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Build Erlang the Rebar Way

Posted on 14 Jul 2013, tagged erlangrebar

These days I start learning erlang, and building a poker robot system. While I am learning it, I found the most difficult part is not the function style programming, nor the OTP system. The most difficult part is how to build and run erlang. Surely you can write an erlang module and run the functions from the erlang shell when you do exercises, but it is a little disturbing. And you surely don’t want to do that in the production environment. The erlang way and reltool is a little difficult for the newbies. Thanks to rebar, we can do it much easier now.

Rebar is a very good tool to build and run erlang applications. It could automatic get dependencies, run it as a daemon, attach it and hot load code. I’m wonder why there is no book about erlang introduced it. Even the book Learn You Some Erlang for Great Good, which is published this year. The rebar official wiki is a little simple. I will record how am I using rebar to build erlang applications.


A typical erlang directory structure is like this:

 - src/
 - include/
 - priv/
 - ebin/
  • src: place for source code.
  • include: place for included files, such as .hrl files.
  • priv: not used for me now.
  • ebin: place for erlang object files, such as .beam files, .app file also placed here.

You usually need not to place any files in ebin/ if you use rebar. All the object files, and .app files, could be compiled from sorce code. In a project, there may also have such two subdirectory: deps for dependencies and test for test files.

After download rebar, this command could create an OTP application:

rebar create-app app-id=myapp

It will create a directory with a src/ subdirectory, and a file named rebar.config. As the name specified, rebar.config is the erlang config file.

Use this command could build this app:

rebar compile


Lots of languages could manage dependencies easily now. For example, gem in ruby, npm in node.js, pip in python, maven in java and so on. Erlang is an old language, but with rebar, you could manage dependencies easily.

Run rebar help get-deps to see how to add dependencies with rebar:


Use this command to automatic get dependencies:

rebar get-deps

Test with Eunit

Rebar could also compile with test. I am just using eunit for now. I add these code in rebar.config:

{cover_enabled, true}.
{eunit_opts, [verbose, {report, {eunit_surefire, [{dir, "./"}]}}]}.

You can put test codes in subdirectory test. While run rebar test, rebar compile test code, put the object files in .eunit. It will also show test coverage in a web page.

Run the Application

Here comes the most important part. We will build and run our application. The rebar official wiki has an article about how to handle release, but it doesn’t mention how to handle release with dependencies. I will introduce how I do it.

We already know we could use rebar compile to compile the codes. But it only put object files in ebin/, we also need to run them in the shell manually if we want:

erl -pa ./ebin ./deps/*/ebin

This command will start the shell with compiled files, and you can run them in the shell.

But it is absolutely not we want. We want a executable file, just run it to start. Even better, run as a daemon. Even more better, attach it when we want.

Rebar allows us to do all test things. It is a little complex, but much simpler than the origin way with erlang.

First, make a new directory in the application directory, and using rebar to generate some files:

mkdir rel
cd rel
rebar create-node nodeid=myapp

These command will create a subdirectory named files and a file named reltool.config. We need not to touch anything in the files directory. But we will modify something in reltool.config. I’m using erlang R16B01, and I do these things:

  1. Add {lib_dirs, ["../deps"]}, in the sys config. This will include our dependencies.
  2. Change {app, myapp, [{mod_cond, app}, {incl_cond, include}]} to {app, myapp, [{mod_cond, app}, {incl_cond, include}, {lib_dir, ".."}]}.
  3. Add {sub_dirs, ["rel"]}. in rebar.config.

Now, we could generate the executable files:

rebar compile generate

This command will generate files in rel/myapp. We can run the app with erlang shell like this:

./rel/myapp/bin/myapp/myapp console

Use start argument will start as a daemon, and using attach could come back to the erlang shell. You can see the usage with help argument.

OK, enjoy your self!