Did you know you can install custom software on Heroku? You can, using buildpacks.

In this tutorial, I show you how to write a custom buildpack. I’ll use MuPDF, a handy utility to convert PDFs to PNGs, as an example. Replace the MuPDF parts with the binary you want.

Create the Binary

Before we can create the buildpack, we need to create the binary on the Heroku server environment.

Make the binary.

Begin by creating a heroku app.

heroku create buildpack-stager
heroku run bash --app buildpack-stager

Then ssh into the server.

heroku run bash --app buildpack-stager

Make the binary.

curl -O https://mupdf.googlecode.com/files/mupdf-1.3-source.tar.gz
tar -xvzf mupdf-1.3-source.tar.gz
cd mupdf-1.3-source
DESTDIR=/app make install

Cool, that installs everything to /app/usr/local.

Archive the binary.

Now let’s archive the generated binary files. The buildpack expects the binary in archived form.

cd ~
tar czf mupdf.tar.gz -C /app/usr/local .

Transfer the archive to your local machine.

There are a number of ways to transfer the archive to your local machine, but I prefer using srvdir. It’s easiest.

While still in the Heroku runtime environment, do the following.

curl https://raw.githubusercontent.com/scottmotte/srvdir-binary/master/srvdir.tar.gz -O -ssl3
tar -zxvf srvdir.tar.gz

Then on your local computer open Google Chrome.

Visit the url https://your-unique-url.srvdir.net/mupdf.tar.gz. It will download the tar.gz to your machine.

Host the archive remotely.

The buildpack needs a way to access the archive over the internet. Let’s host it remotely on GitHub.

On your local machine, do the following.

mkdir mupdf-binary
cd mupdf-binary
cp ~/path/to/mupdf.tar.gz mupdf.tar.gz
git init
git add .
git commit -am "Initial commit"

Push that repo to GitHub. Now, you can download it as a url like this.


Be sure to replace with your username.

You can see an example of this here.

Create the Buildpack

We’ve prepared the binary, archived it, and saved it somewhere on the internet. We’re finally ready to write the buildpack code. This is the easy part.

mkdir something-buildpack
cd something-buildpack
mkdir bin
cd bin
touch compile
touch detect
touch release
chmod 775 compile
chmod 775 detect
chmod 775 release

Edit compile.

#!/usr/bin/env bash
echo "-----> Installing MuPDF 1.3"
# change to the the BUILD_DIR ($1)
cd $1
# download the binary (-O) silently (-s)
curl https://raw.githubusercontent.com/scottmotte/mupdf-binary/master/mupdf.tar.gz -s -O -ssl3
# make a directory to untar (like unzip) the binary
mkdir -p vendor/mupdf
# untar the binary to the directory we want
tar -C vendor/mupdf -xvf mupdf.tar.gz

Edit detect.

#!/usr/bin/env bash
echo "MuPDF 1.3"
exit 0

Edit release.

#!/usr/bin/env bash
cat <<EOF
PATH: $PATH:/app/vendor/mupdf/bin

That’s it. Commit that code and push it up to GitHub.

You just created your first buildpack for Heroku. Repeat the process for other types of binaries.


You can run the buildpack like this.

heroku create -b https://github.com/scottmotte/heroku-buildpack-mupdf.git
# or if your app is already created
heroku config:add BUILDPACK_URL=https://github.com/scottmotte/heroku-buildpack-mupdf.git
git push heroku master

Hacker in LA. I believe the future is bright. It's up to us to build it - as programmers we get a big say. Follow me on twitter @motdotla.