There are several different ways to run your Rails app. Starting from simple $ rails server and to Phusion Passenger, which is quite complex tools itself. Today, though, I want to focus on nginx.


In case you’re not familiar with this wonderful tool,

Nginx (pronounced “Engine-X”) is an open source Web server and a reverse proxy server for HTTP, SMTP, POP3 and IMAP protocols, with a strong focus on high concurrency, performance and low memory usage.

The main difference between [nginx]({:target=”_blank”} and Apache is that nginx doesn’t spawn a new process or thread for every new connection. It uses a very tight cycle inside a worker process to handle all connections one-by-one. This way it dramatically decreases the memory footprint required, allowing more concurrent connections.

nginx will be used as a frontend web-server for our Rails webapp.

As you probably know, recently I fell in love with Amazon AWS. It’s all nice, but this kind of relationship comes at a price, and the price tag for running even s1.small instance can be quite high. So here I offer the configuration specifically crafted to efficiently run on t1.micro AWS instance, which is (almost) free to have.

I will explain only relevant configuration lines here, but you can find complete nginx.conf and myapp.conf files at the end of this post.



First of all, we define a number of worker processes. In case of nginx, the recommendation is to make it equal to the number of processor cores available. As I said before, these workers are not the same as Apache’s, so we can use just one of them:

worker_processes 1;

In order to free some CPU cycles, we will adjust a timer resolution. Basically, it means how often nginx calls gettimeoftheday() function (no default value, nginx documentation provides 100ms as an example):

timer_resolution 500ms;

We want to be able to open as many files as possible within a single nginx worker process without crashing, so we’re increasing this number (default is 1024, you might also want to increase fs.file-max sysctl param):

worker_rlimit_nofile 10240;

To get most of it, we increase the number of simultaneous connections and use epoll type of polling, which is the ideal method for any Linux 2.6+ distribution (default is 1024 for worker_connections):

events {
    use epoll;
    worker_connections 10240;

Use Host header instead of server_name for redirects:

server_name_in_redirect off;

Don’t tell the world the intimate details of our nginx installation:

server_tokens off;


Use Linux sendfile() for better performance:

sendfile on;

We want to send all response headers in one packet. This allows a client to start rendering content immediately after the first packet arrives:

tcp_nopush on;

Generally, we want Keep-Alive timeout to be no lower than an average time a user spends on a page before requesting a new one. Google Analytics can give a great idea of what this time is for your website:

keepalive_timeout 30;

Send small data chunks immediately - don’t use Nagle’s Algorithm and increase responsiveness:

tcp_nodelay on;

As we’re aiming at fast clients, we want to decrease default timeout for waiting client data to save some more memory (default is 60s):

client_body_timeout   10;
client_header_timeout 10;

Decrease memory requirements for storing request headers (default is 1024 bytes):

client_header_buffer_size 128;

Increase largest allowable request body size. Essentially, this is the maximum size of file upload (default is 1m):

client_max_body_size 8m;


For better performance we enable caching of open file descriptors, information about existence of files/directories, etc. Please note this is not content caching (it uses proxy_cache, which is discussed later):

open_file_cache           max=1000 inactive=20s;
open_file_cache_valid     30s;
open_file_cache_min_uses  2;
open_file_cache_errors    on;


In order to increase performance and cut memory footprint we enable content caching. Almost all parameters are quite self-explanatory. levels parameter sets the number of subdirectory levels:

proxy_cache_path /var/lib/nginx/cache  levels=1:2  keys_zone=cache:80m inactive=1d  max_size=2500m;

nginx cache uses composite keys to store cached content. We want to slightly improve it to have different cache for different request methods (GET / POST):

proxy_cache_key "$scheme$request_method$host$request_uri";

And we globally enable proxy caching:

proxy_cache cache;

By default, only content with HTTP 200 response codes is cached. One of the apps I developer refreshed information once a day, so it was pretty safe to have all pages cached for 24 hours:

proxy_cache_valid  200 302  1d;
proxy_cache_valid  301      1d;
proxy_cache_valid  any      1m;

Each time a Rails app tries to set a cookie, even if it’s not used. So we can safely ignore it along with some other headers which prevent nginx from caching. But, please, use this config line with caution, as for many cases it would break your apps!

proxy_ignore_headers "X-Accel-Redirect" "X-Accel-Expires" "Expires" "Cache-Control" "Set-Cookie";

We want to increase timeout to allow caching engine enough time to answer:

proxy_connect_timeout 300;
proxy_read_timeout    120;
proxy_send_timeout    120;

We also slightly increase proxy memory buffer for faster responses:

proxy_buffer_size           32k;
proxy_buffers               4 32k;
proxy_busy_buffers_size     32k;
proxy_temp_file_write_size  32k;


We enable compression for network bandwidth optimization and faster response times. Here it’s disabled for broken/unsupported browser and support for HTTP/1.0 is added:

gzip              on;
gzip_http_version 1.0;
gzip_disable      "MSIE [1-6]\.(?!.*SV1)";

Slightly decrease a number and size of memory buffers used to store compressed data:

gzip_buffers 4 16k;

Slightly increase compression level (1 is default and the lowest, 9 is the highest):

gzip_comp_level 2;

Compress everything no matter the size (default is 20 bytes):

gzip_min_length 0;

Compress additional Content Types (default is only text/html):

gzip_types text/plain text/css application/x-javascript text/xml application/xml application/xml+rss text/javascript;

Enable compression for proxies as well, but do not compress everything. Otherwise we risk confusing remote proxies:

gzip_proxied expired no-cache no-store private auth;


We use unicorn server as a backend for our Rails webapp with a disabled fail_timeout option:

upstream unicorn_myapp {
    server unix:/var/rails/myapp/current/tmp/sockets/unicorn.sock fail_timeout=0;

General server settings:

server {

    root /var/rails/myapp/current/public;



First we try to open static files, and if that fails we go to the @app section:

server {


    try_files $uri @app;



Here we have a link to the previously defined upstream server and set necessary HTTP headers to give relevant information to our Rails app:

server {


    location @app {
        proxy_pass        http://unicorn_myapp;
        proxy_set_header  Host $http_host;
        proxy_set_header  X-Forwarded-For $proxy_add_x_forwarded_for;
        proxy_redirect    off;



Here we provide paths for the static content. Please note that we don’t want robots.txt and favicon.ico  requests to pollute our access.log:

server {


    location = /favicon.ico {
        log_not_found off;
        access_log    off;

    location = /robots.txt {
        allow         all;
        log_not_found off;
        access_log    off;

    location ~* \.(js|css|png|jpg|jpeg|gif|ico)$ {
        expires       max;
        log_not_found off;



And, finally, we gracefully handle any 5xx errors our Rails app might run into:

server {


    error_page 500 502 503 504 /500.html;

    location = /500.html {
        root /var/rails/gtf/current/public;



Before and After – Results

So here is how my webapp did before performance optimizations:

$ ab -c 10 -n 50
This is ApacheBench, Version 2.3 <$Revision: 655654 $>
Copyright 1996 Adam Twiss, Zeus Technology Ltd,
Licensed to The Apache Software Foundation,

Benchmarking (be patient).....done

Server Software:        nginx
Server Hostname:
Server Port:            80

Document Path:          /
Document Length:        7552 bytes

Concurrency Level:      10
Time taken for tests:   300.177 seconds
Complete requests:      50
Failed requests:        43
   (Connect: 0, Receive: 0, Length: 43, Exceptions: 0)
Write errors:           0
Non-2xx responses:      43
Total transferred:      90043 bytes
HTML transferred:       80513 bytes
Requests per second:    0.17 [#/sec] (mean)
Time per request:       60035.439 [ms] (mean)
Time per request:       6003.544 [ms] (mean, across all concurrent requests)
Transfer rate:          0.29 [Kbytes/sec] received

Connection Times (ms)
              min  mean[+/-sd] median   max
Connect:        2    5  10.9      2      62
Processing:  8069 56009 11651.4  60028   60099
Waiting:     8065 56009 11651.9  60028   60099
Total:       8071 56014 11652.4  60030   60101

Percentage of the requests served within a certain time (ms)
  50%  60030
  66%  60037
  75%  60037
  80%  60061
  90%  60070
  95%  60098
  98%  60101
  99%  60101
 100%  60101 (longest request)

Just terrible, isn’t it?

And what we’ve got after:

$ ab -c 10 -n 50
This is ApacheBench, Version 2.3 <$Revision: 655654 $>
Copyright 1996 Adam Twiss, Zeus Technology Ltd,
Licensed to The Apache Software Foundation,

Benchmarking (be patient).....done

Server Software:        nginx
Server Hostname:
Server Port:            80

Document Path:          /
Document Length:        7552 bytes

Concurrency Level:      10
Time taken for tests:   0.025 seconds
Complete requests:      50
Failed requests:        0
Write errors:           0
Total transferred:      399600 bytes
HTML transferred:       377600 bytes
Requests per second:    2003.12 [#/sec] (mean)
Time per request:       4.992 [ms] (mean)
Time per request:       0.499 [ms] (mean, across all concurrent requests)
Transfer rate:          15633.76 [Kbytes/sec] received

Connection Times (ms)
              min  mean[+/-sd] median   max
Connect:        2    2   0.2      2       2
Processing:     2    3   0.3      3       4
Waiting:        2    2   0.3      2       3
Total:          4    5   0.4      5       6

Percentage of the requests served within a certain time (ms)
  50%      5
  66%      5
  75%      5
  80%      5
  90%      5
  95%      5
  98%      6
  99%      6
 100%      6 (longest request)

Nice difference, eh? :)

gzip compression allowed to decrease response times three-fold. Another two-fold decrease was from open files caching. But, of course, most of the difference came from proxy_cache.


As promised, here are the full versions of nginx.conf and myapp.conf files: