Using Propellor for configuration management

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For a while, I've been wanting to set up configuration management for my home network. With half a dozen servers, a VPS and a workstation it is not big, but large enough to make it annoying to manually log into each machine for network-wide changes.

Most of the servers I have are low-end ARM machines, each responsible for a couple of tasks. Most of my machines run Debian or something derived from Debian. Oh, and I'm a member of the declarative school of configuration management.

Propellor

Propellor caught my eye earlier this year. Unlike some other configuration management tools, it doesn't come with its own custom language but it is written in Haskell, which I am already familiar with. It's also fairly simple, declarative, and seems to do most of the handful of things that I need.

Propellor is essentially a Haskell application that you customize for your site. It works very similar to e.g. xmonad, where you write a bit of Haskell code for configuration which uses the upstream library code. When you run the application it takes your code and builds a binary from your code and the upstream libraries.

Each host on which Propellor is used keeps a clone of the site-local Propellor git repository in /usr/local/propellor. Every time propellor runs (either because of a manual "spin", or from a cronjob it can set up for you), it fetches updates from the main site-local git repository, compiles the Haskell application and runs it.

Setup

Propellor was surprisingly easy to set up. Running propellor creates a clone of the upstream repository under ~/.propellor with a README file and some example configuration. I copied config-simple.hs to config.hs, updated it to reflect one of my hosts and within a few minutes I had a basic working propellor setup.

You can use ./propellor <host> to trigger a run on a remote host.

At the moment I have propellor working for some basic things - having certain Debian packages installed, a specific network configuration, mail setup, basic Kerberos configuration and certain SSH options set. This took surprisingly little time to set up, and it's been great being able to take full advantage of Haskell.

Propellor comes with convenience functions for dealing with some commonly used packages, such as Apt, SSH and Postfix. For a lot of the other packages, you'll have to roll your own for now. I've written some extra code to make Propellor deal with Kerberos keytabs and Dovecot, which I hope to submit upstream.

I don't have a lot of experience with other Free Software configuration management tools such as Puppet and Chef, but for my use case Propellor works very well.

The main disadvantage of propellor for me so far is that it needs to build itself on each machine it runs on. This is fine for my workstation and high-end servers, but it is somewhat more problematic on e.g. my Raspberry Pi's. Compilation takes a while, and the Haskell compiler and libraries it needs amount to 500Mb worth of disk space on the tiny root partition.

In order to work with Propellor, some Haskell knowledge is required. The Haskell in the configuration file is reasonably easy to understand if you keep it simple, but once the compiler spits out error messages then I suspect you'll have a hard time without any Haskell knowledge.

Propellor relies on having a central repository with the configuration that it can pull from as root. Unlike Joey, I am wary of publishing the configuration of my home network and I don't have a highly available local git server setup.

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