ngrok and OAuth for private tunnels

Protect private services in Release with ngrok

You may need a simple way to keep the applications you deploy to Release ephemeral environments private. Perhaps you're deploying a basic disposable admin tool, for example, or you would like to share a link with a potential client or vendor outside your organization. In such cases, you don't want to set up expensive access controls that need time-consuming configuration.

The solution is to create a proxy layer for your Release application environment.

ngrok vs. open-source proxy servers

We have a guide available for an open source OAuth2 server.

Alternatively, take a look at this list of open source tunneling solutions you can investigate.

We chose ngrok for this guide because it offers a simple, lightweight, and cost-effective way to securely expose an application without too much additional configuration or infrastructure maintenance.

What you'll need

Here's what you'll need to follow along:

  • An ngrok account. A free account may work for once-off environments. A business license is better for multiple accounts in a wildcard setup. Visit ngrok's pricing page for more details.

  • An ngrok token. Preferably a token generated specifically for this use case so it can be revoked or changed without impacting a regularly used token somewhere else.

  • A Release application running in your Release account.

  • A service that you would like to expose via the proxy tunnel.

  • An OAuth, SAML, or OIDC service provider, such as Google Workspaces – this is optional, as it may incur vendor charges.

  • A custom domain name for your private pages, this is also optional, as it may incur vendor charges.

Set up

Say you want to expose the following service via the proxy tunnel:

- name: docsbuild
  image: mycoolrepo/mycoolapp/docsbuild
  registry: local
  has_repo: true
  - type: container_port
    port: '8080'
    context: "."
    dockerfile: docs/Dockerfile

The docsbuild service is not for public consumption, but we would like to view it along with our code deployments in pre-production settings. The main application is configured with authentication and access controls, but the documentation is a set of web pages and would be difficult to protect. If you added a regular node_port: and hostnames: section to your application, the documentation would be exposed to the internet.

Let's create a private tunnel for an additional layer of protection instead.

Add the ngrok secure tunnel

We can expose the application via ngrok using a simple container. Instantiate this service alongside your other services in the application template as follows:

- name: docsbuild-tunnel
  image: wernight/ngrok

Next, add the following to your application's environment variables template:

  - key: NGROK_AUTH
    value: mysecretauthtoken
    secret: true
    value: docsbuild
  - key: NGROK_PORT
    value: '8080'
    value: "true"

Here, the NGROK_AUTH key has the value of your ngrok token. We use NGROK_LOOK_DOMAIN to identify the service to expose via the ngrok tunnel, in this case it is docsbuild. The port is specified as 8080. By default ngrok will use http (you could specify TLS or TCP as well). Therefore the full url to your internal service in this example would be http://docsbuild:8080. You could consider adding a sidecar and pointing to http://localhost for even more privacy. The NGROK_BINDTLS option tells ngrok to redirect from HTTP to HTTPS and only support https: traffic externally.

Add both services to your setup workflow, but don't add the tunnel service to your patch flow, since it doesn't need to be restarted during deploys:

- name: setup
  - step: docs
    - services.docsbuild
    - services.docsbuild-tunnel
    wait_for_finish: false
- name: patch
  - step: docs
    - services.docsbuild
    wait_for_finish: false

Find the tunnel address

Exposing the tunnel service logs will reveal the one-time URL in similar to the following:

ngrok by @inconshreveable

Tunnel Status                 online
Version                       2.0/2.0
Web Interface                 http://localhost:4040
Forwarding           -> docsbuild:80

Connnections                  ttl     opn     rt1     rt5     p50     p90
                              0       0       0.00    0.00    0.00    0.00

Point your browser to the Forwarding URL to view your documentation pages.

You can also expose the ngrok dashboard that runs on port 4040 by using hostnames:, or by using another tunnel pointed at the ngrok tunnel server. The ngrok tunnel dashboard could be used for various development or debugging services, but the dashboard itself will be exposed on the internet and may need to be protected too.

Release's tips for protecting private services

Here are our tips for securing private tunnels.

1. Use an easy subdomain

You may want to use a well-known custom domain name for your application tunnel endpoint, but this could incur additional costs and require an upgrade to your ngrok account.

You could instead add a subdomain directive to your environment variable template:

    value: mydocs

Which yields something like this output:

ngrok by @inconshreveable

Forwarding           -> docsbuild:80

You can also use Environment variable mappingsto create a link to the tunnel port like this


You will also need to add Hostnames and rules section like the following to your application template so that you can easily click the link in the UI or pull request comments.

- ${env_id}

2. Use a custom branded domain

For an even better domain name option, use a fully customised hostname. Please note this probably requires an upgrade to a paid ngrok account and features.


A quick diversion here is required since the custom domain names will not be managed by Release (we have no way of knowing what the ngrok tunnel addresses will be). You will need to setup CNAME record(s) in your cloud DNS provider, and a custom domain and a TLS certificate in the ngrok dashboard.

Make sure you follow ngrok's set up instructions.

Setup example


Which yields something like this output:

ngrok by @inconshreveable

Forwarding           -> docsbuild:80

You can also follow the same instructions as above for a mapping and hostnames section. This will avoid having to hardcode the values in your configuration file. These two sections should help guide you.

- ${env_id}.private.${domain}

3. Use password protection

Add a basic authentication password:

    value: "myuser"
    value: "mypassword"
    secret: true

4. Use OAuth protection

Please note that these features are an upgrade in the ngrok product feature and may require additional costs. Follow the ngrok documentation to configure an Edge, then associate the NGROK_AUTH token with an ACL to attach to the custom Edge. You can add various Edge modules, including Mutual TLS, IP restrictions, OIDC, SAML, OAuth, and more.

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