Using HTTPS with Elixir on Cowboy

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We recently needed to serve requests via HTTPS locally in our Elixir app. We found several ways of doing it in a Phoenix app, but we just had a Plug running on Cowboy. We had to go into some source code and documentation to figure out how to make this work. Here's how we learned to serve https in our local development environments.

To get started, create a new mix app:

mix new secure_app
cd secure_app

Add cowboy and plug as dependencies in the mix.exs file:

  defp deps do
    [
      {:cowboy, "~> 1.1.2"},
      {:plug, "~> 1.3.4"}
    ]
  end

Run mix deps.get in the command line to install these dependencies. We'll write a very simple plug for this example, similar to the one in the Plug documentation. You can check How to write a plug package and publish it on hex for more information on writing Plugs.

In lib/secure_app/hello_plug.ex, we write this code:

defmodule SecureApp.HelloPlug do
  import Plug.Conn

  def init(options), do: options

  def call(conn, _opts) do
    conn
    |> put_resp_content_type("text/html")
    |> send_resp(200, "<h1>Hello 🌍</h1>")
  end
end

We want to start our Plug application under the supervision tree, so in lib/secure_app.ex we write:

defmodule SecureApp do
  use Application

  def start(_type, _args) do
    children = [
      Plug.Adapters.Cowboy.child_spec(
        :http,
        SecureApp.HelloPlug,
        [],
        port: 8080
      )
    ]

    Supervisor.start_link(children, strategy: :one_for_one)
  end
end

Finally, add the module to our mix.exs file:

  def application do
    [
      extra_applications: [:logger],
      mod: {SecureApp, []}
    ]
  end

If we run the app with mix run --no-halt and visit http://localhost:8080 in a web browser, we'll see our "Hello world" message.

Looking for information on HTTPS in Elixir, we found the documentation for the Cowboy adapter in the Plug library. We actually found this documentation in the source code first, which says we're either bad at searching online or there's some search engine optimization missing there.

From the docs, we got almost everything we needed to get https running. First thing to notice is:

:port - the port to run the server, defaults to 4000 (http) and 4040 (https).

The most interesting part is in the https function. It gives us a code example with everything we need to add to our app to make it serve https.

We're going to need certificates for localhost, and we found this blog post by Ossi Hanhinen had the commands to generate a self-signed certificate. We generated the key and certificate in the priv/keys directory inside our project.

Now the code for start in our module looks like this:

def start(_type, _args) do
  cowboy_options = [
    keyfile: "priv/keys/localhost.key",
    certfile: "priv/keys/localhost.cert",
    otp_app: :secure_app
  ]

  children = [
    Plug.Adapters.Cowboy.child_spec(
      :https,
      SecureApp.HelloPlug,
      [],
      cowboy_options
    )
  ]

  Supervisor.start_link(children, strategy: :one_for_one)
end

We are not setting a port since we know from the documentaion that https defaults to 4040, but we could add it in cowboy_options. If we run our app now with mix run --no-halt, we can visit the app on localhost using https:

HTTPS localhost

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