Deploying Python web apps with toppcloud

Ian Bicking recently released a rather interesting package called toppcloud that aims to tackle what I see as a growing need for those of us deploying Python webapps.

I was actually interested in easing my own deployment woes before I saw Ian’s announcement about his package, and was halfway through a rather hefty amount of research on automating server deployments with tools like Chef and Puppet, but toppcloud is a bit different. It not only tackles provisioning a new system on the fly from the ‘cloud’ (using libcloud), but it also handles easy Python (and now PHP) web application deployments.

With such a tantalizing set of goals, I couldn’t really resist getting my feet wet. Boy am I glad I did. PylonsHQ is now running with toppcloud, and I won’t be surprised when more people get it running for them. When many shared hosting providers are $5-10 a month, its rather nice to pay $10/mth for an automatically configured VPS, with one-command deployments. Though of course, unless you go to quite a bit of work yourself, most shared hosting providers don’t have one-command deployments for you.

Before I continue on to describe how I setup Kai - the source code behind PylonsHQ - I should provide a few caveats about using toppcloud:

  • toppcloud is alpha software, there’s no releases of it yet, you will be checking it out from source code
  • currently, only Rackspace Cloud is known to be working, though since it uses libcloud, in theory, any cloud providers that it supports should be usable
  • toppcloud is changing rapidly, be ready to keep up on the commit log to see whats changing
  • there are no unit tests, most likely because its very tedious to make the rather significant amount of mock objects required to test the various local/remote commands and the fact that its changing so fast the tests would probably be obsolete in a week

toppcloud philosophy

I’m half guessing here, based on talking with Ian and reading the docs myself, but the philosophy of toppcloud is around providing a common deployment platform, ala Google App Engine, except of course with Postgres or other ‘services’ that you can request to use. At the moment the only services that toppcloud comes with is CouchDB, Files (to store/serve files for your app on the filesystem), and Postgres w/postgis extensions. For those diving into the source code, it shouldn’t be too hard to see how to create additional services and I hope to see more get added as people get more interested.

Therefore, toppcloud is not expected to be everything to everyone, it is expected to be at least an 80+% solution to deploying web apps in a Google App Engine style ease-of-deployment process. toppcloud itself then ensures that depending on what service you asked for, its setup and ready for use on the server when your app is deployed.

If that sounds like something you’re dying to try out, you’re in luck!

Setting up a Pylons App

I’m not going to mention how to check out the toppcloud source, except to mention the directions are in the


file in the toppcloud source (which should be read in its entirety!). Once you have toppcloud installed on your computer, getting from zero to running website on VPS is remarkably quick:

  1. $ toppcloud create-node –image-id=14362 baseimage

    Wait until email arrived indicating that server is up and ready

  2. $ toppcloud setup-node baseimage

    Server is now all setup to run web apps!

  3. $ toppcloud init myapp

    Create an app to deploy to our server

  4. $ source myapp/bin/activate

    Activate the virtualenv used for this app

  5. $ pip install Pylons

  6. $ cd myapp/src

  7. $ paster create -t pylons awesomeapp

    Create our Pylons app, or check out an existing one from your VCS here

  8. $ cd ../..

  9. $ ln -s myapp/src/awesomeapp/awesomeapp/public/ myapp/static

    toppcloud will make available things in the static directory available without hitting the webapp

  10. Configure myapp/app.ini similarly to (taken from pylonshq site):

    app_name = pylonshq
    runner = src/kai/production.ini
    version = 1
    update_fetch = /sync_app
    service.couchdb =
    service.files =
    default_host =

    In this case, the Pylons site needs CouchDB setup, and the files service (all Pylons sites should use the files service to store cached files, templates, etc.)

  11. $ toppcloud update myapp/

    Note that we’re one directory above myapp, and we have a trailing slash on myapp, this is needed because an rsync is done to copy it to the server, don’t leave off the trailing slash! (This will prolly be fixed at some point)

That’s it! 10 easy steps to go from zero to a running deployed website.

I should also note that you will need to make a production.ini file, and that it should have a few important changes in it. All the references to %(here)s should be changed to %(CONFIG_FILES)s since that’s the persistent location that files can be stored for a toppcloud app between deployments. Other configuration information provided by services (Couch supplies the db/host, Postgres has its host/user/pass info) can be accessed via CONFIG_ vars as well. The services docs have some more info.

More apps can be added to a host as desired, until the ram runs out of course. At the moment toppcloud is using a process pool of 5 with 1 thread under mod-wsgi for each application. This can use a bit of ram if you have multiple heavy Pylons processes, hopefully there will shortly be a way to ask toppcloud to use a single process with multiple threads which will help cut the ram profile a bit.

Using Django and PHP

Unfortunately I haven’t actually tried this myself, but there’s nothing preventing it. You’ll need to change the app.ini so that instead of using ‘src/kai/production.ini’ as the runner, it uses a Python file in the directory, say that then loads the Django app as a WSGI application and returns it. Sort of like this. Note that the config vars Django needs for its database should then be present in os.environ when setting up the that Django uses.

If you’re looking through the toppcloud source code by now, you may have also noticed there’s an example app that uses PHP. There’s nothing holding back toppcloud from setting up mod_passenger and deploying Ruby apps at some point either should someone wish to add that feature.

dumb pipes

There’s been numerous mentions on various blogs and in the news about how much the cell phone carriers hate the concept of being nothing more than “dumb pipes” for wireless Internet and phone use. That means of course, that they’d no longer be competing on what phones you could use but instead solely on service quality and price… I think the same type of transition is in store for shared hosting providers and some of the boutique app deployment shops like heroku.

It’ll take awhile, toppcloud is very rough right now. But when you can d/l a nice little open-source package, run it, choose your choice of cloud provider (based on price + quality!), have it automatically setup for you to deploy your apps to, then deploy apps with a single command… you’ve already done the vast majority of what a service like heroku does, except you could still modify toppcloud if there was something lacking you really needed. And it’s a reason like that, that toppcloud exists to begin with.

Oh, and thanks Ian for writing this before I wasted more time making it myself.

Ben Bangert
Ben Bangert
Software Contriver

Code. Homebrew. Hike. Rollerblade.