Running Fleet Without Docker


The CoreOS project is doing some very interesting work on how to build, deploy, and scale web applications. Their big focus is to keep the platform as minimal as possible, which means that everything must be run as a container. That in turn means that the stock OS doesn’t have to worry about any language runtimes or compilers, since those will be bundled with the app itself.

This all sounds amazing on paper, but Docker isn’t without its flaws, and the kind of orchestration that CoreOS recommends comes with its own complexities. However, the CoreOS team did develop one project that instantly caught my eye: fleet. I recently became interested in the potential of systemd as a web application service manager, and fleet seemed like a natural extension into the world of clustering.

Why systemd?

Every web application should be using some kind of process manager. Their most important function is automatic restart on failure, but depending on which one you use, they can have other benefits as well. However, every runtime apparently feels the need to build their own, so you have your choice between Supervisor, StrongLoop, God, Circus, Runit, Monit, and probably a good number more. As a big fan and regular user of openSUSE, my main reason for picking systemd is that it’s already installed and used to manage the operating system’s own services, so why not treat your web application as just another service? The Ubuntu equivalent is Upstart, but then you have to use Ubuntu. =)


The rest of this post assumes that you have some “remote” server to play with, and that it’s running a recent version of openSUSE (though any systemd-based Linux distribution should work with minor changes). It could be a container, virtual machine, VPS instance, or even your own colocated hardware, but you should be able to SSH into it no problem, and have root access for installing packages and running services.

A Simple Application

Let’s build a very simple web application. The language doesn’t really matter, but Go is nice for Docker-less development because it statically compiles into a single file, and can even be configured to include all static assets within the binary. The use-case for Docker becomes quite a bit stronger when using an interpreted language with a heavy runtime like Ruby or Python.

// website.go

package main

import (

func index(w http.ResponseWriter, r *http.Request) {
    w.Write([]byte("Hello, World!"))

func main() {
    http.HandleFunc("/", index)
    log.Print(" -- server is live --")
    if err := http.ListenAndServe(":8080", nil); err != nil {

Deployment will consist of compiling for Linux and scp'ing to a predetermined location. You will need to ensure that your user has write permissions to /srv/www in order for this to work:

$ env GOOS=linux go build -o website website.go
$ scp website <user>@<host>:/srv/www

Installing fleet

The fleet package isn’t in the standard set of openSUSE repositories, so we’ll have to add a new repository to install it (replace openSUSE_Leap_42.1 with your version if necessary):

$ sudo zypper ar obs://Virtualization:containers/openSUSE_Leap_42.1 containers
$ sudo zypper ref containers
$ sudo zypper in fleet etcd etcdctl

That last command actually installs three packages: fleet, etcd, and the command-line tool for interacting with etcd. etcd is a distributed key-value store, and it’s the mechanism by which fleet communicates across hosts. The etcdctl package is optional, but nice to have for communicating directly with etcd if need be.

Once those are installed, start up etcd:

$ su -c 'service etcd start'

This starts up a single-node etcd cluster listening on http://localhost:2379. The service can be configured by modifying values in /etc/sysconfig/etcd, but the default values will do fine for now.

The next thing to do is start up fleet, but unfortunately, a small config change needs to be made. Open up /etc/fleet/fleet.conf and add the following line:


Due to what appear to be historical reasons, fleet by default will attempt to connect to etcd at http://localhost:4001, but recent releases of etcd have begun defaulting to port 2379. Once that’s added, start up fleet too:

$ su -c 'service fleet start'

Verify that they’re both running with su -c 'service <service> status' before proceeding.

Tip: Install fleetctl Locally

Since the whole point of fleet is to act as a single point of entry for an application cluster, you’ll probably want to install the fleetctl command line tool to your local computer. Fleet itself only supports Linux, but you can install fleetctl anywhere (albeit with some issues on Windows).

Managing a fleet locally with fleetctl requires it to be able to access machines via SSH publickey (password-based authentication won’t work), so you’ll need to add your local user’s public SSH key to your remote user’s ~/.ssh/authorized_keys file.

Once it’s installed and your public key is configured, test your connection like so:

$ fleetctl --tunnel=<remote-ip> --ssh-username=<remote-username> \
    --endpoint=http://localhost:2379 list-machines
17d98101...	-

The --tunnel option lets you run commands locally as if you were running them from <remote-ip>, --ssh-username specifies which user to SSH in as, and --endpoint specifies which etcd endpoint to connect to. Note that the endpoint is resolved relative to the remote host, not locally, and that it uses the exact same value we added to fleet.conf earlier.

If all went well, your terminal should print out some information about your remote host, including a truncated machine id and IP address.

Tip: Alias fleetctl

Once you’ve confirmed that fleetctl works with the options above, it’s a good idea to create an alias so that you don’t have to manually type the options every time. With this, writing fleetctl list-machines does the exact same thing as above:

$ alias fleetctl='fleetctl --tunnel=<remote-ip> --ssh-username=<remote-username> --endpoint=http://localhost:2379'

Create a Unit File

Getting fleet and etcd up and running, and being able to communicate with it, are the hard parts. Now all that’s left is defining your application as a unit file and loading it up!

CoreOS has a good introduction to systemd and unit files, but for now we’ll start with something very simple. Note that this file should be created locally; fleetctl will take care of uploading it to the server and making use of it.

# website.service

Description=My Awesome Website!


At its absolute simplest, this just sets a description and tells systemd how to start the service. There are a whole host of other options and configurations you can do, some of them fleet-specific, but this is enough to be able to get something running.

Start the Application

First, we need to tell fleet about our application:

$ fleetctl submit website.service
Unit website.service inactive

You can then verify that it was accepted:

$ fleetctl list-unit-files
website.service		6f60fd0	inactive	inactive	-

If your output looks like this, then you’re good to start it up.

$ fleetctl start website.service
Unit website.service launched on 17d98101.../

And then verify that it’s up and running…

$ fleetctl list-units
website.service		17d98101.../	active	running

$ fleetctl status website.service
website.service - My Awesome Website!
   Loaded: loaded (/run/fleet/units/website.service; linked-runtime)
   Active: active (running) since Fri 2016-11-11 16:26:54 CST; 1min 13s ago
 Main PID: 2260 (website)
   CGroup: /system.slice/website.service
           └─2260 /srv/www/website

And that’s it!

Taking it Further

Naturally, the next step would be to begin scaling the application out to multiple hosts and to begin introducing additional services, like a database. Scaling to multiple hosts is a discussion for another day, and mostly revolves around setting each one up with an etcd/fleet installation, and then configuring etcd correctly.

Using fleet without containers means that additional services will need to be installed normally, but configured with fleet. One easy way to do this is to cheat a little bit by copying the installation’s service file to your local project, which also lets you add some fleet-specific settings if necessary. As an example, here’s how you would start Postgres running as part of your fleet cluster:

$ scp <user>@<host>:/usr/lib/systemd/system/postgresql.service .
$ fleetctl start postgresql.service # will submit the file on first run


Most use-cases for fleet will still involve Docker and CoreOS, but as you can see, it is entirely possible to install and use it independent of those tools, and doing so can provide you with a flexible scaling solution for those of you who don’t want to commit to a kitchen-sink solution.