Setting up a Dokku Development PaaS

I have a bad case of multiple technology disorder. At the last count I have six side projects on the go, and not one of them uses the same language or framework! Don’t worry - I’m sure the doctor will prescribe me some pills to sort this out, but until then I’d like somewhere to host these projects online to show them off to my friends and colleagues.

Heroku would be the ideal solution, it’s a popular Platform as a Service (PaaS) that allows you to deploy applications written Ruby, Node.js, Python and PHP by pushing your source code to their servers using Git. The issue with Heroku is that it gets rather expensive when you want to do anything serious. The web dyno that runs your site has a habit of going to sleep on the free plan, which is a bit embarrassing during a demo… also you can’t have SSL without moving to a paid plan.

Enter Dokku. It’s a mini version of Heroku that can run on your own Linux machine. It uses Heroku’s open source build packs to configure a Docker container to run your application. So if your app works on Heroku, it’ll work on Dokku.

I’m running Ruby on Rails, Express, Laravel and static HTML sites all on the same 512MB Ubuntu server for only $5 a month with DigitalOcean! The rest of this article explains how to set it up. Although I’m using DigitalOcean, the same instructions should apply to other cloud providers.

Step 1: Create an Ubuntu VM

At the time of writing, Dokku is tested on Ubuntu 14.04 x64. With DigitalOcean, you just create a new $5 per month droplet for this version of Ubuntu. Don’t forget to add your SSH key, although it’s optional you’ll need it later for working with Dokku. If you don’t have an SSH key, GitHub has a good article explaining how to create one.

DigitalOcean will create your droplet in about 60s, just enough time to go and register a new .sexy domain name… personally I’m going to stick with :-)

DigitalOcean will report your static IP address on the Droplets page, in my case it’s Point your new domain to this IP address by adding two alias “A” records in the DNS settings of your domain provider:

Host Name IP Address

The first “@” entry points the top-level domain to your new server, the second entry is for subdomains. The subdomain configuration is important as this is how Dokku will make your application available e.g.

Next, we have to connect onto the server and create some swap space. For some reason cloud providers don’t configure this by default, and if you don’t have any you’ll quickly run into memory issues. My server has 512 MB of RAM, so I’m going to give it an additional 512 MB of swap space.

Connect to the server using SSH:


Create a 512MB swap file and enable it:

sudo fallocate -l 512M /swapfile
sudo chmod 600 /swapfile
sudo mkswap /swapfile
sudo swapon /swapfile

Make the change permanent by modifying the fstab file:

sudo nano /etc/fstab

Finally, add the following line to the bottom of the file and save it:

/swapfile   none    swap    sw    0   0

This DigitalOcean article gives a detailed description of what just happened.

Step 2: Install Dokku

Dokku is installed using a single shell script. Head over to Dokku’s GitHub page to find the the latest stable version of the bootstrapper command. Currently it’s on v0.3.13.

Connect to your server and run the bootstrapper command:

wget -qO- | sudo DOKKU_TAG=v0.3.13 bash

This will install all Dokku dependencies and clone their repository to ~/dokku in your home directory. You can use this repo to upgrade Dokku in the future. It also adds a user called dokku, and their home directory /home/dokku is where your applications will be deployed.

The next step is to register your domain name with Dokku:

echo > /home/dokku/VHOST

When it comes to deploying your application, you’ll use a git push to upload it to the dokku user. This means you have to add your SSH public key as an authorised key for the dokku user account. Your public key will be on the local machine in a ~/.ssh/ file by convention.

Exit the SSH session to get back to your local machine:


Copy the contents of your SSH public key file to the server and add it to the dokku user’s authorised keys:

cat ~/.ssh/ | ssh "sudo sshcommand acl-add dokku colinthegeek"

Note: don’t forget to change the server name ( to your own domain name. The last argument “colinthegeek” is just a label to help distinguish your key from others on the server, so it doesn’t really matter what you name it.

You can give your friends access to push to your server by running the command above with their public keys.

Step 3: Push a Sample Application

And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for… time to push an application and see what breaks!

Clone Heroku’s sample application for Node JS:

git clone
cd node-js-sample

Add a new remote repository that points to your Dokku server:

git remote add geek

…where “geek” is the name of the remote, “dokku” is the Git user name, “” is the server, and “hello-world” is the name of the app.

Push the code to Dokku:

git push geek

You’ll see some log messages as Dokku deploys the application, all being well it should end with:

=====> Application deployed:

Go ahead and visit your new “Hello World” app, show it off to your significant other, receive a blank look from them as you marvel at your own feat of engineering, then go and have well deserved cup of tea!

In my next article I’ll show you how to manage your Dokku applications, setup a Postgres database and get a simple Rails website up and running.