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Geoff Papilion has made a living running infrastructure for the past 15 years. He is currently employeed at, scaling the infrastructure to 1.5 billion request per day. Geoffrey is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 26 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Keep it Simple Sysadmin

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I’ve been thinking about what I hate about my configuration management system. I seem to spend a lot of time when I want to make a change looking at the various resources in chef, and sometimes I end up using providers like the ops code apache2 cookbook to manage enabling and disabling of modules. A few days ago while in a rush I did the following:
script "disable_mod_broken" do
  interpreter "bash"
  user "root"
  not_if do ! File.exists?("/etc/apache2/mods-enabled/broken.load") end
  cwd "/root"
  notifies :restart, "service[apache2]"
  code <<-EOH
    a2dismod broken

A few days later, a co-worked decided this was verbose and replaced it with, using the previously mentioned apache2 cookbook syntax:

apache_module "broken" do
  enable :false
  notifies :restart, "service[apache2]"
This seemed reasonable, and frankly is the approach I would have taken if I had taken time to figure it out if we had a cookbook providing this resource(this was an emergency change). The only problem was that we’re using a broken version of that module that didn’t actually do anything(I’ve still not dug in, but I found a similar bug that was fixed some time ago). So, no errors, no warning, and no configuration was applied or removed.

I’ve come to the decision that both are probably the wrong approach. Both of these approaches we’re trying to use the a2enmod command available in Ubuntu or provided similar functionality. It seems reasonable since it will manage dependencies, but why should I use this? The only reason would be to maintain compatibility with Ubuntu and Debians’ configuration management utilities, but I’ve already decided to outsource this to Chef which does that pretty well. I’ve come to believe that I should have just done this:
File "/etc/apache2/mods-enabled/broken.load" do
  action :delete
  notifies :restart, "service[apache2]"


The right approach to configuration management is to use the minimal features of your tool. Chef(in this case), provides awesome tools for file management, but when I use higher level abstractions I’m actually introducing more obfuscation. The example given with the Apache module is painful, because when I look at what is really happening, I’m copying a file. Chef is really good at managing files, why would I want to abstract away? Do people really not understand how the a2enmod works? Is this really a good thing if you operations team doesn’t know how Apache configs work?

Cron is another great example:
cron "noop" do
  hour "5"
  minute "0"
  command "/bin/true"
Do we really find this simpler than creating a cron file, and having it copied to /etc/cron.d? Isn’t that why we introduced cron.d; to get out of having cron jobs installed in user’s crontabs? Its also difficult to ensure Chef removes the job, since a user can screw up that file. Not to mention that this has introduced a DSL to mange a DSL with a more verbose syntax than the original, which seems absurd.

KISS – Keep it Simple Sysadmin

My frustration here is that for the most part we are just copying files around. The higher level abstractions we use actually decrease clarity, and understanding of how the underlying configuration is being applied. If there is a logical flaw(bug) in the implementation, we’re stuck suffering and needing to address the issue, and sort out who is at fault.  So, use the simple resources, and stay away from the magic ones, and you’ll actually be able to understand the configuration of your systems and hopefully get to the root of your problems faster.

Published at DZone with permission of Geoffrey Papilion, author and DZone MVB. (source)

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