Just enough Erlang/OTP and rebar, part 1

Zotonic source code have you scratching your head? Learn Rebar first.

Created Aug 8, 2011 by Lloyd R. Prentice


Rebar is a relatively new set of Erlang/OTP development tools. Rebar makes it easier to develop and maintain Erlang/OTP applications and releases.

Zotonic is built on Erlang/OTP. An understanding of Erlang/OTP conventions is essential if you wish to read Zotonic source code, develop Zotonic modules, or contribute code or patches to Zotonic.

By following each step in this tutorial carefully, and referring back to the many excellent on-line Erlang documentation resources, you will accelerate your progress up the daunting Erlang/OTP learning curve. And more, you’ll learn how to read and understand Zotonic source code while you’re at it.

In this tutorial we’ll use rebar to create, compile, and test two Erlang applications. One will include a simple gen_server.

In Part II, we’ll generate documentation, run eunit tests, and create a release that can be copied and run on a suitable host system.


You have Erlang R14B or later installed on your system. You have Internet access and basic Bash command line skills. File editing tasks refer to vim. But you can use your code editor of choice.

This tutorial was tested on Ubuntu 11.04.


How can I install and learn Rebar?

Create a root directory for experimentation. Let’s call it “learn.”:

$ mkdir learn
$ cd learn

Download the rebar binary

In the shell:

learn$ git clone https://github.com/basho/rebar.git rebar-src
learn$ cd rebar-src/
rebar-src$ ./bootstrap
rebar$ cd ..
learn$ cp rebar-src/rebar .
learn$ chmod u+x rebar

How can I create an application

In the shell:

learn$ ./rebar create-app appid=zzz
learn$ ls
>> rebar rebar-src src

Note that Rebar has created a directory named src:

learn $ ls src
>> zzz_app.erl zzz.app.src zzz_sup.erl

In src, Rebar has created three Erlang modules. Open them up and take a look in your favorite code editor:

Learn more about Erlang applications: http://www.erlang.org/doc/design_principles/applications.html http://www.erlang.org/doc/man/application.html

How can I add a gen_server template to my new application?

In the shell:

learn$ ./rebar create template=simplesrv srvid=zzz_srv
learn$ ls src
>> zzz_app.erl zzz.app.src zzz_srv.erl zzz_sup.erl

Open up zzz_svr.erl and look it over. For more info, study these gen_gerver resources:

http://www.erlang.org/doc/design_principles/gen_server_concepts.html http://www.erlang.org/doc/man/gen_server.html

How can I make my new gen_server do something?

In src/zzz_srv.erl, add two functions to the API -export directive as follows:

-export([start_link/0, say_hello/0, stop/0]).

Add the say_hello/0 function as follows:

say_hello() ->
  gen_server:call(?MODULE, hello).

Replace handle_call(_Request, _From, State):

handle_call(hello, _From, State) ->
  io:format("Hello from zzz_srv!~n", []),
  {reply, ok, State};
handle_call(_Request, _From, State) ->
  Reply = ok,
  {reply, Reply, State}.

Add the stop/0 function:

stop() ->
  gen_server:cast(?MODULE, stop).

Add before handle_cast(_Msg, State), put:

handle_cast(stop, State) ->
  {stop, normal, State};

NOTE: If your gen_server is under supervision, there’s a better way to stop your server. See:

Section 2.6 of gen_server Concepts - Stopping: http://www.erlang.org/doc/design_principles/gen_server_concepts.html

You could compile this code with Rebar now, but let’s defer.

To really get the hang, let’s create TWO applications. We’ll put them under a new directory, apps/:

learn$ mkdir apps
learn$ mkdir apps/zzz
learn$ mkdir apps/zzz_lib
learn$ ls apps
>> zzz zzz_lib
learn$ mv src apps/zzz/
learn$ ls apps/zzz
>> src

Now we’ll create the zzz_lib application:

learn$ ./rebar create-app appid=zzz_lib
learn$ ls
>> apps rebar rebar-src src

And let’s make it do something:

learn$ cd src

Create and save a module called hello.erl that does something:

hello() ->
  io:format("Hello from zzz_lib!~n", []).

Back in the shell move the src directory to apps/zzz_lib:

src$ cd ..
learn$ mv src apps/zzz_lib/

How can I compile these two applications?

First, we need to create a rebar.config file in our project home directory. Create the file, add the following directive and save:

{sub_dirs, ["apps/zzz", "apps/zzz/src", "apps/zzz_lib", "apps/zzz_lib/src" ] }.

Back in the shell:

learn$ ls
>> apps rebar rebar-src rebar.config

Now compile:

learn$ ./rebar compile

If you see the following, pat yourself on the back:

==> zzz (compile)
Compiled src/zzz_app.erl
Compiled src/zzz_sup.erl
Compiled src/zzz_srv.erl
==> src (compile)
==> zzz_lib (compile)
Compiled src/hello.erl
Compiled src/zzz_lib_app.erl
Compiled src/zzz_lib_sup.erl
==> src (compile)
==> learn (compile)

Check out the ebin directories:

learn$ ls apps/zzz/ebin
>> zzz.app zzz_app.beam zzz_srv.beam zzz_sup.beam
learn$ ls apps/zzz_lib/ebin
>> hello.beam zzz_lib.app zzz_lib_app.beam zzz_lib_sup.beam

you’re now ready to rock and roll!!

How can I test?

Start the Erlang shell:

learn$ erl -pa apps/*/ebin
1> zzz_srv:start_link().
2> zzz_srv:say_hello().
Hello from zzz_srv!
3> zzz_srv:stop().
4> hello:hello().
Hello from zzz_lib!


I got an error when I compiled. What now?

make sure your rebar.config directive, as shown above, is correct.

Make sure you have this directory structure:

learn$ tree
│   ├── zzz
│   │   ├── ebin
│   │   └── src
│   │       ├── zzz_app.erl
│   │       ├── zzz.app.src
│   │       ├── zzz_srv.erl
│   │       └── zzz_sup.erl
│   └── zzz_lib
│   │   ├── ebin
│       └── src
│           ├── hello.erl
│           ├── zzz_lib_app.erl
│           ├── zzz_lib.app.src
│           └── zzz_lib_sup.erl
├── rebar
└── rebar.config

Fix any source code errors, and recompile:

learn$ ./rebar compile

What you’ve learned

You’ve now had a good soak in basic Erlang/OTP conventions and Erlang. You can install Rebar, create Erlang/OTP applications, and compile them. You’ve also created a simple gen_server.

Where to go from here

Study the online and printed Erlang documentation upside and sideways. Skim to see what’s there, then reread everytime you have a problem. You’ll be an Erlang/OTP wizard before you know it.

References on the web

Getting Started: https://github.com/basho/rebar/wiki/Getting-started

Damn Technology: http://damntechnology.blogspot.com/

How to create, build, and run an Erlang OTP application using Rebar: http://skeptomai.com/?p=56#sec-3

Commands: https://github.com/basho/rebar/wiki/Rebar-commands

Erlang App. Management with Rebar: http://erlang-as-is.blogspot.com/2011/04/erlang-app-management-with-rebar-alan.html

Dizzy Smith – Building Erlang Applications with Rebar: http://ontwik.com/erlang/dizzy-smith-building-erlang-applications-with-rebar/

Rebar Demo using ibrowse: http://vimeo.com/8311407

rebar / rebar.config.sample: https://github.com/basho/rebar/blob/master/rebar.config.sample?source=cc