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GNU cfengine

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1.2 Site configuration

To the system administrator of a small network, with just a few workstations or perhaps even a single mainframe system, it might seem superfluous to create a big fuss about the administration of the system. After all, it's easy to `fix' things manually should any problems arise, making a link here, writing a script there and so on -- and its probably not even worth writing down what you did because you know that it will always be easy to fix next time around too... But networks have a tendency to expand and--before you know it--you have five different types of operating system and each type of system has to be configured in a special way, you have to make patches to each system and you can't remember whether you fixed that host on the other side of the building... Also, you discover fairly quickly that what you thought of as BSD or System 5 is not as standard as you thought and that none of your simple scripts that worked on one system work on the others without a considerable amount of hacking and testing. You try writing a script to help you automate the task, but end up with an enormous number of `if..then..else..' tests which make it hard to see what is really going on.

To manage a network with many different flavours of operating system, in a systematic way, what is needed is a more disciplined way of making changes which is robust against re-installation. After all, it would be tragic to spend many hours setting up a system by hand only to lose everything in an unfortunate disk-crash a week or even a year later when you have forgotten what you had to do. Upgrades of the operating system software might delete your carefully worked out configuration. What is needed is a separate record of all of the patches required on all of the systems on the network; a record which can be compared to the state of each host at any time and which a suitable engine can use to fix any deviations from that reference standard.

The idea behind cfengine is to focus upon a few key areas of basic system administration and provide a language in which the transparency of a configuration program is optimal. It eliminates the need for lots of tests by allowing you to organize your network according to "classes". From a single configuration file (or set of files) you can specify how your network should be configured -- and cfengine will then parse your file and carry out the instructions, warning or fixing errors as it goes.

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