Domains,, and are hosted on Heroku. is an AWS CloudFronted S3 bucket, nextstrain-data. is an AWS CloudFronted S3 bucket, nextstrain-staging. is used by our AWS Cognito user pool. is used by Nextclade. is a documentation site with the Nextstrain Read the Docs project and sub-projects. is an email ticketing system powered by Zoho Desk. is a discussion forum powered by Discourse.


We use a Heroku pipeline named nextstrain-server to manage multiple related apps. The production app serving is nextstrain-server. The canary app serving is nextstrain-canary. Deploys of master to the canary app happen automatically after GitHub Actions CI tests are successful. Deploys to the production app are performed by manually promoting the canary’s current release to production.

Environment (or config) variables

  • NODE_ENV is used to condition behaviour between production and non-production environments, following the widely-used convention set by Express. Its value affects not just the explicit conditionals in this repo but also Express and other layers in our dependencies. All our Heroku apps run under NODE_ENV=production.

  • SESSION_SECRET must be set to a long, securely generated string. It protects the session data stored in browser cookies. Changing this will invalidate all existing sessions and forcibly logout people.

  • SESSION_ENCRYPTION_KEYS must be set to a URL query param string encoding pairs of key names and base64-encoded key material. These keys protect sensitive data in the session (such as authn tokens) when session data is “at rest” (such as in Redis). You may prepend new keys to use for new sessions (i.e. key rotation) but do not drop old keys or old sessions will be unusable and people will be forcibly logged out. Keys must be 256 bits in length.

  • AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID and AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY are tied to the AWS IAM user. These credentials allow the backend web server limited access to private S3 buckets.

  • REDIS_URL is provided by the Heroku Redis add-on. It should not be modified directly. Our authentication handlers rewrite it at server start to use a secure TLS connection.

  • FETCH_CACHE is not currently used, but can be set to change the location of the on-disk cache used by (some) server fetch()-es. The default location is /tmp/fetch-cache.

  • PAPERTRAIL_API_TOKEN is used for logging through papertrail.

  • GITHUB_TOKEN is used to make authenticated requests to the GitHub API so that we get increased rate limits and can download workflow artifacts. The token should be a fine-grained personal access token with public access only, i.e. no specific respositories or permissions granted. If not provided, requests to the GitHub API are unauthenticated. The token we use in production is associated with the nextstrain-bot GitHub user.

  • CANARY_ORIGIN is the origin of a canary deployment to redirect to for users who are opted-in to the canary flag (the !flags/canary Cognito group). Redirection does not happen if this variable is not defined or if the request’s origin already matches this variable’s value. In production we set this to

  • CONFIG_FILE is the path to a JSON file defining the defaults for the required variables below. If not provided, the checked-in files env/production/config.json and env/testing/config.json are used (depending on the value of NODE_ENV).

Several variables are required but obtain defaults from a config file (e.g. env/production/config.json):

  • COGNITO_USER_POOL_ID must be set to the id of the Cognito user pool to use for authentication.

  • COGNITO_BASE_URL must be set to the URL of the Cognito user pool’s hosted UI. In production, this is In development and testing, this would be something like

  • COGNITO_CLIENT_ID must be set to the OAuth2 client id for the client registered with the Cognito user pool.

  • COGNITO_CLI_CLIENT_ID must be set to the OAuth2 client id for the Nextstrain CLI client registered with the Cognito user pool.

Variables in the environment override defaults from the config file.

Redis add-on

The Heroku Redis add-on is attached to our nextstrain-server and nextstrain-dev apps. Redis is used to persistently store login sessions after authentication via AWS Cognito. A persistent data store is important for preserving sessions across deploys and regular dyno restarts.

The maintenance window is set to Friday at 22:00 UTC to Saturday at 02:00 UTC. This tries to optimize for being outside/on the fringes of business hours in relevant places around the world while being in US/Pacific business hours so the Seattle team can respond to any issues arising.

If our Redis instance reaches its maximum memory limit, existing keys will be evicted using the volatile-ttl policy to make space for new keys. This should preserve the most active logged in sessions and avoid throwing errors if we hit the limit. If we regularly start hitting the memory limit, we should bump up to the next add-on plan, but I don’t expect this to happen anytime soon with current usage.


Server logs are available via the papertrail web app (requires heroku login). The dev server does not have papertrail enabled, but logs may be viewed using the heroku CLI via heroku logs --app=nextstrain-dev --tail.

Development server

A testing app, nextstrain-dev, is also used, available at Deploys to it are manual, via the dashboard or git pushes to the Heroku remote, e.g. git push -f heroku-dev <branch>:master, where the heroku-dev remote is Note that the dev server runs in production mode (NODE_ENV=production), and also uses the AWS IAM user.

Review apps

We use Heroku Review Apps to create ephemeral apps for PRs to the GitHub repo. These are automatically created for PRs submitted by Nextstrain team members. To recreate an inactivated app, or create one for a PR from a fork, you can use the heroku dashboard. (Make sure to review code for security purposes before creating such an app.)

It is not currently possible to login/logout of these apps due to our AWS Cognito setup; thus private datasets cannot be accessed.

Rolling back deployments

Normal Heroku deployments, which require our GitHub Actions CI tests to pass and are subsequently built on Heroku, can take upwards of 10 minutes. Heroku allows us to immediately return to a previous version using rollbacks. Rollbacks can be performed via the Heroku dashboard or with heroku rollback --app=nextstrain-server vX, where X is the version number (available via heroku releases --app=nextstrain-server).


All resources are in the us-east-1 region. If you don’t see them in the AWS Console, make sure to check the region you’re looking at.

S3 buckets


Public. CloudFronted. Contains JSONs for our core builds, as well as the nextstrain.yml conda environment definition. Fetches by the server happen over unauthenticated HTTP.


Public. CloudFronted. Contains JSONs for staging copies of our core builds. Fetches by the server happen over unauthenticated HTTP.


Private. Access controlled by IAM groups/policies. Fetches by the server happen via the S3 HTTP API using signed URLs.

EC2 instances hosts the lab’s fauna instance, used to maintain data for the core builds.

Ephemeral instances are automatically managed by AWS Batch for nextstrain build --aws-batch jobs.


A user pool called provides authentication for Nextstrain logins. Cognito is integrated with the server using the OAuth2 support from PassportJS in our authn/index.js file.

We don’t use Cognito’s identity pools.


Nameservers for the zone are hosted by DNSimple.


nextstrain/ is the GitHub repo for the Nextstrain website.

Core and staging narratives are sourced from the nextstrain/narratives repo (the master and staging branches, respectively).


CI tests and deployments are run via GitHub Actions using our CI workflow. Any push or PR will trigger CI tests. Pushes to the master branch will trigger a CI deployment after tests pass.