Sysadmins and auto-configuration

Posted on April 16, 2011 with tags debian.

I’ve read bits and pieces of the recent “Network Manager as default” thread on debian-devel. I have a strong personal preference towards one side, but that’s not the point of this post (and I hope I can keep the tone neutral, hence why I didn’t get into the mailing list discussion).

I think this discussion is just a proxy flame-war to a bigger issue that lurks behind the scenes. That is, what is the most efficient way to configure systems.

On one side, we have the sysadmins, with their toolbox, and who desire the most reliable way to configure systems. In the other corner, we have people whose problem is how to configure systems with the least amount of human involvement. Whether it’s ifupdown versus NetworkManger, or explicit groups versus things like PolicyKit, it’s basically the same thing: do we want to have an OS that is slimmer, more customisable and more stable, but needs hand-holding, or do we accept some degradation in flexibility/customisation in exchange for decreasing the cost of administration?

I have personal preferences to one side, and practical preferences to another side. I’m not sure which is best in 2011, and it depends on many factors, but looking forward in 20 years: I don’t think we will afford to hand-hold a Linux machine as mach as we were doing it 10 years or even 5 years ago. Presuming that software capabilities advance, it should be possible to hand-over responsibility of autoconfiguration to software, rather than hand-configuring config files (doing it via configuration management systems is beside the point, as it is a mixed setting; I’m discussing only the extremes).

So in any case, we’ll have to accept that at one point we will have to rely on automated stuff for some parts of the system. The question is when we as sysadmins will be ready to do that, and when the software will be mature enough to bear that kind of responsibility.

And then there’s my next gripe: what is good for a few systems (dpkg/apt-get) might not be good for many. I find lately that relying on dpkg plus a configuration management tool to keep many machines in sync is not the best way. Keeping with the time means changes, whether we want it or not.

PS: for the record, not even my laptop(s) run NetworkManager :)