Packaging tutorial (Generic)

Style: Hands-on introductory tutorial.

This tutorial will show you how to package an app for Sandstorm in five minutes. (Sometimes the downloads can take up to 30 minutes, but the interactive time is about five minutes. Any slow steps are labeled accordingly.) Going through this tutorial, you'll learn:

  • How to take an existing web application and turn it into a Sandstorm package (SPK).

  • How our packaging helper (vagrant-spk) lets you edit the app's files on your main operating system (we support Mac OS, Linux, and Windows), even though Sandstorm apps always run on Linux.

Keep in mind that if you make a Sandstorm package, your app will receive the following benefits.

  • Sandstorm can handle single sign-on and permissions, so the app doesn't need a login form.

  • Sandstorm can allow you to distribute an app, have as many users as you want, and pay nothing at all for hosting, since each user hosts their own instance of the app.

  • When the user needs a new document, chat room, mailbox, or other item that they create using your app, they create a new grain of your app within Sandstorm. Each grain runs totally isolated from each other grain, and Sandstorm auto-scales your app's processes based on use.

  • Users can trust that your app is securely sandboxed, giving them the confidence to use it without fear.

  • A single codebase can support running within Sandstorm as well as running outside of Sandstorm, if you wish.

The tutorial uses a PHP app as an example, but Sandstorm supports any programming language that runs on Linux, such as Meteor, Python, Rails, Node, PHP, C++, Go, Rust, and more. Read about vagrant-spk's platform stacks to see how to optimize your package for your app's programming language.

Once you've worked through this tutorial, look in the Next steps section at the bottom of this document to learn more about how to improve the speed of packaging on your computer, learn about user authentication and permissions in Sandstorm, and more.

Overview of Sandstorm packages

A Sandstorm application package includes all the code needed to run your app, including all binaries, libraries, modules, etc. Normally, figuring out exactly what to put in a package could be tedious, and if you decide to include everything, it would result in a massive package file. Sandstorm makes it easy to keep things small by employing a trick: it watches your server running on your development machine and pulls in all the files the server uses.

Keeping the package small means that it's easy for people to install and update the package you're creating.

Sandstorm packages rely on the Sandstorm platform to handle adding new user accounts and other access control elements. Read more in the App Developer Handbook.

Before proceeding, install vagrant-spk

Make sure you've worked through the vagrant-spk installation guide before going through this tutorial!

Creating a package

Over the course of section, we will use vagrant-spk to create a Sandstorm package containing the app and all its dependencies.

Choose an app that you will package

This tutorial uses a sample PHP web app. To download it, run the following commands:

cd ~/projects
git clone git://

The app's code will be stored at ~/projects/php-app-to-package-for-sandstorm. We will spend the rest of the tutorial in that directory and its sub-directories.

Note: Feel free to spend a moment looking around this folder you just downloaded (or view its contents on GitHub). You'll find an index.php and some CSS and Javascript.

Create .sandstorm, to store packaging information for the app

Over the course of this tutorial, we will create and modify the .sandstorm/ directory in the project. This directory contains the Sandstorm packaging information, such as the app name and the scripts required to create the package.

We'll use the vagrant-spk tool to create this directory.

The purpose of vagrant-spk is to create a Linux system where Sandstorm and your app run successfully. It acts differently based on which platform stack you want to use. In our case, we'll use the lemp platform: Linux, nginx, MySQL, and PHP.

To do that, run the following commands:

cd ~/projects/php-app-to-package-for-sandstorm
vagrant-spk setupvm lemp

You should see a message like the following:

Initializing .sandstorm directory in /Users/myself/projects/php-app-to-package-for-sandstorm/.sandstorm

You should also find that the .sandstorm/ directory now exists in your project. Here's how you can take a look:

ls ~/projects/php-app-to-package-for-sandstorm/.sandstorm

Start a virtual Linux machine containing Sandstorm

The next step is to start the virtual Linux machine, containing Sandstorm, that you will develop the package with. To do that, run the following command:

vagrant-spk vm up

(You should be running it from the ~/projects/php-app-to-package-for-sandstorm directory.)

You will see a lot of messages printed out. Some of them are not necessary; we're working on tidying up the scripts to minimize the noise.

Eventually, you will see this mesage:

==> default: Your virtual server is running at:

and get your shell back. At this point, you can continue to the next step.

Examine the Sandstorm instance you will develop against

Your system is now running a Sandstorm instance. You should visit it in your web browser now by opening this link.

Some quick facts on how that works:

  • Sandstorm is running within a Linux system created with the help of vagrant-spk, vagrant, and VirtualBox.

  • is a DNS alias that points to the same IP address as localhost. We use instead of localhost because all subdomains of also point at the localhost IP address. You can read more about wildcard DNS.

  • Sandstorm uses port 6080 by default. vagrant-spk uses port 6090 by default.

Take a moment now to sign in by clicking on Sign in in the top-right corner. Choose Sign in with a Dev account and choose Alice (admin) as the user to sign in with.

Note that there are other "dev accounts" available -- you can use this to test the experience of using your app as other users.

Over the next few steps, we will prepare the app so that it is visible in that Sandstorm instance.

Use vagrant-spk to create a package definition file for your app

Every Sandstorm package needs to declare its name. It does this in a sandstorm-pkgdef.capnp file. (capnp is short for Cap'n Proto; for the purpose of this tutorial, Cap'n Proto is a configuration file format that is easy for Sandstorm to parse.)

Let's use vagrant-spk to create a package definition file by running:

vagrant-spk init

(You should be running it from the ~/projects/php-app-to-package-for-sandstorm directory.)

This will create a new file called .sandstorm/sandstorm-pkgdef.capnp.

We'll make two changes. First, we'll give our app a title of Sandstorm Showcase. To do that, open .sandstorm/sandstorm-pkgdef.capnp in a text editor and find the line with this text:

    appTitle = (defaultText = "Example App"),

Change it to the following.

    appTitle = (defaultText = "Sandstorm Showcase"),

Second, we will customize the text that Sandstorm users see when they want to create a new grain of the app. This "noun" is a description of a single instance of your app. A text editor might use "document" here, or a file sync app might use "folder". Our sample app will create a "showcase", so to do this, find the line containing:

      ( nounPhrase = (defaultText = "instance"),

and change it to read:

      ( nounPhrase = (defaultText = "showcase"),

Make the app available in the Sandstorm, in development mode

Sandstorm app development focuses around dev mode, which makes the current code of an app available.

Make this app available in dev mode by doing:

vagrant-spk dev

(You should be running it from the ~/projects/php-app-to-package-for-sandstorm directory.)

On the terminal, you will see a message like:

App is now available from Sandstorm server. Ctrl+C to disconnect.

Now you can visit the Sandstorm at and log in as Alice (admin). Your app name should appear in the list of apps.

You can click New showcase and see the PHP code running.

Note that each grain of the app (each "showcase", for this app) runs separate from each other. You can see that for this app because the app stores the number of times you have reloaded the page. If you create another New showcase, each grain will store its data separately.

In Sandstorm, resources like a database are embedded into the package. That helps enforce this isolation between all grains, even of the same app.

Stop the development server and create a package file

The final step in this tutorial is to create a Sandstorm package (SPK) file, containing the app and all its dependencies. This SPK file is something that you can give directly to people who want to use the code, or add to the Sandstorm app list so people can install it easily from their own servers.

To do that, we first stop the vagrant-spk dev server. To do that, type Ctrl-C on your keyboard. You will see some messages like:

Unmounted cleanly.
Updating file list.

If you're still logged into your Sandstorm instance, you will notice the app vanishing from the list of apps on the left.

To create the SPK file, run:

vagrant-spk pack ~/projects/package.spk

(You should be running it from the ~/projects/php-app-to-package-for-sandstorm directory.)

This will take a few moments, and once it is done, there will be a file in ~/projects/package.spk that contains the full app.

You can see how large it is by running the following command:

du -h ~/projects/package.spk

You will see output like this.


or sixteen megabytes.

Now, you can upload this to your development Sandstorm instance by clicking *Upload app and choosing this file in your web browser's upload dialog.

To learn how to go further and share this SPK file, or what you should know for other web frameworks, check out the What's next section below.

Stop the virtual machine running your app and Sandstorm

With vagrant-spk, before you can develop a second app, you must stop the virtual machine created as part of developing the first one. This is because the vagrant-spk virtual machine always uses port 6090.

In our case, we're done using the virtual machine running this app, so it's safe to stop it. Run this command:

vagrant-spk vm halt

(You should be running it from the ~/projects/php-app-to-package-for-sandstorm directory.)

Now port 6090 is available for other app packaging projects. If you ever want to work on this app's packaging again, you can bring it up by running:

vagrant-spk vm up

If you ever are confused about which Vagrant virtual machines are running, you can try this command:

vagrant global-status

(Note: It's vagrant here, not vagrant-spk.)

What's next

Now that you've seen the basics of how a Sandstorm app works, you might be interested in any of the following:

  • What makes a great Sandstorm app? See the App Developer Handbook.
  • How do I learn more about the technical underpinnings of vagrant-spk? How do I make vagrant-spk faster? Read about understanding & customizing vagrant-spk.
  • How do I package-up a Python, Meteor, or other non-PHP app? Read about platform stacks.
  • Will this work on Windows? Yes, but you might experience issues with symbolic links or long filenames. There are often known workarounds for these issues, so if you run into them, please request help on the development group or IRC.
  • Will this work if I typically run Sandstorm-related programs in a virtual machine? We don't know, but we hope so.