Simple Gitlab CI/CD Deployment via SSH+RSYNC

Setting up a project that runs in a web server (consider a traditional server like an AWS EC2 instance) requires you to deploy your code and configure the application. Doing this once may not be a big task but doing it continuously is not. Not to mention it will get impractical. Especially if it’s a project that you work on and maintain actively.

Setting up a good way to deploy your application is one of the key characteristics of a successful development setup. Ideally, your project should have an automated way to deploy, and roll back changes.

It makes a lot of sense of to use version control systems as the base of deployments. VCS systems are about how code changes are tracked by individual developers, comes together and merges back to the main branches. It perfectly fits well to have the capabilities to track deployments to these changes too.

The VCS services like Github and Gitlab now come with powerful CI/CD pipelines supports these use cases almost out of the box.

There are also many ways to achieve what I’m going to describe in this post. But I take this as my bare minimum, plain and simple way to deploy code and perform simple tasks to restart my application automatically as part of my code workflow.

We will be using SSH and RSYNC to update your code remotely, then update the changed/added/deleted files in your target folder then restart your application if needed.

In a PHP-based project, updating files would be enough because apache will be running the scripts in every single request unless you are using a caching module – which even comes with an automatic cache refresh if the file is changed.

If you are deploying a NodeJS (or similar) app that needs to be re-started, then we’ll use remote SSH command to perform a restart operation from your CI/CD pipeline.

Let’s jump right in the .gitlab-ci.yml example and I will point out the key areas in this template.

image: node

  - deploy

  npm_config_cache: "$CI_PROJECT_DIR/.npm"

    - .npm

  stage: deploy
  image: alpine
    - master
    - apk update
    - apk add openssh git curl rsync
    - git checkout -B "$CI_BUILD_REF_NAME" "$CI_BUILD_REF"
    DOCKER_DRIVER: overlay
    SERVER_NAME: "my-server-name"
    CONNECTION_STR: "[email protected]"
    ENVIRONMENT: "production"
    PROJECT_NAME: "myproject"
    SLACK_CI_CHANNEL: "#ci-myproject"
    RSYNC_EXCLUDES: "--exclude 'storage' --exclude '.env' --exclude 'node_modules' --exclude 'keys' --exclude '.git' --exclude '.yarn-cache'"
    RSYNC_BEFORE_HOOK: "mkdir -p $DEPLOY_PATH && rsync"
    DEPLOY_PATH: "/srv/data/deploy/${PROJECT_NAME}/production"
    SERVE_PATH: "/srv/data/www/${PROJECT_NAME}/production"
    - mkdir -p ~/.ssh
    - 'which ssh-agent || ( apk add --update openssh )'
    - eval "$(ssh-agent -s)"
    - echo "${PRIVATE_KEY}" | tr -d ' ' | base64 -d | ssh-add -
    - '[[ -f /.dockerenv ]] && echo -e "Host *\\n\\tStrictHostKeyChecking no\\n\\n" > ~/.ssh/config'
    - ssh "$CONNECTION_STR" "mkdir -p $SERVE_PATH $DEPLOY_PATH;";
    - rsync -avzqR --rsync-path="$RSYNC_BEFORE_HOOK" $RSYNC_EXCLUDES --delete -e 'ssh' ./ "$CONNECTION_STR:$DEPLOY_PATH";
    - ssh "$CONNECTION_STR" "cd $DEPLOY_PATH; rsync -avqR --delete ${RSYNC_EXCLUDES} ./ ${SERVE_PATH}";
    - ssh "$CONNECTION_STR" "cd ${SERVE_PATH}; npm install --production";
    - ssh "$CONNECTION_STR" "if forever list | grep 'production/server_run.js'; then forever stop ${SERVE_PATH}/server_run.js; fi; forever start --workingDir ${SERVE_PATH} ${SERVE_PATH}/server_run.js"
    - 'cd $CI_PROJECT_DIR && sh ./scripts/ "${SLACK_CI_CHANNEL}" ":rocket: Build on \\`$ENVIRONMENT\\` \\`$CI_BUILD_REF_NAME\\` deployed to $SERVER_NAME! :white_check_mark: Commit \\`$(git log -1 --oneline)\\` See <$(basename $PWD)/commit/$CI_BUILD_REF>"'
    name: production
    url: <>

Essentially we need to do:

  1. Upload (or update) the files in the server
  2. Restart the application (if needed)

You get a deployment log like this:

Running with gitlab-runner 15.4.0~beta.5.gdefc7017 (defc7017)
  on ntHFEtyX
Preparing the "docker+machine" executor
Using Docker executor with image alpine ...
Pulling docker image alpine ...
Using docker image sha256:9c6f0724472873bb50a2ae67a9e7adcb57673a183cea8b06eb778dca859181b5 for alpine with digest alpine@sha256:bc41182d7ef5ffc53a40b044e725193bc10142a1243f395ee852a8d9730fc2ad ...
Preparing environment
Running on runner-nthfetyx-project-17714851-concurrent-0 via runner-nthfetyx-shared-1664673617-f4952085...
Getting source from Git repository
Fetching changes with git depth set to 50...
Initialized empty Git repository in /builds/amazingproject/website/.git/
Created fresh repository.
Checking out 7ab562d5 as staging...

Skipping Git submodules setup
Executing "step_script" stage of the job script
Using docker image sha256:9c6f0724472873bb50a2ae67a9e7adcb57673a183cea8b06eb778dca859181b5 for alpine with digest alpine@sha256:bc41182d7ef5ffc53a40b044e725193bc10142a1243f395ee852a8d9730fc2ad ...
$ apk update && apk add git curl rsync openssh openssh-client python3
v3.16.2-221-ge7097e0782 []
v3.16.2-229-g1f881aca9b []
OK: 17033 distinct packages available
(1/33) Installing ca-certificates (20220614-r0)
(33/33) Installing rsync (3.2.5-r0)
Executing busybox-1.35.0-r17.trigger
Executing ca-certificates-20220614-r0.trigger
OK: 78 MiB in 47 packages
$ git clone && git-tools/git-restore-mtime
Cloning into 'git-tools'...
12,931 files to be processed in work dir
         0.57 seconds
       13,151 log lines processed
           59 commits evaluated
        2,204 directories updated
       12,931 files updated
$ which ssh-agent || ( apk add --update openssh )
$ eval "$(ssh-agent -s)"
Agent pid 54
$ echo "${PRIVATE_KEY}" | tr -d ' ' | base64 -d | ssh-add -
Identity added: (stdin) ((stdin))
$ mkdir -p ~/.ssh
$ [[ -f /.dockerenv ]] && echo -e "Host *\n\tStrictHostKeyChecking no\n\n" > ~/.ssh/config
$ ssh "$CONNECTION_STR" "mkdir -p $DEPLOY_PATH;";
Warning: Permanently added '' (ED25519) to the list of known hosts.
$ echo "--------> Copy latest codebase to remote"
--------> Copy latest codebase to remote
$ eval "rsync -avzqR --rsync-path='$RSYNC_BEFORE_HOOK' $RSYNC_EXCLUDES --delete -e 'ssh' ./ '$CONNECTION_STR:$DEPLOY_PATH'"
$ ssh "$CONNECTION_STR" "find $DEPLOY_PATH -type d \( -path $DEPLOY_PATH/assets/uploads -o -path $DEPLOY_PATH/application/logs \) -prune -o -exec chmod og-w {} \;"

$ cd $CI_PROJECT_DIR && sh ./scripts/ "${SLACK_CI_CHANNEL}" ":rocket: Build on \`$ENVIRONMENT\` \`$CI_BUILD_REF_NAME\` deployed to $SERVER_NAME! :white_check_mark: Commit \`$(git log -1 --oneline)\` See <$CI_BUILD_REF>"
  % Total    % Received % Xferd  Average Speed   Time    Time     Time  Current
                                 Dload  Upload   Total   Spent    Left  Speed

  0     0    0     0    0     0      0      0 --:--:-- --:--:-- --:--:--     0
100   427    0     2  100   425     15   3218 --:--:-- --:--:-- --:--:--  3259
Cleaning up project directory and file based variables
Job succeeded

It runs fast, is almost universal and applicable to any type of codebase, and is extendable. If you need to restart your application by either using process managers or full daemon restart, you can add a new command and use the ssh lines that we remote-execute a command on the server.

Create and use a limited-permission deployer user for better security

A good rule of thumb is to set up a “deployer” user on the server, have the smallest possible permissions to the user, and have the target folder write access so these commands run properly. There is even a way to give sudo rights for specific commands if you really need to execute something with root permissions, without having a full sudo-enabled user account.

Even simpler deployment

Maybe RSYNC is even more complex for your needs. Maybe all you need is to pull the repo on your server initially, and in each deployment run “git pull”. You can simplify this script to get rid of all rsync parts and only have a remote SSH command runs that.

Developing and Deploying Nodejs (Express) apps on Heroku

Heroku is an amazing platform for getting quick development up and running in a smart virtual instances. There is no hussle to get additional services you may need for a quick and dirty app to ground up. I’ve already wrote about how to use heroku for quick development environment before:

This short article will be about specifically developing and deploying node.js and express apps on heroku. There is actually not much difference for deploying a node.js app than a php application or in another language. Heroku CLI tool automatically detects the application type from the package.json file for a node.js application and it’s entry point from there.

For the express related parts, just go ahead and see the very simple example I put up in github the past:

Another more detailed express example that uses pug template engine for it’s layouts and views:

Aside of the application itself, there are few key points I found helpful when creating and deploying node.js apps. 

Use environment variables

Using environment variables is the best way to set configuration details for your application.

Setting which node.js version your app will use

As simple as adding “engines” object in package.json and having your node.js version defined in “node” property inside engines object like:

"engines": {"node": "12.13.0"}

Same applies for npm and yarn versions to be defined within engines object as well.

Use prebuild and postbuild steps to prepare additional steps needed for your application build

By default, heroku will build your application on every deployment. This is not very meaningful for pure node.js applications but you app may need build. Like gulp, grunt, webpack builds. For this, heroku will read “build” npm script if exists in package.json. Aside of this, heroku will always install dependencies with npm install as a minimum build step. If you need additional steps before or after the build, you can define these in npm scripts as heroku-prebuild and heroku-postbuild named scripts.

Utilize heroku add-ons

Remember, Heroku comes with tons of 3rd party services which a lot of them have free packages that will be enough to try things out and start coding stuff up quickly. One of my favorite is heroku’s internal database service providing postgresql database with single command line command:

heroku addons:create heroku-postgresql

Wrapping up

All in all, heroku is a great cloud platform allow developers to kick off ideas, starting with simple code to grow into complex distributed applications very easily. In my opinion, it should be in the go-to tools for every engineer’s arsenal.

Using Heroku for a quick development environment

Heroku is an industry-changing service that is established in 2007. It transformed how developers create and deploy apps today. With its add-ons marketplace, Heroku became the development hub that you can easily enable 3rd party cloud services. These services can be in many different categories that a web application may require. From database services, caching, image processing to mail delivery and so on…

Heroku supports many modern development languages that are actively used with big communities like PHP, nodejs, ruby, python, go, java… The beauty of the Heroku applications is that, managed by Heroku and very very easy to understand. They are also very easy to scale, deploy apps in Heroku infrastructure… All Heroku apps are deployed to given app name’s subdomain under or can be easily set to have a custom domain for free.

Essentially, Heroku runs on a command line interface and an internal git repository to manage versions of your code. When you set up a new project folder, Heroku CLI tool registers your app and assigns a git repository. Heroku CLI doesn’t initiate git repository on your folder, so if it’s a non-git folder, you need to git init on your project folder first.

$ mkdir hello-world && cd hello-world
$ echo "{}" > composer.json
$ echo "<!--? print 'hello';" --> index.php
$ git init

$ heroku create
Creating sharp-rain-871... done, stack is heroku-18 |
Git remote heroku added

$ git add . && git commit -m "first commit"
$ git push heroku master
Counting objects: 488, done.
Delta compression using up to 8 threads.
Compressing objects: 100% (367/367), done.
Writing objects: 100% (488/488), 231.85 KiB | 115.92 MiB/s, done.
Total 488 (delta 86), reused 488 (delta 86)
remote: Compressing source files... done.
remote: Building source:
remote: -----> Node.js app detected
remote: -----> Creating runtime environment
remote: NODE_VERBOSE=false
remote: NODE_ENV=production
remote: -----> Installing binaries
remote: engines.node (package.json): 10.13.0
remote: engines.npm (package.json): unspecified (use default)
remote: Resolving node version 10.13.0...
remote: Downloading and installing node 10.13.0...
remote: Using default npm version: 6.4.1
remote: -----> Build succeeded!
remote: -----> Discovering process types
remote: Procfile declares types → web
remote: -----> Compressing...
remote: Done: 19M
remote: -----> Launching...
remote: Released v3
remote: ( deployed to Heroku
remote: Verifying deploy... done.
* [new branch] master → master

I highly suggest all developers adapt Heroku in their workflow, at least for the sandbox & playground purposes.

I have created some boilerplate repositories in the past:

PHPStorm: Most advanced PHP IDE so far

I’ve been using PHPStorm from day one of their beta release, and very happy with it.
They enhanced Java based NetBeans in the beginning, but it’s completely boosted with a lot of features.

Biggest problem developing web projects using PHP is the lack of tools and big effort requirements for creating a stable integrated development environment. There are very good simple and clean editors but none of them is not farther than a code intellisense enabled editors. What I mean is there are debuggers, advanced editors, database management tools, but all of them has their own ways, not communicating and not integrated. And it varies on different operating systems.

When I first tested phpstorm in the beta times, they had this minimal advanced editor with some half working hard to configure add-ons like svn support, debugger integration etc but wasn’t easy to get it up running. But they improved the initial configuration steps much easier, they touched lots of add-ons to get them more integrated with less configuration and they started to support modern languages for different web technologies (html5, less, sass, haml). Here is a couple of features that I like and probably you’ll find them very usefull as well.

Code Intellisense is not just for PHP, also most of the languages that you use for general PHP based web project (HTML, Javascript, CSS, XML). Also, code intelligence supports most of the PHP, Javascript frameworks and helps you to get faster coding.

Debugging PHP runtime with xdebug, you can catch, stop and debug your PHP app while it’s running. Also, makes the error handling way easier.

Version control system integration allows you to integrate your svn, git projects, access versions and manage working copy.

Database connectors support all SQL engines that Java not just allows to browse, alter your database structure also there is a database console that you can use code IntelliSense when you develop your SQL. This is a common feature for most IDEs so far but PHPStorm also uses database connections for every project when you write/browse or debug your PHP code if it’s running a SQL. You can run or use code IntelliSense when you’re writing your SQL in your code.

Also, PHPStorm has other ton of features like automatic deployment, automatic upload over FTP/SFTP protocols, zen coding, code snippets etc…

They released 6 major versions in 3 years that was basically touched version of NetBeans in the beginning but now it gives totally enhanced and different coding experience. Unfortunately, you need to pay $100, the first time and it gives free updates in minor releases. But if you want to update in major releases you need to upgrade your license in 1 year periods for $50. But it’s nothing compared to what you get.

JetBrains also develops most of the features in PHPStorm for their common product base which you can have similar or same features in their other IDEs for Ruby and Python developers. If you develop Python or Ruby, you should check PyCharm and RubyMine out.

PHPStorm’s homepage: