Elixir Runtime Configuration

18 November 2017

tldr: Don’t want to configure / learn a new external library just to use a dang environment variable in your release? This is for you: skip to the Solution section.


You’ve started your first Elixir web application; it’s functional and fast and delightful and you’re ready to deploy. The Internet suggests you always build a release for production using Distillery (they’re right btw because Distillery is awesome). It seems to be going smoothly but your environment variable configuration does not work quite as expected. You return to the docs and notice this section outlining your problem. It helpfully offers a few solutions:

Both options are great solutions. However, you’ve already spent time learning and adding one additional tool (Distillery) in order to build a release. If it’s a side project, or a small tool for work adding an industrial grade library or taking time to learn what a vm.args file is seems out of reach. These feelings are valid; you just want it to work. If this sounds familiar then you’re in the right place.


Good news! It is possible to use the Application start function to load environment variables into the Application config. IMPORTANT CAVEAT FROM THAT DOCUMENTATION:

Keep in mind that each application is responsible for its environment. Do not use the functions in this module for directly accessing or modifying the environment of other applications (as it may lead to inconsistent data in the application environment).

The steps:

  1. Find your Application’s Application
  2. Add runtime configuration to the start/2 function
  3. ??? (refactor probably)
  4. profit

Find your Application’s Application

In a Phoenix Application or Mix Application generated with --sup look for: .lib/application_name/application.ex

In an umbrella application, each Application should be responsible for its own config.

In a project you built yourself a week ago that has no discernible file structure because you were curious (yes we all do this): it is whatever the mod atom references in your mix.exs application function. (eg: mod: {Bananas.Application, []} means you should find the Bananans.Application module)

Add Runtime Configuration

There are two key parts to this step:

Locate the start function and add a line like Application.put_env(:some_app, :port, System.get_env("PORT"))

Where :some_app is the name of the Application you’re using the variable in, and :port is what you’d like the variable named in Elixir land.

Now you may use Application.get_env(:some_app, :port) wherever you need to use the value of the PORT environment variable. It is generally a good idea to put defaults in the config file to at least document what environment vars you’re expecting and depending on.

You may also do any sort of parsing on the loaded variable (since System.get_env/1 will return a string). For instance if you need to coerce it into an Integer or split it on , you can do that before putting the variable in the Application env. Don’t get too fancy though.

??? (refactor probably)

The solution above will work when you have only a few environment variables, but as an application grows (and it will grow) it will require better ways to manage complexity. One possibility is extracting the configuration to a module and then calling the appropriate function for the Application from start. This also gives us a place to raise errors and keep the application from starting if an environment variable is missing.

defmodule MyApp.Configuration
  def build(:my_app = app_name) do
    Application.put_env(app_name, :port, get_port_var())

  def build(:some_other_app = app_name) do
    Application.put_env(app_name, :var_1, System.get_env("VAR1"))

  defp get_port_var do
    |> System.get_env
    |> String.to_integer

And use it in the Application start function:

  def start(_type, _args) do

    children = [
      # ...

    opts = [strategy: :one_for_one, name: MyApp.Supervisor]
    Supervisor.start_link(children, opts)


Is this a viable longterm solution? The answer to that depends. You can benefit from less cognitive overhead and inital effort using this method; it’s just plain Elixir. However, the cost of configuration may become unwieldy later down the road.