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Debian Packaging an Erlang Relx Release

Creating an Erlang release with Relx is straightforward and quick but you still need to get it onto a machine. You could script something yourself, maybe even using a configuration management tool. You could also create a Debian package which would make your sysadmin happy and even make it easy to uninstall!

In this example I'll use FPM although the Debian toolchain would work as well. This will assume that you can already make a release with Relx and that you put your release files into rel within your project. This may not follow all Debian best-practices but it will give you a .deb file that will install and look kind of like any other package. The package will include the Erlang Runtime System so you won't need to install Erlang on the target system or any other dependencies before installing your package.

Application configuration

You likely already include a sys.config file with your release but it would be nice to be able to configure the release after the package has been installed. This is usually done with files in /etc or /etc/PACKAGE. Your sys.config can be easily updated to make this happen!

Assuming you aren't configuring anything to start your sys.config would look like


With a relx.config including

{sys_config, "./rel/sys.config"}.

To make this include an /etc file using the config documentation says you can include a file path (absolute path preferred). This would make your Relx sys.config look like:


Simple! We don't need any post-install configuration right now but we should include the config-less file so that Erlang can find it when trying to use sys.config Create a file in rel/PACKAGE/PACKAGE.config:


Now this file can be updated with your configuration management tool without requiring changing any files within the release!

On Debian/Ubuntu systems it's not uncommon to have a /etc/default/PACKAGE file as well that allows you to add any environment variables you would like to use for your application. I ran across this needing to set the ulimit. For now we will create a file in rel/etc/default/PACKAGE that sets the ulimit.

ulimit -n 65536

Making a user

It's nice to have a system user that runs your release and not require some other tool to create it. This can be done with FPM's --before-install option to pass in the path to an appropriate script. More can be included but for now we will create a file rel/before-install with the contents

adduser PACKAGE --system

So that before this package is installed dpkg will create the user for us.


Your release should generally start right after the system does and it is helpful to follow the standard init system of your distribution. This becoming SystemD or Upstart depending on your distribution/derivative but for this example we will stick with SysV-style init. This get slightly more complex but we will start with the example and then walk through each line. This requires that you use the extended start script from Relx with the option {extended_start_script, true}.


[ -f /etc/default/PACKAGE ] && . /etc/default/PACKAGE

mkdir -p /var/log/PACKAGE

chown -R /opt/PACKAGE /var/lib/PACKAGE /opt/PACKAGE/log /var/log/PACKAGE

su PACKAGE -mc "/opt/PACKAGE/bin/PACKAGE $@"

First #!/bin/sh, use the sh to execute.

Erlang and your release really want a HOME variable. We will for now install the application into /opt so that /opt/PACKAGE will be used as HOME

Next we test for the defaults file we created before and if it exists we will source it into this script. While the package will create the file it's still polite to check if it exists before sourcing.

mkdir and chown are used so that the log/var directories and the release itself all belong to the user we created in before-install. More directories can be added if you need something specific.

Finally with su we will pass the arguments to the init script through to the extended start script from Relx. The extended start script includes things like start and stop that are familiar for an init script but also includes ways to easily get a remote console connected to the Erlang VM!

Since this script will use a dir in /var/lib create the respective directory within rel rel/var/lib/PACKAGE

Creating the Package

Until now we just created files that would be used by FPM, now we can tell FPM to create the package. This could be done on any OS, not just the one that you intend to distribute the package to, but it's generally easier to use the same OS as we will include the Erlang Runtime System with the package as well.

fpm -s dir -t deb -n PACKAGE -v VERSION \
    --before-install=rel/before-install \
    _rel/PACKAGE=/opt/ \
    rel/init=/etc/init.d/PACKAGE \
    rel/var/lib/PACKAGE/=/var/lib/PACKAGE/ \
    rel/etc/PACKAGE/PACKAGE.config=/etc/PACKAGE/PACKAGE.config \

Going through some of the options

-s dir says to create this package from a directory, instead of some other packaging format (of which FPM supports many!)

-t deb creates a Debian package as output

-n PACKAGE name the package

-v VERSION Give the package this version. This should probably be determined by your Makefile or build system and not be hardcoded.

--before-install=rel/before-install Adds the before-install script for FPM so that it can be executed when you are installing the package.

The rest of the options tell FPM to take the relative file location and place it at the absolute location when installing the package. This includes the release into /opt/, our init script, var/lib directory, etc config, and defaults file.

You now have a package!

Running this command will create the package for you and output a .deb file you can install on another machine. This includes ERTS and requires no dependencies beyond what comes in a fresh install! If you've found this helpful please let me know on Twitter!