The future of configuration management (again), and a suggestion

cfgmgmtcamp-logoI have attended the Config Management Camp in Gent this year, where I also presented the talk “Promise theory: from configuration management to team leadership“. A thrilling experience, considering that I was talking about promise theory at the same conference and in the same track where Mark Burgess, the inventor of promise theory, was holding one of the keynotes!

The quality of the conference was as good as always, but my experience at the conference was completely different from the past. Last time I attended, in 2016, I was actively using CFEngine and that shaped in both the talks I attended and the people that I hanged on with the most. This year I was coming from a different work environment and a different job: I jumped a lot through the different tracks and devrooms, and talked with many people with a very different experience than mine. And that was truly enriching. I’ll focus on one experience in particular, that led me to see what the future of configuration management could be.

 

I attended all the keynotes. Mark Burgess’ was, as always, rich in content and a bit hard to process; lots of food for though, but I couldn’t let it percolate in my brain until someone made it click several hours later. More on that in a minute.

Then there was Luke Kanies’ keynote, explaining where configuration management and we, CM practitioners, won the battle; and also where we lost the battle and where we are irrelevant. Again, more stuff accumulated, waiting for something to trigger the mental process to consume the information. There was also the keynote by Adam Jacob about the future of Configuration Management, great and fun as always but not part of this movie 🙂 I recommend that you enjoy it on youtube.

Later, at the social event, I had the pleasure to have a conversation with Stein Inge Morisbak, whom I knew from before as we met in Oslo several times. With his experience working on public cloud infrastructures like AWS and Google Cloud Platform, Stein Inge was one of the people who attended the conference with a sceptical eye about configuration management and, at the same time, with the open mind that you would expect from the great guy he is. In a sincere effort to understand, he couldn’t really see how CM, “a sinking ship”, could possibly be relevant in an era where public cloud, immutable infrastructure and all the tooling around are the modern technology of today.

While we were talking, another great guy chimed in, namely Ivan Rossi. If you look at Ivan’s LinkedIn page you’ll see that he’s been working in technology for a good while and has seen things from many different angles. Ivan made a few practical examples where CM is the only tooling that you can use because the cloud simply isn’t there and the tooling that you use in immutable infrastructure don’t work: think of networks of devices sitting in the middle of nowhere. In situations like those, with limited hardware resources and/or shitty wireless links like 2G networks, you need something that is lightweight, resilient, fault tolerant, and that can maintain the configuration because in no way you’re just going around every other day to replace the devices with new ones with updated configurations and software.

And there, Stein Inge was the first one to make the link with Mark Burgess’ keynote and to make me part of his revelation (or his “pilgrim’s experience”, as he calls it). Mark talked about a new sprawl of hardware devices going on: they are all around us, in phones and tablets, and more and more in our domestic appliances, in smart cars, in all the “smart” devices that people are buying every day. A heap of devices that is poorly managed as of today, if at all, and where CM has definitely a place. Stein Inge talked about this experience in his blog; his post is in Norwegian so you must either know the language or ask some translation software for help, I promise it’s worth the read.

What’s the future then?

So, what’s the future of configuration management, based on Mark Burgess’ vision and these observations? A few ideas:

  • on the server side, it will be less and less relevant to the everyday user as more people will shift to private and public clouds. It will still be relevant for those who maintain hardware infrastructures; the big players will maybe decide to bake their own tools to better suit their hardware and workflows — they have the workforce and the skills in house, so why not? The smaller players will keep using “off-the-shelf” tools in the same lines of those we have today for provisioning hardware and keep their configurations in shape;
  • configuration management will become more relevant as a tool to manage fleets of hardware like company workstations and laptops, for example, to enforce policies and ensure that security measures are in place at all times; that will eventually include company-owned phones;
  • configuration management will be more and more relevant in IoT and “smart” devices in general; for those, a new generation of tools may be needed that can run on limited hardware and unreliable networks; agent-based tools will probably have the upper hand here;
  • we’ll have less and less config management on virtual machines (and possibly less and less virtual machines and more and more containers); CM on virtual machines will remain only in special cases, e.g. where you need to run a software that doesn’t lend itself to automatic installation and configuration (Atlassian, I am looking at you).

As always with future forecast, time will tell.

One word about Configuration Management Camp

I am a fan of Config Management Camp since I attended (and presented at-) the first edition. I am glad to see that the scope of the conference is widening to include containers and immutable infrastructure. However, as Stein Inge says in his blog post (the translation is mine, as all mistakes thereof):

The most part of the talks revolved around configuration management or servers, which is of little importance in a world where we use services on public cloud platforms on a much higher abstraction level.

Maybe, and I stress maybe, an effort should be made to reduce the focus from configuration management a bit in favour of the “rival” technologies of nowadays; not to the point that CM disappears because, as I just said, CM will still play an important part, and CfgMgmtCamp is not DevOpsDays anyway. Possibly a different name that underlines Infrastructure as Code as the real topic could help in this rebalance?

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