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Django Docker Heroku Tutorial

This tutorial demonstrates how to configure a Django app for development in Docker and deployment to Heroku.

While the app is intentionally very simple—it generates random tokens that can be used as Django secret keys—the configuration is relatively complex:

Additionally WhiteNoise is used to manage static files and Django Debug Toolbar is configured to run in the Docker development environment.

Please note that this is not a general tutorial on Django development or using Docker. I assume that you're familiar with Django and are at least aware of Docker, and the benefits of containerization more generally, but want to learn how to configure a simple but real-world Django application for development in Docker, and, as a bonus, deployment to Heroku.


Developing in Docker

Quick Start


Download the tutorial code into a new directory:

$ git clone djheroku
$ cd djheroku

Run docker-compose up -d --build to download the Docker images and bring up the development environment in Docker Compose. This will take a while the first time, but on subsequent runs will be much quicker as the Docker images will be cached.

Assuming the above step succeeded, you should now have a Django app running in a Docker container service named web, connected to other container services running Postgres and Redis, and a separate background task runner.

However, the Postgres database will be empty. Populate it by running:

$ docker-compose exec web python migrate

The above command runs the command python migrate in the Django Docker container. You could accomplish the same by running:

$ docker-compose exec web bash
# python migrate
# exit

All going well you should now be able to open the Django app at http://localhost:8000/.

App Screenshot

Obviously it doesn't take two seconds to generate a random key but the background task sleeps for two seconds to simulate a real-world time consuming operation such as sending an email or generating a PDF.

When you're finished with the app just run docker-compose down to stop the app and its supporting services.

Django Dockerfile

At the heart of Docker is the Dockerfile, a simple plain text file that defines how to build a Docker image which can be run as a Docker container.

Here is the Dockerfile for our Django app in its entirety:

# Pull base image
FROM python:3.9-slim-buster

# Install psql so that "python dbshell" works
RUN apt-get update -qq && apt-get install -y postgresql-client

# Set environment variables

# Set work directory

# Install dependencies
COPY requirements.txt /app/requirements.txt
RUN pip install -r /app/requirements.txt

By itself, though, this Dockerfile doesn't provide much more than we could get from developing our Django app in a traditional Python virtual environment.

This is where Docker Compose comes in.

Docker Compose Services

Here is a summary of Docker Compose from the official documentation:

Compose is a tool for defining and running multi-container Docker applications. With Compose, you use a YAML file to configure your application’s services. Then, with a single command, you create and start all the services from your configuration.

Our Docker Compose configuration file, docker-compose.yml, defines four services, web, worker, db and redis, each of which runs in a separate Docker container. (Note that the internal hostname for each service is the same as the service name. So to connect to the Redis server from Django we use redis:6379 as the hostname:port pair.)

Taking each service in turn:

    build: .
    command: python runserver
      DEBUG: 1
      - .:/app
      - 8000:8000
      - db
      - redis

The web service runs our Django app in a Docker container defined by our Dockerfile.

We set the environment variable DEBUG=1 which sets the DEBUG variable in the app's file to True.

The volumes section says that we want to map the current directory to the /app mountpoint in the Docker container. This means that any changes made to the application code while the container is running cause the Django server to reload, as it would it if were running outside of Docker. (Tangentially, this also explains why we set the PYTHONDONTWRITEBYTECODE flag in our Dockerfile. Since Django is run by the root user inside the web container, we don't want the root user to save cached bytecode files to our application directory.)

    build: .
    command: python rqworker default
      DEBUG: 1
      - .:/app
      - web

The worker service runs Django-RQ to process background tasks. Since Django-RQ runs as a Django management command, it's configured very similarly to the Django app server, with the notable exception that we don't define a port mapping since it doesn't have a web interface.

    image: postgres:latest
    restart: always
      POSTGRES_PASSWORD: postgres
      POSTGRES_USER: postgres
      POSTGRES_DB: djheroku
      - pgdata:/var/lib/postgresql/data/

The db service installs and configures a full-blown Postgres database server, creating a database for our Django app, using the most recent Postgres Docker image. This is where using Docker really shines.

For more details on the configuration environment variables see the Docker Postgres documentation.

We define a volumes section for our database so that the data itself is saved outside of the database container. Otherwise when the container is shut down we'd lose the contents of our database!

    image: redis:latest

Short and sweet, the redis service says that we want a Redis server in our Docker Compose environment, and we're happy with the default configuration.

Running Django Debug Toolbar in Docker Compose

Django Debug Toolbar is an invaluable plugin for Django developers as it provides very detailed runtime profiling information that you can use to optimize your app's database queries and templates.

By default Django Debug Toolbar only runs if the Django settings DEBUG flag is set to True and the development server's IP address is defined in the INTERNAL_IPS list. In development INTERNAL_IPS is typically set to ['localhost', ''].

However, services running in Docker Compose are assigned an ephemeral IP address so Django Debug Toolbar won't run. To enable Django Debug Toolbar in Docker Compose we instead used the following configuration option in our

    'SHOW_TOOLBAR_CALLBACK': lambda request: DEBUG,

See the Django Debug Toolbar documentation for more details.

Deploying to Heroku

Quick Start


Run heroku create to create a new Heroku app with a randomly generated name.

Create a new Heroku Postgres database:

$ heroku addons:create heroku-postgresql:hobby-dev

Once Heroku has finished creating the Postgres database, it will create the environment variable DATABASE_URL which contains the login credentials to the database. You can view the Heroku app's environment by running heroku config.

Create a new Heroku Redis server:

$ heroku addons:create heroku-redis:hobby-dev

Similarly Heroku will create an environment variable REDIS_URL once it's finished creating the Redis instance.

Since Heroku is our production environment, for security we should override the default Django SECRET_KEY by setting the SECRET_KEY environment variable. Copy a generated key from the development app and run:

$ heroku config:set SECRET_KEY='replace me with a generated secret key'

Time to go live! Upload and deploy our app to Heroku:

$ git push heroku master

This will take some time as Heroku builds the app and deploys it to a web dyno, comparable to a Docker container.

You should now able to view the Django app running in Heroku by running heroku open.

The background task runner isn't run by default so spin one up:

$ heroku ps:scale worker=1

Shut down the app in Heroku by running:

$ heroku ps:scale web=0 worker=0

Free Heroku web dynos will automatically go to sleep after 30 minutes of inactivity but worker dynos will keep running until you explicitly shut them down.

To permanently delete the Heroku app, including the Postgres database and Redis server, run heroku apps:destroy.

Heroku Procfile

Our app directory already contains a top-level requirements.txt file, which tells Heroku that this is a Python app and it should pip install the packages in the requirements file when it builds the app.

How our app should be run after it's been built is defined in a Procfile:

release: python migrate

web: gunicorn djheroku.wsgi --log-file -

worker: python rqworker default

The release line specifies that we want Heroku to run database migrations on the app in the app's release phase. See the Heroku documentation for more details.

The web process type defines how to run our Django web server. Since we're running in production we use gunicorn instead of Django's test server that we use in Docker. See the Heroku documentation for more details.

Finally the worker process type defines how to run our background task runner. Note that the command is exactly the same as the worker service in our Docker Compose configuration.

Why Deploy to Heroku

We've seen above how we can deploy a Django app to Heroku, using Postgres and Redis, with a background job runner, by writing a three line Procfile config file and running git push heroku master. That's really as easy as it gets to deploy a web app to production.

By comparison this tutorial shows how to set up Django with Postgres, Nginx and Gunicorn to run on a Digital Ocean virtual machine. It's a clear, comprehensive tutorial which I've referenced many times myself. You'll also notice that it's very long, with lots of steps, each of which must be completed without making a mistake to get your app up and running. If you want to get the same app running on a different (e.g., bigger) virtual machine, you'll have to repeat the process all over again, or write a script.

Why Not Deploy to Heroku

By default Django uses SQLite for its database. SQLite is an excellent option for Django sites that are predominantly read-only and will only ever run on a single server. But using SQLite as your database on Heroku isn't an option since Heroku dyno filesystems are ephemeral.

I run a hobby site, M43 Lenses, that gets light traffic and is only updated by me so it runs happily on a $5/month Digital Ocean VM using SQLite for its database.

Another consequence of the ephemeral nature of the filesystem on Heroku dynos is that if you have a site that allows users to upload e.g. image files, you will need to configure your app to save those files to an external file storage service such as AWS S3. This is pretty straightforward to set up in Django using django-storages, but you may decide that it's more trouble than it's worth to set up on Heroku and stick with conventional VM hosting providers like Linode or Digital Ocean that provide permanent disk storage with your VM.

Further Reading

Will Vincent has published many excellent Django tutorials on his website I also highly recommend his books for beginner and experienced Django developers.

Similar to this tutorial, Will develops a detailed example in his book Django for Professionals on how to develop a Django app in Docker and deploy it to Heroku. My tutorial is different in that I do not use Pipenv (which seems to have fallen out of fashion since Django for Professionals was published) and I don't deploy to Heroku's alternative Docker runtime environment.

For intermediate to advanced Django developers I highly recommend the Two Scoops of Django series by Daniel and Audrey Feldroy (formerly Daniel and Audrey Roy Greenfeld).

Vitor Freitas has published a number of very hiqh quality, in-depth articles about Django development on his website Simple is Better Than Complex.

For the official Heroku Python/Django tutorial read Getting Started on Heroku with Python.

The Twelve-Factor App website lists best practices for developing and deploying software-as-a-service web apps. The 12 factors were formulated by Adam Wiggins, one of the cofounders of Heroku.


If you've got this far, congratulations! My goal in writing this tutorial was to present some of the knowledge that I've learned by trial and error developing Django web apps in Docker and deploying them to Heroku. Your particular context will be different from mine, but I hope that this tutorial is a useful starting point to make you more productive developing your own Django apps.

Please feel free to email me at if you have any comments or questions about this tutorial. I also do Django consulting through my company, Wombat Software.

Thanks for reading!

John Barham, Wombat Software


Django Docker Heroku Tutorial






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