Configuration management tools for cloud computing (Open World Forum 2011)

The Open World Forum 2011 edition took place last week in Paris. I was invited to present a workshop in the Cloud Computing track.

This gave me the opportunity to outline the importance of optimizing the “setup” phase of machines when using cloud computing.

Today’s tools and APIs make it very easy to create and destroy instances, but every time you do start a new instance, you’ve got to actually set it up to the state where it’s ready to do what you need (ie, be a web server, load balancer, database, whatever…).

This is an important phase to optimize: it’s the one where you’re paying for, but not yet able to use, the service 🙂

Three approaches seem to co-exist here:

  1. Doing it manually: Obviously, this is one to avoid. Not only is it excessively time-consuming, but it’s also error-prone. (Ever tried doing the exact same complicated thing a dozen times over without making the odd mistake or going crazy?)
  2. Pre-configuring in static images: This is a very common approach. You know how you want things, so you set them up once, and make an image of that state (ISO, AMI, whatever…). You can then use your image to create your new machine just the way you want it, no time wasted! That’s great, but wears out over time -it’s a very brittle approach. If you ever need to change that configuration, not only will it take a while (get the image, change it, upload it again, etc…), but you also have no way of propagating the change to existing instances based on the old image.
  3. Using a configuration tool: That’s a deliberately vague title – I’m referring to any software approach to configuring your machine, be it a bunch of home grown scripts or a fully blown configuration management tool, such as CFEngine, Puppet or Chef.

If you’ve read any of the previous posts on this blog, you’ll know that we strongly favor the last approach 🙂

Configuration management tools have many benefits over the previous approaches: using a dedicated, purpose-built tool to set up your servers means that you can reach new levels of control and flexibility, that you cannot achieve with static, brittle pre-built images. Need to make a change? Just update your reference configuration rules, and the change will be applied to all your instances, old and new, over the next few minutes.

Enough teasing, the slides below tell the rest of the story. I introduced the main tools I mentioned before, and provided a quick overview of how CFEngine works. Those at the session also got a sneak preview of our own open source project, Rudder, to be publicly announced very soon…

I’d welcome any comments on how you setup your cloud instances… and be happy to discuss all these topics at another open source conference in the future!