What is configuration management?
Configuration management is a systems engineering process for handling changes to a system’s functionality, performance, and attributes in a way that preserves the system’s integrity. Put more simply, it’s the process of maintaining and controlling the desired state of a system to make sure it is configured and operating the way you expect it to be.
Although configuration management originated outside the technology space, the term is now frequently used to refer to the process of managing and maintaining the desired state of various IT elements—such as networks, servers, operating systems, clusters of servers, or pieces of software. As such, it’s not uncommon to see the usage of terms like network configuration management, software configuration management, or server configuration management to qualify the scope of a configuration management tool or project. Other common terms used include server orchestration and IT automation.
Configuration management encompasses three broad aspects of managing and maintaining the desired state of the systems:
- Identification: Configuration management helps identify the systems that need to be reconfigured, patched, or updated in order to align with the desired state, as well as identifies the specific changes that need to be made to those systems.
- Remediation: Configuration management helps remediate the changes necessary to bring systems into alignment with the desired state. This could include applying software or security patches, installing (or uninstalling) specific software packages, or changing operating system configuration parameters.
- Automation: Configuration management helps automate both of the previous aspects (identification and remediation).
What are some common configuration management tools?
There are a number of configuration management tools on the market, but here are a few of the most commonly mentioned tools:
Although the specific implementation details vary from tool to tool—some of thse tools use YAML while others use a domain-specific language (DSL)—there are a few common attributes that most configuration management tools share:
- Declarative configuration: Most configuration management tools follow a declarative approach where the user specifies the desired state, and the tool takes care of reaching that state.
- Idempotence: Configuration management tools ensure idempotence, meaning that applying the same configuration multiple times yields the same result, promoting reliability.
- Automation: Automation is a fundamental attribute of configuration management tools, allowing the tools to execute tasks consistently and reduce the risk of human error.
- Stateless: Configuration management tools typically do not maintain any state, or saved information, on the configuration status of systems being managed.
What are some benefits of configuration management?
Configuration management offers a number of tangible benefits:
- Consistency: By defining the desired state and then identifying and remediating the specific settings that do not align with the desired state, configuration management helps bring greater consistency to systems. For example, configuration management helps ensure that the same version of a particular software package is installed across a specific subset of operating systems instances, or that all operating systems instances are patched with a particular security update.
- Reliability: Inconsistency is the bane of reliability. Snowflake servers that have manual tweaks, incorrect hotfixes, or missing software updates make it harder to fix issues. Automation helps reduce inconsistency by eliminating human error and variance in manually-configured systems.
- Scalability: Defined configurations that can be deployed via configuration management tool make it possible to scale systems faster, easier, and more reliably.
- Accountability: Similar to infrastructure as code, configuration management enables the desired state to be checked into version control. Changes to the desired state can be tracked, providing accountability and visibility.
What are some practical use cases for configuration management?
Configuration management has a number of practical use cases for many organizations:
- Automated configuration of new systems (typically servers, but could also apply to network devices or other systems)
- Recovery from outages
- Remediation of security flaws
- Patching or updating software or operating systems
- Deployment of software packages or applications
Note that newer operational approaches involving immutable infrastructure and/or containers provide solutions for some of these use cases without the need for configuration management tools.
Are there any disadvantages to configuration management?
Like any practice, there are some potential disadvantages to configuration management. In most instances, these potential disadvantages can be outweighed by the benefits that configuration management brings:
- Learning curve: Some configuration management tools may have a steep learning curve, requiring time and effort for teams to become proficient. This is especially the case for tools that leverage a DSL.
- Complexity: Managing configurations for complex systems can be intricate, leading to potential challenges in defining and maintaining configurations accurately.
- Overhead: Implementing configuration management may introduce some overhead, especially in the initial setup and learning phases.
How does configuration management relate to infrastructure as code?
Although configuration management (as a process) can apply to managing cloud infrastructure, the implementation of most configuration management tools make them less suitable for use in an infrastructure as code (IaC) use case than a dedicated infrastructure as code tool like Pulumi. However, configuration management tools are great companions to an infrastructure as code tool like Pulumi, offering the ability to perform fine-grained configuration changes on cloud infrastructure provisioned via Pulumi (for example, ensuring that the operating system on a cloud instance is configured in a specific way or with a specific software package or application). Here’s a great example of using Pulumi and Ansible together.
In the realm of technology, the effective management of software systems is crucial for stability and reliability. Configuration management plays a pivotal role in systematically handling changes, ensuring the integrity and functionality of a system. Utilizing tools like Ansible, Chef, or Puppet, organizations can streamline operations, enhance collaboration, and navigate the ever-evolving landscape of technology. These tools integrate well with dedicated infrastructure as code tools like Pulumi, allowing organizations to reap the benefits of automation through both infrastructure as code and configuration management. The combination of infrastructure as code and configuration management helps foster a robust and reliable digital infrastructure.
Pulumi is open-source infrastructure as code in any programming language including TypeScript, Python, Go, C#, Java, and YAML. It supports all major clouds and over 120+ cloud and SaaS providers. Try it out for free.
Get started today
Get started today
Pulumi is open source and free to get started. Deploy your first stack today.