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How to install and configure NATS on Ubuntu 16.04

NATS is an open source high performance messaging system, often described as "a central nervous system for the cloud". It is capable of routing millions of messages per second, which makes it ideal for connecting microservices and IoT (Internet of Things) devices.

NATS is a PubSub messaging system. In this kind of system, one or more publishers send messages with a certain subject to a message broker and the message broker delivers these messages to any clients, or subscribers of the given subject. Publishers don't know or even care about subscribers and vice versa. This architecture makes it easy to scale the system and add new capabilities since we can add publishers and subscribers without affecting the rest of the system. This type of system is perfect for monitoring servers and devices; devices can send messages and we can subscribe to those messages to send notifications through email or other means.

In this article, we will install gnatsd, the official NATS server, as a service and make it accessible in a secure way. We will also create a basic server overload warning system that sends out emails when server load gets too high, using gnatsd as its message broker.



To complete this article, you will need:
  • A new Ubuntu 16.04 server.
  • A standard user account with sudo privileges.


Downloading the NATS Server

Let's start by downloading the gnatsd server and making sure it runs on our system without any issues.

The latest stable gnatsd release is version 0.9.4 at the time this tutorial was written. You can check the NATS download page for a later version and adapt the commands below as necessary if you'd like to use a newer version.

First, log into your server with your non-root account:
  • ssh sammy@your_server_ip
Then, make sure you are in your user's home directory:
  • cd
Next, use wget to download gnatsd to your server:
  • wget

The archive you just downloaded is a compressed archive, so you'll need to install unzip to extract the files. You can install it with apt:
  • sudo apt-get install -y unzip
Then use unzip to extract gnatsd:
  • unzip -p gnatsd-v0.9.4-linux-amd64/gnatsd > gnatsd
Then make gnatsd executable so you can run it:
  • chmod +x gnatsd
Let's test that we can run gnatsd by running it from the current directory. Use the following command to start gnatsd:
  • ./gnatsd --addr --port 4222
The output you see will be similar to this example: 

Output [1851] 2016/09/23 05:20:02.247420 [INF] Starting nats-server version 0.9.4 
[1851] 2016/09/23 05:20:02.248182 [INF] Listening for client connections on 
[1851] 2016/09/23 05:20:02.248626 [INF] Server is ready

By default, gnatsd listens on port 4222 on address which corresponds to all interfaces. Using the --port argument, you can change the port, and with --addr you can change the address it listens on. We ran gnatsd with --addr, so that it is available only within our server and cannot be accessed by external clients. Later in the tutorial, we will secure gnatsd and open it up to the world.

Press CTRL+C to shut down gnatsd.

Now that you know things work, let's set things up in a more formal way.

Creating the Directory Structure and Configuration File

On Linux, third party, service-related software is frequently kept under the /srv directory. We are going to follow that convention and keep NATS-related files under /srv/nats. We'll place the gnatsd executable file in /srv/nats/bin.

First, create the /srv/nats/bin folder:
  • sudo mkdir -p /srv/nats/bin
Then move gnatsd to the /srv/nats/bin folder:
  • sudo mv ~/gnatsd /srv/nats/bin
The server can load its configuration from a file, which will come in handy when we need to modify server settings later in the tutorial. Create the file /srv/nats/gnatsd.config:
  • sudo nano /srv/nats/gnatsd.config
And add the following contents to the file:
port: 4222
net: ''

This configuration file tells the gnatsd server to listen on port 4222 on address, just like before, but this time we won't have to specify those options on the command line.

Let's run the server again to make sure that we have configured things correctly. Execute the following command to launch gnatsd using the new configuration file:
  • /srv/nats/bin/gnatsd -c /srv/nats/gnatsd.config
The output is similar to what you have seen before:

[1869] 2016/06/18 05:30:55.988856 [INF] Starting nats-server version 0.9.4
[1869] 2016/06/18 05:30:55.989190 [INF] Listening for client connections on
[1869] 2016/06/18 05:30:55.989562 [INF] Server is ready

Once again, press CTRL+C to shut down gnatsd and return to your prompt. Now let's create a user that will run this service.

Creating the Service User

It is a good security practice to run each service with its own user account to limit the damage in case a service is compromised. Let's create a user and group that will own the NATS service and NATS-related files.

First, let's create a system user and group called nats:
  • sudo adduser --system --group --no-create-home --shell /bin/false nats
Adding system user `nats' (UID 106) ... Adding new group `nats' (GID 114) ... Adding new user `nats' (UID 106) with group `nats' ... Not creating home directory `/home/nats'.

We assigned /bin/false shell to the nats system user to disable logins for this user and suppressed home directory creation. We also created a nats group.

Let's change the owner of the /srv directory to the nats user and group:
  • sudo chown -R nats:nats /srv
Now that we have created the nats user and group, let's continue with creating the NATS service.

Running gnatsd as a Service

We would like gnatsd to start when the system boots and restart if it crashes. We'll use systemd to handle this.

systemd is a service manager for Linux systems. It is responsible for starting services on boot, restarting them as necessary and stopping them in a controlled fashion on system shutdown.

We need to create a service configuration in order to define how and when the NATS service should be started. User-created service files live in /etc/systemd/system, so create the file /etc/systemd/system/nats.service:
  • sudo nano /etc/systemd/system/nats.service
And in the file, place this script to define how gnatsd should start up:

Description=NATS messaging server

ExecStart=/srv/nats/bin/gnatsd -c /srv/nats/gnatsd.config

  • The [Unit] section contains generic information about the service, such as Description which describes the service.
  • The [Service] section contains service-related configuration. ExecStart is the command to run the server. We use the absolute path of the gnatsd executable here. Restart=on-failure means that the service must be restarted if it crashes or terminates with a failure. It will not be restarted if it was stopped by systemd.
  • The [Install] section contains installation information about the service. tells systemd to start the service when starting This is a generic way of starting services on system boot.
Once the service description is in place, we can start it with the following command:
  • sudo systemctl start nats
Let's confirm that gnatsd is running by sending a PING message:
  • printf "PING\r\n" | nc 4222
We have just used nc to communicate with gnatsd. nc is a command line utility to communicate with TCP or UDP servers. The command we used prints an output similar to the following:

INFO {"server_id":"Os7xI5uGlYFJfLlfo1vHox","version":"0.9.4","go":"go1.6.3","host":"","port":4222,"auth_required":false,"ssl_required":false,"tls_required":false,"tls_verify":false,"max_payload":1048576}

The response PONG lets us know the server is listening and working as expected. We need to run one last command to make our NATS server start on boot:
  • sudo systemctl enable nats
You will see the following output which confirms that the service was installed:

Created symlink from /etc/systemd/system/ to /etc/systemd/system/nats.service.

We successfully configured gnatsd to run as a service. Now let's secure it and make it accessible to external clients.

Securing Connections to the NATS Service

If all publishers and subscribers we would like to use with gnatsd ran on the same server, we could call it done and move on but that's rarely the case these days. We'll need to let external clients connect and publish messages to gnatsd in a secure way.

gnatsd supports TLS transport, so we will use that to secure the communication between gnatsd and NATS clients.

First, we need a certificate. You can buy a commercial certificate, retrieve one from Let's Encrypt or generate a self-signed certificate. We will use the latter approach, since acquiring a certificate is out of the scope of this article.

Create a directory to hold the certificate temporarily:
  • mkdir ~/priv
Then create a self-signed certificate with the following command:
  • openssl req -x509 -nodes -days 3650 -newkey rsa:2048 \
  • -keyout priv/gnatsd.key -out priv/gnatsd.crt \
  • -subj "/C=US/ST=Texas/L=Austin/O=AwesomeThings/"
This command creates an RSA certificate with 2048 bits and 10 years of validity. Note that we have used an arbitrary domain name since we won't enable TLS verification for the gnatsd server in this article.

You should now have the files gnatsd.key and gnatsd.crt in the ~/priv directory. Let's move those files under our /srv/nats/ directory structure so everything is in one place. Execute the following command:
  • sudo mv ~/priv /srv/nats
Now, make /srv/nats/priv accessible to only to the nats user and group:
  • sudo chmod 440 /srv/nats/priv/*
  • sudo chmod 550 /srv/nats/priv
  • sudo chown -R nats:nats /srv/nats/priv
Now we update /srv/nats/gnatsd.config to contain the certificate and key we just created. Open the configuration file again:
  • sudo nano /srv/nats/gnatsd.config
And add the following section to tell gnatsd to use your certificate and key:
. . .

tls {
  cert_file: "/srv/nats/priv/gnatsd.crt"
  key_file: "/srv/nats/priv/gnatsd.key"
  timeout: 1
Save the file and exit the editor. Then restart the service so it can pick up the changes.
  • sudo systemctl restart nats
Let's test that our certificates work. Run this command:
  • printf "PING\r\n" | nc localhost 4222
This time, the command outputs this message:

INFO {"server_id":"npkIPrCE5Kp8O3v1EfV8dz","version":"0.9.4","go":"go1.6.3","host":"","port":4222,"auth_required":false,"ssl_required":true,"tls_required":true,"tls_verify":false,"max_payload":1048576}
-ERR 'Secure Connection - TLS Required'

The server returned the message -ERR 'Secure Connection - TLS Required' which confirms that the new configuration was picked up and a secure connection is required, which nc doesn't know how to do.

In order to be able to communicate with our NATS service without installing a full blown NATS client, we will be using a tool called catnats. Let's download it first:
  • wget
And make it executable:
  • chmod +x
Finally, move to the /srv/nats/bin folder and rename it to catnats:
  • sudo mv /srv/nats/bin/catnats
Let's check that we can communicate with our NATS service using catnats, by sending the same PING message we have sent before:
  • printf "PING\r\n" | /srv/nats/bin/catnats --addr
You'll see this output indicating our connection is secure:

INFO {"server_id":"npkIPrCE5Kp8O3v1EfV8dz","version":"0.9.4","go":"go1.6.3","host":"","port":4222,"auth_required":false,"ssl_required":true,"tls_required":true,"tls_verify":false,"max_payload":1048576}

Now that we have secured the communication, let's enable authentication so that a username and password is required to connect to NATS.

Requiring Authentication

Our NATS service does not require authentication by default. This is fine when the service is only accessible on a private network, but we want our NATS service accessible on the internet so we should enable authentication. gnatsd supports username and password authentication, and it is easy to enable.

Open the /srv/nats/gnatsd.config file:
  • sudo nano /srv/nats/gnatsd.config
Add a new authorization section that specifies the credentials. We will use user1 as the username and pass1 as the password for this tutorial. You should use a longer, more complex password in a production environment:

. . .

authorization {
  user: user1
  password: pass1
Save the file, and then change the owner of /srv/nats/gnatsd.config to nats and make it readable by that user in order to protect the username and password from other users on the system:
  • sudo chown nats /srv/nats/gnatsd.config
  • sudo chmod 400 /srv/nats/gnatsd.config
Then restart the service for the changes to take effect:
  • sudo systemctl restart nats
Let's send a PING message to gnatsd to check whether everything is OK. Once again, use catnats to send the message:
  • printf "PING\r\n" | /srv/nats/bin/catnats --addr
You'll see the following output:

NFO {"server_id":"sY0SSJBNbEw53HxzS9mH1t","version":"0.9.4","go":"go1.6.3","host":"","port":4222,"auth_required":true,"ssl_required":true,"tls_required":true,"tls_verify":false,"max_payload":1048576}
-ERR 'Authorization Violation'

This tells us that the changes were successfully applied and we now need to send the correct username and password in order to connect to the service. Let's try again, this time providing the username user1 and password pass1:
  • printf "PING\r\n" | /srv/nats/bin/catnats --addr --user user1 --pass pass1

This time it worked, as you can see from the following output:

INFO {"server_id":"sY0SSJBNbEw53HxzS9mH1t","version":"0.9.4","go":"go1.6.3","host":"","port":4222,"auth_required":true,"ssl_required":true,"tls_required":true,"tls_verify":false,"max_payload":1048576}

Now that we've restricted this service to clients that know the username and password, we can reconfigure the service so outside clients can connect.

Opening the Service to the World

We've configured our NATS server to listen on, which is the local interface. If we make it listen on, then it will be available to the world. Let's update /srv/nats/gnatsd.config one last time:
  • sudo nano /srv/nats/gnatsd.config
Then change the IP address associated with the net setting:
. . .
net: ''
. . .
Save the file and restart the service:
  • sudo systemctl restart nats
And now our NATS service is ready for external client connections. To learn how to use it, let's create a simple monitoring service that uses our NATS server as a message broker.

Configuring Notifications on Server Overload

In this section, you will create a simple overload monitoring system that makes use of your NATS service. The system will receive load averages of servers and send an email to an administrator if any of the servers are overloaded.

The sample project will consist of the following components:
  • The NATS service you've just configured.
  • A monitor, which publishes the hostname, load average and processor count of the server to the stats.loadaverage subject every 60 seconds. You need to run this component on any server you would like to monitor for load.
  • A notifier, which subscribes to the stats.loadaverage subject and receives the host name, load average and processor count of a server. If the load average of a host is above a certain threshold, the notifier sends an email to a predefined address through an SMTP server.
We will run all of these components on the same server for simplicity, but you can try running each component in a different server when you've completed this tutorial.

Setting Up the Monitor

You can read the average load on a Linux system from /proc/loadavg. For this project, we are interested only in the load average of the last minute, which is the first field of the output. Use this command to get that value:
  • cat /proc/loadavg | cut -f1 -d" "
You'll see the following output:


The load average you get by reading /proc/loadavg depends on the number of processors, so you have to normalize it by dividing the load average by the number of processors. You can use the following command to get the processor count of your server:
You'll see the result displayed in your terminal:

Since the default shell of our server cannot deal with floating number arithmetic, we will send both the load average and number of processors together with the host name as the payload of our message and do the division in the notifier later. Here's the command we'll use to construct the payload:
  • echo $(hostname) `cat /proc/loadavg | cut -f1 -d" "` `getconf _NPROCESSORS_ONLN`

The command displays the hostname, the load average, and the number of processors, respectively:

your_hostname 0.28 1
Let's create a shell script which publishes the host name, load average and processor count to our NATS server with the subject stats.loadaverage. We'll configure our system to run this script periodically.

Create a new file called ~/
  • nano ~/
In the file, add this script:


LOADAVG=$(cat /proc/loadavg | cut -f1 -d" ")
PAYLOAD=$(echo $(hostname) $LOADAVG $NPROC)
printf "$MESSAGE" | /srv/nats/bin/catnats -q --raw --addr $NATS_ADDR --user user1 --pass pass1

This script creates the message and then pipes it to catnats, which publishes the message to the NATS service. We run catnats with the -q switch to suppress any output, and we use the --raw switch so catnats doesn't try to interpret the contents of the input. You can change the $NATS_ADDR variable's value if the NATS service are on different servers.
Let's test that the script sends load averages to NATS.

The following command runs ~/ every 5 seconds. Note that we use the & character at the end of line to run the command in the background:
  • while true; do sh ~/; sleep 5; done &
You'll see output showing that the command is running in the background with a process ID:
[1] 14123

Note: Jot down the process ID somewhere, since you will need to use the ID to stop the command later.
Now connect to NATS and subscribe to the subject stats.loadaverage to retrieve load averages:
  • printf "SUB stats.loadaverage 0\r\n" | /srv/nats/bin/catnats --raw --no-exit --pong --user user1 --pass pass1

We use the --no-exit flag to disable auto-exit, and --pong to keep our connection to NATS alive. If everything is correct, you should get an output similar to the following which will update every 5 seconds:

INFO {"server_id":"A8qJc7mdTy8AWBRhPWACzW","version":"0.8.1","go":"go1.6.2","host":"","port":4222,"auth_required":true,"ssl_required":true,"tls_required":true,"tls_verify":false,"max_payload":1048576}
MSG stats.loadaverage 0 27
your_hostname 0.08 1

Press CTRL+C to exit from catnats. Let's stop the loop that called too since we are going to have a better way of running
  • kill 14123
The approach we just took works great for testing, but it's not something we want to use permanently. We would like the system to run to run every minute. In order to accomplish that, we can add a crontab entry. Linux systems use cron, a system that can run commands, or "jobs", on a schedule we specify. The crontab command lets us manage these jobs

To create a new entry, execute the command:
  • crontab -e
If you have never run the command above, you may see the following prompt which will ask you to choose a text editor to manage entries:

no crontab for demo - using an empty one Select an editor. To change later, run 'select-editor'. 1. /bin/ed 2. /bin/nano <---- 1-4="" 3.="" 4.="" bin="" choose="" code="" easiest="" usr="" vim.basic="" vim.tiny="">

Type the number corresponding to the editor you are most comfortable with and press ENTER. A file will be displayed in the editor you've chosen.

At the end of the opened file, add the following line, but substitute your username if you've used something other than sammy:

*/1 * * * * bash /home/sammy/

The entry above tells cron to run our script every minute. Save the file and close the editor.

Now let's test that periodic publishing of the load average is working:
  • printf "SUB stats.loadaverage 0\r\n" | /srv/nats/bin/catnats --raw --no-exit --pong --user user1 --pass pass1

Wait for a few minutes, and the output you see will be similar to the following:

INFO {"server_id":"A8qJc7mdTy8AWBRhPWACzW","version":"0.8.1","go":"go1.6.2","host":"","port":4222,"auth_required":true,"ssl_required":true,"tls_required":true,"tls_verify":false,"max_payload":1048576}
MSG stats.loadaverage 0 27
your_hostname 0.01 1
MSG stats.loadaverage 0 27
your_hostname 0.00 1

Press CTRL+C to exit catnats.

We have successfully set up the monitor, and it's sending messages to our NATS server. Next, we'll set up the notifier that makes use of this data.


Creating the Notifier

Let's create the notifier which connects to our NATS service and listens for stats.loadaverage messages. Whenever our program receives a message, it calculates the load average per processor. If it is higher than 0.6, or 60% CPU utilization per processor, it sets a warning flag for the host that published the message and sends an email to a predefined address. If the load average per processor is less than 0.4, the warning flag for the host is cleared. To prevent flooding the inbox, we send a single email when the warning flag is set.

We will use Node.JS to create the notifier, as there's a great NATS client for Node.js. So, install Node.js first:
  • sudo apt-get install -y npm
Next, create the directory for the notifier and switch to it:
  • mkdir ~/overload_notifier && cd ~/overload_notifier
Node.js projects use a file called package.json which contains information about the project and its dependencies. Execute the following command to create that file:
  • npm init -y
Then install the NATS client for Node.js, as well as the nodemailer module which we'll use in this project to send warning emails:
  • npm install nodemailer@2.4.2 nats@0.6.4 --save-exact
Now we can create the notifier. Create the file notifier.js:
  • nano notifier.js
Then add the following code to the file:

var NATS_URL = 'nats://';
var NATS_USER = 'user1';
var NATS_PASS = 'pass1';
var EMAIL_TO = '';

Be sure you change these options to match your username and password for the NATS service, as well as your email address.

Next, add this code to import the Node.js NATS client and connect to the gnatsd service:

var tlsOptions = {
  rejectUnauthorized: false,
var nats = require('nats').connect({url: NATS_URL,
                                    tls: tlsOptions,
                                    user: NATS_USER,
                                    pass: NATS_PASS});

Then add this code to set up the mailer and connect to the SMTP server which will send the emails. We'll set this server up shortly:

var nodemailer = require('nodemailer');
var transport = nodemailer.createTransport('smtp://localhost:2525');

Then add the rest of the code to calculate the load average and determine whether or not we need to send a notification email:

// keep the state of warnings for each host
var warnings = {};

function sendEmail(subject, text) {
        to: EMAIL_TO,
        subject: subject,
        text: text

function processMessage(message) {
    // message fields: host load processor_count
    var fields = message.split(" ");
    var host = fields[0];
    var loadAverage = parseFloat(fields[1]) / parseInt(fields[2]);
    if (loadAverage > 0.6) {
        if (!warnings[host]) {
            // send warning email if one wasn't already sent
            var res = sendEmail('Warning! Server is Overloaded: ' + host,
                                'Load average: ' + loadAverage);
            // set warning for the host
            warnings[host] = true;
    else if (loadAverage < 0.4) {
        if (warnings[host]) {
            // clear the warning
            warnings[host] = false;

nats.subscribe('stats.loadaverage', processMessage);

We subscribe to the message, and every time we receive a message we execute the processMessage function, which parses the payload we sent and determines the load average. If it's too high, we send the message, and we track if we've previously sent one by setting a flag based on the hostname. This way we can track notifications on a per-host basis. If the load average is below our threshold, we clear that flag.

With the monitor and notifier in place, it's time to test our sample project.


Testing the Project

Let's take this for a test drive. We are going to generate some artificial load and check whether the notifier will send the warning email when the load gets too high.

Let's install the stress tool to generate CPU load on our server:
  • sudo apt-get install -y stress
Next we need to set up an SMTP server to mail out the messages from our notifier. Installing and configuring a full-blown SMTP server would be overkill for this test, so we are going to use a simple SMTP server which just displays the emails handed to it instead of actually sending them. The Python programming language has a DebuggingServer module we can load that discards emails it receives, but displays them to the screen so we can ensure things work. Python is already installed on our Ubuntu server, so this is a perfect solution.

Let's start the debugging SMTP server in the background. We'll make it listen on localhost port 2525, which matches the SMTP address we configured in our notifier.js code. Execute this command to start the SMTP server:
  • python -m smtpd -n -c DebuggingServer localhost:2525 &
Then start the notifier in the background with this command:
  • nodejs ~/overload_notifier/notifier.js &
And lastly, let's generate some load on all processors of our server. Execute the stress command with the following options:
  • stress --cpu $(getconf _NPROCESSORS_ONLN)

After a few minutes, you'll see output similar to the following, as the SMTP server starts displaying the messages sent by the notifier:

---------- MESSAGE FOLLOWS ---------- Content-Type: text/plain To: Subject: Warning! Server is Overloaded: your_hostname Message-Id: <1466354822129-04c5d944-0d19670b-780eee12 localhost=""> X-Mailer: nodemailer (2.4.2; +; SMTP/2.5.0[client:2.5.0]) Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit Date: Sun, 19 Jun 2016 16:47:02 +0000 MIME-Version: 1.0 X-Peer: Load average: 0.88 ------------ END MESSAGE ------------

This lets you know you've successfully sent emails when the load gets too high on the server.

Press CTRL+C to stop generating load. You've completed the sample project and should now have a good idea how to make this work for you in your own environment.



In this article, you learned about the NATS PubSub messaging system, installed it in a secure way as a service, and tested it in a sample project. The sample project used the Node.JS client, but NATS has clients for more languages and frameworks which you can find listed on the NATS download page. You can learn more about NATS in its official documentation.

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