Written by Alex de Sousa

Skogsrå: Simplifying Your Elixir Configuration

Cover by Lukasz Szmigiel

Once an Elixir project is large enough, maintaining config files and configuration variables becomes a nightmare:

  • Configuration variables are scattered throughout the code so it's very easy to forget a configuration setting.
  • OS environment variables must be casted to the correct type as they are always strings.
  • Required variables must be checked by hand.
  • Setting defaults can sometimes be a bit cumbersome.
  • No type safety.


Ideally though, configurations should be:

  • Documented.
  • Easy to find.
  • Easy to read.
  • Declarative.

In summary: easy to maintain.

The problem

We'll elaborate using the the following example:

config :myapp,
  hostname: System.get_env("HOSTNAME") || "localhost",
  port: String.to_integer(System.get_env("PORT") || "80")

The previous code is:

  • Undocumented: hostname and port of what?
  • Hard to read: Too many concerns in a single line.
  • Hard to find: where are these hostname and port used?
  • Not declarative: we're telling Elixir how to retrieve the values instead of what are the values we want.

Conclusion: it's hard to maintain.

Writing a config module

We could mitigate some of these problems with one simple approach:

  • Create a module for your configs.
  • Create a function for every single configuration parameter you app has.

The following, though a bit more verbose, would be the equivalent to the previous config:

defmodule Myapp.Config do
  @moduledoc "My app config."

  @doc "My hostname"
  def hostname do
    System.get_env("HOSTNAME") || "localhost"

  @doc "My port"
  def port do
    String.to_integer(System.get_env("PORT") || "80")

Unlike our original code, this one is:

  • Documented: Every function has @doc attribute.
  • Easy to find: We just need to to look for calls to functions defined in this module.

However, we still have essentially the same code we had before, which is:

  • Hard to read.
  • Not declarative.

There's gotta be a better way!


There is a better way - Meet Skogsrå

Skogsrå is a library for loading configuration variables with ease, providing:

  • Variable defaults.
  • Automatic type casting of values.
  • Automatic docs and spec generation.
  • OS environment template generation.
  • Run-time reloading.
  • Setting variable's values at run-time.
  • Fast cached values access by using :persistent_term as temporal storage.
  • YAML configuration provider for Elixir releases.

The previous example can be re-written as follows:

defmodule Myapp.Config do
  @moduledoc "My app config."
  use Skogsra

  @envdoc "My hostname"
  app_env :hostname, :myapp, :hostname,
    default: "localhost",
    os_env: "HOSTNAME"

  @envdoc "My port"
  app_env :port, :myapp, :port,
    default: 80,
    os_env: "PORT"

This module will have these functions:

  • Myapp.Config.hostname/0 for retrieving the hostname.
  • Myapp.Config.port/0 for retrieving the port.

With this implementation, we end up with:

  • Documented configuration variables: Via @envdoc module attribute.
  • Easy to find: Every configuration variable will be in Myapp.Config module.
  • Easy to read: app_env options are self explanatory.
  • Declarative: we're telling Skogsrå what we want.
  • Bonus: Type-safety (see Strong typing section).


How it works

Calling Myapp.Config.port() will retrieve the value for the port in the following order:

  1. From the OS environment variable $PORT.
  2. From the configuration file e.g. our test config file might look like:

    # file config/test.exs
    use Mix.Config
    config :myapp,
      port: 4000
  3. From the default value, if it exists (In this case, it would return the integer 80).

The values will be casted as the default values' type unless the option type is provided (see Explicit type casting section).

Though Skogsrå has many options and features, we will just explore the ones I use the most:

Explicit type casting

When the types are not any, binary, integer, float, boolean or atom, Skogsrå cannot automatically cast values solely by the default value's type. Types then need to be specified explicitly using the option type. The available types are:

  • :any (default).
  • :binary.
  • :integer.
  • :float.
  • :boolean.
  • :atom.
  • :module: for modules loaded in the system.
  • :unsafe_module: for modules that might or might not be loaded in the system.
  • Skogsra.Type implementation: a behaviour for defining custom types.

Defining custom types

Let's say we need to read an OS environment variable called HISTOGRAM_BUCKETS as a list of integers:

export HISTOGRAM_BUCKETS="1, 10, 30, 60"

We could then implement Skogsra.Type behaviour to parse the string correctly:

defmodule Myapp.Type.IntegerList do
  use Skogsra.Type

  @impl Skogsra.Type
  def cast(value)

  def cast(value) when is_binary(value) do
    list =
      |> String.split(~r/,/)
      |> Stream.map(&String.trim/1)
      |> Enum.map(String.to_integer/1)
    {:ok, list}

  def cast(value) when is_list(value) do
    if Enum.all?(value, &is_integer/1), do: {:ok, value}, else: :error

  def cast(_) do

And finally use Myapp.Type.IntegerList in our Skogsrå configuration:

defmodule Myapp.Config do
  use Skogsra

  @envdoc "Histogram buckets"
  app_env :buckets, :myapp, :histogram_buckets,
    type: Myapp.Type.IntegerList,

Then it should be easy to retrieve our buckets from an OS environment variable:

iex(1)> System.get_env("BUCKETS")
"1, 10, 30, 60"
iex(2)> Myapp.Config.buckets()
{:ok, [1, 10, 30, 60]}

or if the variable is not defined, from our application configuration:

iex(1)> System.app_env(:myapp, :histogram_buckets)
[1, 10, 30, 60]
iex(2)> Myapp.Config.buckets()
{:ok, [1, 10, 30, 60]}

Required variables

Skogsrå provides an option for making configuration variables mandatory. This is useful when there is no default value for our variable and Skogsrå it's expected to find a value in either an OS environment variable or the application configuration e.g. given the following config module:

defmodule MyApp.Config do
  use Skogsra

  @envdoc "Server port."
  app_env :port, :myapp, :port,
    os_env: "PORT",
    required: true

The function Myapp.Config.port() will error if PORT is undefined and the application configuration is not found:

iex(1)> System.get_env("PORT")
iex(2)> Application.get_env(:myapp, :port)
iex(3)> MyApp.Config.port()
{:error, "Variable port in app myapp is undefined"}

Strong typing

All the configuration variables will have the correct function @spec definition e.g. given the following definition:

defmodule Myapp.Config do
  use Skogsra

  @envdoc "PostgreSQL hostname"
  app_env :db_port, :myapp, [:postgres, :port],
    default: 5432

The generated function Myapp.Config.db_port/0 will have the following @spec:

@spec db_port() :: {:ok, integer()} | {:error, binary()}

The type is derived from:

  • The default value (in this case the integer 5432)
  • The type configuration value (see the previous Explicit type casting section).


Skogsra provides a simple way to handle your Elixir application configurations in a type-safe and organized way. Big projects can certainly benefit from using it.

Hope you found this article useful. Happy coding!


Avatar of Alex de Sousa

Alex de Sousa

Elixir alchemist. Tech enthusiast.