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To learn more about the contents of .appup files, specifically the instructions you can use within them, please review the appup manual first, and consider this page more of an overview.


In a nutshell, appups are a description of how to upgrade and downgrade a given application from one version to another. It contains the name of the application, and two sets of instructions, one which will upgrade the application to the newer version, and one which will downgrade the application to the original version. The set of instructions, and the format of the file, are described in the appup manual.

So you’ve generated a release, deployed it to your target system, and now made some code changes in development. You want to hot upgrade your application rather than restarting it to deploy the upgrade, so you need to generate a release package that will allow you to do a hot upgrade. In order to do this, you must create a myapp.appup file, which will go in the _build/<env>/lib/<myapp>/ebin directory, where <env> is the Mix environment (i.e. value of Mix.env) your release will be generated from.

By default, Distillery will attempt to generate an appup for you, but there is no foolproof way to automatically generate appups for an application, and even though there are some general guidelines, which is what Distillery uses to generate appups for you, you will still want to review these to make sure the application will be upgraded the way you expect.


You can see the appup Distillery will use via distillery.gen.appup. This generates the appup under rel, and allows you to modify it and source control it.


You can programmatically apply changes to appups with Appup Transforms

Reviewing generated appups

How do you know if the generated appups look right though? There are a few tips you can follow:

  • Did you change the internal state of any special processes? (i.e. Gen* processes). If so, the process needs to handle the code_change or system_code_change callbacks to make sure the state is converted during the upgrade. This isn’t in the appup, but it is required, and if you need any additional arguments to the code change handler, then you will want the :update instruction corresponding to that module to provide those arguments via the {:advanced, args} tuple.
  • Did all of the modules you change result in either :update or :load_module instructions?
  • Did all of the modules you add result in :add_module instructions? Likewise with :remove_module for any deleted modules.
  • Did all of the modules you rename result in :remove_module and :add_module instructions corresponding the old and new names?
  • If you need to execute any custom steps during the upgrade, you will need to use either code change handlers, or a custom :apply instruction
  • If your upgrade is also upgrading the version of ERTS (Erlang Runtime System) used, there should be a :restart_new_emulator instruction
  • If your upgrade needs to restart the emulator for any reason, there should be a :restart_emulator instruction

Designing appups

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing your own appups, beyond the tips provided in the last section, and so examples are difficult to provide. There are some useful guides available however, both the appup manual mentioned previously, as well as the Appup Cookbook provide a wealth of information on how to construct appups.

That said, let’s look at a trivial example of an upgrade. Given a sample application called test, with a supervisor (Test.Supervisor), and a GenServer (Test.Server), you should have a file in _build/<env>/lib/test/ebin that looks something like the following after compiling the version, 0.2.0, which we’re upgrading to from 0.1.0:


Assuming we’ve modified Test.Server, the following is the automatically generated upgrade Distillery provides for the release:


This appup simply ensures that Test.Server is suspended, the code_change handler is called, and then the process is resumed once the new version of the code has been loaded, using the new state the code_change handler returned. It is not clear that those are the steps which occur, but that is the purpose of the appup manual, which describes what each instruction does. You can also review the relup file under _build/<env>/rel/<myapp>/releases/<latest_ver>/ once the release has been built, which contains all of the low-level instructions that the appup compiled to for a more detailed view of what will happen.

Another item of note in the above example, is that the :update instruction contains a {:advanced, args} tuple, which tells the release handler to give args to the code_change callback as its extra argument. You can use this to provide additional context to the code_change handler if needed. By default, Distillery will set this to an empty list.

It is important that you order the instructions such that processes which depend on each other are upgraded in an order compatible with the dependencies between them. If you have proc_a and proc_b, and proc_a calls proc_b for something, upgrade proc_b first, then proc_a. When processes are upgraded, they are suspended during the upgrade, but in-flight requests will be handled by the old version, until the upgrade is complete and the new version is un-suspended. Distillery automatically performs a topological sort when it generates appups, but if you are writing your appup by hand, you will need to do this on your own. Perhaps in a future change, I can integrate things such that Distillery checks your work, but that is not the case today.

The above example is the simplest case for an appup, but hopefully gives you a feel for how you can build up to larger and more complex appups. You should always keep the appup manual, and the Appup Cookbook at hand for reference when writing your own, as you will want to check your work to make sure the instructions you are defining will result in the correct upgrade or downgrade behaviour.

Generating appups

To generate appups for modification and source control, you can use the distillery.gen.appup task. See the help output from the task for more information about its usage.

In short, it will produce appup files under rel, which can then be edited and added to source control so that they are present for release builds. When a release is built, appups found there will be used in place of auto-generating appups during the release build.