Avoid these mistakes in configuration management

Configuration problems come in many flavors. Some are mere nuisances. Often though, configuration errors can lead to more serious mishaps like application performance problems, policy compliance violations or even security vulnerabilities. They can often go undetected, quietly doing their damage in the background while everyone’s attention is focused elsewhere.

Unfortunately, I find that configuration management is an area where many companies either 1) put it as a “last to solve” on their priority list (when arguably it’s quite important), or 2) try to solve it with a do-it-yourself fix, but in a way that’s not always extensible or that doesn’t end up working with their DevOps toolchain.

Usually, I find configuration issues stemming from the age-old problem: using the wrong tool for the job. In this blog, I’ll address six big, bad mistakes of configuration management. (For the sake of brevity, three will be addressed here and three in an upcoming blog.)

Before I get into it, though, there are so many definitions of configuration management that it warrants a brief summary so we’re all on the same page. I’m talking about the ongoing configuration management of the infrastructure tiers supporting your applications—the middleware, database and OS-level configurations that keep your applications’ lights on and everyone happy.

  • Mistake No. 1: Only Considering Provisioning

Notice I just mentioned the word “ongoing” in my definition of configuration management. I find that so often people forget to take the ever-important “ongoing” into consideration. I have many conversations with folks wanting to implement a “provisioning tool.” On the surface, they think they need just that: a tool that provisions infrastructure including all the tiers of the application. But when I probe further, what they’re really wanting is something that provisions and then continues to monitor, manage and fix. There’s a big difference there. Some tools do great at provisioning but lack the visibility and “ongoing” configuration management needs. Think of a provisioning tool as waving a bat at a piñata. Yes, you can “blow away your environment” and start over, but that blindfold prevents true visibility and ongoing interaction.

pinata pic from wiki commons - Orcaconfig improves visibility

When looking for configuration management, be sure to focus on your current and future needs. Do you just need a provisioning tool? Or do you need an ongoing configuration management tool? Or both? Most tools that tout doing both do one much better than the other, so be sure to do your research.

  • Mistake No. 2: Using an ARA Tool to Manage Configurations

In a previous position, I spent quite a bit of time onsite with clients helping them automate
their application deployment processes. What I found is that around 80 percent of “application deployment” tasks are actually configuration tasks. The application deployment is the easy part; it’s the configuration management aspect that causes all of the headaches. I would spend the majority of my time onsite hurriedly writing little scripts that would be hurriedly inserted into the deployment process that would set the application pool, restart the service, change a heap size, etc. I had to write the scripts because application deployment products are workflow automation engines with process wrapped around them. They are not meant to be infrastructure configuration management products.

It bears repeating: Traditional application deployment solutions are not meant to be infrastructure configuration management products. They can get you part of the way there, but 1) you’ll need to script it all, which is not extensible and defeats the true purpose of a tool, and 2) they simply catapult your application (one way only!) into the next environment (i.e. Test to Staging, Staging to Prod), so you can forget about the “ongoing” piece we discussed above. Compare that one-way catapult launch to the complexity of routinely engineering one safe launch (and landing!!!) after another on an aircraft carrier on the open seas. A mission-critical task like this requires advanced technologies, visibility, communication and coordination to account for constantly changing environmental factors.

wiki commons image

  • Mistake No. 3: Using a CI or Build Automation Tool When You Need Configuration Management 

As bad as misusing an application release tool when you really needed a configuration management solution, it’s even worse using a continuous integration tool for this. Like many DevOps solutions, CI tools are particularly helpful for developers. CI tools like Jenkins and Bamboo require Dev teams to share or check in their updated code into a repository. The CI tool then detects potential problems early by automatically verifying builds for the developer. From the Dev team’s perspective, there is no more wondering if their code is going to work, and they spend less time debugging and redoing. The financial benefits of CI and the early warning system they provide should be obvious and considered a must-have for developers.

But while detecting coding errors early saves a lot of hassle for the Dev and Test teams, Ops teams do not directly benefit from CI. Here’s why: Operations teams are concerned with the application release into Production environments and then the ongoing configuration management of the entire application stack including the application, middleware, database and operating system. Once the (application) baton is passed to them, they require visibility into and intelligence about the application’s operating environments—well after Dev and UAT. As good as they are for Dev teams, CI tools are simply not equipped to provide ongoing operations support, visibility and coordination in Production that modern Configuration Management solutions provide.

These are just a few big, bad mistakes in configuration management and they focus largely on misusing tools beyond their intended scope. I will follow up with a Part II companion article that addresses configuration management practices to be avoided.