Book Review: Instant Chef Starter, by John Ewart

Instant Chef Starter is an introductory book about Chef, an open-source configuration management and automation platform. John Ewart and Packt Publishing have published a book that will allow a system administrator with no prior Chef experience to get Chef up and running within a day, if not a few hours, by using this guide. If one has already decided that buying a book is the best way to learn Chef basics, I can easily recommend this one.

The book opens with a clear introduction of Chef, along with descriptions of basic components, concepts, and terminology. The biggest benefit to using Chef, or any configuration management software, is to automate and ease the burden of multi-server administration.

(Note that John elected to omit Chef solo and hosted Chef from this book.)

The following section covers installation with a promise to give clear guidance on installation to Debian-based and Redhat-based distributions, as well as a source based install. While the Debian-based and source-based installation instructions were very clear and easy to follow, the Redhat-based instructions were missing. I’m sure that finding the proper installation method would not be difficult for most, and given most Chef users are Debian/Ubuntu proponents, this omission is minor.

Over the next few sections, John takes us through bootstrapping a Chef client, managing cookbooks, recipies, and attributes, as well as data bags and templates. I like the introduction via knife and the web UI and then moving onto knife for more command line power. This allows the reader to see both sides of Chef management and choose what might work best for them.

While this book was designed to introduce Chef to a beginner, I would have liked to see mention made of idempotent operations, source control backed cookbooks and recipes, as well as running chef-client regularly to maintain system state over time rather than ad-hoc execution.

While managing a few servers is not a daunting task for any but the most beginner of system administrator, I would have liked to see an example made mention of which better quantifies the benefits of using a configuration management tool-set once the servers being managed reaches the double digits or further. Take, for instance, the management of 30 servers. Once an operation must be performed on 30 servers that takes 2 minutes for each server, the result is 1 hour of time if no issues are discovered through the process. This could be off-set with Chef in under 10 minutes and off to more important tasks.

While I did find a couple of issues with the book, overall I enjoyed reading it, and found that it provided clear instruction on how to deploy Chef into an enterprise environment. I regularly use Chef to manage client systems and appreciate the benefits that it brings to a system administrator or devops engineer. Configuration management advances and brings standardization to the profession of system administration.

John Ewart, thanks for the good read. I hope to see more from you in the future.

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