How to select the right Infra CM tools

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Puppet, Chef, Salt, or Ansible? This 12-Point Guide will Help you Select the Right Infra Configuration Management Tool 

In the world of software development, the importance of infrastructure configuration management tools cannot be understated. 

Configuration management tools help in managing an array of configurations such as installing software, configuring storage, adding networks, performing other setup tasks, and more. 

In fact, they help in making sure large-scale configuration changes are efficiently taken care of – with minimal input from the developers and system administrators. 

Things to consider 

To ensure your development environment is always stable, all your changes and configurations are well-documented, and dependencies are accurately tracked, you need to have a tool that makes configuration management a cakewalk. Only then can you deliver the product your customers expect – in time. That said, here’s what you need to consider when selecting an infra CM tool – we have also tried to compare four most popular CM tools over these 12 parameters. 

1) Simplicity and ease of use:  Given how important configuration management is, the tool you choose must be simple, and easy-to-use – so you can make the necessary changes, without delaying time-to-market. 

• Being a model-driven tool, Puppet’s learning curve is less imposing. It is simple and easy to use. 

• Since Chef is rather procedural, it has a steep learning curve, especially for non-Ruby users. 

Salt is straightforward to use. It has a small learning curve and is a good choice for organizations with limited programming resources.

Ansible uses a simple syntax and is hence easy to use – even for users with no programming skills. 

2)  UI:  Opt for a tool that offers a mature UI. The tool you select should be capable of handling complex reporting, inventory management, and real-time node management. 

Puppet offers a UI that makes it easy to manage node requests, assign classes to nodes, run the tool on a specific group of nodes, browse and compare resources on different nodes as well as view package and inventory data. 

Chef enables users to manage nodes, data bags, roles, and environments through its web UI. In addition, it allows users to configure the tool using role-based access control. 

Salt requires users to master the concepts of execution modules, high state and masters and minions. Users have to write state files that describe system policy for a configuration by hand, without the help of a wizard.

• Being a simple solution for configuration management, Ansible offers a UI that is very basic with an extremely low learning curve for administrators, developers, and IT managers.

3) Setup and installation:  Infra CM tools should also be relatively simple to set up and install.

Puppet installation happens on the master server and client agents on each system to be managed. Although setting up Puppet is rather straightforward, compared to other tools, it is difficult to configure and lacks error checking and error reporting features. 

• Since the set up for Chef is rather procedural, the learning curve is extremely steep. 

Salt can be installed through the GIT repository, or through a package management system on master on clients. However, setting the tool can get difficult for newbies.

Ansible is extremely easy to set up and get running. It doesn’t need any additional agents or software to be installed, eliminating the need for a separate management infrastructure.

4) Push or pull model:  When on the lookout for an infra CM tool, it is also advisable to make a choice between a push and pull tool. While push tools are easy to set up and offer the right amount of control, but they are known to lack automation, and are poor at scalability. In contrast, pull tools offer full automation capabilities and offer a good amount of scalability when compared with pull tools. However, most pull tools use proprietary configuration management language, which can be difficult to understand.

Puppet makes use of a central configuration repository that saves and pulls nodes and server-related configurations – whenever required.

Chef also uses a pull-based approach like Puppet; however, it needs an additional workstation to control configurations from the master to agents. 

Salt uses a push model where Salt Minion’s issue events to let the master know of changes in their state. 

Ansible also uses a push model like Salt. After connecting to nodes, the tool pushes small programs called Ansible Modules, runs those modules on nodes, and removes them when finished. 

5) DSL: Another factor to consider while selecting an infra CM tool is whether it is a DSL or YAML tool. DSL tools are known to offer more control over the tasks they perform. However, understanding what the code means is not always simple – especially with poor documentation.  YAML tools, on the other hand, are much easier to work with, offer portability between programming languages, are extensible, and can be tailored to specific needs – without requiring a lot of coding. Puppet and Chef are DSL tools, while Salt and Ansible use YAML. 

6) Language: The language that the configuration management tool uses – Ruby, Python, YAML etc. – should also be considered so you know what features and capabilities you can benefit from. 

Puppet is written in Ruby and is available in opensource as well as paid enterprise versions. However, if you really need to drive value from the tool, you need programmers with strong Ruby skills.

Chef is also written in Ruby and offers over 800+ free modules 

• Based on Python, Salt leverages YAML and supports the infrastructure as code approach to configuration management.

Ansible allows users to develop the tool using any language – Ruby, Python etc. – as long as the language returns data in JSON format.

7) Preferred community: Whether the tool in question has developers as their preferred community or system admins, also influences the final decision you make. 

Puppet provides well-established developer community support that is offered through Puppet labs. 

Chef is best suited for development-focused teams. The code-driven approach provides the control developers seek, and while offering a good degree of flexibility of configurations. 

Salt is a well-suited system for system administrators and offers strong community support.  

Ansible also has a strong community of active system administrators that allows users to work better and faster – together. 

8) Connection protocol: Accessing configuration items securely is a business requisite; hence, make sure to consider the connection protocol that the tool uses. All the four tools – Puppet, Chef, Salt, and Ansible – use the SSH method of communication; strong authentication and encrypted data communication mechanism that allows users to log into systems in the network, move items, execute commands, and more. 

9) Scalability and speed: When a major change happens, the number of configuration items can suddenly intensify. This requires the infra CM tool to offer scalability and speed, so all items can be taken care of – with equal precision.  

• Although Puppet is fairly scalable, when there are 100 or more clients trying to get their catalogue, performance is rather lacklustre. 

Chef is a highly scalable tool that can handle large scale applications. 

Salt’s multi-master capability makes it a very resilient, efficient, and highly scalable tool. 

Since Ansible is extensible, it also offers high scalability.

10) Maturity: It is important to also consider how mature the tool is. This is important because a mature tool will offer far more efficiency benefits than a tool which is low on the maturity index. 

Puppet is a highly mature tool with strong reporting capabilities. The multi-master architecture makes sure the tool is always available. 

Chef is a mature and highly customizable solution, allowing users to accommodate the creation and installation of different modules. However, the tool makes more sense for bigger organizations ready to pay a premium price for stability. 

• AlthoughSalt has the capacity to support multiple hosts simultaneously while being adept at creating configuration files, the platform is rather new and not entirely mature. 

Ansible execution and state module support are not very mature.

11) Platform: A tool that supports all platforms is certainly a better option, so you don’t run into compatibility problems later. 

• The Puppet masterworks only on Linux/Unix, while the Puppet agents also work on Windows.

• The Chef server works only on Linux/Unix but Chef clients and workstations work on Windows as well. 

Salt supports all platforms – Linux, Unix, as well as Windows 

 Ansible, the control machine has to be Linux or Unix based, and the tool does not offer any support for Windows.

12) Documentation: Finally, choose a tool that offers reliable, updated, and consistent documentation. This makes it easy to work with the tool, reduces the learning curve, and allows you to quickly come up with solutions – whenever you encounter a problem. 

Puppet offers good documentation that makes working with the tool extremely straightforward. 

• Although Chef offers a fair level of documentation, it does tend to get vague. 

• For new users, Salt documentation is rather complex. It is poorly organized and challenging to review.  

Ansible offers good documentation; the data is neatly organized, which makes it easy for new users to get started. 

No matter how big or small your software development team is, you need proper planning and due diligence to make the right infra CM tool decision. 

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