Apparently IT death smells like kickstart files. Six Reasons why.

Today, I’m sharing a parable about always being focused on adding value.

Recently, I was on a call with an IT Ops manager who insisted that his team had their on-premises operations under control with “python scripts and manual kickstart files” because they “really don’t change their infrastructure setup.” He explained that he and his team was comfortable with this because it was something they understood and did not require learning new systems. While I understand his position, I was sort of sad for him and his employer because…

No value is created for his company by maintaining custom kickstart, preseeds or boot files.

Maintaining kickstarts is fatal for many reasons. Is there a way to make it less fatal? Yes, and it involves investing in learning tools that let you move up stack.

Contrary to popular IT mythology, managing physical infrastructure is still a reality for many IT teams and will remain a part of best practices until every workload simply runs on Amazon and it becomes their problem.  Since that “Utopian” future is unlikely, let’s deal with some practical realities of hybrid IT.

Here are my six reasons why custom kickstarts (and other site-specific boot provisioning scripts) are dangerous:

1. Creating Site Unique Processes

Every infrastructure is unique and that’s a practical reality that we have to accept because otherwise we would never be able to make improvements and corrects without touching everything that already deployed. However, we really want to work hard to minimize places where we inject variation into the environment. That means that server and site specific kickstarts with lots of post-provisioning steps forces operators to maintain additional information about each server.

2. Building Server Specific Configurations

When we create server specific templates, it becomes nearly impossible to recreate server builds. That directly leads to fragile infrastructure because teams cannot quickly redeploy or automate refreshes. Static IT infrastructure is a known fail pattern and makes enterprises vulnerable to staff changes, hacking and inability to manage and patch.

3. Having Opaque Configurations

Kickstart is hard to understand (and even harder to troubleshoot). When teams take actions during the provisioning process they are often not tracked or managed like other operational scripting tools. Failures or injections can easily go undetected. Even if they are tracked, the number of operators who can read and manage these scripts is limited. That means that critical aspects of your operational environment happen outside of your awareness.

4. Being Less Secure

Kickstart processes generally include injecting SSH keys, certificates and other authentication credentials. These embedded credentials are often hard coded into the process with minimal awareness of the operational team leaving you vulnerable at the most foundational level. This is not an acceptable security process; however, teams who hack kickstarts often don’t want to consider the implications.

Security side note: most teams don’t have the expertise to integrate TPM or HSM into their kickstart processes; consequently, these key security technologies are generally unused and ignored. If you want to talk about this, please contact me!

5. Diverging Provisioning Patterns

Cloud does not use kickstarts. Provisioning variation increases when teams keep/add logic and configuration into server provisioning instead of doing it as post-provision automation. If your physical provisioning team is not rehearsing on cloud then you’re in a serious IT hole because all workloads should be managed as hybrid-ready. Deployment fidelity helps accelerate teams and reduces cost.

6. Reusing Community Practice

Finally, managing your own kickstarts makes it impossible to leverage community patterns and practices. Kickstarts are not exactly a hive of innovation so you are not creating any competitive advantage by adding variation there. In cases like that, reusing community tooling is a net benefit to your organization. Why have we not done this already? Until recently, provisioning tools were not API driven or focused on reusable shared practice.

While Kickstart or similar is pretty much required for physical, we have a solution for these issues.

One of the key design elements of Digital Rebar is an templated, API driven boot provisioner. Our approach uses kickstarts, preseeds and other tools; however, we’ve worked hard to minimize their span and decompose them into reusable components. That allows users to inject site specific code as snippets that are centrally managed and hardware neutral.

Critically, our approach allows SRE and Ops teams to get out of the kickstart business and focus on provisioning workflow and automation. Yes, there’s some learning curve but there are a lot of benefits to moving up stack.

It’s not too late to “:q!” those kickstart edits and accelerate your infrastructure.

Physical Ops = Plumbers of the Internet. Celebrating dirty IT jobs 8 bit style

I must be crazy because I like to make products that take on the hard and thankless jobs in IT.  Its not glamorous, but someone needs to do them.

marioAnalogies are required when explaining what I do to most people.  For them, I’m not a specialist in physical data center operations, I’m an Internet plumber who is part of the team you call when your virtual toilet backs up.  I’m good with that – it’s work that’s useful, messy and humble.

Plumbing, like the physical Internet, disappears from most people’s conscious once it’s out of sight under the floor, cabinet or modem closet.  And like plumbers, we can’t do physical ops without getting dirty.  Unlike cloud-based ops with clean APIs and virtual services, you can’t do physical ops without touching something physical.  Even if you’ve got great telepresence, you cannot get away from physical realities like NIC and SATA enumeration, BIOS management and network topology.  I’m delighted that cloud has abstracted away that layer for most people but that does not mean we can ignore it.

Physical ops lacks the standardization of plumbing.  There are many cross-vendor standards but innovation and vendor variation makes consistency as unlikely as a unicorn winning the Rainbow Triple Crown.

493143-donkey_kong_1For physical ops, it feels like we’re the internet’s most famous plumber, Mario, facing Donkey Kong.  We’ve got to scale ladders, jump fireballs and swing between chains.  The job is made harder because there’s no half measures.  Sometimes you can find the massive hammer and blast your way through but that’s just a short term thing.

Unfortunately, there’s a real enemy here: complexity.

Just like Donkey Kong keeps dashing off with the princess, operations continue to get more and more complex.  Like with Mario, the solution is not to bypass the complexity; it’s to get better and faster at navigating the obstacles that get thrown at you.  Physical ops is about self-reliance and adaptability.  In that case, there are a lot of lessons to be learned from Mario.

If I’m an internet plumber then I’m happy to embrace Mario as my mascot.  Plumbers of the internet unite!

Who’s the grown-up here?  It’s the VM not the Iron!

This ANALOGY exploring Virtual vs Physical Ops is Joint posting by Rob Hirschfeld, RackN, and Russel Doty, Redhat.RUSSEL DOTY

babyCompared to provisioning physical servers, getting applications running in a virtual machine is like coaching an adult soccer team – the players are ready, you just have to get them to the field and set the game in motion.  The physical servers can be compared to a grade school team – tremendous potential, but they can require a lot of coaching and intervention. And they don’t always play nice.

Russell Doty and I were geeking on the challenges of configuring physical servers when we realized that our friends in cloud just don’t have these problems.  When they ask for a server, it’s delivered to them on a platter with an SLA.  It’s a known configuration – calm, rational and well-behaved.  By comparison, hardware is cranky, irregular and sporadic.  To us, it sometimes feels like we are more in the babysitting business. Yes, we’ve had hardware with the colic!

Continuing the analogy, physical operations requires a degree of child-proofing and protection that is (thankfully) hidden behind cloud abstractions of hardware.  More importantly, it requires a level of work that adults take for granted like diaper changes (bios/raid setup), food preparation (network configs), and self-entertainment (O/S updates).

And here’s where the analogy breaks down…

The irony here is that the adults (vms) are the smaller, weaker part of the tribe.  Not only that, these kids have to create the environment that the “adults” run on.

If you’re used to dealing with adults to get work done, you’re going to be in for a shock when you ask the kids to do the same job.

That’s why the cloud is such a productive platform for software.  It’s an adults-only environment – the systems follow the rules and listen to your commands.  Even further, cloud systems know how to dress themselves (get an O/S), rent an apartment (get an IP and connect) and even get credentials (get a driver’s license).

These “little things” are taken for granted in the cloud are not automatic behaviors for physical infrastructure.

Of course, there are trade-offs – most notably performance and “scale up” scalability. The closer you need to get to hardware performance, on cpu, storage, or networks, the closer you need to get to the hardware.

It’s the classic case of standardizing vs. customization. And a question of how much time you are prepared to put into care and feeding!