Eclipse Deployment: Part 3 - Configuring AWS Elastic Beanstalk

Now that you know the basics about creating AWS Java web applications and deploying them using the AWS Toolkit for Eclipse, let's talk about some of the ways you can control how your environment runs.

AWS Elastic Beanstalk provides several easy ways to configure different features of your environment. The first mechanism we'll look at for controlling how your environment runs is your environment's configuration. These are properties set through the Elastic Beanstalk API that let you control different operational parameters of your environment, such as load balancer behavior and auto scaling strategies. The second mechanism we'll look at is Elastic Beanstalk extension config files that are included as files in your deployed application. These configuration files allow you to customize additional software installed on your EC2 instances, as well as create and configure AWS resources that your application requires.

We'll start off by covering some of the most common options, which are presented in the second page of the wizard when you create a new Elastic Beanstalk environment through Eclipse.

Shell Access

If you want to be able to remotely log into a shell on the EC2 instances running your application, then you'll need to make sure you launch your environment with an Amazon EC2 key pair. The EC2 key pair can be created and managed through Eclipse or any of the other AWS tools, and allows you to securely log into any EC2 instances launched with that key pair. To connect to an instance from Eclipse, find your instance in the EC2 Instances view, right-click to bring up the context menu and select Open Shell. If Eclipse knows the private key for that instance's key pair, then you'll see a command prompt open up.

CNAMEs

The default URL for your application running on AWS Elastic Beanstalk probably isn't something that your customers will be able to easily remember. You can add another abstraction layer by creating a CNAME record that points to your application's URL. You can set up that CNAME record with Amazon Route 53 (Amazon's DNS web service), or with any other DNS provider. This allows you to host your application under any domain you own. You can find more details on CNAMEs in the Elastic Beanstalk Developer Guide. This CNAME not only gives your application a more friendly URL, but it also provides an important abstraction that allows you to deploy new versions of your application with zero downtime by launching a new environment with your new application version and flipping the CNAME record over to the new environment's URL after you've confirmed it's ready for production traffic. You can read more about this technique in the Elastic Beanstalk Developer's Guide.

Notifications

AWS Elastic Beanstalk uses the Amazon Simple Notification Service (Amazon SNS) to notify you of important events affecting your application, such as environment status changes. To enable Amazon SNS notifications, simply enter your email address in the Email Address text box under Notifications on the Configuration tab inside the Toolkit for Eclipse.

SSL Certificate

If your application deals with sensitive customer information, then you'll probably want to configure an SSL cert for your load balancer so that all data between your customers and your environment's load balancer is encrypted. To do this, you'll need a certificate from an external certificate authority such as VeriSign or Entrust. Once you register the the certificate with the AWS Identity and Access Management service, you can enter the certificate's ID here to tell Elastic Beanstalk to configure your load balancer for SSL with your certificate.

Health Check URL

Your Elastic Beanstalk environment attempts to monitor the health of your application through the configured health check URL. By default Elastic Beanstalk will attempt to check the health of your application by testing a TCP connection on port 80. This is a very basic health check, and you can easily override this with your own custom health check. For example, you might create a custom health check page that will do some very basic tests of your application's health. Be careful that you make this health check page very simply though, since this check will be run often (the interval is configurable). If you want to do more in depth health checking, you might have a separate thread in your application that reports health status such as checking for DB connection health, and then simply have your health check page report that status. If one of the hosts in your environment starts failing health checks, it will automatically be removed from your environment so that it doesn't serve bad results to customers. The exact parameters on how these checks are run are configurable through the environment configuration editor that we'll see shortly.

Incremental Deployment

The Incremental Deployment option (enabled by default), only affects how Eclipse uploads new application versions to Elastic Beanstalk, but it's a neat option worth pointing out here. When you use incremental deployment, Eclipse will only push the delta of your most recent changes to AWS Elastic Beanstalk, instead of pushing every file in your whole application. Under the covers, Eclipse and Elastic Beanstalk are actually using the Git protocol to upload file deltas, and the end result is very fast application deployments for small changes after you've gone through a full push initially.

After you've started your environment, you can modify any of these configuration options, and many more, by double-clicking on your Elastic Beanstalk environment in Eclipse's Servers view to open the Environment Configuration Editor. From here you can access dozens of settings to fine tune how your environment runs. Note that some of these options will require stopping and restarting your environment (such as changing the Amazon EC2 instance type your environment uses).

From the environment configuration editor you have access to dozens of additional options for controlling how your environment runs. The Configuration tab in the editor shows you the most common options, such as EC2 key pairs, auto scaling and load balancing parameters, and specific Java container options such as JVM settings and Java system properties.

The Advanced tab in the environment configuration editor has a complete list of every possible option for your environment, but for the vast majority of use cases, you shouldn't need more than the Configuration tab.

Elastic Beanstalk Extension Config Files

We've seen how to manipulate operational settings that control how your environment runs by updating an environment's configuration. These settings are all updated by tools working directly with the Elastic Beanstalk API to change these settings. The second way to customize your environment is through Elastic Beanstalk extension config files. These files live inside your project and get deployed with your application. They customize your environment in larger ways than the very specific settings we saw earlier.

These extension config files allow you to customize the additional software available on the EC2 instances running your application. For example, your application might want to use the Amazon CloudWatch monitoring scripts to upload custom CloudWatch metrics. You can use these extension config files to specify that the Amazon CloudWatch monitoring scripts be installed on any EC2 instance that comes up as part of your environment, then your application code will be able to access them.

You can also use these Elastic Beanstalk extension config files to create and configure AWS resources that your application will need. For example, if your application requires an Amazon SQS queue, you could declare it in your extension config file and even create an alarm on queue depth to notify you if your application gets behind on processing messages in the queue. The AWS Elastic Beanstalk Developer Guide goes into a lot more detail, and examples, demonstrating how to configure AWS resources with extension config files.

That completes our tour of the different ways you can customize your Elastic Beanstalk environments. One of the great strengths of Elastic Beanstalk is that you can simply drop in your application and not worry about customization, but if you do want to customize, you have a wealth of different ways to configure your environment to run the way you need it to for your application. What kinds of customization settings have you tried for your Elastic Beanstalk environments? Let us know the comments below!

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