Todd Wolfson

Software Engineer

January 20, 2016

For a while I naively managed my server; installing and running processes by hand with a script to manage restarting.

Finally, I have decided to formalize my scripts, add tests, and document everything.

The remainder of this article documents the path I took and why you should follow a similar trajectory.

Starting with Vagrant and bash

If you are new to provisioning/bootstrapping servers, I strongly recommend starting with Vagrant and bash.

  • Vagrant because ssh-ing into a machine is a familiar action
    • Identical to logging into a staging or production machine
    • If something goes wrong, then we can create a new server easily
    • Docker is a viable alternative as well
  • bash because it's approachable since we use a shell daily
    • If we are doing this for work, then it's 1 less tool for everyone to learn (as opposed to Chef or Puppet)
    • If something goes wrong, then we can use the same commands to debug

Here are iterations of my scripts in Vagrant and bash:

Here are some protips:

  • Always use set -e (exits upon first error, by default bash doesn't do this)
  • Use set -x to help with feedback to developer running script
  • Learn these tools which, test, man, grep, find, apt-get/apt-cache, dpkg
    • Use apt-get install to install/upgrade specific packages
    • Use apt-cache search/showpkg to search for packages/list info
    • Use dpkg --list to list installed packages (useful with grep for scripts)
  • Learn bash shortcuts (e.g. ctrl+c, ctrl+d, ctrl+a, ctrl+e, ctrl+r)


After getting provisioning scripts set up, we should integrate tests. This lets us confirm everything is configured as expected without manually checking everything every time.

Some testing tools are:

  • Serverspec - Written in Ruby, mature with support for many platforms
    • Repository also doubles as a great reference for commands
  • Inspec - Written in Ruby, newly released but written by Chef and based on Serverspec
  • Testinfra - Written in Python, relatively new but has good coverage

I went with Serverspec because:

  • It's mature and well used
  • I knew I was going to choose Ruby for higher level provisioning
    • To keep repo approachable, I wanted at most 2 languages (i.e. bash and Ruby)

Here is my current test suite:

As a forewarning, there's a common gotcha with respect to provisioning tools. When deleting files, be sure to add a command to remove (e.g. rm, action(:remove)) and provision before removing the code. Otherwise, legacy files will not get deleted if their "add" code is removed. When we have tests, these trivial issues are more likely to be caught.

Higher level provisioning

Eventually we will grow from 1 server type to multiple server types (e.g. web apps node, Jenkins node). When this happens, we can continue to use bash but at some point, it isn't the ideal tool.

In its place, we can use higher level provisioning tools. Instead of being imperative like bash, these are declarative and deterministic (i.e. evaluate server state, determine what needs to change, apply changes).

Some common tools are:

  • Puppet - Written in Ruby, has a custom DSL
  • Chef - Written in Ruby, defines classes and methods
  • Ansible - Written in Python

I chose Chef due to:

I should mention that I disliked how opinionated and nested Chef was but I got something which I am comfortable with:

Here are links to some resources I have found useful:

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