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Get started on GOV.UK

This is the guide for new technical staff working on GOV.UK in GDS. If you just joined, 👋 welcome!

Note that if you’re not working for GDS you’ll not be able to complete all of the steps in this guide.

Follow the steps on this page to get your GOV.UK development environment running with a VirtualBox VM, managed and configured by Vagrant.

You’ll need to use a Mac to follow this guide.

It will take you roughly one day to do everything in this guide from start to finish. There are lots of things to download, and loads of installers need to do their thing.

You’ll need up to 150GB of free space on your hard-drive to run the whole of GOV.UK.

Developing outside the VM

You don’t have to develop on the VM, but we strongly recommend it. If you have problems with the development VM you can always ask for help in the #govuk-developers Slack channel.

Where you should run commands

Run mac$ commands in the shell on your Mac:

mac$ echo "Think Different"

Run dev$ commands in the shell on the development VM:

dev$ echo "Linux for human beings"

If you run into problems

If you’re having trouble with Vagrant or the development VM, there are troubleshooting tips in the dev manual. Of course you should also feel free to call on your colleagues or ask in the #govuk-developers channel in Slack.

1. Install some dependencies

First, install:

  • git command line tool: either from the managed software center or from git-scm
  • VirtualBox
  • Vagrant
  • vagrant-dns plugin: vagrant plugin install vagrant-dns

2. Create your GitHub accounts

  1. Set up a GitHub account.
  2. Ask somebody with access to add your GitHub username and SSH username (firstnamelastname) to the user monitoring system
  3. Ask your tech lead to add you to the alphagov organisation. You will have to be added to the GOV.UK team to get access to repos & CI.
  4. Generate and register an SSH key pair for your Mac for your GitHub account.
  5. Import the SSH key into your keychain. Once you’ve done this, it’ll be available to the VM you’ll install in the next step.

    mac$ /usr/bin/ssh-add -K your-private-key
  6. Test that it all works by running ssh -T

3. Create a user in Integration and CI

User accounts in our Integration and CI environments are managed in the govuk-puppet repository.

mac$ mkdir ~/govuk
mac$ cd ~/govuk
mac$ git clone

To create a new account, start by creating an SSH key at least 4096 bits long. For example:

mac$ ssh-keygen -t rsa -b 4096 -C "" -f ~/.ssh/alphagov

Import the SSH key into your keychain.

mac$ /usr/bin/ssh-add -K ~/.ssh/alphagov

Now create a user manifest in ~/govuk/govuk-puppet/modules/users/manifests with your username and the public key you just created. Your username should use the firstnamelastname format.

Add the name of your manifest (your username) into the list of users::usernames in hieradata_aws/integration.yaml for integration and in hieradata/integration.yaml for CI.

Create a pull request with these changes. Once it has been reviewed by a member of the GOV.UK team, you can merge it and it will automatically deploy to the Integration environment. This will come in handy later.

4. Boot your VM

Run the VM bootstrap script:

mac$ cd govuk-puppet/development-vm
mac$ vagrant up

This will take a little while, but it will throw up a question or two in your console so check back on it occassionally. Now might be a good time to scan through the GOV.UK technology blog while Puppet runs.

Once your VM is running, you should be able to SSH into it with:

mac$ vagrant ssh

See the full command list by typing vagrant --help

Set your Git username and email

You can assign your name and email to commits on the VM:

dev$ git config --global ""
dev$ git config --global "Friendly Giraffe"

5. Set up your apps

Begin by checking out all of the services. There’s a handy shortcut:

dev$ cd /var/govuk/govuk-puppet/development-vm
dev$ ./ < alphagov_repos

Most of our apps are written in Ruby and use Bundler to manage their dependencies. To boot apps, you’ll also need to install those dependencies:

dev$ ./

There are also some Python apps, which use PIP. You’ll probably need to install those dependencies too, so run:

dev$ ./

~/govuk/ on your host machine is mounted as /var/govuk inside the VM. Any app repositories you clone should go here.

6. Access remote environments

Your pull request from earlier will hopefully have been merged by now. It’s time to test your access to servers via SSH.

If you’re not in the office right now, you’ll need to be connected to the GDS Office VPN for SSH access to Integration.

While the applications are available directly via the public internet, SSH access to remote environments is via a ‘jumpbox’. You’ll need to configure your machine to use this jumpbox using the example SSH config file. Copy the file into the ~/.ssh/config file on your host machine. You should then be able to ssh into any box in the Integration environment directly. Test that it works, by running:

mac$ ssh backend-1.backend.integration

Next, create an ssh config file inside the VM with the same contents. You can choose whether to import your alphagov keypair to the VM or to use the built in key-forwarding. Test that you can reach Integration from your VM:

dev$ ssh backend-1.backend.integration

7. Import production data

Dumps are generated from production data in the early hours each day, and are then downloaded from integration.

If you have integration access, you can download and import the latest data by running:

dev$ cd /var/govuk/govuk-puppet/development-vm/replication
dev$ ./ -u $USERNAME -F ../ssh_config

If you don’t have integration access, ask someone to give you a copy of their dump. Then, from govuk-puppet/development-vm/replication run:

dev$ ./ -d path/to/dir -s

For more information, see the guide in the developer docs on replicating application data locally for development.

8. Run your apps

You can run any of the GOV.UK apps from the /var/govuk/govuk-puppet/development-vm directory. You’ll first need to run bundle install in this folder to install the required gems.

Since many of our apps depend on other apps, we normally run them using bowler instead of foreman.

To run particular apps with bowler, use:

dev$ bowl content-tagger

This will also run all of the dependencies defined in the Pinfile.

If you don’t need an optional dependency, you can pass the -w option:

dev$ bowl whitehall -w mapit

If these bowl commands fail, try the troubleshooting guide on how to fix a broken bowl.

9. Keep your VM up to date

There are a few scripts that should be run regularly to keep your VM up to date. In govuk-puppet/development-vm there is and to help with this. Also, govuk_puppet should be run from anywhere on the VM regularly.

The following invocation will do all of this for you.

dev$ cd /var/govuk/govuk-puppet/development-vm
dev$ ./

This will run:

  • git pull on each of the applications checked out in /var/govuk
  • govuk_puppet to bring the latest configuration to the dev VM
  • bundle install for each Ruby application to install any missing gems
  • pip install to update runtime dependencies for any python apps

10. Access the web frontend

Most GOV.UK web applications and services are available via the public internet, on the following forms of URL:

The basic authentication username and password is widely known, so just ask somebody on your team if you don’t know it.

This page was last reviewed . It needs to be reviewed again by the page owner #2ndline.