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Heterogeneous Unix server farm administration

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“it is better to solve the right problem the wrong way than the wrong problem the right way”.

Server farm is a set of Unix servers with the same OS but different hardware a hardware configurations. Server farm consists of groups of almost identical hardware-wise computers that can be managed simultaneously as they have mostly identical configuration files.  Such a group should be viewed as a class and individual servers as instances of this class.

Over the course of several years of deploying, reworking, and administering such farms (mainly Linux and Solaris), we developed a certain methodology and toolset. We began thinking of an entire farm similar to one high performance cluster, rather than as a collection of individual hosts. This change of perspective, and the decisions it invoked, made a world of difference in cost and ease of administration. The standard functionality includes:

There is relatively little prior art in print which addresses the problems of server farms. There really is no "standard" way to assemble or manage such server farms.

Because infrastructures are usually ad hoc, setting up a new infrastructure or attempting to harness an existing unruly infrastructure can be bewildering for new sysadmins. At the same time large part of knowledge that exist for HPC cluster apples and the sequence of steps needed to develop such "class-based" infrastructure is relatively straightforward;  the discovery of that sequence can be time-consuming and fraught with error. Moreover, mistakes made in the early stages of setup or migration can be difficult to remove for the lifetime of the infrastructure.

We will discuss the sequence that we developed and offer a brief glimpse into a few of the many tools and techniques this perspective generated. Typical problems that need to at least partially solved include:

  1. The documentation is incomplete

    Complete network, host and application documentation is must for every site. If an admin is constantly called while on vacation or while others are on call is probably not documenting their systems properly. Everything needed to understand and fix problems at their site should be clearly documented in a central location.

  2. The systems aren't discoverable

    The systems should be as self-documenting as possible. This means that start/stop/reload scripts should be in conventional locations (like /etc/init.d/ on SysV and on most Linuxes), MOTD messages should give helpful info, scripts should have comments explaining their usage and purpose, and automated alerts should send useful information about the error condition(s) found. Leave nothing to be rediscovered every time someone new has to work on the systems, let them spend their time working on the actual issue(s) at hand.

    An admin unfamiliar with the machine(s) in question should be able to find their way around the system with a minimum of trouble.

Many admins become mired in their site's problems, and stop trying to improve their situation. They accept that their disks keep filling up, that their applications keep dying, and that mundane tasks take up all their time.

If they were to write cron jobs to trim files that grow until filesystems fill, restart dead applications with init or cfengine or cron scripts or daemontools, and automate repetitive tasks from cron or cfengine, they would have a smooth running network. Once things run smoothly, they can spend their time updating software, improving security, or any of the many projects that improve overall conditions. Such projects get little effort spent on them at sites without a proactive attitude.

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