Everything You Need to Know About Configuration Management Tools for DevOps

Just a few years after its introduction, DevOps has grown from being a movement on the fringes of IT to a necessity for anyone in charge of making IT decisions. It’s the buzzy new kid on the block, but it’s also one of the rare examples of the thing living up to the hype. Where DevOps really shines is in its potential for automation. In the past, critical and repetitive tasks such as provisioning environments, maintaining technology, and deploying applications were normally done by hand. But this is fast changing with the advent of true automation in DevOps. This is where Configuration Management Tools come in, offering a way for automation software to handle these iterative tasks, saving you and your team thousands of hours each year and, more importantly, eliminating issues caused by human error. Configuration Management Explained The need for efficiency and cost-reduction is what generated the boom in configuration management (CM) tools in DevOps. At their core, configuration management tools are tools and systems that make it easier and faster to implement DevOps. There shouldn’t be any confusion here. DevOps is an approach or philosophy hinged on the marriage between software development and IT operations. It promotes communication, collaboration, and integration between teams from the two camps. Configuration management tools come in by facilitating the execution of this methodology. Before the advent of DevOps and mature CM tools, sysadmins had to do provisioning on each machine and server, which was obviously very inefficient, tedious and had a high chance of human error (e.g. configuration inconsistencies between development and production environments).   How Does Configuration Management Work? To be more specific, configuration management involves the installation and updating of system packages and setting network configurations to make machines/servers ready for deployment. Most managed systems typically include:  
  • Software
  • Networking
  • Storage
  • Servers
  The goal of CM tools is to maintain these systems in known, configured states. Configuration management also involves creating the description of the configured or desired states of these systems, and—as mentioned earlier—automating processes to maintain these desired states.   Advantages of Configuration Management Tools Perhaps the biggest benefit of configuration management tools is their ability to create a consistent environment between operational systems and software. With CM tools, you no longer have to cross your fingers and hope a configuration is correct—the CM system will make sure it is correct. And when combined with automation features, configuration management can tool can dramatically improve efficiency, making it possible to configure even more targets with the same resources, sometimes even less. And for growing organizations, configuration management allows you to scale your technology infrastructure and software systems without necessarily hiring more support staff to manage these systems. This means your infrastructure can grow without requiring you to spend more Examples of Configuration Management Tools In this guide, we go over a few of the most popular configuration management tools in DevOps, providing a brief overview of each tool’s features and strengths, and how they stack next to the competition.   Puppet Puppet is an open-source server automation platform for configuration and management. IT managers can use the tool to record system components, leverage a steady stream of new information, and build a comprehensive catalog of dependences. Puppet offers the technology to automate your entire enterprise, solving the problem of automation usually being siloed in one area or the other. The platform works on Windows, Linux, and Unix systems, allowing IT managers to perform a wide range of administrative tasks (e.g. adding new users, package installation, and updating servers) based on a centralized specification. While Puppet is based on Ruby, users will usually be using Puppet’s proprietary language, which should be familiar to anyone who has worked with JSON. How Puppet Works Puppet uses your selected configuration state, indicated by “manifests,” as a guide for auditing and regulating your IT environment. Puppet delivers an “automatic way to inspect, deliver, operate and future-proof all of your software, no matter where it runs.” The Puppet approach allows users to maintain control, security, consistency, and compliance across their infrastructure, all while keeping their DevOps modern and efficient. Users get to define how their apps and infrastructure look like using the Puppet declarative language, after which you can then share, test, and reinforce any changes across your cloud platforms and data center. Most observers refer to Puppet as a tool built for sysadmins, with a more forgiving learning curve due to its model-driven design. Sysadmins who have spent most of their professional IT life at the command line should be able to quickly transition to the JSON data structures in Puppet’s manifests, as compared to working with Ruby syntax.   Reasons to Love Puppet releases an annual “State of DevOps” report, which is widely hailed as the one of, if not the best, resource for trends, insights, and predictions in the DevOps landscape. Puppet’s list of clients serves as a testament to the trust people place in the platform—names include the likes of NASA, Verizon, Intel, and Salesforce among many others.   But Puppet also offers the ability to scale the automation of IT infrastructure according to the needs of small to medium enterprises and startups, all while providing the visibility and reporting you will need to make informed decisions and show compliance.   Pricing The main Puppet platform is available in three editions:  
  • Free – As an open-source platform, Puppet Enterprise is free of charge, but only up to the first 10 nodes. This package comes with the usual set of product updates plus access to thousands of Puppet modules to help you get started.
  • Standard – If your firm has more than 10 nodes, you will need the Standard Support Package, which comes with all product updates, bug fixes, and a private knowledge base. Pricing starts at $120 a year per node.
  • Premium – For personalized automation solutions designed specifically for your organization, the Premium Support Package comes with premium extras such as around-the-clock phone support and free staff training, helping your firm get up to speed with the Puppet approach. Pricing depends on your desired solutions.
  Chef Along with Puppet, Chef is widely considered to be one of the most trusted and recognized CM software vendors in the market. While it appears to offer the same features as its closest competitor, Chef has its own unique features and strengths.   For starters, while Chef is also open-source, it leans more towards the needs of DevOps users. Chef’s configurations, which are called “recipes,” are very similar to the “manifests” on Puppet, only this time around users will have to use Ruby to write procedural scripts instead of state models.   The Chef approach also revolves around grouping different recipes into “cookbooks”, which can be downloaded through Chef’s active and thriving community, aptly named the “Supermarket.” Yes, there’s a lot of food puns to go around.   Another Chef claim to fame is its strong support for IaaC, made possible by its strong procedural approach.   How Chef Works Chef is written in Ruby, with a command-line interface that also relies on a Ruby-based DSL. The Chef approach depends on a master and agent model, which means installing Chef requires a master server and a separate workstation to control the master.   Agents can be installed via the workstation using the platform’s “Knife” tool, which uses SSH for faster installation and deployment.   Reasons to Love Although Chef trails Puppet by around four years or so, it has still managed to develop a broad client base with elite firms, which include Intuit, GE Capital, and Target among many others.   If your firm is a Ruby on Rails shop, there’s a good chance you’ll love Chef for the ease of using Chef’s domain-specific language, which ensures that everyone on your technology code understands the code. Chef also integrates with a wide range of cloud providers, including, but not limited to, OpenStack, HP Cloud, Google Compute Engine, Joyent Cloud, Rackspace, IBM SmartCloud, VMWare, and Amazon EC2 among many others.   Users can download any of the 3,000 cookbooks for IT automation on the Supermarket, which, while having a smaller spread than Puppet’s, should be useful enough for users. The Supermarket also contains plugins and tools, all of which will help users automate their IT processes and improve visibility.   Pricing Like Puppet, Chef packages come in three versions, including a free package (it is open-source, after all).   There are no limits to the number of nodes for the free starting package—the features, however, will be scaled back.  
  • For the free version, you’ll get the standard features such as Chef client, Chef server, and development kit, but you’ll have to pony up to the paid versions to get hosting services, supported content, and permanent customer support.
  • The second version, Hosted Chef, starts at $72 per node each year but requires you to buy for a minimum of 20 nodes.
  • Finally, Chef Automate, which comes at $137 per node, “gives you everything you need to build, deploy and manage your applications and infrastructure at speed.” Automate is the DevOps platform for teams, offering workflow automation, administrative visibility, and compliance measures among others.
  Ansible Although it’s a relatively new player in the field, Ansible has managed to gain a strong foothold in the DevOps landscape, making its way into top Linux distros like Fedora.   Like most configuration management and automation solutions, Ansible started out as an open-source project designed to automate IT environments and infrastructure. As it became more popular for enterprise settings, its parent company, AnsibleWorks, expanded into commercial applications.   At present, Ansible’s solutions come in two products:  
  • Ansible Engine
  • Ansible Tower (features the Ansible UI and dashboard)
  Ansible’s reputation as the new kid on the block doesn’t seem to matter to DevOps professionals, who praise the platform for its simple management features and straightforward operations. Indeed, many of Ansible’s users will agree the platform has a very forgiving learning curve.