Velocity 2010: Infrastructure Automation with Chef

After a lovely lunch of sammiches, we kick into the second half of Workshop Day at Velocity 2010.  Peco and I (and Jeff and Robert, also from NI) went to Infrastructure Automation with Chef, presented by Adam Jacob, Christopher Brown, and Joshua Timberman of Opscode.  My comments in italics.

Chef is a library for configuration management, and a system written on top of it.  It’s also a systems integration platform, as we will see later.  And it’s an API for your infrastructure.

In the beginning there was cfengine.  Then came puppet.  Then came chef.  It’s the latest in open source UNIXey config management automation.

  • Chef is idempotent, which means you can rerun it and get the same result, and it does minimal work to get there.
  • Chef is reasonable, and has sane defaults, which you can easily change.  You can change its mind about anything.
  • Chef is open source and you can hack it easily.  “There’s more than one way to do it” is its mantra.

A lot of the tools out there (meaning HP/IBM/CA kinds of things) are heavy and don’t understand how quickly the world changes, so they end up being artifacts of “how I should have built my system 10 years ago.”

It’s based on Ruby.  You really need a third gen language to do this effectively; if they created their own config structure it would grow into an even less standard third gen language.  If you’re a sysadmin, you do indeed program, and people that say you’re not are lying to you.  Apache config is a programming language. Chef uses small composable primitives.

You manage configuration as idempotent resources, which are put together in recipes, and tracked like source code with the end goal of configuring your servers.

Infrastructure as Code

The devops mantra.  Infrastructure is code and should be managed with the same rigor.  Source control, etc.  Chef enables this approach.  Can you reconstruct your business from source code, data backup, and bare metal?  Well, you can get there.

When you talk about constraints that affect design, one of the largest and almost unstated assumptions nowadays is that it’s really hard to recover from failure.   Many aspects of technology and the thinking of technologists is built around that.  Infrastructure as code makes that not so true, and is extremely disruptive to existing thought in the field.

Your automation can only be measured by the final solution.  No one cares about your tools, they care about what you make with them.

Chef Basics

There is a chef client that runs on each server, using recipes to configure stuff.  There’s a chef server they can talk to – or not, and run standalone.  They call each system a “node.”

They get a bunch of data points, or attributes, off the nodes and you can search them on the server, like “what version of Perl are you running.”  “knife” is the command line tool you use to do that.

Nodes have a “run list.”  That’s what roles or recipes to apply to a node, in order.

Nodes have “roles.”  A role is a description of what a node should be, like “you’re a Web server.”  A role has a run list of its own, and attributes to modify them – like “base, apache2, modssl” and “maxchildren=50″.

Chef manages resources on nodes.  Resources are declarative descriptions of state.  Resources are of type package or service; basically software install and running software.  Install software at a given version; run a service that supports certain commands.  There’s also a template resource.

Resources take action through providers.  A provider is what knows how to actually do the thing (like install a package, it knows to use apt-get or yum or whatever).

Think about it as resources go through a platform to pick a provider.

Recipes apply resources in order.  Order of execution is determined by the order they’re listed, which is pretty intuitive.  Also, systems that fail within a recipe should generally fail in the same state.  Hooray, structured programming!

Recipes can include other recipes.  They’re just Ruby.  (Everything in Chef is Ruby or JSON). No support for asynchronous actions – you can figure out a way to do it (for file transfers, for example) but that’s really bad for system packages etc.

Cookbooks are packages for recipes.  Like “Apache.”  They have recipes, assets (like the software itself), and attributes.  Assets include files, templates (evaluated with a templating language called ERB), and attributes files (config or properties files).  They try to do some sane smart config defaults (like in nginx, workers = number of cores in the box).  Cookbooks also have definitions, libraries, resources, providers…

Cookbooks are sharable FTW! They want the cookbook repo to be like CPAN – no enforced taxonomy.

Data bags store arbitrary data.  It’s kinda like S3 keyed with JSON objects .  “Who all plays D&D?  It’s like a Bag of Holding!”  They’re searchable.  You can e.g. put a mess of users in one.  Then you can execute stuff on them.  And say use it instead of Active Directory to send users out to all your systems.  “That’s bad ass!” yells a guy from the crowd.

Working with Chef

  1. Install it.
  2. Create a chef repo.  Like by git cloning their stock one.
  3. Configure knife with a .chef/knife.rb file.  There’s a Web UI too but it’s for feebs.
  4. Download some cookbooks.  “knife cookbook site vendor rails -d” gets the ruby cookbook and makes a “vendor branch” for it and merges it in.
  5. Read the recipes.  It runs as root, don’t be a fool with your life.
  6. Upload them to the server.
  7. Build a role (knife role create rails).
  8. Add cloud credentials to knife – it knows AWS, Rackspace, Terremark.
  9. Launch a new rails server (knife ec2 server create ‘role[rails]‘) – can also bootstrap
  10. Run it!
  11. Verify it!  knife ssh does parallel ssh and does command, or even screen/tmux/macterm
  12. Change it by altering your recipe and running again.

Live Demo

This was a little confusing.  He started out with a data bag, and it has a bunch of stuff configured in it, but a lot of the stuff in it I thought would be in a recipe or something.  I thought I was staying with the presentation well, but apparently not.

The demo goal is good – configure nagios and put in all the hosts without doing manual config.

Well, this workshop was excellent up to here – though I could have used them taking a little more time in “Working with Chef” – but now he’s just flipping from chef file to chef file and they’re all full of stuff that I can’t identify immediately because I’m, you know, not super familiar with Chef.  THey really could have used a more “hello world”y demo or at least stepped through all the pieces and explained them (ideally in the same order as the “working with chef” spiel).

Chef 0.8 introduced the “chef shell,” shef.    You can run recipes line by line in it.

And then there was a fire alarm!  We all evacuate.  End of session.

Afterwards, in the gaggle, Adam mentioned some interesting bits, like there is Windows support in the new version.  And it does cloud stuff automatically by using the “fog” library.  And unicorn, a server for people that know about 200% more about Rails than me.  That’s the biggest thing about chef – if you don’t do any other Ruby work it’s a pretty  high adoption bar.

One more workshop left for Day 1!

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Filed under Conferences, DevOps

6 responses to “Velocity 2010: Infrastructure Automation with Chef

  1. sascha

    I’ve just started working with Chef in the last month at a client and the learning curve is tough, not so much because I don’t know Ruby, but mostly because there’s a lot of information, not necessarily written for people who are clueless about Chef.

    After flailing for a few weeks, I’m beginning to get the hang of things and understand the hierarchy and functionality. My major experience is shell scripting and a smidge of python but I’m not finding Ruby to be that challenging. Once the information overload leveled out, things are starting to make sense. And the command line toolset is pretty nifty. I like it so far. This project is my first exposure to the devops movement and I’m pretty excited about it.

  2. Yeah, that’s our largest concern about Chef (and Puppet). It seems like there’s a lot of complexity in them (possibly necessary due to their generic nature), when your use case is usually a small subset of what it does. If I just need to push new .wars to Tomcat servers… Should I really use these? Or roll my own simpler “ssh + scp + recipe” thing? I think it could be mitigated by the companies in charge working on making them more accessible especially to non-Rails shops; I feel like the confusing demo in this session was emblematic of that. If I were Opscode I would really focus on documentation and tutorials, especially ones that don’t assume you’re a Rails shop. In our case, we’re split between “put in the time to understand and maintain a third party package” and “write our own, we have developers on the job.” Ideally third party would carry long term benefits, but you have more direct control over meeting your requirements doing it yourself. We’re actually torn here; Peco wants to just add provisioning on to our own system (we already have a model/role/service/package breakdown in our own model) but I hate to not leverage open source when we can…

  3. We’re working on docs – whatever I can do to help explain things, I’m happy to do. :)

    • Cool. My biggest feedback on that workshop was that it was very logical and all throughout your part. You laid out this nice “you do this and then you do this” logical flow, “a role builds on roles which build on services, you build them up into recipes and cookbooks”. Made total sense. And then the demo came and it was “here’s a big ol data bag with all this crap stuffed in it.” It didn’t seem to fit the paradigm of what you had discussed at all and kind made me doubt whether I had indeed been understanding/following like I thought I had! Examples (in workshops or in docs) should be careful to follow the methodology you’ve set out for clarity.

  4. Hello!

    The next part of the demo was going to be an examination of the magic behind the deployment with the data bag information for that cookbook, by working with the recipe directly in the chef shell. Id be happy to show you more this week, let me know via email.

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