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Building cloud native apps: Config and Toggles

lukaszbudnik profile image Łukasz Budnik ・5 min read

Config for cloud native apps

In the original 12-Factor App manifest Config is listed as a third factor:

To state the obvious: don't hardcode any configuration settings in your application. Always set it as either configuration file or env variables.

Reduce configuration settings to bare minimum. Introduce convention over configuration and store only the settings that are absolutely necessary in your config.

Be aware that configuration settings can be:

  1. static - which don't really change, a classic example is a DB endpoint; changing DB endpoint would require the application to be restarted to pick-up the new value;
  2. dynamic - which can be turned on and off while the application is running.

Based on the configuration type different configuration management strategies apply.

Let's review them all.

Configuration files vs. env variables

Injecting env variables is usually much simpler than injecting configuration files. With env variables you can do fine-grained changes. With files this is more difficult as you would have to store and inject the whole (sometimes large) file. On the other hand if your application requires 30+ configuration settings, then having to manage 30+ env variables is definitely going to be a challenge. Use configuration files in this case.

There is also a middle ground. Treat configuration file like a template and inject the key configuration settings at runtime. Take a look at a sample lukaszbudnik/migrator configuration file:

If your tool/framework supports env variables substitution then commit your config file to the repo, package it along with the application, and inject the actual values at runtime from env variables. This way you can have the best of the two worlds.

Metadata services

If you're deploying your app to the cloud and use services like virtual machines then you can leverage metadata endpoints. You can query those endpoints at runtime to get a lot of useful information about the machine and its cloud environment. All big players support it: AWS EC2, Azure Virtual Machines, GCP Compute.

Internal DNS service

When you deploy your cloud native apps to AWS, Azure, GCP, Kubernetes you can leverage internal DNS services.

Internal DNS is the same for all deployments. Staging, pentest, preproduction, production. It doesn't change. Wherever your app is deployed the invoices service will always have "invoices" DNS name.

API & Secret Keys

When running on AWS, Azure, GCP, do not use API and Secret Keys. IAM roles are first class citizens even in container services. Your servers, containers, and functions can assume roles meaning you don't have to inject API and Secret Keys into them. This greatly simplifies configuration management and configuration lifecycle (one obvious benefit: no need to rotate them on a regular basis).

Configuration as a Service

Where to store configuration settings? In a dedicated Configuration as a Service solution. Configuration as a Service is a secure, highly-available, durable, encrypted storage for your configuration and secrets. Every major cloud provider offers such service. Depending on your cloud provider see: AWS Systems Manager Parameter Store,
Azure App Configuration, Azure Key Vault, or
GCP Secret Manager.

The other benefit worth mentioning is that above services come with versioning out of the box. Thanks to this you have a complete history of all the changes for auditing and/or troubleshooting purposes.

Feature toggles

Now that we covered static configuration, let's talk about feature toggles.

These are the settings that can be turned on and off dynamically at runtime.

They are very useful when you release new functionality in Alpha, Beta, GA stages for initially a smal group of your customers or want to release it to your design partners first, then to a wider group, and finally make it generally available for all customers.
You can use feature toggles when you want to release new functionality using canary releases too.
Finally, feature toggles are used when you give your customers option to opt-out of some features.

Feature toggles framework that we built stores all the information in DB (in contrast to using Configuration as a Service which we use for all other configuration settings). Since we store feature toggles in DB we support the following 3 levels:

  • DB - we use feature toggles in stored procedures;
  • back-end - we load feature toggles from DB and wrap them with a Java service; this can be any language you use: Java, Go, JavaScript, Ruby, Python;
  • front-end - we have a REST service which exposes feature toggles to JavaScript app; JavaScript app uses it to implement different behaviour and/or render different components in UI.

Tenant config vs. global system config

Assume all configs and feature toggles can be changed per customer/tenant basis.

Implement a hierarchy of configs: check if tenant-specific config exists, if yes return it, if not, fallback to the global system one.


Since we are talking about cloud-native apps let me finish by some Kubernetes examples.

If you host your Kubernetes cluster in a cloud then I would strongly encourage you to use godaddy/kubernetes-external-secrets project to sync your Kubernetes secrets with external secrets services. kubernetes-external-secrets supports the following backends: AWS Systems Manager Parameter Store, Hashicorp Vault, Azure Key Vault, Google Secret Manager, and Alibaba Cloud KMS Secret Manager.

At the bottom of this post you can find a step-by-step example showing how to inject AWS Systems Manager Parameter Store secrets into Kubernetes secrets. I post it at the bottom as it's a detailed example.

Kubernetes ConfigMap

Kubernetes ConfigMap is used to store configuration in the form of key-value pairs and/or files. They are stored in clear-text and should not be used to store any sensitive information. For more, see the official documentation: Kubernetes ConfigMap.

We can create a configmap from a file like this:

Later, we can inject that configmap as a volume into the pod and then mount it into the container:

Kubernetes Secrets

Kubernetes Secret is used to store sensitive information. Just like ConfigMap it can be created in the form of key-value pairs and/or files. There are built-in secret types too. For more, see the official documentation: Kubernetes Secrets.

We can create a secret using yaml file or from literal, I will use the literal here:

Later, we can reference this secret when defining an env variable in a container:

Using godaddy/kubernetes-external-secrets

As promised a full gist showing godaddy/kubernetes-external-secrets in action on AWS:

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