Tutorial: Serve a static website as a Unikernel

Brian Graham edited this page May 6, 2018 · 16 revisions

You will learn how to use the Rumprun toolchain to build a unikernel which hosts your very own static site served by Nginx.

This page is focused on giving application and web developers the steps and knowledge to get running with a basic Rump Kernel based unikernel. This tutorial assumes you are are on a GNU/Linux or BSD system and familiar with command line basics.

What is a Rump Kernel?

A Rump Kernel lets you pick and choose drivers from the anykernel that you find on operating system, but lets you run them without an operating system. Your application (perhaps a PHP application or Nginx server) is connected to the Rump Kernel's drivers and results in a unikernel. You can boot the unikernel on a cloud hypervisor or directly on real hardware, which means your unmodified application runs in isolation, uses a fraction of the resources and bootstrap time of a full operating system, and removes a large set of security concerns unrelated to your application.

What we will be doing

  1. Getting the "Rumprun" toolchain to build rump kernels
  2. Getting nginx to build and launch on QEMU (although, you could use KVM or Xen)
  3. Connecting to QEMU
  4. Putting our static site into the nginx guest.
  5. Serving content over HTTPS

Note: This is all experimental and you may need to tweak some scripts. There will be an explanation of the tools in enough detail that you will have a better chance at figuring out how to fix things if something goes wrong. If you're really stuck please contact the community for assistance.

1. Getting "Rumprun"

The Rumprun repo provides the tools someone who develops unikernels based on rump kernel would need. There are debugging scripts for the kernels, and compiler tools to help build kernels. The repo also includes NetBSD drivers as a dependency. We only need to worry about building the repo and using the tools it provides.

First we'll need to download the repository and its dependencies:

git clone http://repo.rumpkernel.org/rumprun
cd rumprun
git submodule update --init

Now that all the source code is checked out you will need to compile it. Depending on your distro you will need to ensure you have GCC (A C compiler) installed. Rumprun does not yet support Clang (a different compiler).

There are two options we can pick to build the toolchain for, either "hw" (hardware) or "xen" (a specific open source hyperviser). For us, we'll pick "hw" as this is the easiest tool to get started with (unless you already have a Xen Dom0 host you have access to). Even though we're building for hardware, remember, we can use a virtual machine for running this, so there's no need to dust off a second machine somewhere to try it on (although, it would work just fine).

Lucky us, everything needed to do a build is provided in a simple script, so we simply run the command:

./build-rr.sh hw

If this command fails to execute you may need to install binutils on your system

This will take a while as you are compiling both C and C++ code (you should see a lot of text streaming by your terminal). Once you are done (you will know because it says "build-rr ran successfully") you must add the path of tools to your user path. This can be done quickly by typing this in (if you use Bash):

export PATH=${PATH}:$(pwd)/rumprun/bin

Now that you have appended the directory where all your new tools are to your $PATH variable you can call those scripts from any directory. If you close the window you may lose this assignment. If you use a different terminal window do not expect to have this value assigned. You can read more about $PATH here.

If you run into problems compiling...

If you run into problems please document all the steps you took and all the logs of your build output. Try to make it easy for someone else to recreate and see what happened on their own. If unsure about where to submit bugs, please create them at http://repo.rumpkernel.org/rumprun. You may also wish to ask the community for help.

2. Getting nginx to build and launch on qemu

Now that you have the toolchain installed, lets find a Rump unikernel that fits our needs. Lucky for us, one that builds Nginx already exists! You'll want to download that project into a new directory.

git clone http://repo.rumpkernel.org/rumprun-packages
cd rumprun-packages/

Previously, you had added Rumprun's tools to your $PATH. If you look at it you will see you have various executable available to you, one will be called something like "arch-rumprun-netbsd-gcc" where "arch" is replaced by something meaningful about the architecture you are compiling for, e.g x86_64-rumprun-netbsd-gcc. You need to configure the package builder to know about that through changing the config.mk file. Please copy config.mk.dist to config.mk, and update RUMPRUN_TOOLCHAIN_TUPLE to RUMPRUN_TOOLCHAIN_TUPLE=x86_64-rumprun-netbsd (be sure not to add -gcc or any other suffix).

Now that you have configured your package system, lets enter into nginx.

cd nginx

You will need to install a program called genisoimage onto your system to build an ISO file which can be used to load the image onto bare metal. If you're having a hard time finding the package: genisoimage is included in a package called cdrkit on many systems.

So all we need to do right now is run make, and point the C compiler to the version we just made with the toolchain. We assume you'll be compiling for 64bit x86:


And that's created the Nginx part of the unikernel into ./bin/nginx. We're almost ready, all that's left is to "bake" the image. Lets see what platforms you can bake for by using the command:

rumprun-bake list

You will probably see hw_virtio which is the correct configuration to use when you are building for cloud deployment. Now we bake the unikernel into a bootable unikernel called "nginx.bin" (you can pick any name really):

rumprun-bake hw_virtio ./nginx.bin bin/nginx

Lastly, we will boot the image and provide the config files by using QEMU (make sure it is installed) by running this command:

    rumprun qemu -M 128 -i \
        -b images/data.iso,/data \
        -- nginx.bin -c /data/conf/nginx.conf

You should see QEMU launch, some debugging text scroll by, and finally end without any messages about "panic". If you see "panic" it means something is broken. You should expect to see something like "rumprun: call to sigaction ignored" which is fine. Rump Kernel has a different understanding of signals than you would expect on an operating system.

QEMU if everything built correctly.

You can kill the window if everything looks good, and we'll go on to set up your networking correctly.

3. Connecting to QEMU

Congratulations on launching a working Rump unikernel! Now we need to launch it on a network and configure your host machine so you can send HTTP requests to it.

There are a few options here. QEMU does support port forwarding, but you may not find that useful for long lived or larger applications with complicated needs, so lets look into using http://backreference.org/2010/03/26/tuntap-interface-tutorial/ (a purely software virtual network device).

Lets tell our system we now have a tap device named "tap0", give it a network (not the same as one that you are connected to already), and turn it on (you may need to be root or use sudo).

ip tuntap add tap0 mode tap
ip addr add dev tap0
ip link set dev tap0 up

Now if you run the command ip addr you should expect to see a network device called "tap0" along with your other network devices (wireless, ethernet, etc).

You want to pick a network that is not your own. So if your host machine's IP address is you can pick (or anything else, so long as it's one of those private )

You can test that you created the device if you can ping it: ping

Finally, we can launch our Nginx Rump Unikernel on that network :)

The following command will do these things in this order:

  1. Run QEMU as the emulator for the image
  2. (-i) Attach the guest console on startup
  3. (-M) Set the memory limit to 128 megabytes
  4. (-I) Create the guest network interface and attach an "iftag" to it.
  5. (-W) Configure the network interface for the VM's address (pick an IP on your TAP network with a different address than you used for the Tap0 interface)
  6. (-b) mount data.iso as a block device on /data of the unikernel
  7. (--) start nginx and tell it where the config file lives.
    rumprun qemu -i -M 128 \
        -I if,vioif,'-net tap,script=no,ifname=tap0'\
        -W if,inet,static, \
        -b images/data.iso,/data \
        -- ./nginx.bin -c /data/conf/nginx.conf

There is a related guide for more ways to configure tun and tap for use with Rump.

If everything works, you should be able to visit the IP address you provided to rumprun and see it working:

Running nginx on your tun network

Feel free to kill your QEMU when you're done.

4. Putting our static site into the nginx guest.

The files used in nginx for the static site are in ./images/data/www (and the config files for nginx are in ./images/data/conf). Simply replace www's files with what you would like. If you're looking for a static site generator many great options exist such as Sculpin or Jekyll.

Now all you need to do to see new content is to re-launch the service using rumprun. NOTE: you should not modify the file system image while the guest is running, so pick a different image name if building a new one.

If you have issues reconnecting, double check that you haven't lost your tap0 device when you killed your emulator. It may have lost its IP address or gone into a "down" state.

5. Use HTTPS

Just like a typical nginx install, nginx.conf needs to be configured for SSL, so under the server { section please add:

    listen 443 ssl;
    listen [::]:443 ssl;
    ssl_certificate /data/conf/ssl-cert.crt;
    ssl_certificate_key /data/conf/ssl-cert.key;

This is enough to get you set up with a self-signed cert if you've researched "how to generate a self-signed certificate for nginx". If you want to use this in production you will want to consult the nginx manual for more options based on your needs to avoid certificate errors. Feel free to move the certificates to a different location if you wish.

Once done, remove any build artifacts in ./build/, re-run the make command and the previous rumprun-bake step. Finally, launch with rumprun and you will be serving the site on HTTPS.

6. Go forth and be awesome

Impress your friends and colleagues with your new skills. You are able to perform all the basics needed to host your own unikernel applications based on the Rump Kernel. You'll be able to scale with server loads up and down in the blink of an eye. You also know the basics to build on more interactive things like running a PHP applications in an immutable image, or run an application without the operating system directly on hardware..

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