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These instructions assume Debian Squeeze or Ubuntu 10.04 LTS. Install instructions for OS X are under development. Debian Squeeze is the best supported deployment platform.

Commands are intended to be run via the terminal or over ssh.

As an aid to evaluation, there is an Amazon AMI with all these steps configured. It is not production-ready.

Get Alaveteli

To start with, you may need to install git, e.g. with sudo apt-get install git-core

Next, get hold of the Alaveteli source code from github:

git clone
cd alaveteli

This will get the development branch, which has the latest (possibly buggy) code. If you don't want to add or try new features, swap to the master branch (which always contains the latest stable release):

git checkout master

Install system dependencies

These are packages that the software depends on: third-party software used to parse documents, host the site, etc. There are also packages that contain headers necessary to compile some of the gem dependencies in the next step.

If you are running Debian, add the following repositories to /etc/apt/sources.list and run apt-get update:

deb squeeze main
deb testing main non-free contrib

The repositories above allow us to install the packages wkthmltopdf-static and bundler using apt; so if you're running Ubuntu, you won't be able to use the above repositories, and you will need to comment out those two lines in config/packages before following the next step (and install bundler manually).

Now install the packages that are listed in config/packages using apt-get e.g.:

sudo apt-get install `cut -d " " -f 1 config/packages | grep -v "^#"`

Some of the files also have a version number listed in config/packages

  • check that you have appropriate versions installed. Some also list "|" and offer a choice of packages.

Install Ruby dependencies

Install rubygems 1.6.2 (we're not using the Debian package because we need an older version; see "Troubleshooting" below for an explanation):

wget -O /tmp/rubygems-1.6.2.tgz
tar zxvf /tmp/rubygems-1.6.2.tgz -C /tmp/
sudo ruby1.8 /tmp/rubygems-1.6.2/setup.rb

To install Alaveteli's Ruby dependencies, we also need to install bundler. In Debian, this is provided as a package (installed as part of the package install process above). You could also install it as a gem:

sudo gem1.8 install bundler

Install mySociety libraries

You will also want to install mySociety's common ruby libraries and the Rails code. Run:

git submodule update --init

to fetch the contents of the submodules.

Packages customised by mySociety

Debian users should add the mySociety debian archive to their /etc/apt/sources.list as described above. Doing this and following the above instructions should install a couple of custom dependencies. Users of other platforms can optionally install these dependencies manually, as follows:

  1. If you would like users to be able to download pretty PDFs as part of the downloadable zipfile of their request history, you should install wkhtmltopdf. We recommend downloading the latest, statically compiled version from the project website, as this allows running headless (i.e. without a graphical interface running) on Linux. If you do install wkhtmltopdf, you need to edit a setting in the config file to point to it (see below). If you don't install it, everything will still work, but users will get ugly, plain text versions of their requests when they download them.

  2. Version 1.44 of pdftk contains a bug which makes it to loop forever in certain edge conditions. Until it's incorporated into an official release, you can either hope you don't encounter the bug (it ties up a rails process until you kill it) you'll need to patch it yourself or use the Debian package compiled by mySociety (see link in issue 305)

Configure Database

There has been a little work done in trying to make the code work with other databases (e.g. SQLite), but the currently supported database is PostgreSQL.

If you don't have it installed:

apt-get install postgresql postgresql-client

Now we need to set up the database config file to contain the name, username and password of your postgres database.

  • copy database.yml-example to database.yml in alaveteli/config
  • edit it to point to your local postgresql database in the development and test sections and create the databases:

Make sure that the user specified in database.yml exists, and has full permissions on these databases. As they need the ability to turn off constraints whilst running the tests they also need to be a superuser. (See

You can create a foi user from the command line, thus:

# su - postgres
$ createuser -s -P foi

And you can create a database thus:

$ createdb -T template0 -E SQL_ASCII -O foi foi_production
$ createdb -T template0 -E SQL_ASCII -O foi foi_test
$ createdb -T template0 -E SQL_ASCII -O foi foi_development

We create using the SQL_ASCII encoding, because in postgres this is means "no encoding"; and because we handle and store all kinds of data that may not be valid UTF (for example, data originating from various broken email clients that's not 8-bit clean), it's safer to be able to store anything, than reject data at runtime.

Configure email

You will need to set up an email server (MTA) to send and receive emails. Full configuration for an MTA is beyond the scope of this document, though we describe an example configuration for Exim in


If you just want to get the tests to pass, you will at a minimum need to allow sending emails via a sendmail command (a requirement met, for example, with sudo apt-get install exim4).


When an authority receives an email, the email's reply-to field is a magic address which is parsed and consumed by the Rails app.

To receive such email in a production setup, you will need to configure your MTA to pipe incoming emails to the Alaveteli script script/mailin. Therefore, you will need to configure your MTA to accept emails to magic addresses, and to pipe such emails to this script.

Magic email addresses are of the form:


The respective parts of this address are controlled with options in config/general.yml, thus:


When you set up your MTA, note that if there is some error inside Rails, the email is returned with an exit code 75, which for Exim at least means the MTA will try again later. Additionally, a stacktrace is emailed to CONTACT_EMAIL. describes one possible configuration for Exim (>= 1.9).

A well-configured installation of this code will separately have had Exim make a backup copy of the email in a separate mailbox, just in case.

Set up configs

Copy config/general.yml-example to config/general.yml and edit to your taste.

Note that the default settings for frontpage examples are designed to work with the dummy data shipped with Alaveteli; once you have real data, you should certainly edit these.

The default theme is the "Alaveteli" theme. When you run rails-post-deploy (see below), that theme gets installed automatically.

You'll also want to copy config/memcached.yml-example to config/memcached.yml. The application is configured, via the Interlock Rails plugin, to cache content using memcached. You probably don't want this in your development profile; the example memcached.yml file disables this behaviour.


In the 'alaveteli' directory, run:


(This will need execute privs so chmod 755 if necessary.) This sets up directory structures, creates logs, installs/updates themes, runs database migrations, etc. You should run it after each new software update.

One of the things the script does is install dependencies (using bundle install). Note that the first time you run it, part of the bundle install that compiles xapian-full takes a long time!

If you want some dummy data to play with, you can try loading the fixtures that the test suite uses into your development database. You can do this with:


Next we need to create the index for the search engine (Xapian):


If this fails, the site should still mostly run, but it's a core component so you should really try to get this working.

Run the Tests

Make sure everything looks OK:

bundle exec rake spec

If there are failures here, something has gone wrong with the preceding steps (see the next section for a common problem and workaround). You might be able to move on to the next step, depending on how serious they are, but ideally you should try to find out what's gone wrong.

glibc bug workaround

There's a bug in glibc which causes Xapian to segfault when running the tests. Although the bug report linked to claims it's fixed in the current Debian stable, it's not as of version 2.11.3-2.

Until it's fixed (e.g. libc6 2.13-26 does work), you can get the tests to pass by setting export LD_PRELOAD=/lib/

Run the Server

Run the following to get the server running:

./script/server  --environment=development

By default the server listens on all interfaces. You can restrict it to the localhost interface by adding --binding=

The server should have told you the URL to access in your browser to see the site in action.

Administrator privileges

The administrative interface is at the URL /admin.

Only users with the super admin level can access the admin interface. Users create their own accounts in the usual way, and then administrators can give them super privileges.

There is an emergency user account which can be accessed via /admin?emergency=1, using the credentials ADMIN_USERNAME and ADMIN_PASSWORD, which are set in general.yml. To bootstrap the first super level accounts, you will need to log in as the emergency user.

Users with the superuser role also have extra privileges in the website frontend, such as being able to categorise any request, being able to view items that have been hidden from the search, and being presented with "admin" links next to individual requests and comments in the front end.

It is possible completely to override the administrator authentication by setting SKIP_ADMIN_AUTH to true in general.yml.

Cron jobs

config/crontab.ugly contains the cronjobs run on WhatDoTheyKnow. It's in a strange templating format they use in mySociety. mySociety render the "ugly" file to reference absolute paths, and then drop it in /etc/cron.d/ on the server.

The ugly format uses simple variable substitution. A variable looks like !!(*= $this *)!!. The variables are:

  • vhost: part of the path to the directory where the software is served from. In the mySociety files, it usually comes as /data/vhost/!!(*= $vhost *)!! -- you should replace that whole port with a path to the directory where your Alaveteli software installation lives, e.g. /var/www/
  • vcspath: the name of the alaveteli checkout, e.g. alaveteli. Thus, /data/vhost/!!(*= $vhost *)!!/!!(*= $vcspath *)!! might be replaced with /var/www/alaveteli in your cron tab
  • user: the user that the software runs as
  • site: a string to identify your alaveteli instance

There is a dumb python script at script/make-crontab which you can edit and run to do some basic substitution for you.

One of the cron jobs refers to a script at /etc/init.d/foi-alert-tracks. This is an init script, a copy of which lives in config/alert-tracks-debian.ugly. As with the cron jobs above, replace the variables (and/or bits near the variables) with paths to your software. config/purge-varnish-debian.ugly is a similar init script, which is optional and not required if you choose not to run your site behind Varnish (see below).

The cron jobs refer to a program run-with-lockfile. See this issue for a discussion of where to find this program, and how you might replace it.

Set up production web server

It is not recommended to run the website using the default Rails web server. There are various recommendations here:

We usually use Passenger / mod_rails. The file at conf/httpd.conf contains the WhatDoTheyKnow settings. At a minimum, you should include the following in an Apache configuration file:

PassengerResolveSymlinksInDocumentRoot on
PassengerMaxPoolSize 6 # Recommend setting this to 3 or less on servers with 512MB RAM

Under all but light loads, it is strongly recommended to run the server behind an http accelerator like Varnish. A sample varnish VCL is supplied in ../conf/varnish-alaveteli.vcl.

Some production server best practice notes are evolving on the wiki.

Upgrading Alaveteli

The developer team policy is that the master branch in git should always contain the latest stable release. Therefore, in production, you should usually have your software deployed from the master branch, and an upgrade can be simply git pull.

Patch version increases (e.g. 1.2.3 -> 1.2.4) should not require any further action on your part.

Minor version increases (e.g. 1.2.4 -> 1.3.0) will usually require further action. You should read the document to see what's changed since your last deployment, paying special attention to anything in the "Updgrading" sections.

Any upgrade may include new translations strings, i.e. new or altered messages to the user that need translating to your locale. You should visit Transifex and try to get your translation up to 100% on each new release. Failure to do so means that any new words added to the Alaveteli source code will appear in your website in English by default. If your translations didn't make it to the latest release, you will need to download the updated app.po for your locale from Transifex and save it in the locales/ folder.

You should always run the script scripts/rails-post-deploy after each deployment. This runs any database migrations for you, plus various other things that can be automated for deployment.


  • Incoming emails aren't appearing in my Alaveteli install

    First, you need to check that your MTA is delivering relevant incoming emails to the script/mailin command. There are various ways of setting your MTA up to do this; we have documented one way of doing it in Exim at doc/INSTALL-exim4.conf, including a command you can use to check that the email routing is set up correctly.

    Second, you need to test that the mailin script itself is working correctly, by running it from the command line, First, find a valid "To" address for a request in your system. You can do this through your site's admin interface, or from the command line, like so:

    $ ./script/console
    Loading development environment (Rails 2.3.14)
    >> InfoRequest.find_by_url_title("why_do_you_have_such_a_fancy_dog").incoming_email
    => "request-101-50929748@localhost"

    Now take the source of a valid email (there are some sample emails in spec/fixtures/files/); edit the To: header to match this address; and then pipe it through the mailin script. A non-zero exit code means there was a problem. For example:

    $ cp spec/fixtures/files/ /tmp/
    $ perl -pi -e 's/^To:.*/To: <request-101-50929748@localhost>/' /tmp/
    $ ./script/mailin < /tmp/
    $ echo $?

    The mailin script emails the details of any errors to CONTACT_EMAIL (from your general.yml file). A common problem is for the user that the MTA runs as not to have write access to files/raw_emails/.

  • Various tests fail with "Your PostgreSQL connection does not support unescape_bytea. Try upgrading to pg 0.9.0 or later."

    You have an old version of pg, the ruby postgres driver. In Ubuntu, for example, this is provided by the package libdbd-pg-ruby.

    Try upgrading your system's pg installation, or installing the pg gem with gem install pg

  • Some of the tests relating to mail are failing, with messages like "when using TMail should load an email with funny MIME settings' FAILED"

    This sounds like the tests are running using the production environment, rather than the test environment, for some reason.

  • Non-ASCII characters are being displayed as asterisks in my incoming messages

    We rely on elinks to convert HTML email to plain text. Normally, the encoding should just work, but under some circumstances it appears that elinks ignores the parameters passed to it from Alaveteli.

    To force elinks always to treat input as UTF8, add the following to /etc/elinks/elinks.conf:

    set document.codepage.assume = "utf-8"
    set document.codepage.force_assumed = 1

    You should also check that your locale is set up correctly. See for further discussion.

  • I'm getting lots of is deprecated errors when running the tests

    The latest versions of rubygems contain a large number of noisy deprecation warnings that you can't turn off individually. Rails 2.x isn't under active development so isn't going to get fixed (in the sense of using a non-deprecated API). So the only vaguely sensible way to avoid this noisy output is to downgrade rubygems.

    For example, you might do this by uninstalling your system-packaged rubygems, and then installing the latest rubygems from source, and finally executing sudo gem update --system 1.6.2.

  • **I'm seeing rake: command not found when running the post install script

    The script uses rake.

    It may be that the binaries installed by bundler are not put in the system PATH; therefore, in order to run rake (needed for deployments), you may need to do something like:

    ln -s /usr/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/bin/rake /usr/local/bin/
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