Chef pulls Infra 16 from the oven, flexes muscle at ARM users

infra

True to last year’s announcement, starting in May 2020 all Chef Infra versions older than Chef 15 will no longer be supported – but not before it pushes out version 16 of the automation tool for configuration management. It will be hoping the new flavour will tempt waverers into committing to a subscription.

Highlights of the release seem to be designed to either get new users on board by lowering initial hurdles or help expert users smoothen their workflow. Chef, for instance, introduced YAML as a way to write recipes for the new version. “Data centre operators or folks who are just doing light automation have been a little bit intimidated by Chef’s steep learning curve and requirement of learning Ruby” admitted Chef VP of product John Wyss on a call.

The new YAML support should change that, given that the data serialisation standard might be a bit better known in those circles. It could also help to get more Windows users onto the Chef train, Wyss hopes. “Customers bring more Windows into their data centres and use more Azure,” he said, and YAML represents “that style of administrator that traditionally has been more bound to the Windows environment” more. Heavily improved performance on the Microsoft operating system in v16 might also do its bit in convincing newbies.

Chef, however, also has its eye on another seemingly growing market – that of ARM users looking to keep their setups in check. Chef Infra 16 is the first to support the architecture for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Amazon Linux 2, CentOS, Ubuntu, & SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, aiming at companies using ARM “as a very high performance computing environment” running “EC2 workloads on ARM” for power and cost savings.

While, according to Wyss, there isn’t a lot of demand for that from Chef users yet and it’s more of a “proactive build”, the company seems to be excited by the prospect. “We believe that the customers will increasingly start to take advantage of some of the economic and ecological [..] capabilities of some of the new ARM hosting environments,” Wyss explained, referring to power savings amongst other things.

Core users aren’t forgotten about, however. The new version includes a unified mode, meant to help with extending policies “to address complex problems” without having to go too deep into Ruby. “When the customer goes to write a custom resource and express[es] it in the Chef DSL, sometimes they have trouble sorting out [the order of] execution because of, particularly, there’s a two phase commit model of how the Infra client executes.”

This model is made up of a compile and a converge phase, which can lead to trouble when mixing Chef resources with Ruby without thinking too much and motivated some users to build workarounds, forcing resources to run at compile time. The new unified mode, meanwhile, allows users to opt into a phase in which both are executed at once, so that it’s easier to determine what influences what how and build resources accordingly.

Getting old cookbooks working on new versions is also said to have been improved, thanks to new auto-correction capabilities that can be used while upgrading.

Those wondering about certifications, given that Chef hit the pause button on that programme last September, will have to wait a little while longer still…probably until next year. “The reality is, we’ve reprioritized in the short term, focusing on learning at scale versus just pure certification,” chief marketing officer Brian Goldfarb said, adding, “We see the need for online learning now more than ever.” 

Around June, a “revitalised” learning site is supposed to land, providing more guidance for those looking to extend their Chef skills without a real-life instructor. But the latter might have to get in touch with the company, which said it was “working through making sure people’s expiring certifications have the proper method for an extension,” should there be a need.

In April 2019, Chef announced it would go completely open source, taking a page from Red Hat’s playbook, developing “software in the open while attaching enterprise license terms to the distribution of RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux).” Chef’s version of the latter is the Chef Enterprise Automation Stack, which comprises Chef Workstation, Habitat, Infra, and Inspec. 

The move was explained with the company’s need to “focus all of our investment and energy on building the best possible products” without “having to choose between what is ‘proprietary’ and what is ‘in the commons’.” 

Since no one really seems to like change, a fork was almost to be expected, just in case terms are altered again – even Chef’s FAQs mentioned the possibility. And really, CINC (CINC Is Not Chef) popped up with a community version of the stack, while Biome focuses on an alternative Habitat distro. According to Goldfarb, both will even get some stage time at ChefConf in June. It will be especially interesting to see how long they’re going to hold up – after all maintenance and development always need resources, no matter how much you charge users.