Store Config in the Environment

My web site settings file is broken so I might as well fix a few things.

My website is not interactive so I have disregarded the rule that you shouldn’t put production settings in the source-code control system. I did this because it simplified my deployment system (described in an earlier entry). Since it is currently broken anyway I might as well take the effort to move it a little closer to best practices.

Part 2 of the Running to Stand Still series.

Config in the Environment

The Twelve-Factor App describes ways to ensure your a web app is deployable, scalable and maintainable. One factor is that you store config in the environment, rather than in files. For example, an environment variable DATABASE_URL specifies the connection settings for your database.

Where the environment variables come from depends on your hosting environment. They might be an env dir or some special database or parameters in a Dockerfile or Kubernetes chart or whatever.

Django Settings

With a Django app the settings are provided as a Python module. The obvious approach to making this get the salient information from environment variables is to make liberal use of os.environ.get in the settings file. For example

DEBUG = os.environ.get('DEBUG')

When representing a boolean condition with environment variables I prefer to use an empty or absent value to represent false and a non-empty value to represent true.

With this convention it is best if false represents a default, safe, option: No access to real databases without the DATABASE_URL environment variable, and so on. If we can contrive to make the defaults suitable for running a staging copy of the site then this will make it easy to get set up as a developer (more of a consideratuion when you have more than one developer).

There are packges like dj-database-url that have routines for decoding DATABASE_URL in to the settings Django uses.


A more convenient solution is a third-party library django-environ. This wraps up a bunch of conveniences for getting settings from the environment in one easy lump. It can read from a local .env file to make development straightforward, and knows how to decode database URLs.

Compared to my previous setup, this means replacing the sample settings and production settings files with a proper settings file starting with something like this:

import environ

env = environ.Env(
    DEBUG=(bool, False),
    STATIC_ROOT=(str, None),
    STATIC_URL=(str, None),

DEBUG = env('DEBUG')

if env('STATIC_ROOT'):
    STATIC_URL = env('STATIC_URL', default='')
    STATIC_ROOT = env('STATIC_ROOT')  # e.g., '/home/alleged/static')
    STATIC_URL = '/s/'

A less trivial web site would have more settings—such as for databases and caches—but this is still useful even for my tiny site.

For the most part I have arranged it so when safe enough the default is developer mode. The exception is DEBUG, so on my working copy I needed to do something like this:

echo DEBUG=y >> alleged/.env

I also needed to make arrangements for the SECRET_KEY setting. Normally it is important that SECRET_KEY be unique and secert, but since my siute does not use user sessions I don’t actually use it. I have set it so if you are in DEBUG mode it uses a dummy value, and if not it treats SECRET_KEY as a required parameter, and aborts the server if it does not find it in its environment.


It is easier than ever to avoid checking database settings and keys in to source-code control. So don’t do that.