Migrate GOV.UK to Puma

Mere hours after going on leave for the festive period, I’ve got back in the mood to do complicated tech things for fun, and the topic which came to mind is “how hard would it be to migrate GOV.UK from Unicorn (old and busted) to Puma (new hotness)?”

Not only does Puma have a much prettier website, it’s also the Rails default web server (and has been for a while). So the wider ecosystem has decided it’s a better server. Furthermore, Puma potentially solves an awkward problem we have with Unicorn: memory usage.

Unicorn runs multiple worker processes, which can each take up quite a bit of RAM. It adds up quickly if you have multiple apps running on the same server. If a process is IO bound rather than CPU bound, this means scaling is more awkward, we either have to bring up new servers, or embiggen our current ones.

Puma, on the other hand, runs multiple threads within each worker process. Threads can be very lightweight, sharing almost all of their memory. So we can pack far more threads on the same server, so long as our application is not CPU bound.

I’ve done some thinking on how we could try out Puma on GOV.UK. These steps are untested, and are based on reading old puppet code and init scripts at 2AM, so follow them at your peril. But I think it would be something like this.

Configure the app

The app needs a Puma config file. Eventually we would want something shared in govuk_app_config, but if we’re trying this out with a single app to start with, a config file in the app would do.

I think we’ll want something like this:

# frozen_string_literal: true

max_threads_count = ENV.fetch("RAILS_MAX_THREADS") { 1 }
min_threads_count = ENV.fetch("RAILS_MIN_THREADS") { max_threads_count }
threads min_threads_count, max_threads_count

port ENV.fetch("PORT") { 3000 }

environment ENV.fetch("RAILS_ENV") { "development" }

workers ENV.fetch("UNICORN_WORKER_PROCESSES") { 2 }


Puma concurrency is threads * workers. We can run Puma in the same way as we run Unicorn–configure the number of workers, but only give each 1 thread—which will let us see the performance impact of Puma by itself. We can also set workers lower and threads higher to start to get the memory savings. There’s probably some tweaking to be done.

Add Puma support to unicornherder

Our unicornherder tool is a common abstraction over Unicorn and Gunicorn. We can add Puma support to it too:

    'unicorn': 'unicorn -D -P "{pidfile}" {args}',
    'unicorn_rails': 'unicorn_rails -D {args}',
    'unicorn_bin': '{unicorn_bin} -D -P "{pidfile}" {args}',
    'gunicorn': 'gunicorn -D -p "{pidfile}" {args}',
    'gunicorn_django': 'gunicorn_django -D -p "{pidfile}" {args}',
    'gunicorn_bin': '{gunicorn_bin} -D -p "{pidfile}" {args}'
    'puma': 'pumactl start -P "{pidfile}" {args}'

There’s also some logic around restarts, waiting for the old master process to terminate its workers gracefully and then kill it. I don’t think that will do anything useful under Puma, but I don’t think it’ll cause any problems either.

Note: unicornherder sends a SIGUSR2 which, for Puma, will perform something like what we call a “deploy with hard restart”, where the old processes get killed and new ones brought up. However, the puma docs describe how things are handled gracefully:

  • Any in-flight requests get handled before the server is shut down.
  • Any requests which start just as the server restarts will experience some latency, but will not be dropped.

Since this is a full process restart, any new Ruby version will be used, and any change to the Puma config will be applied. This means we will no longer need to do a separate hard restart for Puma apps when upgrading Ruby!

Puma also offers a phased restart approach, which restarts one worker at a time, but that doesn’t reload the Puma master process, and so won’t pick up a new Ruby version or new Puma config. It’s also incompatible with the preload_app! option.

Add Puma support to govuk_spinup

The confusing initialisation of a GOV.UK app begins in a sysvinit script, …

Which calls govuk_spinup, …

Which calls start-stop-daemon, …

Which calls unicornherder, …

Which finally calls the app server.

I think the changes needed here are to govuk_spinup. We’ll need a new app type, let’s call it “puma”:

    status "Spawning rack app under puma"

    if [ ! -e '${GOVUK_APP_ROOT}/config/puma.rb' ]; then
      error "Missing Puma config file"

    CMD="bundle exec unicornherder -u puma -p '${GOVUK_APP_RUN}/app.pid' -- -C '${GOVUK_APP_ROOT}/config/puma.rb'"

There’s also a govuk_unicorn_reload script, called during deploys, but I don’t think that needs to change.

Set up monitoring for Puma apps

The govuk::app::config class in govuk-puppet defines a bunch of Icinga alerts which’ll need changing, or copying, for our new “puma” app type to be as monitored as it should be.


  # Set up monitoring
  if $app_type in ['rack', 'bare', 'procfile'] {
    $default_collectd_process_regex = $app_type ? {
      'rack' => "unicorn (master|worker\\[[0-9]+\\]).* -P ${govuk_app_run}/app\\.pid",
      'bare' => inline_template('<%= Regexp.escape(@command) + "$" -%>'),
      'procfile' => "gunicorn .* ${govuk_app_run}/app\\.pid",

And this:

  if ($app_type == 'rack') or $monitor_unicornherder {
    @@icinga::check { "check_app_${title}_unicornherder_up_${::hostname}":
      ensure              => $ensure,
      check_command       => "check_nrpe!check_proc_running_with_arg!unicornherder /var/run/${title}/app.pid",
      service_description => "${title} app unicornherder not running",
      host_name           => $::fqdn,
      notes_url           => monitoring_docs_url(unicorn-herder),
      contact_groups      => $additional_check_contact_groups,

And this:

  if $app_type == 'rack' {
    include icinga::client::check_unicorn_ruby_version
    @@icinga::check { "check_app_${title}_unicorn_ruby_version_${::hostname}":
      ensure              => $ensure,
      check_command       => "check_nrpe!check_unicorn_ruby_version!${title}",
      service_description => "${title} is not running the expected ruby version",
      host_name           => $::fqdn,
      notes_url           => monitoring_docs_url(ruby-version),
      contact_groups      => $additional_check_contact_groups,

Change the app to a Puma app

Now that we’ve got our new app type, we need to stick app_type => 'puma' in the relevant call to govuk::app elsewhere in govuk-puppet.

And that’s it!

Finally, deploy the change

Since we’re using proper init scripts with pidfile management, I think that deploying Puppet will be a graceful change:

  1. Puppet will trigger a restart of the app due to the change to its config and govuk_spinup.
  2. The init script will read the existing pidfile and stop the old Unicorn process in the usual SIGINT / SIGKILL way.
  3. The init script will start the app up with Puma via the modified govuk_spinup / unicornherder.

If not, I think the steps to deploy will be:

  1. Pause Puppet on the affected (perhaps afflicted?) machines
  2. Deploy Puppet
  3. For each machine:
    1. Manually stop the app
    2. Unpause and run Puppet