Configure Front End Apps With Environment Variables on Cloud Foundry

The 12 factor manifest tells us in point III that apps should retrieve their config from environment variables to strictly separate config from code. “Config” meaning everything that is likely to vary between deployments (staging, production, developer environments, etc.). Cloud Foundry allows us to do that easily using either the manifest.yml file or the cf set-env command. However, this only works for apps which have a dynamic back end. What if we want to configure a front end app that we have pushed to Cloud Foundry using the Staticfile Buildpack? These apps are, by definition, static, so they cannot read out any environment variables. Therefore, if we use this buildpack to deploy an Angular or React app, we cannot use these variables.

Luckily, our nginx (the technology which the staticfile buildpack uses) server can do so. This gave us the idea to expose the configuration through an HTTP endpoint. The nginx.conf file is parsed by Ruby before it’s being used by the buildpack to set up your nginx. So, you can use the environment variables to configure a JSON endpoint to expose the configuration to your front end app.

How To

To get our custom configuration endpoint, we’ll need to add the following block to a custom nginx.conf file residing in the root folder of our app:

<% if ENV["APP_CONFIG"] %>
location /app-config {
  default_type application/json;
  return 200 '<%= ENV["APP_CONFIG"] %>';
<% end %>

This will add an endpoint /app-config which exposes your configuration as JSON if the environment variable APP_CONFIG exists. If it doesn’t exist, the endpoint won’t be exposed at all.

If you don’t have a custom nginx.conf yet, you can use this sample one, which already includes the above code:

worker_processes 1;
daemon off;

error_log <%= ENV["APP_ROOT"] %>/nginx/logs/error.log;
events { worker_connections 1024; }

http {
  charset utf-8;
  log_format cloudfoundry '$http_x_forwarded_for - $http_referer - [$time_local] "$request" $status $body_bytes_sent';
  access_log <%= ENV["APP_ROOT"] %>/nginx/logs/access.log cloudfoundry;
  default_type application/octet-stream;
  include mime.types;
  sendfile on;

  gzip on;
  gzip_disable "msie6";
  gzip_comp_level 6;
  gzip_min_length 1100;
  gzip_buffers 16 8k;
  gzip_proxied any;
  gunzip on;
  gzip_static always;
  gzip_types text/plain text/css text/js text/xml text/javascript application/javascript application/x-javascript application/json application/xml application/xml+rss;
  gzip_vary on;

  tcp_nopush on;
  keepalive_timeout 30;
  port_in_redirect off; # Ensure that redirects don't include the internal container PORT - <%= ENV["PORT"] %>
  server_tokens off;

  server {
    listen <%= ENV["PORT"] %>;
    server_name localhost;

    location / {
      root <%= ENV["APP_ROOT"] %>/public;

      index index.html index.htm Default.htm;

      <% if ENV["FORCE_HTTPS"] %>
        if ($http_x_forwarded_proto != "https") {
          return 301 https://$host$request_uri;
      <% end %>

      <% if ENV["APP_CONFIG"] %>
      location /app-config {
        default_type application/json;
        return 200 '<%= ENV["APP_CONFIG"] %>';
      <% end %>


This config will work with the staticfile buildpack, but disables some optional configurations of it. To add these back, you’ll have to adjust the above code accordingly.

Now push your app with cf push and set the APP_CONFIG environment variable to some JSON string with the following command:

$ cf push <app-name>
$ cf set-env <app-name> APP_CONFIG '{"apiUrl":""}'

Now restage your app, as suggested, with:

$ cf restage <app-name>

If you visit the /app-config endpoint of your app, it should return the specified JSON. Your front end app can now retrieve its config dynamically from that endpoint. You might have a fallback for all of these config items for local development if you use something like the webpack-dev-serer. Of course, you can also configure your dev server to expose the same endpoint and create a development config for that.

Use Cases

You can use this method to configure different environments your app might be running in. E.g., you might use a different API server for your integration environment than for your production environment.

Alternatively, you could use it to toggle feature flags dynamically to do A/B testing or a canary release.

I’m sure there are many more use cases, but the main thing is, that this method allows you to have the single build job and then deploy that build to many environments.

Many thanks to Mathis Kretz for the inspiration for this post!