Why build from layers

When creating a charm, you always have the option of doing it the traditional way by creating each hook, implementing each side of the interface you need for each relation your charm requires or provides, manage the dependencies, such as charm-helpers, that your charm uses, et cetera. What you really want to do, however, is focus on your charm. So, why not leverage the reusable work of others and keep your charm code as minimal and tightly focused as possible?

Enter the concept of building charms from layers. Layers let you build on the work of other charmers, whether that work is in the form of other charms that you can extend and modify, interfaces that are already built for you and know how to communicate with a remote application and let you know when that application is ready and what it provides for you, or partial base layers that make managing dependencies much easier. And it does this in a consistent, repeatable, and audit-able way.

What are layers?

Layers are encapsulated charm code which lend themselves to being re-used across charms. They come in distinct flavors:

  • Base/runtime, Interface, or Charm layers

Each of these has a distinct role, and it’s important to understand how a charm should be broken up into these types of layers. Generally, a charm will contain one base layer, one charm layer, and one or more interface layers, but it is possible that a charm might include more than one base layer, as well.

Base, or Runtime, Layers

Base layers are layers that other charms can be built on. They contain things that are common to many different charms, and allow charms to reuse that commonality without having to reimplement it each time. Base layers typically are not sufficient on their own to be considered a charm; they likely can’t be built into a deployable charm, and if they can, they’re unlikely to do anything useful.

The basic layer provides the minimum needed to use the charms.reactive framework. The layer-basic provides:
Wheelhouse support for management of python dependencies. Hook decorators so the code can react to Juju Hooks. Logic decorators for bash and python code (@when, @when_not, @when_any, etc). A python library named charmhelpers to make writing charm code easier

The most useful base layers are actually a type of runtime layer. For example, layer-apache-php provides Apache2 and mod-php, as well as mechanisms for fetching and installing a PHP project within that runtime. Other layers can build off the runtime layers to avoid code duplication and separate concerns.

Base layers can be written in any language, but must at a minimum provide the reactive framework that glues layers together, which is written in Python. This can be done trivially by building the base layer off of layer-basic.

Interface Layers

Interface layers are perhaps the most misunderstood type of layer, and are responsible for the communication that transpires over a relation between two applications. This type of layer encapsulates a single “interface protocol” and is generally written and maintained by the author of the primary charm that provides that interface. However, it does cover both sides (provides and requires) of the relation and turns the two-way key-value store that are Juju relations under-the-hood into a full-fledged API for interacting with charms supporting that interface.

It is important to note that interface layers do not actually implement either side of the relation. Instead, they are solely responsible for the communication that goes on over the relation, relying on charms on either end to decide what to do with the results of that communication.

Interface layers currently must be written in Python and extend the ReactiveBase class, though they can then be used by any language using the built-in CLI API.

There's more on programming interface layers in the Developing Interface Layers guide.

Charm Layers

Building on base and interface layers, charm layers are what actually get turned into charms. This is where the core logic of the charm should go, the logic specific to that individual charm. This layer brings together all the pieces needed to create the charm. It is where most of the charm’s config options will be defined, and where the reactive handlers that do the specific work of the charm will go. It will need to contain the charm’s README, copyright, icon, and so on.

Charm layers should be the most common type of layer, and is what most charm authors will be dealing with. However, the goal is to keep them hyper-focused on just that specific charm’s logic and needs, and to push any commonality into an appropriate base layer. Charm layers should contain as little boilerplate as possible.

Charm layers can be written in any language, and there are helpers for writing them in Bash.


States are arbitrarily named flags that are defined by the layers author and evaluated during juju hooks. States allow for the layer, or related layers to subscribe to these states and take action only when appropriate. Consider the example illustrated in the Getting Started guide. apache.available is set from the apache-php layer. Any layers built on top of the apache-php layer can subscribe to this state with a @when decorator to take action only after the Apache application has been started. Subsequently, the @when_not decorator has also been made to assist guarding against running code when a state has been set, which lends itself nicely to idempotent behavior.

When charming a runtime layer, it's important to think through the states you will be setting, and to expose a good level of states so that complimentary layers may join the state machine.

Another example is the docker-layer, where the docker daemon is installed and sets a docker.ready state, which is an intermediate state intended for docker-plugins to install and configure themselves before it becomes available for being loaded with workloads. This allows a charm author to plug right into the charm, extend the capabilities of a vanilla docker daemon, and modify it without any interruption to the workloads targeted at that unit. Top layer charms need only subscribe to the docker.available state to ensure their workload is being run after the pre-dependency configuration has been performed.

Charmers can set synthetic states:

from charms.reactive import set_state

charms.reactive set_state 'apache.available'

And subsequently subscribe to them:

def deploy_middleware():
  # doing something to deploy middleware
function deploy_middleware(){
   # doing something to deploy middleware

Writing a layer

The Writing a layer by example illustrates how to write you own layer. The layer-vanilla is an excellent example of how to write a layer for a PHP application.

Building a layer into a charm

The Getting started guide contains steps on how to build a layer into a charm.

Note: You must have the Charm Tools software installed to use the charm build command.

© 2018 Canonical Ltd. Ubuntu and Canonical are registered trademarks of Canonical Ltd.