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Really fast deployer and server automation tool.
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Van Helsing

Really fast deployer and server automation tool.

Van Helsing works really fast because it's a deploy Bash script generator. It generates an entire procedure as a Bash script and runs it remotely in the server.

Compare this to the likes of Vlad or Capistrano, where each command is ran separately on their own SSH sessions. Van Helsing only creates one SSH. session per deploy, minimizing the SSH connection overhead.

# Install the gem yourself
$ git clone
$ cd van_helsing
$ gem build *.gemspec
$ gem install *.gem

Setting up

1. Create a config/deploy.rb

In your project, type vh init to create a sample of this file.

This is just a Rake file with tasks!

$ vh init
Created config/deploy.rb.

See About deploy.rb for more info on what deploy.rb is.

2. Set up your server

Make a directory in your server called /var/www/ (in deploy_to) change it's ownership to the correct user.

# SSH into your server, then:
$ mkdir /var/www/
$ chown -R username /var/www/

# Make sure 'username' is the same as what's on deploy.rb

3. Run 'vh setup'

Now do vh setup to set up the folder structure in this path. This will connect to your server via SSH and create the right directories.

$ vh setup
-----> Creating folders... done.

See directory structure for more info.

4. Deploy!

Use vh deploy to run the deploy task defined in config/deploy.rb.

$ vh deploy
-----> Deploying to 2012-06-12-040248
       Lots of things happening...
-----> Done.

About deploy.rb

The file deploy.rb is simply a Rakefile invoked by Rake. In fact, vh is mostly an alias that invokes Rake to load deploy.rb.

As it's all Rake, you can define tasks that you can invoke using vh. In this example, it provides the vh restart command.

# Sample config/deploy.rb
set :host, ''

task :restart do
  queue 'sudo service restart apache'

The magic of Van Helsing is in the new commands it gives you.

The queue command queues up Bash commands to be ran on the remote server. If you invoke vh restart, it will invoke the task above and run the queued commands on the remote server via SSH.

See the command queue for more information on the queue command.

The command queue

At the heart of it, Van Helsing is merely sugar on top of Rake to queue commands and execute them remotely at the end.

Take a look at this minimal deploy.rb configuration:

set :user, 'john'
set :host, ''

task :logs do
  queue 'echo "Contents of the log file are as follows:"'
  queue "tail -f /var/log/apache.log"

Once you type vh logs in your terminal, it invokes the queued commands remotely on the server using the command ssh


Van Helsing provides the helper invoke to invoke other tasks from a task.

task :down do
  invoke :maintenance_on
  invoke :restart

task :maintenance_on
  queue 'touch maintenance.txt'

task :restart
  queue 'sudo service restart apache'

In this example above, if you type vh down, it simply invokes the other subtasks which queues up their commands. The commands will be ran after everything.


Van Helsing provides the deploy command which queues up a deploy script for you.

set :host, ''
set :user, 'flipstack'
set :deploy_to, '/var/www/'

task :deploy do
  deploy do
    # Put things that prepare the empty release folder here.
    # Commands queued here will be ran on a new release directory.
    invoke :'git:checkout'
    invoke :'bundle:install'

    # These are instructions to start the app after it's been prepared.
    to :restart do
      queue 'touch tmp/restart.txt'

    # This optional block defines how a broken release should be cleaned up.
    to :clean do
      queue 'log "failed deployment for #{current_version}"'

It works by capturing the queued commands inside the block, wrapping them in a deploy script, then queueing them back in.

How deploying works

The deploy process looks like this:

  1. Decide on a release name based on the current timestamp, say, 2012-06-02-045823.
  2. cd to /var/www/ (the deploy_to path).
  3. Create ./releases/2012-06-02-045823 (the release path).
  4. Invoke the queued up commands in the deploy block. Usually, this is a git checkout, along with some commands to initialize the app, such as running DB migrations.
  5. Once it's been prepared, the release path is symlinked into ./current.
  6. Invoke the commands queued up in the to :restart block. These often commands to restart the webserver process.

If it fails at any point, the release path will be deleted. If any commands are queued using the to :clean block, they will be ran. It will be as if nothing happened.

Directory structure

The deploy procedures make the assumption that you have a folder like so:

/var/www/     # The deploy_to path
 |-  releases/              # Holds releases, one subdir per release
 |   |- 2012-06-12-838948
 |   |- 2012-06-23-034828
 |   '- ...
 |-  shared/                # Holds files shared between releases
 |   |- logs/               # Log files are usually stored here
 |   `- ...
 '-  current/               # A symlink to the current release in releases/

It also assumes that the deploy_to path is fully writeable/readable for the user we're going to SSH with.

Configuring settings

Settings are managed using the set and settings methods. This convention is inspired by Sinatra and Vlad.

set :version, "v2.0.5"

settings.version    #=> "v2.0.5"
settings.version?   #=> true

You can also retrieve settings without the settings. prefix.

set :version, "v2.0.5"

version    #=> "v2.0.5"
version?   #=> true

Dynamic values

You can also give settings using a lambda. When the setting is retrieved, it will be evaluated.

set :tag, lambda { "release/#{version}" }
set :version, "v2.0.5"

tag    #=> "release/v2.0.5"

Inside and outside tasks

All of these are accessible inside and outside tasks.

set :admin_email, ""

task :email do
  set :message, "Deploy is done"

  system "echo #{message} | mail #{admin_email}"


If you would like an error to be thrown if a setting is not present, add a bang at the end.

task :restart do
  queue "#{settings.nginx_path!}/sbin/nginx restart"

# $ vh restart
# Error: You must set the :nginx_path setting


There are a few deploy-related tasks and settings that are on by default.

SSH settings

  • host - Hostname to SSH to. Required.

  • user - Username to connect to SSH with. Optional.

  • identity_file - Local path to the SSH key to use. Optional.

Deploy settings

  • deploy_to - Path to deploy to. Required.

  • releases_path - The path to where releases are kept. Defaults to #{deploy_to}/releases.

  • shared_path - Where shared files are kept. Defaults to #{deploy_to}/shared.

  • current_path - The path to the symlink to the current release. Defaults to #{deploy_to}/current.

  • lock_file - The deploy lock file. A deploy does not start if this file is found. Defaults to #{deploy_to}/deploy.lock.

Task - setup

Prepares the deploy_to directory for deployments. Sets up subdirectories and sets permissions in the path.

$ vh setup
-----> Setting up
       $ mkdir -p /var/www/
       $ chmod g+r,a+rwx /var/www/
       $ mkdir -p /var/www/
       $ mkdir -p /var/www/

Task - deploy:force_unlock

Removes the deploy lock file. If a deploy is terminated midway, it may leave a lock file to signal that deploys shouldn't be made. This forces the removal of that lock file.

$ vh deploy
-----> ERROR: another deployment is ongoing.
       Delete the lock file to continue.

$ vh deploy:force_unlock
-----> Unlocking
       $ rm /var/www/

$ vh deploy
# The deploy should proceed now

Addons: Git

To deploy projects using git, add this to your deploy.rb:

require 'van_helsing/git'

set :repository, ''


This introduces the following settings:

  • repository - The repository path to clone from. Required.

  • revision - The SHA1 of the commit to be deployed. Defaults to whatever is the current HEAD in your local copy.

Task - git:clone

Clones from the repo into the current folder.

Addons: Bundler

To manage Bundler installations, add this to your deploy.rb:

require 'van_helsing/bundler'


This introduces the following settings:

  • bundle_path - The path where bundles are going to be installed. Defaults to ./vendor/bundler.

  • bundle_options - Options that will be passed onto bundle install.
    Defaults to --without development:test --path "#{bundle_path}" --binstubs bin/ --deployment".

Task - bundle:install

Invokes bundle:install on the current directory, creating the bundle path (specified in bundle_path), and invoking bundle install.

The bundle_path is only created if bundle_path is set (which is on by default).

Addons: Rails

To manage Rails project installations, add this to your deploy.rb:

require 'van_helsing/rails'


This introduces the following settings. All of them are optional.

  • rake - The rake command. Defaults to RAILS_ENV="#{rails_env}" bundle exec rake.

  • rails_env - The environment to run rake commands in. Defaults to production.

Task - rails:db_migrate

Invokes rake to migrate the database using rake db:migrate.

Task - rails:assets_precompile

Precompiles assets. This invokes rake assets:precomplie.

It also checks the current version to see if it has assets compiled. If it does, it reuses them, skipping the compilation step. To stop this behavior, invoke the vh command with force_assets=1.

Task - rails:assets_precompile:force

Precompiles assets. This always skips the "reuse old assets if possible" step.

Development & testing

To test out stuff in development:

# Run specs
$ rspec

# Alias your 'vh' to use it everywhere
$ alias vh="`pwd -LP`/bin/vh"

# Try out the test environment!
$ cd test_env
$ vh deploy simulate=1
$ vh deploy


© 2012, Nadarei. Released under the MIT License.

Van Helsing is authored and maintained by Rico Sta. Cruz and Michael Galero with help from its contributors. It is sponsored by our startup, Nadarei.



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