DevOps: Better Than the Sum of Its Parts

Most of us longtime system administrators get a little nervous when people start talking about DevOps. It's an IT topic surrounded by a lot of mystery and confusion, much like the term "Cloud Computing" was a few years back. Thankfully, DevOps isn't something sysadmins need to fear. It's not software that allows developers to do the job of the traditional system administrator, but rather it's just a concept making both development and system administration better. Tools like Chef and Puppet (and Salt Stack, Ansible, New Relic and so on) aren't "DevOps", they're just tools that allow IT professionals to adopt a DevOps mindset. Let's start there.

What Is DevOps?

Ask ten people to define DevOps, and you'll likely get 11 different answers. (Those numbers work in binary too, although I suggest a larger sample size.) The problem is that many folks confuse DevOps with DevOps tools. These days, when people ask me, "What is DevOps?", I generally respond: "DevOps isn't a thing, it's a way of doing a thing."

The worlds of system administration and development historically have been very separate. As a sysadmin, I tend to think very differently about computing from how a developer does. For me, things like scalability and redundancy are critical, and my success often is gauged by uptime. If things are running, I'm successful. Developers have a different way of approaching their jobs, and need to consider things like efficiency, stability, security and features. Their success often is measured by usability.

Hopefully, you're thinking the traits I listed are important for both development and system administration. In fact, it's that mindset from which DevOps was born. If we took the best practices from the world of development, and infused them into the processes of operations, it would make system administration more efficient, more reliable and ultimately better. The same is true for developers. If they can begin to "code" their own hardware as part of the development process, they can produce and deploy code more quickly and more efficiently. It's basically the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of IT. Combining the strengths of both departments creates a result that is better than the sum of its parts.

Once you understand what DevOps really is, it's easy to see how people confuse the tools (Chef, Puppet, New Relic and so on) for DevOps itself. Those tools make it so easy for people to adopt the DevOps mindset, that they become almost synonymous with the concept itself. But don't be seduced by the toys—an organization can shift to a very successful DevOps way of doing things simply by focusing on communication and cross-discipline learning. The tools make it easier, but just like owning a rake doesn't make someone a farmer, wedging DevOps tools into your organization doesn't create a DevOps team for you. That said, just like any farmer appreciates a good rake, any DevOps team will benefit from using the plethora of tools in the DevOps world.

The System Administrator's New Rake

In this article, I want to talk about using DevOps tools as a system administrator. If you're a sysadmin who isn't using a configuration management tool to keep track of your servers, I urge you to check one out. I'm going to talk about Chef, because for my day job, I recently taught a course on how to use it. Since you're basically learning the concepts behind DevOps tools, it doesn't matter that you're focusing on Chef. Kyle Rankin is a big fan of Puppet, and conceptually, it's just another type of rake. If you have a favorite application that isn't Chef, awesome.

If I'm completely honest, I have to admit I was hesitant to learn Chef, because it sounded scary and didn't seem to do anything I wasn't already doing with Bash scripts and cron jobs. Plus, Chef uses the Ruby programming language for its configuration files, and my programming skills peaked with:

10 PRINT "Hello!"
20 GOTO 10

Nevertheless, I had to learn about it so I could teach the class. I can tell you with confidence, it was worth it. Chef requires basically zero programming knowledge. In fact, if no one mentioned that its configuration files were Ruby, I'd just have assumed the syntax for the conf files was specific and unique. Weird config files are nothing new, and honestly, Chef's config files are easy to figure out.

Chef: Its Endless Potential

DevOps is a powerful concept, and as such, Chef can do amazing things. Truly. Using creative "recipes", it's possible to spin up hundreds of servers in the cloud, deploy apps, automatically scale based on need and treat every aspect of computing as if it were just a function to call from simple code. You can run Chef on a local server. You can use the cloud-based service from the Chef company instead of hosting a server. You even can use Chef completely server-less, deploying the code on a single computer in solo mode.

Once it's set up, Chef supports multiple environments of similar infrastructures. You can have a development environment that is completely separate from production, and have the distinction made completely by the version numbers of your configuration files. You can have your configurations function completely platform agnostically, so a recipe to spin up an Apache server will work whether you're using CentOS, Ubuntu, Windows or OS X. Basically, Chef can be the central resource for organizing your entire infrastructure, including hardware, software, networking and even user management.

Thankfully, it doesn't have to do all that. If using Chef meant turning your entire organization on its head, no one would ever adopt it. Chef can be installed small, and if you desire, it can grow to handle more and more in your company. To continue with my farmer analogy, Chef can be a simple garden rake, or it can be a giant diesel combine tractor. And sometimes, you just need a garden rake. That's what you're going to learn today. A simple introduction to the Chef way of doing things, allowing you to build or not build onto it later.

The Bits and Pieces

Initially, this was going to be a multipart article on the specifics of setting up Chef for your environment. I still might do a series like that for Chef or another DevOps configuration automation package, but here I want everyone to understand not only DevOps itself, but what the DevOps tools do. And again, my example will be Chef.

At its heart, Chef functions as a central repository for all your configuration files. Those configuration files also include the ability to carry out functions on servers. If you're a sysadmin, think of it as a central, dynamic /etc directory along with a place all your Bash and Perl scripts are held. See Figure 1 for a visual on how Chef's information flows.

Figure 1. This is the basic Chef setup, showing how data flows.

The Admin Workstation is the computer at which configuration files and scripts are created. In the world of Chef, those are called cookbooks and recipes, but basically, it's the place all the human-work is done. Generally, the local Chef files are kept in a revision control system like Git, so that configurations can be rolled back in the case of a failure. This was my first clue that DevOps might make things better for system administrators, because in the past all my configuration revision control was done by making a copy of a configuration file before editing it, and tacking a .date at the end of the filename. Compared to the code revision tools in the developer's world, that method (or at least my method) is crude at best.

The cookbooks and recipes created on the administrator workstation describe things like what files should be installed on the server nodes, what configurations should look like, what applications should be installed and stuff like that. Chef does an amazing job of being platform-neutral, so if your cookbook installs Apache, it generally can install Apache without you needing to specify what type of system it's installing on. If you've ever been frustrated by Red Hat variants calling Apache "httpd", and Debian variants calling it "apache2", you'll love Chef.

Once you have created the cookbooks and recipes you need to configure your servers, you upload them to the Chef server. You can connect to the Chef server via its Web interface, but very little actual work is done via the Web interface. Most of the configuration is done on the command line of the Admin Workstation. Honestly, that is something a little confusing about Chef that gets a little better with every update. Some things can be modified via the Web page interface, but many things can't. A few things can only be modified on the Web page, but it's not always clear which or why.

With the code, configs and files uploaded to the Chef Server, the attention is turned to the nodes. Before a node is part of the Chef environment, it must be "bootstrapped". The process isn't difficult, but it is required in order to use Chef. The client software is installed on each new node, and then configuration files and commands are pulled from the Chef server. In fact, in order for Chef to function, the nodes must be configured to poll the server periodically for any changes. There is no "push" methodology to send changes or updates to the node, so regular client updates are important. (These are generally performed via cron.)

At this point, it might seem a little silly to have all those extra steps when a simple FOR loop with some SSH commands could accomplish the same tasks from the workstation, and have the advantage of no Chef client installation or periodic polling. And I confess, that was my thought at first too. When programs like Chef really prove their worth, however, is when the number of nodes begins to scale up. Once the admittedly complex setup is created, spinning up a new server is literally a single one-liner to bootstrap a node. Using something like Amazon Web Services, or Vagrant, even the creation of the computers themselves can be part of the Chef process.

To Host or Not to Host

The folks at Chef have made the process of getting a Chef Server instance as simple as signing up for a free account on their cloud infrastructure. They maintain a "Chef Server" that allows you to upload all your code and configs to their server, so you need to worry only about your nodes. They even allow you to connect five of your server nodes for free. If you have a small environment, or if you don't have the resources to host your own Chef Server, it's tempting just to use their pre-configured cloud service. Be warned, however, that it's free only because they hope you'll start to depend on the service and eventually pay for connecting more than those initial five free nodes.

They have an enterprise-based self-hosted solution that moves the Chef Server into your environment like Figure 1 shows. But it's important to realize that Chef is open source, so there is a completely free, and fully functional open-source version of the server you can download and install into your environment as well. You do lose their support, but if you're just starting out with Chef or just playing with it, having the open-source version is a smart way to go.

How to Begin?

The best news about Chef is that incredible resources exist for learning how to use it. On the Web site, there is a video series outlining a basic setup for installing Apache on your server nodes as an example of the process. Plus, there's great documentation that describes the installation process of the open-source Chef Server, if that's the path you want to try.

Once you're familiar with how Chef works (really, go through the training videos, or find other Chef fundamentals training somewhere), the next step is to check out the vibrant Chef community. There are cookbooks and recipes for just about any situation you can imagine. The cookbooks are just open-source code and configuration files, so you can tweak them to fit your particular needs, but like any downloaded code, it's nice to start with something and tweak it instead of starting from scratch.

DevOps is not a scary new trend invented by developers in order to get rid of pesky system administrators. We're not being replaced by code, and our skills aren't becoming useless. What a DevOps mindset means is that we get to steal the awesome tools developers use to keep their code organized and efficient, while at the same time we can hand off some of the tasks we hate (spinning up test servers for example) to the developers, so they can do their jobs better, and we can focus on more important sysadmin things. Tearing down that wall between development and operations truly makes everyone's job easier, but it requires communication, trust and a few good rakes in order to be successful. Check out a tool like Chef, and see if DevOps can make your job easier and more awesome.


Chef Fundamentals Video Series:

Chef Documentation:

Community Cookbooks/Tools:

Shawn is Associate Editor here at Linux Journal, and has been around Linux since the beginning. He has a passion for open source, and he loves to teach. He also drinks too much coffee, which often shows in his writing.

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