Exploring Digital Ocean and Dokku

I recently needed to host two websites: one using node.js and one a Ruby on Rails site. I do have an account with bluehost, although setting up recent node and Rails sites on bluehost is something I’ve attempted in the past, and it was rather difficult.

Instead, I gave heroku at go. It went quite well, I was particularly pleased at the deployment process. However, I could see that the prices could quickly build up, particularly as I needed at database and potentially a number of other add-ons. I had a look around for other options, and I found a list of cloud services for Rails, ranging from Platform as a Service (PaaS) to Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).

I liked the look of the Digital Ocean (DO) droplet pricing ($10/month for a 30GB SSD with 1GB RAM). I then quickly found Dokku:

The smallest PaaS implementation you’ve ever seen

Docker powered mini-Heroku in around 200 lines of Bash

I thought I’d give it a go, and I’ve been quickly hooked. There are quite a few blog posts about setting up Dokku on Digital Ocean. Some of the ones I made use of are:

Here’s my take, from a new DO droplet to a running server with deployed applications.


In this tutorial


Indicates the command is to be run on the local machine, while


means the command is to be run on the droplet.


Let’s get going! Keep the Dokku documentation handy, you’ll most likely want to consult it at some point.

  1. Launch a DO droplet with Dokku and Ubuntu 14.04.
  2. I’d suggest making the droplet name match the domain name that will be used.
  3. Go to http://<droplet-ip>.
  4. Fill in public key with your personal public key.
  5. Set the domain name. This is recommended to be a subdomain. You don’t have to, however things will work much better if you do. An IP address makes it impossible to use sub-sub-domains. For example, I used from.anotherbyte.net.
  6. Tick Use virtualhost naming for apps only if you set a domain name.
  7. Click Finish Setup

If you choose not to use the Dokku application image from Digital Ocean, don’t forget to add your public key to Dokku.

local$ cat ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub | ssh [sudouser]@[yourdomain].com "sudo sshcommand acl-add dokku [description]"


You’ll need to set some DNS records:

  • ‘A’ record named <subdomain> with droplet IP address (e.g. from).
  • ‘A’ record named *.<subdomain> with droplet IP address (e.g. *.from).

Set up droplet

Now we can set up the droplet. These steps are a condensed version of the Digital Ocean Ubuntu set up guide.

Create a non-root user

Using the root user for everything is really not a great idea.

local$ ssh root@<droplet-ip>
$ apt-get update
$ adduser <user name>

Make sure you set a strong password for the user, and don’t lose it! You’ll need it for dokku commands.

$ gpasswd -a <user name> sudo
$ su - <user name>
$ cd ~
$ mkdir .ssh
$ chmod 700 .ssh
$ vi .ssh/authorized_keys

Add your personal public key to the authorized_keys file.

$ chmod 600 .ssh/authorized_keys
$ exit

Disable password and root login by editing ssh config

It is better if root is not allowed to log in at all.

$ vi /etc/ssh/sshd_config

Disable password logins and root login by changing these lines:

PasswordAuthentication no
PermitRootLogin no

Restart the ssh service so the changes take effect

$ service ssh restart

Check that <user name> can log in before exiting the ssh session. Keep the root session open until you confirm that you can run sudo.

Start a new console session and log in as the new user:

local$ ssh <user name>@<droplet-ip or host name>
$ sudo apt-get update
$ sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

If that works, exit the root ssh session.

Configure firewall

Ensure ssh logins are allowed

$ sudo ufw allow ssh

Also allow ports 80 (http) and 443 (https) for web traffic

$ sudo ufw allow 80/tcp
$ sudo ufw allow 443/tcp

Check the exceptions

$ sudo ufw show added

Enable the firewall

$ sudo ufw enable

Configure Time

Set time zone by following the instructions to choose your timezone

$ sudo dpkg-reconfigure tzdata

Install NTP sync so the system clock stays at the correct time

$ sudo apt-get install ntp

Create a swapfile

There may not be one in the Ubuntu droplet, which I found odd.

$ sudo fallocate -l <RAM x 2>G /swapfile
$ sudo chmod 600 /swapfile
$ sudo mkswap /swapfile
$ sudo swapon /swapfile
$ sudo sh -c 'echo "/swapfile none swap sw 0 0" >> /etc/fstab'

Set host name

If the droplet’s host name is the same as the domain name, there is nothing to do.

Otherwise, these tutorials might be helpful:


Now to deploy an application to dokku! For example:

local$ mkdir ~/projects
local$ cd  ~/projects
local$ git clone <git url>
local$ cd ./<application name>

You’ll need to set a new git remote.

local$ git remote -v
local$ git remote add dokku dokku@<subdomain>:<application name>
local$ git push dokku master

If the deploy was successful, have a look at the website at

http://<application name>.<subdomain>

Application setting

YOu might need to set some application settings, such a Rails secret_key_base or a database connection string. I chose to do this via environment variables. This is not my preferred method, but it was quick and simple. Set configuration vars like this:

$ dokku config:set power-outages secret_token=<long string of characters> secret_key_base=<long string of characters>

Add a database

Some applications need a database. I’m a fan of Postgres. Add the dokku postgresql plugin and create a database

$ sudo dokku plugin:install https://github.com/dokku/dokku-postgres.git postgres
$ export POSTGRES_IMAGE="postgres"
$ dokku postgres:create <application name>-db
$ dokku postgres:link <application name>-db <application name>

Then set the databse connection string as a configuration setting:

$ dokku config:set DATABASE_URL="postgres://<db user>:<db pass>@<dokku ip>:<db port>/<db name>"

For a Rails application, you may need to run migrations:

$ dokku run <application name> bundle exec rake db:migrate


There we go, from creating a Digital Ocean droplet to deploying an application.