The Configuration Management Revolution

The revolution is coming, and it’s about time I wrote about it.

About a year and a half ago I was settling in to a new system administration job at a startup. I was told a consulting company would be coming in to bootstrap configuration management for us. I had previously glanced at cfengine out of curiosity, but ended up spending only a couple of hours looking at it. In my mind configuration management was analogous to unattended software installation, which I was definitely in support of, but had yet to perceive how it was going to change how I viewed infrastructure.

That consulting company was HJK Solutions. Some of my coworkers had previously established relationships with a couple of the partners of HJK, but I didn’t know anything about them myself. I was along for the ride. They gave us a presentation where they showed iClassify and puppet working together to automate infrastructure for other clients, but it wasn’t until the next meeting where we made technical decisions about the implementation that I really came to appreciate their insight. It is much more interesting why someone makes a choice than the choice itself, and this was my first of many since opportunities to incite the opinions of Adam Jacob.

A year of using puppet later, not only was I hooked but my excitement about the possibilities of configuration management had grown beyond what the software could do at the time. Both my excitement and frustration was apparent and got me a sneak peak at Opscode’s Chef. The design of Chef embodies “the unix way” of chaining many tools together insofar that it allows us to take building blocks that are essentially simple on their own but from behind our backs present a system that is revolutionary enough we almost fail to recognize the familiar pieces of it.

Chef is a systems integration framework, built to bring the benefits of configuration management to your entire infrastructure.

This is not an article about Chef, this is about the big picture. However, if you take enough steps back from that statement it becomes apparent that Opscode is building toward that picture. I want to share with you the excitement that short description garners inside of me.

Configuration management alone is the act of programmatically configuring your systems. Often the benefits are conveyed in support of process, but in more agile communities different advantages are touted; such as allowing one to wrangle larger number of servers by reducing build times in the name of vertical scalability, building more maintainable infrastructures by leveraging the self-documenting side-affect of configuration languages, and reducing administrator burnout by cutting a swath in the number of repetitive tasks one must perform. These are unarguably significant boons. Nevertheless, one does not have to look hard to find a curmudgeon reluctant to change, claiming they don’t want to learn another language, that having systems run themselves will surely cause failure, or perhaps some skynet-esque doomsday scenario. History is not short of examples of luddites holding steadfast against new technology, but it is somewhat paradoxical to see this mentality held in such a technologically oriented field.

The recent Configuration Management Panel at the Open Source Bridge conference in Portland amassed many relevant core developers in one city long enough to provide a good vibe for the direction of the available tools and underscore our common charge. But the focus was more about how we will get more users of configuration management tools than why they are going to have to use them. In retrospect, perhaps I should have asked of the panel their views of how configuration management will reshape systems administration.

Configuration management is about more than automation. Some who have foreseen this have started to convey this by discussing managing infrastructures rather than systems. In analogy, the power loom, Gutenberg press, and intermodal shipping container were not merely time saving tools of automation. These inventions reshaped more than their workforce and industry, but also the global economy.

I’m fully aware of the tone set by such a call of prophecy. How will a tool that helps us configure multiple machines at once make such significant ripples in our day to day lives of the future? It will because we will be enabled to solve new problems that we did not yet realize existed. As other technological advances served as a catalyst for globalization, the industrial and scientific revolutions; changing how we build our information infrastructure leaves us poised for an exciting set of challenges that do not yet exist.

5 thoughts on “The Configuration Management Revolution

  1. pdxpatzer

    Were you at OSB09 ? Shame, I would have loved to chat with you … Re: configuration management. I have been sitting on the fence trying to figure out where to invest my few and precious brain cycles. At the end of the day I still have not chosen a tool but am thinking to explore both automateit and chef.


  2. btm Post author

    I was, usually lurking round the CM developers listening to their thoughts. I haven’t looked at automateit before. The best tool for you of course depends on what you’re trying to accomplish and your personality. Whatever CM tool you choose, it needs to be a piece of the puzzle not a solution unto itself. Otherwise you’re really just dealing with a fancy way to automate commands. I use Chef for a number of reasons, but I think the most important one is that part of the design philosophy is that Chef should be open and friendly towards other software, because it is only one part of what you’re really trying to accomplish.

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