Recently I started working on an Elixir project, which was a breath of fresh air, especially after two years mainly working with Node. However, it didn’t take long before I stumbled upon something that puzzled me.

In the production configuration files of this project, we have environment variable names interpolated in strings as follows:

# config/prod.exs
config :my_app, MyApp.Repo,
  hostname: "${DATABASE_HOSTNAME}",
  username: "${DATABASE_USERNAME}",

Clearly this approach wouldn’t work for the :dev environment, where we would typically see something like this:

# config/dev.exs
config :my_app, MyApp.Repo,
  hostname: System.get_env("DATABASE_HOSTNAME"),
  username: System.get_env("DATABASE_USERNAME"),

However, I also knew that the interpolation syntax did work for us in production. This made me curious: How exactly does this work? It was time for some investigation.

The How

After consulting with our old friend Google and chatting with our new friend GPT-4, I learnt that this peculiar method of setting configuration values from environment variables is facilitated by Distillery, the tool we use for building releases.

For this functionality to be enabled, the environment variable REPLACE_OS_VARS must be set to true. And then Distillery would replace environment variables with their actual values upon encountering interpolation syntax, such as "${DATABASE_USERNAME}", in the configuration files.

As a matter of fact, when it comes to handling application configuration, Distillery supports more than simple variable interpolation. It also supports Config Providers, which are custom modules capable of dynamically generating configuration at the start of your application. For further details, please refer to the relevant section in Distillery documentation.

The Why

While it’s enlightening to learn how it works, I kept wondering: why does Distillery offer support for both interpolation and Config Providers? Isn’t System.get_env good enough for this purpose? As it turns out, although System.get_env is quite effective for the :dev environment, it can be inadequate for the production environment in many cases.

To grasp this, we need to take a step back and have a quick review of how Elixir the language works. Elixir is a compiled language. When you execute mix compile, the Elixir compiler transforms your project into Erlang bytecode. This bytecode then runs on the Erlang Virtual Machine, commonly known as Bogdan/Björn’s Erlang Abstract Machine (BEAM).

The configuration files and code that are outside of function bodies within a module are evaluated at compile-time. Thus, if you use System.get_env("DATABASE_HOSTNAME") within a configuration file, it’s evaluated during the compilation process. This means the value of the environment variable DATABASE_HOSTNAME is then captured and embedded in the application as a static value.

For production configurations, the goal is generally to dynamically capture runtime environment variables, rather than to embedding those from the build server as static values. Apparently using System.get_env wouldn’t achieve this purpose.

That is precisely why Distillery supports both the interpolation syntax and Config Providers, enabling dynamic configuration value setting from the runtime environment of the application.

It’s noteworthy that with version 1.9, Elixir introduced built-in support for releases as well, which includes a novel approach to runtime configuration. This was achieved through the introduction of a new configuration file config/releases.exs, which is executed every time a release starts. Then in Elixir 1.11, another configuration file config/runtime.exs was introduced, which is essentially a superior version of config/releases.exs. For more details on these developments, please consult to the relevant documentation.


In this post, I shared my initial confusion about the interpolation syntax "${DATABASE_HOSTNAME}" in our production configuration files, followed by an exploration into understanding how it works and why is it necessary for runtime configuration. As always, my aim is to provide a reference for my further self and perhaps assist others along their journey.

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