Deploying, managing, and maintaining servers can be tedious. Deploying, managing, and maintaining thousands, or tens of thousands of server instances is overwhelming—bordering on impossible—without the right tools. Thankfully, the right tools exist.
The Pain of Doing Things the Hard Way
I know I am dating myself, but when I was an IT admin for a dot.com startup, I had to deploy servers the old-fashioned way. UPS would show up with a box from Dell. I’d unpack it, and mount it on the rack in the datacenter. Then, I’d begin the process of configuring the operating system, and installing the application software. Each server was essentially a full-day project, and we seemed to constantly be adding new servers, so my full-time role was basically “racking and stacking” for a while.
Adam Jacob was experiencing similar obstacles when he developed Chef. Working as an IT infrastructure consultant, Jacob was frustrated by the configuration tools that were available, and the lack of a simple, repeatable process. Rather than starting from scratch and reinventing the wheel for each client, he developed Chef to enable IT admins to create modular, reusable “recipes” that automate the process.
Server management doesn’t end with deployment and initial configuration, though. You also have to maintain the servers, and resolve issues that might occur. When an issue arises, it could mean hours of troubleshooting to identify the root cause, and another few hours to work out and implement a resolution.
I used to get into philosophical debates with management and other IT personnel because it was my opinion that we should just skip the troubleshooting and rebuild the server from scratch. My theory was that it might be nice to know what caused the problem, but from an operational perspective I knew I could rebuild the server and restore normal operations in a couple hours. Troubleshooting, on the other hand, was an unknown—both in terms of whether or not it would even be successful, as well as how long it would take.
The Beauty of Doing Things the Easy Way
Tools that automate configuration and deployment of server instances automatically solve both of these problems. They expedite deployment and configuration, and simplify management and maintenance—freeing IT admins and IT personnel to focus on more important, less mundane tasks.
Tools like Chef help IT manage complexity. It is great from a DevOps, automation perspective to have a tool that enables you to quickly deploy and configure servers, but the real value comes from the ability to maintain a stable, dependable network with minimal effort.
Chef nodes “phone home” periodically to ensure the configuration matches the recipe it has been assigned from the Chef server. Any deviations are automatically overwritten—so any changes that may have been made locally on the node are erased, and the server remains configured as it should be.
In order to implement lasting configuration updates, the changes have to be made to the recipe at the Chef server level. The bonus is that once the recipe is updated, all Chef nodes working from that recipe will be automatically updated.
When an issue occurs on a server instance, it should ostensibly be corrected automatically when the node communicates with the Chef server and overwrites the configuration. However, even if that doesn’t happen for some reason, the use of DevOps tools like Chef still makes the task of troubleshooting and/or resolving server issues much more efficient.
With the push of a button, you can just deploy a new server—properly configured and ready to go. You could choose to kill the server experiencing issues and just replace it with the new one, or you could launch a new server to take over the roles and responsibilities of the affected server while you take the time to troubleshoot if you really need to understand what the root cause of the problem was.
Apparently, I was an IT admin at the wrong time, and I got out of that career path right when things started to get interesting. Necessity being the mother of invention and all that, Adam Jacob created a platform with Chef that reduces the complexity and tedium of deploying and managing servers.
Chef isn’t alone. Tools like this form the foundation of DevOps because a culture that combines development and operations, and iterates new releases on a rapid scale needs to have this sort of automated IT infrastructure to keep up.