Getting started

Erlang is more than a language, it is also an operating system for your applications. Erlang developers rarely write standalone modules, they write libraries or applications, and then bundle those into what is called a release. A release contains the Erlang VM plus all applications required to run the node, so it can be pushed to production directly.

This chapter walks you through all the steps of setting up Cowboy, writing your first application and generating your first release. At the end of this chapter you should know everything you need to push your first Cowboy application to production.

Application skeleton

Let's start by creating this application. We will simply call it hello_erlang. This application will have the following directory structure:

Once the release is generated, we will also have the following files added:

As you can probably guess, the .app.src file end up becoming the .app file, and the .erl files are compiled into .beam. Then, the whole release will be copied into the _rel/ directory.

The .app file contains various informations about the application. It contains its name, a description, a version, a list of modules, default configuration and more.

Using a build system like, the list of modules will be included automatically in the .app file, so you don't need to manually put them in your .app.src file.

For generating the release, we will use relx as it is a much simpler alternative to the tool coming with Erlang.

First, create the hello_erlang directory. It should have the same name as the application within it. Then we create the src directory inside it, which will contain the source code for our application.

Let's first create the file. It should be pretty straightforward for the most part. You can use the following template and change what you like in it.

The modules line will be replaced with the list of modules during compilation. Make sure to leave this line even if you do not use it directly.

The registered value indicates which processes are registered by this application. You will often only register the top-level supervisor of the application.

The applications value lists the applications that must be started for this application to work. The Erlang release will start all the applications listed here automatically.

The mod value defines how the application should be started. Erlang will use the hello_erlang_app module for starting the application.

The hello_erlang_app module is what we call an application behavior. The application behavior must define two functions: start/2 and stop/1, for starting and stopping the application. A typical application module would look like this:

That's not enough however. Since we are building a Cowboy based application, we also need to initialize Cowboy when we start our application.

Setting up Cowboy

Cowboy does nothing by default.

Cowboy uses Ranch for handling the connections and provides convenience functions to start Ranch listeners.

The cowboy:start_http/4 function starts a listener for HTTP connections using the TCP transport. The cowboy:start_https/4 function starts a listener for HTTPS connections using the SSL transport.

Listeners are a group of processes that are used to accept and manage connections. The processes used specifically for accepting connections are called acceptors. The number of acceptor processes is unrelated to the maximum number of connections Cowboy can handle. Please refer to the Ranch guide for in-depth information.

Listeners are named. They spawn a given number of acceptors, listen for connections using the given transport options and pass along the protocol options to the connection processes. The protocol options must include the dispatch list for routing requests to handlers.

The dispatch list is explained in greater details in the Routing chapter. For the purpose of this example we will simply map all URLs to our handler hello_handler, using the wildcard _ for both the hostname and path parts of the URL.

This is what the hello_erlang_app:start/2 function looks like with Cowboy initialized.

Do note that we told Cowboy to start listening on port 8080. You can change this value if needed.

Our application doesn't need to start any process, as Cowboy will automatically start processes for every incoming connections. We are still required to have a top-level supervisor however, albeit a fairly small one.

Finally, we need to write the code for handling incoming requests.

Handling HTTP requests

Cowboy features many kinds of handlers. For this simple example, we will just use the plain HTTP handler, which has three callback functions: init/3, handle/2 and terminate/3. You can find more information about the arguments and possible return values of these callbacks in the cowboy_http_handler function reference.

Our handler will only send a friendly hello back to the client.

The Req variable above is the Req object, which allows the developer to obtain information about the request and to perform a reply. Its usage is documented in the cowboy_req function reference.

The code for our application is ready, so let's build a release!


First we need to download

Then we need to create a Makefile that will include for building our application. We need to define the Cowboy dependency in the Makefile. Thankfully already knows where to find Cowboy as it features a package index, so we can just tell it to look there.

Note that when creating production nodes you will most likely want to use a specific version of Cowboy instead of master, and properly test your release every time you update Cowboy.

If you type make in a shell now, your application should build as expected. If you get compilation errors, double check that you haven't made any typo when creating the previous files.

Generating the release

That's not all however, as we want to create a working release. For that purpose, we need to create a relx.config file. When this file exists, will automatically download relx and build the release when you type make.

In the relx.config file, we only need to tell relx that we want the release to include the hello_erlang application, and that we want an extended start script for convenience. relx will figure out which other applications are required by looking into the .app files for dependencies.

The release value is used to specify the release name, its version, and the applications to be included.

We can now build and start the release.

If you then access http://localhost:8080 using your browser, you should receive a nice greet!


See also

Version select