Tag Archives: systemadmin

Administering Dozens of Debian Servers

At work, we have quite a few Debian servers. We have a few physical machines, then a number of virtual machines running under Xen. These servers are split up mainly along task-oriented lines: DNS server, LDAP server, file server, print server, mail server, several web app servers, ERP system, and the like.

In the past, we had fewer virtual instances and combined more services into a single OS install. This led to some difficulties, especially with upgrades. If we wanted to upgrade the OS for, say, the file server, we’d have to upgrade the web apps and test them along with it at the same time. This was not a terribly sustainable approach, hence the heavier reliance on smaller virtual environments.

All these virtual environments have led to their own issues. One of them is getting security patches installed. At present, that’s a mainly manual task. In the past, I used cron-apt a bit, but it seemed to be rather fragile. I’m wondering what people are using to get security updates onto servers in an automated fashion these days.

The other issue is managing the configuration of these things. We have some bits of configuration that are pretty similar between servers — the mail system setup, for instance. Most of them are just simple SMTP clients that need to be able to send out cron reports and the like. We had tried using cfengine2 for this, but it didn’t work out well. I don’t know if it was our approach or not, but we found that hacking cfengine2 after making changes on systems was too time-consuming, and so that task slipped and eventually cfengine2 wasn’t doing what it should anymore. And that even with taking advantage of it being able to do things like put the local hostname in the right places.

I’ve thought a bit about perhaps providing some locally-built packages that establish these config files, or load them up with our defaults. That approach has worked out well for me before, though it also means that pushing out changes isn’t a simple hack of a config file somewhere anymore.

It seems like a lot of the cfengine2/bcfg tools are designed for environments where servers are more homogenous than ours. bcfg2, in particular, goes down that road; it makes it difficult to be able to log on to a web server, apt-get install a few PHP modules that we need for a random app, and just proceed.

Any suggestions?