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cdist is an agentless system which is much less known then iether Ansible or  Rex. Authors claim to adhere to KISS principle which is positive, but such declarations generally does not worth much.

Licensed under GPL. Initially released in 2010 at ETH Zurich so it originated in the university environment, which has its own specifics.  And it shows.  Initially written and still is maintained by Nico Schottelius  and Steven Armstrong. It requires only ssh and Posix shell on the target host..  On the master host it requires Python 3.2. cdist is being used at a couple of organizations in Switzerland such as  ETH Zurich ((Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich from which Albert Einstein graduated) and the OMA Browser project ), as well as the USA, Germany and France. Unlike most Unix configuration systems, cdist is not distributed as a package (like .deb or .rpm), but installed via git.

Why they are using Python 3.2 (not available as default on RHEL up to 7.2) on the master, while writing a commodity software is a mystery to me . Documentation is both very scarce and very bad. It is almost impossible to understand how the system operates and why particular structure was adopted. But there is cdist group on Linkedin. The major part of the discussion about cdist happens on the mailinglist  and on the IRC channel #cstar in the Freenode network. The last version is from 2015, but the latest commit in github is from Aug 19, 2016. It was mentioned on Hacker News,  on Reddit and on Twitter. Ubuntu has man pages for it availbe in Web format. It has some following, see Migrating away from Puppet to cdist (Python3) Hacker News

cdist consists of two main components:

cdist operates in push based approach, in which a server pushes configurations to the client. It's one way system -- the clients do not poll for updates. All commands are run from the single master host. The entry point for any configuration is the shell script conf/manifest/init, which is called initial manifest in cdist terms. It runs in several"stages" with only the final being execution of scripts on the target. That allow generation of code on one of the previous steps.

Cdist  does contain three idea that brought my attention to it:
  1. the usage as DSL of a regular POSIX shell. This is the idea I also subscribe to.
  2. Idea of "code generators" a shell scripts that are not executed directly on the target hosts, but instead generate shell code, which later is executed on the target hosts (nodes).  Those days, code generation is not a widely used technique and among few applications that still are using it we can mention only XSLT which is typically used to transform XML to HTML. But it could be used for more generic "template driven code generation". See the book Program Generators with XML and Java for more information.
  3.  I would also like to mention a creative use of Unix hierarchical directory structure for encoding information about "objects" in this configuration management system.

Usage of shell as DSL means that after you install cdist, you do not need to learn ugly new DSL  and curse the designers for incompetence and bugs. But cdist does not used the idea "translate from the "Classic Linux" approach. Is uses typical for all other Unix configurationa management system a set of new, custom,  primitives called types and that's problematic. For example here is a description of the "type" package which as you can guess allow you to install packages to the target systems: 

This cdist type allows you to install or uninstall packages on the target. It dispatches the actual work to the package system dependent types.



# Install the package vim on the target
__package vim --state present

# Same but install specific version
__package vim --state present --version 7.3.50

# Force use of a specific package type
__package vim --state present --type __package_apt

In my very limited understanding of the system type is a complex object, consisting of a set of executable (let's say object methods ;-) and files (let's day object variables). The whole cdist looks like a large API for writing shell scripts, designed to simplify writing complex configuration management scripts. Types is structures as subtree in Unix file system, consisting of a set of files and directories. The subtree is the same name as the name of the type and is provides via $__object variable in script. The tree includes:

Types are stored in the directory called $CDIST_ROOT/cdist/conf/type/. Each type name is prefixed with two underscores (like in __file) to prevent collisions with other executables in $PATH, because in scripts the names of those components are used with qualification by the directory. So the names should not conflict with system executables: 

Here is example that might help to understand how those directories and files re create. It contains the  partial definition of the type __nginx_vhost
echo servername >> $TARGET/parameter/required
echo logdirectory >> $TARGET/parameter/optional
echo loglevel >> $TARGET/parameter/optional
echo use_ssl >> $TARGET/parameter/boolean
mkdir $TARGET/parameter/default
echo warning > $TARGET/parameter/default/loglevel
echo server_alias >> $TARGET/parameter/optional_multiple

As manifest of a type is a shell script, you can call other "types" from it, creating some kind of "poor man" inheritance in shell.  For example, the type __package  abstracts from the type of the OS for which package manager is executed in the following way (this is a bad example,  which simultaneously shows the weakness of -- cdist -- the  absence of meaningful abstraction of the OS version, but never mind) :

os="$(cat "$__global/explorer/os")" # get the OS for the target
case "$os" in
      archlinux) type="pacman" ;;
      debian|ubuntu) type="apt" ;;
      gentoo) type="emerge" ;;
         echo "Don't know how to manage packages on: $os" >&2
         exit 1

__package_$type "$@" # execute script appropriate for the Os on the target. 

This is actually a very ugly solution (see a letter by a user  Ideas for a nicer way to support different os's-implementation in types ) which results that this case statement is present in each type definition (which emonstrates the lack of imagination by the authors).

Code generation is another  interesting feature of cdist. Instrad of writing a script for all cases imaginable is allow to  generate the code for a specific node which takes into account version of Linux it is running and other relevant parameters. Which is by the order of magnitute easer to understadn then generic scripts.

Such generated scripts can be executed iether on master or on target nodes and use "context files" generated on other steps of cdist exection (resuts of exection of "explorer" scripts).  In the generated scripts, you have access to the following cdist variables

They can only read information from this tree, not write to is as there is no back copy of this files and they can't be restored after the script execution. 

if [ -f "$__object/parameter/name" ]; then
   name="$(cat "$__object/parameter/name")"


The idea of type in cdist

The main components of cdist are so called types, which bundle functionality.  Each type consists of a set of shell scripts (similar to OO methods)  and can reuse  "sub-types" 

Every type can access what has been written on stdin when it has been called. The result is saved into the stdin file in the object  directory.

Example use of a type: (e.g. in cdist/conf/type/__archlinux_hostname)

__file /etc/rc.conf --source - << eof

In the manifest of a type you can use other types, so your type extends   their functionality. A good example is the __package type, which in a   shortened version looks like this:

os="$(cat "$__global/explorer/os")"
case "$os" in
     archlinux) type="pacman" ;;
     debian|ubuntu) type="apt" ;;
     gentoo) type="emerge" ;;
        echo "Don't know how to manage packages on: $os" >&2
        exit 1

__package_$type "$@" 
       The following types are available:

       ∑   __apt_key (cdist-type__apt_key(7))

       ∑   __apt_key_uri (cdist-type__apt_key_uri(7))

       ∑   __apt_norecommends (cdist-type__apt_norecommends(7))

       ∑   __apt_ppa (cdist-type__apt_ppa(7))

       ∑   __apt_source (cdist-type__apt_source(7))

       ∑   __apt_update_index (cdist-type__apt_update_index(7))

       ∑   __block (cdist-type__block(7))

       ∑   __ccollect_source (cdist-type__ccollect_source(7))

       ∑   __cdist (cdist-type__cdist(7))

       ∑   __cdistmarker (cdist-type__cdistmarker(7))

       ∑   __chroot_mount (cdist-type__chroot_mount(7))

       ∑   __chroot_umount (cdist-type__chroot_umount(7))

       ∑   __cron (cdist-type__cron(7))

       ∑   __debconf_set_selections (cdist-type__debconf_set_selections(7))

       ∑   __directory (cdist-type__directory(7))

       ∑   __dog_vdi (cdist-type__dog_vdi(7))

       ∑   __file (cdist-type__file(7))

       ∑   __git (cdist-type__git(7))

       ∑   __group (cdist-type__group(7))

       ∑   __hostname (cdist-type__hostname(7))

       ∑   __install_bootloader_grub (cdist-type__install_bootloader_grub(7))

       ∑   __install_chroot_mount (cdist-type__install_chroot_mount(7))

       ∑   __install_chroot_umount (cdist-type__install_chroot_umount(7))

       ∑   __install_config (cdist-type__install_config(7))

       ∑   __install_file (cdist-type__install_file(7))

       ∑   __install_fstab (cdist-type__install_fstab(7))

       ∑   __install_generate_fstab (cdist-type__install_generate_fstab(7))

       ∑   __install_mkfs (cdist-type__install_mkfs(7))

       ∑   __install_mount (cdist-type__install_mount(7))

       ∑   __install_partition_msdos (cdist-type__install_partition_msdos(7))

       ∑   __install_partition_msdos_apply

       ∑   __install_reboot (cdist-type__install_reboot(7))

       ∑   __install_reset_disk (cdist-type__install_reset_disk(7))

       ∑   __install_stage (cdist-type__install_stage(7))

       ∑   __install_umount (cdist-type__install_umount(7))

       ∑   __iptables_apply (cdist-type__iptables_apply(7))

       ∑   __iptables_rule (cdist-type__iptables_rule(7))

       ∑   __issue (cdist-type__issue(7))

       ∑   __jail (cdist-type__jail(7))

       ∑   __key_value (cdist-type__key_value(7))

       ∑   __line (cdist-type__line(7))

       ∑   __link (cdist-type__link(7))

       ∑   __locale (cdist-type__locale(7))

       ∑   __motd (cdist-type__motd(7))

       ∑   __mount (cdist-type__mount(7))

       ∑   __mysql_database (cdist-type__mysql_database(7))

       ∑   __package (cdist-type__package(7))

       ∑   __package_apt (cdist-type__package_apt(7))

       ∑   __package_emerge (cdist-type__package_emerge(7))

       ∑   __package_emerge_dependencies

       ∑   __package_luarocks (cdist-type__package_luarocks(7))

       ∑   __package_opkg (cdist-type__package_opkg(7))

       ∑   __package_pacman (cdist-type__package_pacman(7))

       ∑   __package_pip (cdist-type__package_pip(7))

       ∑   __package_pkg_freebsd (cdist-type__package_pkg_freebsd(7))

       ∑   __package_pkg_openbsd (cdist-type__package_pkg_openbsd(7))

       ∑   __package_rubygem (cdist-type__package_rubygem(7))

       ∑   __package_yum (cdist-type__package_yum(7))

       ∑   __package_zypper (cdist-type__package_zypper(7))

       ∑   __pf_apply (cdist-type__pf_apply(7))

       ∑   __pf_ruleset (cdist-type__pf_ruleset(7))

       ∑   __postfix (cdist-type__postfix(7))

       ∑   __postfix_master (cdist-type__postfix_master(7))

       ∑   __postfix_postconf (cdist-type__postfix_postconf(7))

       ∑   __postfix_postmap (cdist-type__postfix_postmap(7))

       ∑   __postfix_reload (cdist-type__postfix_reload(7))

       ∑   __postgres_database (cdist-type__postgres_database(7))

       ∑   __postgres_role (cdist-type__postgres_role(7))

       ∑   __process (cdist-type__process(7))

       ∑   __qemu_img (cdist-type__qemu_img(7))

       ∑   __rbenv (cdist-type__rbenv(7))

       ∑   __rvm (cdist-type__rvm(7))

       ∑   __rvm_gem (cdist-type__rvm_gem(7))

       ∑   __rvm_gemset (cdist-type__rvm_gemset(7))

       ∑   __rvm_ruby (cdist-type__rvm_ruby(7))

       ∑   __ssh_authorized_keys (cdist-type__ssh_authorized_keys(7))

       ∑   __start_on_boot (cdist-type__start_on_boot(7))

       ∑   __timezone (cdist-type__timezone(7))

       ∑   __update_alternatives (cdist-type__update_alternatives(7))

       ∑   __user (cdist-type__user(7))

       ∑   __user_groups (cdist-type__user_groups(7))

       ∑   __yum_repo (cdist-type__yum_repo(7))

       ∑   __zypper_repo (cdist-type__zypper_repo(7))

       ∑   __zypper_service (cdist-type__zypper_service(7))

Explorers -- scripts that put one line information about the host into stdin

Explorer are small shell scripts, which are always executed on the target host. The aim of the explorer is to extract from the target host properties of the which in summary should provide enough context to types so that they can act correctly on the on the target system based on the type of OS and other individual properties.  An explorer outputs the result to stdout, which is usually a one liner, but may be empty or multi line especially in the case of type explorers.

There are general explorers, which are run in an early stage, and type explorers. Both work almost exactly the same way, with the difference that the values of the general explorers are stored in a general location and the type specific below the object.

Explorers can reuse other explorers on the target system by calling $explorer/<explorer_name> (general and type explorer) or $type_explorer/<explorer name> (type explorer).

In case of significant errors, the explorer may exit non-zero and return an error message on stderr, which will cause cdist to abort.

You can also use stderr for debugging purposes while developing a new explorer. A very simple explorer may look like this:


Which provide the hostname of a given host

A more complex explorer, which checks for the status of a package may look like this:

if [ -f "$__object/parameter/name" ]; then
  name="$(cat "$__object/parameter/name")"

# Except dpkg failing, if package is not known / installed
dpkg -s "$name" 2>/dev/null || exit 0
The following global explorers are available:
  1. cpu_cores
  2. cpu_sockets
  3. disks
  4. hostname
  5. interfaces
  6. lsb_codename
  7. lsb_description
  8. lsb_id
  9. lsb_release
  10. machine
  11. machine_type
  12. memory
  13. os
  14. os_version
  15. runlevel

Code generators in cdist are called GENCODE scripts

There are two type of code generators in cdist (called gencode scripts):

The gencode scripts can make use of the parameters, the properties extracted by any of the global explorers as well as the type specific explorers.

If the gencode scripts encounters an error, it should print diagnostic messages to stderr and exit non-zero. If you need to debug the gencode script, you can write to stderr:

# Debug output to stderr
echo "My fancy debug line" >&2

# Output to be saved by cdist for execution on the target
echo "touch /etc/cdist-configured"
In the generated scripts, you have access to the following cdist variables
∑   __object

∑   __object_id
but only for read operations, as if you ovewrite them there is no back copy of those files after the script execution. So when you generate a script with the following content, it will work:
if [ -f "$__object/parameter/name" ]; then
  name="$(cat "$__object/parameter/name")"


The configuration is written in Bourne Shell and consists of

Although all of these are written in Shell script, the order of execution in the manifests does not matter: cdist employs an idempotent configuration.

All user configurable parts are contained in manifests or gencode-scripts, which are shell scripts. Shell scripts were chosen, because Unix System Administrators are usually profound in reading and writing shell scripts.

cdist reads its configuration from the initial manifest (conf/manifest/init), in which hosts are mapped to types:

case "$__target_host" in
        __package zsh --state present
        __addifnosuchline /tmp/cdist-welcome --line "Welcome to cdist"

Names of types in cdist DSL always start with "__" to avoid conflicts in PATH. They are called like normal shell scripts and can perform advanced parameter parsing as well as reading from stdin:

# Provide a default file, but let the user change it
__file /home/frodo/.bashrc --source "/etc/skel/.bashrc" \
   --state exists \
   --owner frodo --mode 0600

# Take file content from stdin
__file /tmp/whatever --owner root --group root --mode 644 --source - << DONE
Here goes the content for /tmp/whatever

Dependencies are expressed by setting up the require environment variable:

      __directory /tmp/foobar
      require="__directory//tmp/foobar" __file /tmp/foobar/baz

Access to paths and files within types is given by environment variables like $__object.

Stages of execution

cdist execution consest of several stages:


In this stage information is collected about the target host using so called explorers. Every existing explorer is run on the target and the output of all explorers are copied back into the local cache. The results can be used by manifests and types.


The initial manifest, which should be used for mappings of hosts to types, is executed. This stage creates objects in a cconfig database that contains the objects as defined in the manifest for the specific host. In this stage, no conflicts may occur, i.e. no object of the same type with the same id may be created, if it has different parameters.


Every object is checked whether its type has explorers and if so, these are executed on the target host. The results are transferred back and can be used in the following stages to decide what changes need to be made on the target to implement the desired state.


Every object is checked whether its type has a executable manifest. The manifest script may generate and change the created objects. In other words, one type can reuse other types. For instance the object apache/ is of type apache, which may contain a manifest script, which creates new objects of type __file. The newly created objects are merged back into the existing tree. No conflicts may occur during the merge. A conflict would mean that two different objects try to create the same object, which indicates a broken configuration.


In this stage for every created object its type is checked for executable gencode scripts. The gencode scripts generate the code to be executed on the target on stdout. If the gencode executables fail, they must print diagnostic messages on stderr and exit non-zero.


For every object the resulting code from the previous stage is transferred to the target host and executed there to apply the configuration changes.


The cache stores the information from the current run for later use.


           The standard cdist configuration directory relative to your home
           directory This is usually the place you want to store your site
           specific configuration

           The distribution configuration directory This contains types and
           explorers to be used

           Cdist will use all available configuration directories and create a
           temporary confdir containing links to the real configuration
           directories. This way it is possible to merge configuration
           directories. By default it consists of everything in $HOME/.cdist
           and cdist/conf/. For more details see cdist(1)

           This is the central entry point. It is an executable (+x bit set)
           shell script that can use values from the explorers to decide which
           configuration to create for the specified target host. Its intent
           is to used to define mapping from configurations to hosts.

           All other files in this directory are not directly used by cdist,
           but you can separate configuration mappings, if you have a lot of
           code in the conf/manifest/init file. This may also be helpful to
           have different admins maintain different groups of hosts.

           Contains explorers to be run on the target hosts, see

           Contains all available types, which are used to provide some kind
           of functionality. See cdist-type(7).

           Home of the type <name>. This directory is referenced by the
           variable __type (see below).

           Manpage in Asciidoc format (required for inclusion into upstream)

           Used to generate additional objects from a type.

           Used to generate code to be executed on the source host

           Used to generate code to be executed on the target host

           Parameters required by type, \n separated list.

           Parameters optionally accepted by type, \n separated list.

           Default values for optional parameters. Assuming an optional
           parameter name of foo, itís default value would be read from the
           file confdir/type/<name>/parameter/default/foo.

           Boolean parameters accepted by type, \n separated list.

           Location of the type specific explorers. This directory is
           referenced by the variable __type_explorer (see below). See

           This directory is reserved for user data and will not be used by
           cdist at any time. It can be used for storing supplementary files
           (like scripts to act as a template or configuration files).

           This directory contains output of cdist and is usually located in a
           temporary directory and thus will be removed after the run. This
           directory is referenced by the variable __global (see below).

           Output of general explorers.

           Objects created for the host.

           Contains all object specific information. This directory is
           referenced by the variable __object (see below).

           Output of type specific explorers, per object.


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Old News ;-)

[Mar 21, 2017] Ideas for a nicer way to support different os's-implementation in types


asteven commented on Jan 12

Just thinking out loud.Instead of the endless case esac if os then else what if a type would have a internal API? Maybe in form of shell functions?

Then there could be a default implementation, e.g. in __some_type/lib/default

And if some $os doesn't like that it can create it's own implementation in __some_type/lib/$os

The gencode-* would then just call shell functions which write to stdout.


_add_user() {
   printf 'gpasswd -a "%s" "%s"\n' "$1" "$2"

_remove_user() {
   printf 'gpasswd -d "%s" "%s"\n' "$1" "$2"


_add_user() {
   printf 'usermod -G "%s" "%s"\n' "$1" "$2"

_remove_user() {
   printf 'usermod ;;# "%s" "%s"\n' "$1" "$2"


. "$__type/lib/default"
if [ -f "$__type/lib/$os" ]; then
   . "$__type/lib/$os"

case "$state_should" in
      for group in $(comm -13 "$__object/explorer/group" "$__object/files/group.sorted"); do
         _add_user "$group" "$user"
      for group in $(comm -12 "$__object/explorer/group" "$__object/files/group.sorted"); do
         _remove_user "$group" "$user"

One could even implement kind of 'call super' using an aproach like this.

No more stinking spagetti code.

telmich commented on Jan 14, 2017

Great idea! But I suggest using $__type/files/lib instead

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Last modified: March, 12, 2019