The Twelve Factor App

The twelve-factor app is a methodology for building software-as-a-service (SaaS) apps. It’s developed by some engineers at Heroku, who have obviously witnessed the creation and operation of thousands of successful SaaS apps.

It’s a broad, conceptual guidebook — theoretical by nature, but with concrete, practical, feasible guidelines for deploying real apps on real cloud native infrastructure.

I. Codebase

Using git version control is important. Clear bias towards monolith architecture — 1 codebase = 1 app; otherwise it’s not a codebase, it’s a distributed system.

A deploy is a running instance of the app. The codebase is the same across all deploys, although different versions may be active in each deploy.

II. Dependencies

Explicitly declare and isolate dependencies.

Dependencies installed through a package manager (e.g., npm) can be installed system-wide or scoped into the directory containing the app (known as “vendoring” or “bundling”).

Never use system-wide dependencies in your app. A twelve-factor app never relies on implicit existence of system-wide packages. It declares all dependencies, completely and exactly, via a dependency declaration manifest.

III. Config

Obviously, never store configuration credentials, secrets, resource URLs, etc. into your version control. Not just for security, but for composability.

A litmus test for whether an app has all config correctly factored out of the code is whether the codebase could be made open source at any moment, without compromising any credentials.

A common workaround for this is to .gitignore a file, e.g., database.yaml or secrets.js which holds configuration values and secrets. This is bad, don’t do this, it creates confusion and also dependence on some kind of implicit behavior in your build step.

Instead, use environment variables.

In a twelve-factor app, env vars are granular controls, each fully orthogonal to other env vars. They are never grouped together as “environments”, but instead are independently managed for each deploy. This is a model that scales up smoothly as the app naturally expands into more deploys over its lifetime.

IV. Backing services

Backing services are any service that the app consumes over it’s lifetime, kind of like upstream dependencies of the app. Like: database, messaging/queueing systems, SMTP system, caching systems.

The code for a twelve-factor app makes no distinction between local and third party services. To the app, both are attached resources, accessed via a URL or other locator/credentials stored in the config.

You should be able to swap out any backing service at any time by simply changing the config. It’s fully decoupled from your application code.

V. Build, release, run

A codebase is transformed into a deploy through three steps.

  1. Build - pull codebase at a certain commit hash; pull dependencies, build to executable.
  2. Release - takes the build, combines it with a config, ready for execution.
  3. Run - runs the app in the execution environment, by launching some set of the app’s processes against a selected release.
  codebase + dependencies -> executable
  build output + config
  release + runtime

The twelve-factor app uses strict separation between the build, release, and run stages. For example, it is impossible to make changes to the code at runtime, since there is no way to propagate those changes back to the build stage.

VI. Processes

The app is executed in the execution environment as one or more processes.

Twelve-factor processes are stateless and share-nothing. Any data that needs to persist must be stored in a stateful backing service, typically a database.

Regarding the stateless bit — a deploy is disposable, nothing should be shared between two deploys. A deploy can utilize the file system for some one-off computations, but it shouldn’t expect that the file system is persisted between deploys.

Also, in-memory session management is a violation of 12 factor arch.

VII. Port binding

The twelve-factor app is completely self-contained and does not rely on runtime injection of a webserver into the execution environment to create a web-facing service. The web app exports HTTP as a service by binding to a port, and listening to requests coming in on that port.

AKA, some kind of web server or gateway is not an expectation of the environment that the app implicitly relies on. Instead, the app should include a web server of some kind as a dependency, or as part of its own logic.

The app exposes a service bound to a port, simply put.

Note also that the port-binding approach means that one app can become the backing service for another app, by providing the URL to the backing app as a resource handle in the config for the consuming app.

VIII. Concurrency

In some systems, processes are kind of abstracted into the background. The twelve factor app does not take this approach - processes are first class citizens to the app.

Some of this philosophy is strongly informed by unix process model for running service daemons.

There are process types. Http requests are handled by a web process. Background jobs are handled by a worker process, so on so forth.

How is this different from point 6 (Processes)? With process types we can scale out our app infinitely, in theory. If processes are stateless, and share nothing, that means multiple of the same process type can be running at the same time, without influencing eachother.

This is how we scale vertically to handle concurrency and huge amount of data/requests/computation in the twelve factor app.

IX. Disposability

Building on how the process model allows us to do concurrency, processes are disposable — there can be 0-n of a process type running at the same time.

Other benefits of disposable processes:

  • fast scaling
  • rapid deployment of config/code changes
  • robustness of prod deploys

Also, processes should start quickly and exit gracefully. If a SIGTERM event is received, the process should finish any requests or operations it’s currently executing, then exit gracefully.

For a worker process, graceful shutdown is achieved by returning the current job to the work queue.

Processes should also be robust against sudden death, in the case of a failure in the underlying hardware.

One might also implement graceful process disposability by having all operations by idempotent - e.g., if it happens again after it dies, or is already running, then it’s okay. Another approach, although tricky, is Crash Only Design.

X. Dev/prod parity

The twelve factor app promotes that development environments should be extremely close to the production environment, because this makes continuous integration possible. Eliminate differences in tooling, enviornment, operating system, etc. if possible.

This is kind of the whole “devops” philosophy, at least how it was in its origin. The same people who develop the code, deploy the code. The developers deploy.

Also, nowadays there’s really no reason to use “lightweight” versions of backing services in dev mode, use homebrew dude. Also — pay attention to versioning, all deploys of the app (developer environments, staging, production) should be using the same type and version of each of the backing services.

XI. Logs

Logs should be treated as an event stream. Even though they are thought of and modeled after a “log file” on the file system, they should be aggregated to a separate service. Logs are a time-ordered stream of events of activity on a server. One log = one line.

Anyways, the storage/file/management of logs should not be considered directly by an individual process of the twelve factor app directly. The app should simply stream the logs to stdout. In development, the developer will see this in their terminal. In a deploy, on the other hand, the stdout will be captured by the execution environment. The execution environment should collate the logs from other processes in the app, and send them off to a log aggregation service of some kind for long-term viewing/archiving.

XII. Admin processes

This refers to scripts, one-off “admin” scripts which need to be manually executed. Such as database migrations, data export, cleanup, seeding, etc.

A few things about scripts:

  • Scripts should be run in an execution environment, against a specific release of the app.
  • They should use the same config and codebase as any processes that run against that release
  • Scripts should be checked into the codebase version control, to avoid synchronization issues.

All of the same principals mentioned above (dependency isolation, process formation, etc.) also applies to admin scripts.

© 2021