Packaging Applications for the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal


The EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal is still in a very active development phase. We strive to keep this documentation in sync with the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal developments, but there might be some minor delays.

The EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal has been built to provide an App-Store-like experience when deploying applications to private as well as public clouds, independently from their complexity. Leveraging multiple open source tools (see The tools), the Portal can orchestrate complex virtual infrastructures ranging from batch systems to Pipeline-as-a-service scenarios, where the limit is only set by the application developer. This approach, called Infrastructure as Code, allows to reproducibily deploy virtual resources in one or multiple cloud providers in a highly automated way. The EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal builds on top of these tools to provide a resilient REST API and a web interface allowing users with little to no knowledge of IT management to easily self-provision the infrastructure they require. The process of wrapping infrastructure and workloads in an App that will be then understood and deployed by the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal is called packaging.

The tools

While the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal can easily fall in the category of the Cloud Orchestrators, one of its streghts is taking advantage of widely adopted Open Source tools to deploy and configure the infrastructure it is required to manage. Adopting this approach limits the amount of efforts that are required to, for example, stay on top of all the changes in the Cloud APIs that providers expose to access their services, to focus on its own very mission: support IT staff as well as researchers in easily deploy the infrastructure they require for their needs.

As previously mentioned, the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal takes advantage of two open source tools to orchestrate infrastructure, namely Terraform and Ansible. Let’s explore them a little bit further, then!


Terraform allows to define the virtual infrastructure an application requires to run in an easily understandable declarative template written in HCL (HashiCorp Configuration Language). VMs, networks, firewalls and storage volumes can easily be defined in a single or multiple files, leaving to Terraform to understand dependencies between all these resources and thus the order in which they must be created. Cloud providers offering are, however, too diverse to allow a single template to be automatically deployed across several of them. Terraform doesn’t try to hide these differences, For this reason, the person in charge of packaging applications will need to define a Terraform template for each cloud provider he or she intends to support the application for. However, this usually comes down to a very reasonable mapping exercise between each cloud provider object names. This can be seen as a downside of Terraform but, on the other hand, it allows to take advantage many of the vendor-specific features and services that wouldn’t otherwise be possible to access. At the time of writing, Terraform supports the major public cloud providers (AWS, Google Cloud Platform, Microsoft Azure, and many more) as well as OpenStack. There are (as always) other cloud orchestrators that are able to deliver similar functionalities, but they are usually bound to a single platform (i.e. AWS CloudFormation or OpenStack Heat).

The Terraform lifecycle

Terraform is based on a declarative language, which allows you to define the desired layout of the infrastructure you want to provision in the cloud. The state of each Terraform deployment is tracked in what is called a state file, which is basically a list of all the resources Terraform has deployed in the previous run. Comparing the state file with the desired state defined in the templates, Terraform can compute their diff and incrementally change a deployment, i.e. increasing the number of nodes in a cluster, or recover from failures.


Depending on the initial state being an empty or a partially provisioned environment, the operations Terraform will need to perform will be different. For this reason, the software allows listing all the tasks that will be carried out in the following run, comparing the desired state defined in the template and the state file and defining a plan that you can revise. This is obtained simply running terraform plan within the folder containing the Terraform template. Keep in mind that if the state file reports that some components are already deployed, Terraform will check if they are still in place and adjust the plan accordingly.


terraform apply is the operation that deploys a Terraform template to a cloud provider. Terraform will read the template and the state file (if any) figuring out which operations must be carried out to reach convergence, and apply them. This process may take a while, depending on the extent of the required changes and their dependencies, but can usually be greatly speeded up increasing the parallelism, or the number of objects Terraform will act on at the same time. Once the deployment is complete, Terraform will print out any output defined in the template and exit.


After its honourable service, your infrastructure is ready to be torn down or destroyed, following Terraform’s nomenclature. Not violating dependencies is an important factor to consider here, as this might cause errors in the destroy process (i.e. removing a subnetwork while instances are still hooked into it). Terraform wraps all this into an easy to use a single command: terraform destroy.


While Terraform provides some features to configure (or localise) VMs after they’re launched, this is limited to uploading bash scripts or run bash commands through SSH. Configuring and orchestrating complex deployments usually requires a fully fledged configuration management system. Countless different software are available to solve this problem, each of them having its own strong and weak points. We’ve eventually chosen Ansible as the configuration management system for the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal deployments for several reasons:

  • configuration is written in YAML, an easy-to-read and easy-to-write language.
  • the learning curve is very gentle, and most bash scripts can be easily mapped (and improved!) in Ansible tasks.
  • it doesn’t require any agent on the target VMs, only SSH access.

After a set of resources is created by Terraform, Ansible can take over and apply the configuration changes (i.e. install packages, update configuration files and so on).

While Ansible represents our choice in all the deployment situations, it doesn’t imply that applications themselves are forced to use this tool. For example, it would be quite easy to to use Ansible to bootstrap a Salt server (or a Puppet master) that is then used by other VMs to configure themselves.


Since version 2.0 Ansible has added several modules to provision virtual infrastructure as Terraform does. However, Terraform still provides clear advantages, such as dependencies resolution, state tracking, and a much wider range of supported clouds. For these reasons, it still represents our preferred choice.


While there’s nothing to stop you from using Ansible to provision the virtual infrastructure required by your Application, doing so will prevent the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal from tracking resource consumption as this feature relies on inspecting the Terraform state file.

Linking Terraform and Ansible

Terraform outputs the final state of the deployment in a state file. However, Ansible relies on an inventory file to know to IP addresses of the VMs it needs to talk with and their logical grouping. To bridge this gap, the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal supports terraform-inventory, a small GO app that is able to parse a Terraform state file and output its content as an Ansible inventory.

Of course, developers are not bound to use this method to connect Terraform and Ansible. Solutions such as the Terraform Ansible Provisioner or even custom scripts are viable options, depending on the needs of the App developer.

The EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal packaging structure

The EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal has been designed to provide as much flexibility as possible when dealing with Apps development. However, some conventions need to be followed while designing your App in order for it to work properly and to take advantage of all the features we provide.

Cloud providers

The Cloud world can be, as the name says, very cloudy. However, the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal needs to be absolutely sure of which cloud provider an application can be deployed to ensure it’s providing the right set of configurations to the final user of your App. For this reason, the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal relies on a homogeneous labelling of Cloud Providers in the Apps definition as well as in the REST API and the web application. You must follow this convention:

Cloud Provider Label
Amazon Web Services AWS
Google Compute Platform GCP
Microsoft Azure AZURE
OpenStack OSTACK

If the Cloud Provider you want to write an App for isn’t listed here, please get in touch with us - we’ll be happy to add it to the list!

Where to store your code

First things first, where do you need to store your code?

The code defining an application for the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal must be tracked within a Git repository publicly clonable over the internet. This is a fundamental requirement, as the way the Portal imports applications in your Registry is cloning such repositories.

Adopting Git as our main delivery mechanisms allows us to easily track code changes, keep dev and prod deployments separated in different branches, and provides a well-established approach for final users to further customise deployments above what initially foreseen by the App developer simply forking the original repository and applying the required changes.

The general structure

Apps, especially those supporting multiple cloud providers, can consist of a reasonable number of lines of code scattered across multiple files and written in several languages. It is thus important to keep some logical order in the codebase to help other users - and yourself in a few months! - understand how your application has been defined and operates. From the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal perspective, there are a few requirements that must be satisfied when writing your app, and we’ll cover those in the next sections.

Separate Cloud Providers

The code used to deploy to each cloud provider - being it Terraform, Ansible or anything else you require - must be stored in a dedicated folder. The names of these folders are currently not subject to any restriction, but we suggest to give them meaningful names (such as those suggested in the Cloud providers section above).

Following this convention ensures that the repository will be more easily understood by other developers and help configuration matching.

Separate Terraform and Ansible

As for the Cloud Providers, we suggest keeping separate the Terraform and Ansible codebases as this improves the readability and maintainability of the repository. Also, it allows for some tricks like sharing the same Ansible code among different cloud providers (symlinks are good!) or using git submodules to share code between several deployments.

Manifest file

The manifest file is a file containing a JSON dict providing a description of the application parsed by the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal when loading it. You can find more information on its structure and the mandatory fields in the The manifest file section below.

Deployment scripts

When deploying or destroying an Application, the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal doesn’t directly execute Terraform or Ansible, but executes the and scripts that it expects to find in each folder dealing with a cloud provider deployment. A third script,, is executed after the deployment succeeds to capture a snapshot of the deployed infrastructure. More details on how these scripts should be coded are available in the Deployment scripts section.

Auxiliary scripts

There might be situations requiring additional scripts or tools to carry out the deployment successfully. Feel free to add them to a folder within the repo, either in a cloud provider-specific folder if it’s needed only by a single cloud provider or in a generic folder in the root of the repository if you need it in all clouds.

The final structure

Putting everything together, here’s how a repository hosting a packaged App looks like:

├ .gitignore
├ aws
│ ├ ansible -> ../gcp/ansible/
│ ├
│ ├
│ ├
│ └ terraform
├ gcp
│ ├ ansible
│ ├
│ ├
│ ├
│ └ terraform
├ manifest.json
└ ostack
  ├ ansible -> ../gcp/ansible/
  ├ terraform

As you can see, there’s a file manifest.json at the root of it, and then folders storing code for each cloud provider. In this particular repo, the Ansible code is shared among the cloud providers via symlinks, but this is not a strict requirement. Being fully honest, there’s hardly strict requirements at all in the way the Portal consumes applications!

The manifest file

Each repository defining an application must contain a JSON file, called a manifest fine, at the root of the repo. This file is parsed by the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal when adding an application to the Registry to extract things such as application name, version, contact email of the maintainer, and so on. Here’s an example of the manifest file defining a Generic server instance App supporting both AWS and OSTACK:

  "applicationName": "Generic server instance",
  "contactEmail": "",
  "about": "A base virtual machine instance",
  "version": "0.6",
  "cloudProviders": [
      "cloudProvider": "AWS",
      "path": "aws",
      "inputs": [
      "cloudProvider": "OSTACK",
      "path": "ostack",
      "inputs": [
  "deploymentParameters": [
  "inputs": [
  "outputs": [
  "volumes": [

Nothing too difficult, hopefully! The manifest is logically divided in two parts: one dealing with the general description of the application, and one dealing with configurations that are specific to a cloud provider. Let’s start from the general one first

Cloud provider independent bits

This part of the manifest deals with all the information that is cloud provider independent, such as name of the App, maintainer, version, as well as inputs and outputs. While many of the fields are self-explanatory, here’s a run down of all of them:

applicationName (Required)

The name of the application packaged in the git repo.

As users can have many applications in their Registries, going for a descriptive name is a good approach (some server isn’t going to get you far!).

contactEmail (Required)
The email address of the person (or group) in charge of maintaining the Application and provide support for it. Mandatory
about (Required)

A one-line description on what the Application does. Mandatory

This will be displayed below the title in the App card within the Repository.

version (Required)
The current version of the application. This is also displayed in the App card in the Repository.
deploymentParameters (Optional)

A list of the Deployment Parameters for this app.

Deployment parameters are all those parameter that do not change between deployments, but are cloud provider or tenancy specific. For example, the name (or id) of the external network in an Openstack cloud depends on the cloud itself, but is always the same when deploying to a given cloud. It thus makes sense to separate these parameters from deployment-dependent parameters (see inputs for those) to save the user the hassle to type them every time.

Variables defined here will be injected by the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal in the deployment environment prepended with the suffix TF_VAR_ to allow Terraform to use them directly. Values for the deploymentParameters variables are sourced at deployment time from the Deployment parameters referenced in the configuration selected by the user.

inputs (Optional)

A list of the inputs required by the Application.

In this particular case the disk_image (also called image name) to be used when creating the virtual machine. Inputs should preferred over deploymentParameters when their value needs to change at each deployment. In our case, the base disk will be different each time the user wants to deploy a different OS (CentOS, Ubuntu, BioLinux,…) so it makes sense to keep it as input.

Input fields will be shown by the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal for each of the inputs defined in the manifest to to allow users to customise the deployment behaviour. As for the deploymentParameters, all the values will be injected as environment variables with the TF_VAR prefix.

outputs (Optional)

A list of the outputs the Application wants to show to the user.

A very common use case when deploying infrastructure to the cloud is the need to show back to the user some information resulting from the deployment itself, for example the external IP address of the VM that has just been deployed.

The EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal will scan the output of the Terraform state file looking for the strings defined in this JSON array, and display the result to the user.

volumes (Optional)

A list of the volumes the Application requires to work.

Sometimes, a deployment requires attaching a previously defined volume. For example, some data may be staged in via a GridFTP server on a particular volume, that is then re-attached to an NFS server serving a batch system. The EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal allows to completely separate the volumes lifecycle from the lifecycle of applications. Adding a volume name (i.e. DATA_DISK_ID) to volumes automatically displays a drop-down menu listing all the volumes deployed through the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal on the deployment card. The id of the selected volume (as provided by the cloud provider, not the portal internal id!) is then injected into the deployment process as an environment variable (i.e. TF_VAR_DATA_DISK_ID in our example).


Variables defined in deploymentParameters, inputs and volumes will be injected by the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal in the deployment environment prepended with the suffix TF_VAR_ to allow Terraform to use them directly. Keep this in mind when you’re using these variables in Ansible!

Defining supported cloud providers

Each App can support one or more cloud providers, and this is defined by the cloudProviders list in the manifest file. This key is required in each manifest, and supported provider should be declared adding a dictionary (or hash table, following the JSON nomenclature) to the cloudProviders list with the following schema:

  "cloudProvider": "AWS",
  "path": "aws",
  "inputs": [

Allowed keys in this dictionary are:

cloudProvider (Required)

Specifies which cloud provider the dictionary specifies support for.

This values is used to filter the configurations a user can pick when deploying this applications. It’s thus required to follow the nomenclature defined earlier for this filtering to work as expected.

path (Required)

Specifies the path to the folder containing the deployment code for the specified cloud provider.

There is no restriction on the name these folders can have, and this is the very reason why this key exists, but for the sake of understandability we warmly suggest to use the string defined in our nomenclature for Cloud Providers in lowercase.

inputs (Optional)

Specifies cloud provider specific inputs.

These inputs will be only shown when the users decides to deploy the App in this cloud provider. The EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal will merge them with the generic inputs and ask the user to provide values during the deployment process.


At the time of writing, the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal doesn’t support cloud provider specific deploymentParameters.

Variables precedence

If the same variable is defined both as a deployment parameter and as an input (both generic or cloud-specific), inputs will always take precedence. This allows to override what defined in a Deployment parameters on ad-hoc basis. However, this approach is not recommended as it obscures the flow of information in your App.

Deployment scripts

At the moment, the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal doesn’t execute Terraform or Ansible directly, but relies on bash scripts to interact with the deployments. These scripts needs to be provided by the App developer and should carry out all the operations required to deploy, check and destroy the application. Bash scripts can easily be seen as an inelegant way to deal with this, but it currently provides the best level of flexibility to Apps developers while we more closely observe their needs - a fundamental step to a more organised approach. Some exploratory work is currently in progress to move away from this approach, but this is likely to remain the paradigm the portal will follow in the close future.

Three deployment scripts are required for each cloud provider -,, - and they must be placed in the folder containing the cloud provider specific codebase (you can have a look at the anatomy of a EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal App here).

The deployment environment

On top of the environment variables required by Terraform to authenticate with the cloud providers and the variables defined by deploymentParameters and inputs, the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal will inject additional variables in the deployment environment that you can use in your deploy scripts.

There are two main set of variables the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal injects: deployment variables and ssh management variables.

Deployment variables

Deployment variables are variables that let the App developer know where to access the App repository in the filesystem, place all the output files (i.e. the Terraform state file) and the unique ID that has been assigned to the deployment. A list of these variables with their description is available below:

Environment variable Value

Path where the application code is stored (a copy of the cloned repo).

Only available to and, not to

PORTAL_DEPLOYMENTS_ROOT Path to the folder storing all the deployments.
PORTAL_DEPLOYMENT_REFERENCE The unique ID assigned to the deployment by the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal by the portal

Why do you need these variables? A very common use-case is to place the Terraform output in the folder belonging to your deployment: this path can be easily obtained joining PORTAL_DEPLOYMENTS_ROOT and PORTAL_DEPLOYMENT_REFERENCE as follows:


This will ensure that your state file will end up in the right place in the filesystem, enabling the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal to parse it to obtain usage information.

Endpoint variables

There are API endpoints, that ECP exposes, that can be used by/from deployed applications. Following environment variables can be used to build HTTP requests.

Environment variable Value
PORTAL_BASE_URL Base url of the ECP API portal for HTTP request.
PORTAL_CALLBACK_SECRET Alpha numeric string which is passed with http headers for authentication.
SSH variables

The EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal generates a new SSH keypair at each deployment to mitigate the risk of security issues should a private key be compromised. Also, as part of a Configuration or during the deployment process, users can provide a public key that needs to be injected in the VMs to grant them access to the deployed App.

These keys are exposed to the deployment environment via several variables:

Environment variable Value
portal_public_key_path Path where public deployment key is stored
portal_private_key_path Path where private deployment key is stored
profile_public_key String containing the public key provided by the user in the Configurations or during the deployment process


Keep in mind that profile_public_key and TF_VAR_profile_public_key contain directly the key as a string, while the other variables contain the path to the a file containing the keys.

Ideally, the flow of an App deployment when dealing with SSH keys should be

  1. Inject the public part of the deployment key (portal_public_key_path) in the VM(s) being created. Terraform can easily be used to create a keypair, for example in OpenStack, and then inject that keypair in the VMs.
  2. Use the private part of the deployment key (portal_private_key_path) to grant Ansible (or the Terraform remote-exec provisioner) access to the VM(s) via SSH and apply the configuration.
  3. As part of the configuration, replace the public part of the deployment key with the user-specified public key (profile_public_key) in the target VMs.

This workflow allows the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal to seamlessly configure the deployed infrastructure while ensuring that only the user will have access to it once it is successfully deployed.


Resist the urge to immediately swap the deployment public key with the user public key at the beginning of the deployment. If you do so, and for some reason the SSH connection drops the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal will not be able to re-establish the connection, causing the deployment to fail. Ideally, swapping the key should be as close as possible to last step of the deployment.

This script takes care of deploying the App, and usually consists of at least a Terraform call. Here’s a snippet of the for a GridFTP server on GCP:

#!/usr/bin/env bash
set -e
# Provisions a GridFTP instance in GCP
# The script assumes that env vars for authentication with GCP are present.
export TF_VAR_name="$(awk -v var="$PORTAL_DEPLOYMENT_REFERENCE" 'BEGIN {print tolower(var)}')"

# Launch provisioning of the VM
terraform apply --input=false --state=$PORTAL_DEPLOYMENTS_ROOT'/'$PORTAL_DEPLOYMENT_REFERENCE'/terraform.tfstate' $PORTAL_APP_REPO_FOLDER'/gcp/terraform'

# Start local ssh-agent
eval "$(ssh-agent -s)"
ssh-add $KEY_PATH &> /dev/null

# Get ansible roles
cd gcp/ansible || exit
ansible-galaxy install -r requirements.yml

# Run Ansible
TF_STATE=$PORTAL_DEPLOYMENTS_ROOT'/'$PORTAL_DEPLOYMENT_REFERENCE'/terraform.tfstate' ansible-playbook -i /usr/local/bin/terraform-inventory -u centos -b --tags live deployment.yml > ansible.log 2>&1

# Kill local ssh-agent
eval "$(ssh-agent -k)

As you can see, there are a few additional things going on here rather than two simple Terraform and Ansible calls. Let’s have a deeper look!

#!/usr/bin/env bash
set -e
# Provisions a GridFTP instance in GCP
# For details about expected inputs and outputs, refer to
# The script assumes that env vars for authentication with GCP are present.
export TF_VAR_name="$(awk -v var="$PORTAL_DEPLOYMENT_REFERENCE" 'BEGIN {print tolower(var)}')"

This initial block defines the shebang for the script (#!/usr/bin/env bash) and forces the bash script to exit immediately if any command exits with a non-zero status (set -e). Then, it exports the TF_VAR_name environment variable, which will in turn be used by Terraform to populate its own internal variable name. This application uses the name variable to assign dynamic names to each resources it creates, for example the name of the VM is defined as

name = "${}_server"

which ensures there will be no name collisions. Following this approach, each resource will be tagged the same EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal deployment ID.

Next step, let’s get those VM(s) deployed!

# Launch provisioning of the VM
terraform apply --input=false --state=$PORTAL_DEPLOYMENTS_ROOT'/'$PORTAL_DEPLOYMENT_REFERENCE'/terraform.tfstate' $PORTAL_APP_REPO_FOLDER'/gcp/terraform'

This snippet is quite easy: run Terraform to deploy the defined template to in the cloud provider. Since the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal has already injected the correct environment variables to authenticate with the chosen cloud provider you won’t need to specify anything else.

VM(s) are now up, let’s configure them!

# Start local ssh-agent
eval "$(ssh-agent -s)"
ssh-add $portal_private_key_path &> /dev/null

# Get ansible roles
cd gcp/ansible || exit
ansible-galaxy install -r requirements.yml

# Run Ansible
TF_STATE=$PORTAL_DEPLOYMENTS_ROOT'/'$PORTAL_DEPLOYMENT_REFERENCE'/terraform.tfstate' ansible-playbook -i /usr/local/bin/terraform-inventory -u centos -b --tags live deployment.yml

# Kill local ssh-agent
eval "$(ssh-agent -k)"

This block deals with everything that is required by Ansible to work. When the Portal launches the deployment script, a new ssh-agent is spawned and the SSH key (portal_private_key_path) to access the VMs is pre-loaded. Then, ansible-galaxy is used to pull all the requirements for the playbook to run. Next step, invoking Ansible itself. It’s not a very plain invocation, though:

  • prefixing the command with TF_STATE=... tells terraform-inventory where to look for the Terraform state file;
  • -i /usr/local/bin/terraform-inventory tells Ansible to use terraform-inventory to create the inventory on the flight. Keep in mind that Ansible supports as arguments of the -i flag both text files containing an inventory and executables returning an inventory;
  • -u centos -b force Ansible to use the user centos over ssh and to execute commands with sudo (b = become).

The last step is to kill the previously spawned ssh-agent. Deployment (hopefully) done!


When using Ansible Galaxy to download the required roles keep in mind that only public repos will be accessible from the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal.

This script is executed by the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal to destroy an Application. It usually consists of a single Terraform call to destroy the provisioned infrastructure. Here’s an example, again from a GridFTP server.

#!/usr/bin/env bash
set -e
# Destroys a GridFTP deployment in GCP
# The script assumes that env vars for authentication with GCP are already present.

# Export input variable in the bash environment
export TF_VAR_name="$(awk -v var="$PORTAL_DEPLOYMENT_REFERENCE" 'BEGIN {print tolower(var)}')"

# Destroy everything
terraform destroy --force --input=false --state=$PORTAL_DEPLOYMENTS_ROOT'/'$PORTAL_DEPLOYMENT_REFERENCE'/terraform.tfstate' $PORTAL_APP_REPO_FOLDER'/gcp/terraform'

Nothing fancy, right?

This script is executed by the Portal immediately after the deployment to grab an updated picture of all the deployed resources. It’s basically a wrapper around the Terraform state command. Here’s the usual example!

#!/usr/bin/env bash
set -e
# Get the status of a GridFTP deployment in GCP
# The script assumes that env vars for authentication with GCP are present.

# Query Terraform state file


If the script is not present, or fails, the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal will report the deployment to be in a RUNNING_FAILED state.

Testing locally

While the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal allows you to see the deployment logs (or, to be more precise, stdout and stderr of the deployment processes), it might be quicker, at least at the beginning of the packaging process, to test deployments locally.

So, can you reproduce the Portal behaviour locally?

First, you need to install a few dependencies: Terraform, Ansible and terraform-inventory (click on the links to go to their respective “How-to install pages”).

Second, you need to replicate the deployment environment. As you know by now, the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal interacts with the deployments setting (or exporting) variables in the deployment environment. Reproducing this behaviour in a consistent way is easy thanks to source!

Open a new text file in your preferred text editor, write something similar to:

# Define the three special env vars
export PORTAL_DEPLOYMENTS_ROOT="absolute/path/to/repo"
export PORTAL_DEPLOYMENT_REFERENCE="test_deployment"

# Define the volume id of the volume to be linked to our deployment
export TF_VAR_DATA_DISK_ID="vol-fb65c979"

and then run source filename. This will inject all the variables defined in the file into the bash environment, mimicking the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal behaviour and saving you to manually export all the variables one by one.

At the bare minimum, you’ll need to export the three deployment variables (PORTAL_DEPLOYMENTS_ROOT, PORTAL_DEPLOYMENT_REFERENCE and PORTAL_APP_REPO_FOLDER) plus one variable for each deploymentParameter and input your Application requires (TF_VAR_DATA_DISK_ID in our example above).


The EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal automatically prepends the TF_VAR_ prefix to all deploymentParameters and inputs. You will most likely want to do the same in your local script to ensure everything will work as expected when deploying through the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal

Similarly, you need to source the credentials for the cloud provider you want to interact with. You can find all the details on how to obtain your credentials, as well as the environment variables you need to export, in the Cloud Credentials section.


Environment variables are bound to a given terminal and not persisted between restarts. If you want to use multiple terminals, or you close the terminal you are testing your App with and open a new one, you’ll need to source the environment variables again.

The deployment process: an end-to-end overview.

We’ve explored how an App for the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal should be packaged, and how the deployment process can be driven via the deployment environment. But what are all the steps the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal takes every time it needs to deploy or destroy an application? How the and scripts link into that?

Let’s lift the hood and have a look at all the operations the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal carries out after an user has clicked the “Deploy” or “Destroy” buttons!


  1. After selecting the right configuration and provided the required inputs, a user clicks on the “Deploy” button and confirms the deployment. The web application of the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal sends the request to the REST API and updates the status of the deployment to STARTING.
  2. A new deployment environment is created, injecting cloud credentials and all the specified deployment parameters, inputs and volumes.
  3. The script for the selected cloud provider is executed. The web interface queries the API for near real-time logs to let the user monitor the deployment.
  4. The deployment environment monitors the script execution and, if it fails (returns a non-zero exit code), updates the backend marking the deployment as DEPLOYMENT_FAILED and stops. The web interface regularly polls for updates and, once it detects the failure, offers the user the choice to destroy the deployment.
  5. If the script completes successfully, the backend executes the script to capture a snapshot of the provisioned infrastructure and looks for the defined outputs in the log files. If the script fails (returns with a non-zero exit code) the deployment environment marks the deployment RUNNING_FAILED and the user is offered the choice to destroy the deployment. Otherwise, the deployment is marked as RUNNING and the web interface will be able to pull the outputs from the REST API.
  6. Done!


  1. The user clicks the “Destroy” button on the deployment card of a deployed App. The web application sends a request to the REST API to terminate the destroy the deployment.
  2. The same deployment environment that was created to deploy the application is re-created to destroy it. Cloud credentials, deployment parameters, inputs and volumes are added to the environment. While Cloud credentials needs to be present for obvious reasons (you still need to prove that you is you to remove your infrastructure!), all the other variables are added for two reasons:
    • support use-cases in which destroying the infrastructure requires information coming from any of the deployment parameters or inputs variable. Say you want to send some logs back to a specific server and its hostname is stored as a deployment parameter
    • avoid issues when Terraform variables normally sourced via environment variables are not declared with a default value. If Terraform is unable to assigned the value of one of its variables in any of the supported ways then it will resolve to ask them interactively, which is of course a scenario the EMBL-EBI Cloud Portal cannot support and will cause to deployment to get stuck. App developer are warmly encouraged to use the --input=false option when invoking Terraform which would cause it to immediately fail if a variable cannot be assigned in any way and not ask its value interactively.
  3. The cloud-specific script is executed and monitored. If it fails (non-zero exit code) then the deployment is marked as DESTROY_FAILED and the user will be offered the option of forcing the destroy. If the script succeeds, the deployment is marked as DESTROYED.


A deployment that ends in an irreversible DESTROY_FAILED state might, depending on the stage at which the error occurs, leave some infrastructure behind. It is imperative that users experiencing this issue independently verify that all the provisioned infrastructure is correctly removed.