Charles Hooper

Thoughts and projects from an infrastructure engineer

Intro to Operations: Configuration Management

I’m writing a series of blog posts for managers and other people without an operations background in order to introduce certain best practices regarding Operations. For the rest of the blog posts, please visit the introductory Intro to Operations blog post!

One of the areas I’ve witnessed early stage startups lacking in is configuration management. Configuration management is the process of standardizing and enforcing configurations. In other words, configuration management is about deciding on a specific configuration of services for various roles and then applying these configurations in practice. Typically, these manifests are written in (domain-specific) language and is specific to the configuration management software being used, such as puppet, chef, cfengine, or salt stack.

There are many benefits to configuration management. For one, configuration management allows developers to spend more time working on the product and less time deploying new services. This is because configuration is now automated and faster as a result. In addition, environments are standardized and therefore less time is spent troubleshooting or diagnosing edge cases in different environments. Finally, when coupled with source control management, the proper use of configuration management can be used to track and audit what has changed over time and who changed it.

In many of these early stage startups, there is either very little configuration management performed at all, or configuration management exists as a series of shell scripts cobbled together to do some post-hardware setup. If you’re lucky, there exists a document somewhere that describes when and how to run these scripts to deploy new services.

The way configuration management works is that engineers create a collection of files that define how the system should be configured. This collection of files is typically called a manifest. Then, once physical or virtual hardware has been provisioned, one of these manifests is applied to the new host. During application, the configuration management software will interpret the new configuration, install software packages, manage users and credentials, alter config files, manage file permissions, run arbitrary commands, and so on. Once the manifest is fully applied, the new host should be fully configured and ready to be used! In some environments; however, they may be a post-host-provisioning step where additional work is performed afterwards, such as checking out application code from a source control repository.

If you’re not using configuration management already then you should start now because, frankly, it’s never too early. Starting configuration management now will not only help your first hired ops/systems engineer from working backwards to write these manifests later, but will also incur benefits (such as your developers spending less time away from shipping value-added code) that will outweigh the initial learning curve.