py sets up a project that uses an SQLite database, a single file SQL database that is popular for persistent storage in mobile apps and embedded applications. When deploying your development environment's database is deployed, too, and with each redeploy you will overwrite it. It is not great for concurrent operations, and obviously overwriting all user data on each deploy is not going to work. There are ways around this if you want to stick to SQLite but that is normally not the best solution for a web app database (although it is great for development).

Next, we look at how we can create a database in the cloud and use that with our production environment, while using the SQLite one in local development.

Adding an RDS Database

Attempt 1: Using the EB Console

In the EB console (the web interface), if you go to "Configuration", there is a card for "Database" and an option to "modify". There you can set up your desired database instance and select apply. The problem is... it doesn't work for some reason. The deployment fails due to some permission error. I'm sure it is possible to fix but I didn't bother fiddling enough with it to do that. And as mentioned above; if you terminate the environment you will also terminate the database.

Attempt 2: Setting up an RDS Database External to EB

This worked. Basically following AWS documentation on how to set it up was quick and easy:

  • Go to RDS, create a new instance. Select the type of database engine, EC2 instance type etc.
  • Select DB name, username, password (remember to write those down — I use secure notes in LastPass for things like this). Set the DB instance to be "public" to allow queries from outside your VPC to reach it.
  • Add the RDS security group to your EB EC2 instance. This is important — if you do not do this, it is not possible to query the database from EB.

To add that security group in EB you need to go to the EB console, head to configuration and then select the card for instances. Select "modify" and then head to the security groups table — add the RDS one (it is automatically generated and named something like rds-default-1) and click apply. Because the database is external to EB you also need to add environment variables for the connection. To do this, head to the console again and select "modify" on the software card. Add the following environment variables:

The values are found in your RDS instance overview (head to the RDS console, select your instance, and you find the variables a bit down on the page). Now, you also need to tell your Python app to read and use these. Add this to your Django settings file:

if 'RDS_HOSTNAME' in os.environ:
    DATABASES = {
        'default': {
            'ENGINE': 'django.db.backends.mysql',
            'NAME': os.environ['RDS_DB_NAME'],
            'USER': os.environ['RDS_USERNAME'],
            'PASSWORD': os.environ['RDS_PASSWORD'],
            'HOST': os.environ['RDS_HOSTNAME'],
            'PORT': os.environ['RDS_PORT'],
        }
    }
else:
    DATABASES = {
        'default': {
        'ENGINE': 'django.db.backends.sqlite3',
        'NAME': os.path.join(BASE_DIR, 'dbp.sqlite3'),
        }
    }

After doing this the EB environment health was showing as "green" and all good. But my web app did not show up and the log showed database connection errors. The solution to that was: read the docs. You also need to add the RDS default security group (the one that allows inbound connections) to the allowed sources for inbound connections. Details here. After doing this — it works!

Adding a Django Superuser to the RDS Database

You could SSH into your EC2 instance running the Django app and use the manage.py utility; but this kind of beats the point of having a PaaS that supposedly should be able to configure things without SSH-ing into everything.

To add a Django superuser you should thus add a new Django command to your environment. Here's a good description of how to do that. You can add the command to your db-migrate.config file in the .ebextensions folder.

Configuring DNS with Route 53

Now, having the default URL is no fun, and you can't add SSL on that one. So we need to set up DNS. I chose to buy a domain name from Amazon and then set up DNS with Route 53. Setting that up for an EB environment is super-easy: you make an A record as an alias to your EB environment URL.

Adding an SSL Certificate That Terminates on the Load Balancer

Now that we have a working domain name, and we've set up the DNS records we need, we can add an SSL certificate. The easiest way to provision the certificate is to use Amazon's certificate management service. You provision one for your domain, and you can verify by adding a CNAME record to your DNS hosted zone in Route 53.

The next thing you need to do to make things work is adding the certificate to your Elastic Beanstalk environment. Depending on your threat model and your needs, you can choose the simple route of terminating https on the load balancer (good enough for most cases), or you can set up AWS to also use secure protocols in internal traffic (behind the load balancer). I chose to terminate traffic on the load balancer.

The AWS docs explain how to do this by adding a secure listener on the load balancer.

Forwarding HTTP to HTTPS

To forward HTTP traffic to HTTPS there are several ways this can be done. The easiest is to set up forwarding on the Apache server. Since we are not using SSH to fiddle with the server directly, we do this by adding a configuration file to our .ebextensions folder in the Django project, and then redeploying. Adding a file https.config with the following contents does the job:

files:
    "/etc/httpd/conf.d/ssl_rewrite.conf":
        mode: "000644"
        owner: root
        group: root
        content: |
            RewriteEngine On
            <If "-n '%{HTTP:X-Forwarded-Proto}' && %{HTTP:X-Forwarded-Proto} != 'https'">
            RewriteRule (.*) https://%{HTTP_HOST}%{REQUEST_URI} [R,L]
            </If>

Summary

This post is a walk-through of getting the essentials done to use Elastic Beanstalk to serve a web application:

  • Create an environment and deploy an app
  • Use config files to manage server processes and configurations
  • Setting up an external RDS database and connect to it using environment variables
  • Configuring a custom domain name and setting up DNS
  • Adding SSL termination on the load balancer
  • Adding an HTTP-to-HTTPS rewrite rule to Apache on the web server using a config file

Learn how to auto-discover your containers and monitor their performance, capture Docker host and container metrics to allocate host resources, and provision containers.

Topics:
cloud ,aws ,django ,elb ,rds ,setup ,configuration ,ssl

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