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The world of automated provisioning has come a long way in a short time

The world of automated provisioning has come a long way in a short time. From hand deploying everything from temporary VMs to complex clustered systems, we have reached the point where the entire operations stack can be provisioned with the click of a button – provided the infrastructure has been put together to do so.

This has the huge benefit of offering operations more time to work on projects that add value to the organization. That new system that marketing needs can now move forward because operations has the man-hours, for example. It also offers the surety that there isn’t some magical individual on staff who holds all the critical information about a system. By using DevOps principles, and keeping configuration and automation information in a version control system, the knowledge is preserved in the best possible form – scripts and configurations that actually work and can be examined/explored should the need arise. The corporate stability this offers is quantifiable, but normally there are human issues that keep us from delving too deeply into the cost/benefit scenario (let’s face it, all geeks – this author included – have some amount of ego, and saying “your knowledge will be replaced by a system” can be a touchy topic without delving into “…and we won’t have to have Don’s approval to get this done quickly!” type conversations.)

The thing is that when a market is rapidly and constantly evolving like the DevOps/Provisioning market is, we sometimes have to step back, take a breath, and look at where we are, and what’s to come. Part of this process involves each organization looking at the different branches in the marketplace and determining which branch will best serve their needs.

Relatively recently, those of us talking about it have divided provisioning into “Server” provisioning and “Application” provisioning. This is an accurate subdivision, as tools like Stacki and Cobbler handle the server part and tools like Salt and Puppet handle the application provisioning side. This is not a perfectly clean divide – both Cobbler and Stacki can install/configure certain apps, for example (agents for application provisioning being the obvious one), and Puppet can use Razor to do server provisioning, while Salt doesn’t have a dedicated server provisioning tool, but is doing some interesting things with server provisioning in the cloud space. Add to that the fact that a modern OS is the core of the system and a plethora of… Yes… Applications. There are text editors and network monitors built into modern operating systems that are technically applications being provisioned by OS provisioning tools.

Into this slightly muddled mix we are increasingly seeing another aspect of provisioning. Hardware. While the majority of server provisioning tools support some level of hardware configuration, the level of support required to run a modern datacenter is just not there. There is good reason for this, while operating systems installation can be done generically in a variety of ways, hardware configuration is, by definition, relatively unique to the hardware being configured. A RAID card is not a SAN card, after all, and RAID cards from vendor X are not RAID cards from vendor Y. Indeed, when I was a storage and servers editor, it amazed me at how different two vendor’s interfaces could be… Standardization of programmability was head-nodded by groups like SNIA, but interoperability (from a DevOps or developer perspective) was relatively non-existent.

The market is discovering that quite often, even with tools that support hardware configuration (not all server provisioning tools do), the support is based upon a few disparate vendors and pieces of hardware. This is difficult for mass deployment in a heterogeneous environment, and normally means that operations must intervene to perform manual steps on the way to server provisioning. Automating most of the system is useful, automating all of it frees up resources to work on amazing new things. If operations staff has to sit there to configure the RAID card, then they have to sit there. If systems can do that configuration as part of deployment, then operations staff can be working on the next great project.

So the advanced provisioning stack looks something like this (for hardware and to a limited extent, VMs Cloud and some VM functionality is handled differently because of hardware abstraction and mode of OS deployment):


The thing is that it is not just initial deployment that operations needs to worry about. It is also upgrades and maintenance. I had a disk array lose a drive last year, and part of the fix was upgrading the firmware on the controller. This was not an optional step; it was required to get my NAS back into healthy condition. The same is true with OS security patches. While you could ignore them, that is certainly not IT best practice (not to mention infosec best practices). But changing these things can have implications up the stack. The ability to quickly and efficiently upgrade and repair existing installations is important, but the upgrades required, by cascading up the stack in an increasingly complex environment, can cause problems and consume a lot of time.

So what we need is a toolset that can handle all of the above (and, as my next blog will explore, even more). Not just at initial install time, but throughout the lifecycle of the servers/OS’s/Apps.

In the current marketplace, that means looking at the hardware support for server provisioning tools and seeing if it meets your needs. It is likely that as the market moves forward, this proposition will change, but for now that’s where we are.

What do I think? I think all of this will go through consolidation, and eventually you’ll have a DevOps provisioning tool that handles all of the above and more. But that’s a while off yet.

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More Stories By Don MacVittie

Don MacVittie is founder of Ingrained Technology, A technical advocacy and software development consultancy. He has experience in application development, architecture, infrastructure, technical writing,DevOps, and IT management. MacVittie holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Northern Michigan University, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Nova Southeastern University.

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