Chef Finds Docker A Close Fit

Chef, a leading open-source configuration system, finds Docker's Linux containers fit into its workflow and aid DevOps-oriented operations.
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The open-source Chef Server, used in configuration and deployment of the enterprise software infrastructure, as of Tuesday supports Docker containers and other enhancements.

Chef is frequently a fixture in shops that are moving in the direction of DevOps, or simply toward frequent updates to their production systems. Chef controls the configuration process -- its name springs from the recipes it can use to create a predictable system -- and sets a managed workflow for deployment. Docker, with its "layered" Linux container file system that enables a set of application files and their dependencies to start up in the correct sequence, is a complementary approach to Chef for packaging production applications that, until now, has been separate from Chef.

Now the two will work hand-in-glove, says Jay Wampold, VP of marketing at Chef Software, the commercial company behind the open-source code. "Chef enables production use of containers in a workflow," he tells InformationWeek. Chef Software sells an enterprise version of Chef Server with commercially supported features, including analytics, role-based access, and multi-tenant use.

[Want to learn more about a management system for Docker containers? See Google Leads Coalition For Container Management.]

Red Hat has already announced it's producing Red Hat Enterprise Linux Atomic Server for hosting Docker containers; CoreOS has announced it's a form of Linux designed to run Docker containers; and Rackspace has announced it fit Docker containers into its OnMetal Servers approach.

Another Docker integration might seem ho-hum, except for the fact that Chef is the piece of configuration management code that's being downloaded at the rate of 600,000 times a month. That makes it a key building block of future-oriented IT departments trying to bring more automated operations into their IT processes. Colin Campbell, director of patterns and practices at Chef, says the Chef Server is used by Amazon Web Services, Facebook, and other "web-scale IT operations" to help them manage hundreds of systems and tens of thousands of servers.

Chef's integration with Docker allows it to treat a Linux container as a node, much as a physical server or virtual machine already is, in its scheme of operations. The Chef Server monitors the health of an IT operation by putting an agent on each node and ingesting its feedback. Chef is now able to include agent feedback from containers in its analytics and reporting functions.

Part of its approach to more automated operations is built-in testing of updated systems before they're launched into production. Automated unit and component-to-component integration tests can be built into a production system's restaging process. And now those tests can be conducted in containers, as opposed to on independent physical servers or in virtual machines.

That will allow for faster testing. Containers can be commissioned in milliseconds, compared to the many seconds or minutes sometimes involved in firing up virtual machines. Likewise, many more test cases can be commissioned and run by using containers, which can be packed in higher density on a physical server than virtual machines, because they don't each need a copy of the operating system.

All types of testing are more fully automated in the latest release of Chef, and that helps move IT environments closer to meeting compliance and audit requirements, notes Wampold.

Chef Analytics now delivers notifications on who is changing what on the Chef server and allows system administrators to track what configurations or cookbook recipes are being used by whom, what their roles are, and what the target environment is intended to be. Analytics collects information on both developer activity and IT operations for greater visibility into what's working and what's not in the software infrastructure.

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