Rs corporate problem


Lilly Helbling


During my rotation on the Pathways team, I got assigned a project where I had to bring a dashboard, written in R, to the cloud.

Another graduate was responsible for doing the data processing while I was responsible for setting up CI/CD. Throughout this process, I had to write a few test programmes to verify settings and work out how environments worked within R.

The target platform was our existing cloud infrastructure on AWS.


For those uninstantiated on what responsibilities each <insert buzzword here> is responsible for and how this would affect our final deployment, allow me to break it down:


GitLab is a source control management platform, very similar to GitHub. Without going into too much detail, the idea is that a team could work on the project at the same time while keeping track of changes and avoiding conflicts.

You would typically a keep record of each past release and keep an active development branch which you branch off of for each feature. Ideally, you would have each branch deployed to its isolated environment to test your progress in an authentic environment.


Jenkins will pick up any changes to the git repo and start the pipeline as desired. The "Pipeline" is orchestrated on this platform. In an organisation, you would have a dedicated server for this where multiple teams are running their pipelines during the day.

Effectively, this standardises the rest of the process, calling scripts in order or parallel as desired.


Deploying to the cloud might be easy to say, but cloud networking is hell. Especially when you have to consider existing infrastructure - keeping it private but having the Kubernetes cluster included while only being able to access it from a secure VPN.

Terraform is a way of writing infrastructure as Code (IaC). You would want to do this because Terraform can keep track of the state of your environments. It will sort out all the resources required, imagine walking through the AWS Console and filling in all the fields, but in code.


Docker Images are a way to save the state of your applications and spin up n amount of containers that are all the same. Shiny provide a docker image that has a basic server set-up. We will add SSL certificates to this and set up a reverse proxy through apache.

A modified container will include credentials to our database that we have just deployed to AWS using Terraform. We will store our Docker Images in AWS' Elastic Container Registry.


Kubernetes applications are deployed into clusters, consisting of 'Pods'. Each pod will be based on our Docker image created earlier. A general principle to consider with apps is that things will always break eventually. Kubernetes manages breaking applications as well as demand increases - you can set up usage rules at which point more pods will get spawned in to deal with the extra load and scale back in when demand drops.

This is a fairly typical setup when deploying to the cloud, following software principles. So while I wasn't expecting seamless integration from R, I thought it would be a reasonable assumption to assume it would behave like most languages I dealt with so far.


R Studio is the preferred IDE used by our developers and behind it sits a company maintaining it. Unlike most companies that we might be used to, the free version of R-Studio offers a very limited feature set. They also found it necessary to compare the feature set of an IDE, to the feature set of their server software? Perhaps I am misunderstanding, but feel free to check for yourself

Screenshot of R Studio

For example, how would you see "Enterprise security" in an IDE, and how is "Version Control" nowhere to be seen? As a software engineer, I find that disturbing. If you manage to install R into your environment so that you can run R scripts directly in the terminal, I would strongly recommend getting used to Visual Studio Code with the R extension installed. This will give you syntax highlighting, you can run your code directly from the terminal and view it in a web browser, view your database (requires further extensions), and most importantly will allow you to use git.

The only time that I would recommend using R Studio is if you are a single developer in your team, and are financially able to deploy your app directly through the IDE. We are well past the days of backing up your progress before trying something that might not work, sending your progress via E-Mail with different version tags etc.

Integrated Paywalls

Sadly for R, the same company that maintains R Studio also maintains the documentation. While the language itself is open-source, it is very clear that the R Studio company wants to keep a tight grip on the elements that they control and take more of a laissez-faire approach to the 'more Open Source' aspects. To be clear, they are completely within their rights to do so and I'm not trying to say they are wrong to do so, but taking such a tight grip on a powerful tool like this is not good for its community and others have already demonstrated that they can run a successful business while keeping their main product truly open source.

What's concerning about this, is that they integrate native SSL support, but lock it behind a paywall. I'm all for accessibility, but locking down on industry-standard security measures is not okay with me. If this was a paid feature within R-Studio I would be okay with it as the convenience would be the actual product. However, it's even locked down on the lower level server implementation which really goes against the open-source ethos.

So how are you supposed to integrate this yourself? Well, the official docs don't even feel like telling you Unsuspecting or inexperienced developers are being given no official guidance, and the community is on both ends of the technical spectrum, there is not a nice middle ground.

If you have found this blog post trying to work out how to do just that (setting up a reverse proxy yourself), see the instructions below for a Linux deployment with a self-signed (free but not trusted) certificate.

Update system and install apache

sudo apt update sudo apt upgrade -y sudo apt install apache2 sudo a2enmod ssl sudo systemctl restart apache2

Generate SSL Certificate and edit Apache config

sudo openssl req -x509 -nodes -days 365 -newkey rsa:2048 -keyout /etc/ssl/private/apache-selfsigned.key -out /etc/ssl/certs/apache-selfsigned.crt cd /etc/apache2/sites-available sudo a2dissite 000-default.conf nano shiny.conf


ProxyPreserveHost On ProxyPass /* http://localhost:3838/shinyapps/$1 ProxyPassReverse /* http://localhost:3838/shinyapps/$1 ServerName localhost #Redirect all http traffic to use https Redirect / https://localhost/

Point to shiny.conf and reload Apache

sudo a2ensite shiny.conf sudo service apache2 reload

Poor Documentation

If you've followed the link to the official documentation above, you might have noticed that it's quite bare-bones compared to other environments like Node for example. I'm bringing this up due to the irony of a web application having outdated designs on its website.

Another aspect where I got negatively surprised was when we got to the stage where our AWS resources were deployed and all we had to pass to R was the connection details. My first instinct was to pass it as an environment variable to my Docker container. While trying to find out how to read system variables, I realised that even though it is natively supported, there are no official docs on doing just that - all results appear to be from Universities, blog posts or similar. If you are wondering, the function to do that returns a 'vector' which seems to be similar to an associative array.

Get environment variables


After working out the syntax from unofficial sources, I realised that my variables weren't being read correctly. Thankfully I made sure to test the Docker container in isolation before introducing more possible points of failure through Terraform and Jenkins. When printing out all environment variables I realised that it was a subset of what was available on the system.

I investigated any possible causes for this but couldn't come up with a solution. After some more research, I found this Google Groups post by one of the developers. Effectively, R Shiny has an allow-list of environment variables that it will pass through to the server process. Their justification is that it increases security, but more about this later on.

Another example of undocumented behaviour is about a warning that R Shiny gives you a warning when you run it as root. While that's a fair security warning, it manually prevents users from causing any issues for themselves, it switches to the 'shiny' user it creates. While that's great, it also means that if you need any user-specific configuration for the shiny-server, they will just get removed when the server is run under a different user. This is yet another example of design decisions that got made but have not been documented making related issues difficult and time-consuming to debug.

Design decisions with such an impact in modern deployments should be documented officially and not on a third party forum like a google groups page by a singular developer. In my opinion, this now goes beyond only writing documentation for your parts of an open-source product that one entity maintains, this is either active neglect or incompetency - given how much money they must be making by using that gap in the market I will put it down to neglect.

Deployment implications

I mentioned the pipeline used on this piece of work for context, because the implications of those complaints mentioned earlier make for a less secure pipeline. An example of this, is about environment variables mentioned earlier on. Environment variables when set through 'export' are bound to the context of the user they're set to. I mentioned earlier how R-Shiny servers are ran under the shiny user, but in a Dockerfile you want to keep things as simple as possible. If you're running a reverse-proxy server for example, you would need to start the server, as well as R-Shiny. You would want to start the reverse-proxy as root, but as R-Shiny switches to the shiny user anyway, it is painful to debug when not all environment variables are passed through.

Another impact regarding environment variables is that you would want to pass through credentials, such as for a database that would be created by i.e. Terraform. The only way to pass extra variables in is by creating an .Renviron file. In such a deployment, the database host might be different depending if you are in QA or Production. If you are using something like Jenkins, you would have to pipe the terraform output into a plaintext file which will now sit on the build server, include it in the docker image, push it to a cloud repository like AWS' ECR so that it can be used in a Kubernetes cluster thereby needlessly adding an extra potential security risk for no reason.

Lastly, due to the very nature of building such a pipeline, there are many different points of failure. Normally, this would be less of an issue, but with the obscure undocumented design decisions made by the R-Studio team extra complexity is added.


R and its maintainers are a perfect example as to why open-source platforms are not always the be-all and end-all. As much as they need solid input from the community, their organisational counterparts must have the best interests of the language at heart. In this case, however, the R-Studio organisation is exploiting the niche market which they planted themselves into; Research institutions with deep pockets, data analysts that have a DevOps team available to them, or hobbyist data analysts that are only trying out new technologies.

Python is gaining in popularity within the data analysis space, and I would guess this is in part due to being a transferrable skill. R will need a lot of work put into it if it wishes to compete in the same space, otherwise, I can see it slip into the same black hole as legacy languages from the 70s and 80s in the Computer Science space.