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Bye Bye Heroku, Hello Dokku: Migrating a Rails App from Heroku to Dokku (Part 1)

Posted on November 17, 2014

Heroku, a cloud platform as a service (PaaS), makes it so easy deploy a web app. For Body Boss, our SaaS product built with Ruby on Rails, Heroku allowed us to focus on building the product, not on DevOps. The only downside for us was that Heroku is expensive as you scale. We were spending about $150 / mo using about 4 web dynos and the following add-ons:

Also, the app uses Sidekiq for processing background jobs.

The time had come to say good-bye to Heroku. We weren’t actively developing new features or pursuing new customers, so minimizing costs became a priority.

Moving to a cheaper cloud hosting service made sense, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to give DigitalOcean a try. They offer plans that are extremely affordable at $5 / mo, and it’s super easy to set up.

Now all I needed was a was an easy way to deploy the app. I wanted a Heroku-like experience. Enter Dokku. Dokku’s describes itself as a “Docker powered mini-Heroku in around 100 lines of Bash”, and for the most part, it delivers. It is still rough around the edges in some areas, and I definitely felt the pain of those edges.

Below is a walkthrough how I made the switch. I’ve included the errors/issues that I ran into and solutions in case you run into similar issues.

Register Domain and Set Nameservers

First things first, register a domain and setup your nameservers to point to your DNS provider of choice. I use and recommend Namecheap and DNSimple respectively.

Note: You can get away with not setting up a domain since your Dokku-deployed app will be accessible via an IP address and port. However, I ran into issues with deployment and accessing my app (502 Gateway errors), and since I wasn’t familiar with Dokku, I spent far too much time incorrectly believing that the issue stemmed from the fact that I didn’t have an actual domain.

Create your DigitalOcean Droplet

Login to or create a DigitalOcean account. Create a Droplet. I made sure that the Droplet hostname matched my DNS, and I chose the 1 GB plan since the app can be memory intensive when running background jobs:

Select your region. Skip over the Available Settings. Under Select Image, choose the Dokku option under the Applications. As of this writing, it is Dokku v0.2.3 on 14.04 (w/ Docker 1.2.0).

Last step on this page is to add your computer’s SSH key, so you can easily log in. Finally, click Create Droplet.

Configuring your Server and Updating Dokku

Once your droplet has been successfully created, SSH into it your server from you client machine:

ssh root@yourdomain.com

Once logged into your server, update Dokku to the lastest version:

cd ~/dokku
git pull origin master
make install

Dokku uses Buildstep to build applications using Heroku’s buildpacks. To avoid any build errors when deploying, update Buildstep to use the supported buildpacks:

docker pull progrium/buildstep:latest

One of the first issues that I ran into was “out of memory” errors when installing gems during the app deployment. To avoid this, add swap space to your server. I followed the instructions here. Here are the basic steps:

dd if=/dev/zero of=/swapfile bs=1024 count=1024000
mkswap /swapfile
swapon /swapfile

Deploying your App

From your client machine, navigate to your app’s project folder and add Dokku as a repo:

git remote add dokku dokku@yourdomain.com:appname

Then deploy your app like you would with Heroku:

git push dokku master

If you want to push a non-master branch to test things out, switch to that branch and run:

git push dokku branchname:master

If the app fails to deploy, and it’s not immediately clear why, hope over to your server and create a file /home/dokku/dokkurc that contains the following:

export DOKKU_TRACE=1

If your app successfully deployed, it’s time to install ALL the plugins!

Installing Dokku Plugins

Dokku offers plugins that serve as replacements to Heroku add-ons. Some plugins require the app to be deployed before being able to complete installation. For Body Boss, I installed the Dokku plugins for Postgres, Redis, Elasticsearch, Memcached, and Sidekiq:

cd /var/lib/dokku/plugins
git clone https://github.com/Kloadut/dokku-pg-plugin postgresql
git clone https://github.com/luxifer/dokku-redis-plugin redis
git clone https://github.com/bigboxsoftware/dokku-sidekiq sidekiq
git clone https://github.com/rlaneve/dokku-link.git link
git clone https://github.com/jlachowski/dokku-memcached-plugin memcached
git clone https://github.com/jezdez/dokku-elasticsearch-plugin elasticsearch
dokku plugins-install

Note: I initially attempted to install the memcached plugin with the dokku-link plugin, but I received an error: Link plugin not found... Did you install it from https://github.com/rlaneve/dokku-link?


Once the plugins have been installed, create the Postgres database and link it to your app.

dokku postgresql:create dbname
dokku postgresql:link dbname appname

Finally, migrate the database:

dokku run appname bundle exec rake db:migrate


Create your Redis container and link the app to the container. The should set a REDIS_URL environment variable as an application environment variable:

dokku redis:create containername
dokku redis:link containername appname

If you run into issues (like I did) with the Redis plugin not setting the REDIS_URL environment variable, you can do it manually:

dokku redis:info containername

       Public port: 43191

Copy the Host IP address and append the standard 6379 port for Redis. Set the REDIS_URL environment variable for your app:

dokku config:set appname REDIS_URL=redis://


Create your Elasticsearch container and link the app to the container. The should set a ELASTICSEARCH_URL environment variable as an application environment variable:

dokku elasticsearch:create containername
dokku elasticsearch:link containername appname

Like Redis, if you run into issues the ELASTICSEARCH_URL environment variable not being set, you can do it manually:

dokku elasticsearch:info containername

       Private ports: 9200, 9300

Copy the Host IP address and append the standard 9200 port for Elasticsearch. Set the ELASTICSEARCH_URL environment variable for your app:

dokku config:set appname ELASTICSEARCH_URL=


Setting up Memcached was a bit different for me since I had to setup the app to use a MEMCACHED_URL environment variable.

dokku memcached:create containername
dokku memcached:info containername

       Secret port: 11211

Set the MEMCACHED_URL environment variable:

dokku config:set appname MEMCACHED_URL=

Update the Rails app’s production configuration to use the MEMCACHED_URL environment variable:

# config/environments/production.rb

config.action_dispatch.rack_cache = {
  :metastore    => Dalli::Client.new(ENV['MEMCACHED_URL']),
  :entitystore  => 'file:tmp/cache/rack/body',
  :allow_reload => false

config.cache_store = :dalli_store, ENV['MEMCACHED_URL']


Sidekiq was the easiest to setup:

dokku sidekiq:activate appname

Redeploy the App

If you’ve made it this far, then you are getting close! If you’ve made any changes to your app, make sure to push it again:

git push dokku master

If you have not made changes, just release and re-deploy the app:

dokku release appname
dokku deploy appname

You should be able to access your app via the URL provided by Dokku - http://appname.yourdomain.com.

In my next post, I’ll show you how to setup SSL/TLS and migrate your data from Heroku to your brand new Dokku-deployed DigitalOcean-powered app!



Hi, I'm Don Pottinger.

I love building things with computers. At 10 years old, I wrote my first program using BASIC. I built my first computer when I was 12 years old.

I graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology with a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering. I have a background as a technology consultant and software engineer.

Now, I'm a Customer Engineer at Google.

Also, I'm the founder and CEO of Lytham Labs. Lytham Labs helps businesses sell more with marketing automation, predictive analytics, and artificial intelligence tools. My primary product, Kevy, is a marketing automation platform for eCommerce retailers.

I live in Atlanta with my amazing wife and kids. For fun, I play too much soccer and follow my favorite clubs, FC Barcelona and Arsenal F.C.

My CV so far

  • Cloud Engineer at Google (2019 - Present)
  • Founder and CEO at Kevy (2014 - Present)
  • Co-founder and Head of Technical Development of Body Boss Fitness (2010 - Present)
  • Engineering Manager and Software Engineer at Big Nerd Ranch (2012 - 2014)
  • IT and Management Consultant for Accenture and Slalom Consulting (2008 - 2012)
  • Graduate of Georgia Tech with BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering (2008)

Facts About Me

  • I was born in Jamaica and raised in the United States.
  • I speak English, Spanish and Jamaican Patois.
  • I love to travel. So far, I've visited Peru, Argentina, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Greece, France, Italy, Canada, Jamaica, Hawaii, Mexico and England.