When you have one server to manage, it makes sense to configure it manually. When you have a handful of servers, you might think about writing a few Bash scripts to handle repetitive software installations and configuration changes. But when you deploy many servers, whether dedicated servers or virtual servers, the complexity becomes overwhelming, and you waste enormous amounts of time troubleshooting, updating, and configuring servers.
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The solution is configuration management software, which is also known as orchestration software. Orchestration tools like Chef and Puppet automate the setup and configuration of hosting server environments. They allow you to create easily replicable server configurations in code, which the orchestration platform executes to create a new server environment.
In this article, we look at what configuration management software does, how it differs from orchestration tools such as Kubernetes, and compare some of the most popular open-source orchestration platforms in use today, including Ansible, Puppet, and Chef.
What Is Configuration Management?
Manual server orchestration doesn’t scale. A mid-sized business might deploy and manage dozens of servers to host data, applications, and services. They must work reliably and predictably. Developers and system administrators need to know that each server has the right versions of the right software. The server environment must be set up as the business’s software expects. Environmental variables, certificates, API tokens, and other data must be in place.
Manual server configuration also isn’t good for security and productivity. Over time, servers evolve as they are configured and reconfigured. Each server becomes a unique environment that no one fully understands. Updating the server or modifying its configuration is risky because the consequences are unpredictable. It is inevitable that security vulnerabilities arise over time, and just as inevitable that they go unnoticed.
Configuration management software automates server orchestration. It allows businesses to manage infrastructure as code. The user writes, in code, what they want their server to look like. The configuration management tool carries out those directives. It installs software, configures and starts services, creates users, and transfers configuration files and scripts.
There are many benefits to using configuration management software to orchestration server configuration:
- Businesses can deploy as many copies of each server as necessary for hosting, redundancy, or disaster recovery.
- The servers are predictable, and server behavior is easy to understand.
- Infrastructure as Code configurations can be tested and optimized, and businesses can be confident that every server they deploy benefits from that testing and optimization.
- Valuable DevOps and system administrator time is not wasted on repetitive tasks that can be automated.
What Is The Difference Between Configuration Management Software and Kubernetes?
Tools like Chef and Ansible are often referred to as orchestration software. Kubernetes is also a type of orchestration software. Although there is some crossover in purpose, these tools are different.
In both, orchestration refers to the automation of infrastructure configuration. However, Kubernetes is a container orchestration tool. It provisions, configures, and manages containers throughout their lifecycle. Ansible and Chef have a narrower focus. Their core role is not to deploy infrastructure, but to configure existing servers. This makes them ideal for configuring dedicated servers and virtual servers.
Configuration management tools may include functionality for provisioning virtual servers, but they do not offer the sophisticated resource management capabilities of Kubernetes.
Three Popular Configuration Management Platforms
The three most widely used configuration management tools are Ansible, Puppet, and Chef. They perform the same core function, although they take different approaches.
Ansible is a free and open-source IT automation tool written in Python. Its configuration files, which are called playbooks, are written in YAML. YAML is a straightforward and human-readable data format. Typically, Ansible runs on workstations and sends instructions, which are called modules, to nodes over SSH. A key benefit of this approach is that Ansible doesn’t require agents to be installed on every node it controls.
Ansible is usually considered easier to set up and use than competing configuration management platforms. If you’re new to configuration management, Ansible offers an excellent balance of features and user-friendliness.
Chef is a Ruby-based configuration management platform. Configuration files—recipes in Chef’s jargon—are written in a domain-specific language based on Ruby. Chef uses a master-agent architecture, and each node requires an agent that performs the work of downloading instructions and bringing the node to the desired state.
Chef has a much steeper learning curve than Ansible. Users are expected to learn the Ruby DSL recipes are written in, and they should be familiar with Ruby. If you aren’t a programmer, you may struggle to use Chef effectively. Chef is also more complicated to set up than Ansible, but it is stable, more flexible, and is widely used in enterprise orchestration scenarios.
Puppet is built in Ruby and uses a Ruby DSL and Embedded Ruby templates for its configuration files. Unlike the other tools we’ve looked at, Puppet uses a declarative approach to building configuration files.
The imperative approach used by Ansible and Chef requires users to detail the steps the software should take to achieve the desired state on a server. Puppet’s declarative approach allows users to describe the desired end state. The software figures out what to do and in what order it should be done.
There are a couple of benefits to this declarative approach. Users don’t have to painstakingly detail every step of the process, and they don’t have to know anything about the current state of a server, only the desired state.
Like Chef, Puppet uses a master-agent architecture and can be challenging for new users. It is complex to set up, and users must learn the language Puppet’s files are written in.
Which Configuration Management Tool Is Right for Your Business?
If you are new to configuration management and don’t expect to manage a very large deployment of servers, Ansible is likely the best choice. It is easier to get started with, and you will find plenty of community support on platforms like StackOverflow.
Chef and Puppet are extremely powerful. They are both well suited to large-scale configuration management scenarios. However, the agent-master architecture adds complexity, and you should expect a steep learning curve if you aren’t familiar with Ruby. Puppet’s declarative syntax is a significant benefit.
To talk to a server hosting expert about hosting your apps and configuration management platform on ServerMania’s custom Dedicated Server or Hybrid Server platform, contact us today for a free initial consultation.