Chef vs Puppet vs Ansible - Comparing Orchestration Systems

December 29, 2016 Alexander Green

Comparing Leading Cloud Configuration/Orchestration Systems

Development, deployment and maintenance of virtual servers requires a sophisticated set of tools. Updating your application is only one part of the process - next is managing the deployment of that application across servers. This is known as cloud orchestration or deployment automation. The terminology is fluid but the concept is the same - your application and all of the infrastructure behind it updated on every VM it lives on. This mission of cloud orchestration typically falls under DevOps.

Currently the leading tools in the Configuration Management marketplace are Puppet, Chef, and Ansible. While there’s no de-facto leader in the marketplace, each tool has its host of dedicated users. Chef’s celebrity tech companies are Facebook, Nordstrom, & Target, while Puppet is used by Walmart, 1-800 Flowers, & Wells Fargo. Ansible, released in 2013, is the newest of the three and is used by Capital One, Splunk, and NEC.

Selecting the best cloud configuration management system is a daunting task, regardless of whether you run servers on a single platform like Azure or across multiple vendors.

Let’s take a look at some of the strengths and weaknesses of three leading cloud management platforms. We’ll also shed some light on why it might make sense to have more than one system in place.

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Installation & Ease of Use

With Puppet, you set up a master server and install Puppet agents on each of your nodes (individual VMs). To install on individual VMs, you SSH into each one and run a script. On initial setup of that master server, you have the option to install the Puppet console and the master server on the same machine. Otherwise, you can set up a Puppet console on your development machine, and keep the master server in the cloud. Puppet does have a steep learning curve, though the Puppet Forge Community offers great administrative templates, modules, and discussions.

To set up Chef, you’ll use knife, Chef’s command-line tool that provides an interface between a workstation on your development machines and your Chef servers. You create cookbooks (instructions for automation), define environments, set roles, and more that are all pushed to a central Chef Server. That main Chef Server contains information on every node in your system, and Chef clients runs independently on each of these nodes. If you want to add more nodes, you can do so via knife bootstrap, passing in an IP address and password.

Ansible on the other hand, is designed to be light and fast, so there’s no installation on each node. Instead, nodes are added via a config file on your master server, with SSH authorized keys added to each node. Ansible offers a variety of consulting and training services.

 

User Interface

Open Source Puppet only has a CLI, while Puppet Enterprise has the CLI and a web UI. The bread and butter of Puppet are modules which contain the code that configures and manages your nodes. Installing modules is easy via the command line, but for anything more involved like creating users for access control and creating node groups, the Puppet Console is necessary.

 

Chef vs Puppet

 

Chef has a web UI, Chef Manage, but you’ll be doing most of your work via the command line with Knife. Chef is built with Ruby, so if you’re familiar with Rails, the syntax is straightforward. When you want to add new libraries to your cookbooks (Chef’s equivalent of Puppet’s modules), you add it as a dependency - just like adding gems.

 

Chef vs Puppet

 

To find those cookbooks, you can search via GitHub, StackOverflow, and the Chef Supermarket.

Last, there’s Ansible Tower, Ansible’s enterprise edition and it’s web UI. It’s easier to configure and manage than Chef or Puppet’s web interfaces. Tower also makes use performance analytics, along with compliance and security functions from Red Hat.

 

Chef vs Puppet

Code Base

For these cloud orchestration platforms, we judged code bases on the breadth of modules, preconfigured system configurations, and community created tools. Essentially, how much code is out there that my team and I can use to get this into our infrastructure?


Chef has the Chef Supermarket which contains over three thousand cookbooks contributed by over seventy-thousand chefs. Branding words aside, this means that there’s a lot of available modules you can install on your nodes to simplify system configurations. There’s the standard ones you’d expect: nginx, mysql, and docker. But there’s also cookbooks for 1password, redis, and even homebrew. Even though there’s only three thousand modules, the community is strong and modules receive consistent updates. Developers with Ruby experience tend to adopt Chef or Puppet so if that’s your language, easing into using pre-configured modules from their open source communities makes the decision easy.

Puppet has the Puppet Forge, which is expansive, hovering around five thousand modules. Here, modules are separated by Puppet Supported (built by Puppet) and Puppet Approved, the top rated modules created by the community. Puppet recently put out a module supporting Azure servers, so if you’re in Microsoft land, there’s a place at the table for you. Like Chef, installation is straightforward via your terminal. New modules are added to your Puppetfile.

Chef vs Puppet

 

The Ansible Galaxy community is a helpful resource for tools and templates, and has more than three times as many contributors than the other tools in this comparison, and uses Ansible uses YAML Playbooks instead of recipes. Here, modules are called Ansible Roles. While we don’t have the exact number of roles available, there’s over a thousand roles just for mySQL, so you’ll find your flavor of SQL no matter what you’re looking for. There’s even a module for installing PHPmyAdmin. Language-wise, Ansible was built on Python. One thing I do like about the Galaxy interface is that it’s easy to filter by multiple categories and module versions.

 

Chef vs Puppet

 

Enterprise Licensing/Pricing Options

For companies looking for support, training and/or hosting services, all three vendors have tiered pricing based on the volume of managed servers.

The standard Puppet Enterprise comes in at $120 for every node on the system, though if you’re looking to experiment on a small collection of servers, Enterprise is free up to ten nodes. Puppet’s support team is also pretty helpful - when setting up some demo servers they actually gave me a call out of the blue to check in on me. Looks like the Zappos way of customer experience is trickling down.


Chef Automate is Chef’s enterprise edition, which comes with a few more bells and whistles - specifically Habitat and InSpec. InSpec is a testing framework for infrastructure, but the key attraction is the ability to set and test compliance profiles and security rules. Habitat is a packaging system that makes building easier, especially for containers. Chef Automate comes in at $137 for every node on the system. If you’re just looking for a production level of Chef, Hosted Chef is available at $72 a node, with a minimum of twenty nodes.

Ansible Tower by Red Hat is the enterprise edition of Ansible - and it comes at an enterprise level cost. The cost varies  - for up to 100 nodes you’re looking at $10,000 a year with support five days a week, eight hours a day. For the ‘mission critical’ version of Tower, with 24/7 support, the price scales towards $14,000 a month. The key bonuses of Tower include the advanced web UI along with audit trailing (for compliance) and system tracking.

Scalability

This is what matters in the end - when you’re scaling systems to thousands and tens of thousands of nodes, you want the ability to keep every VM under the fold.

Ansible has powerful orchestration capabilities. Like we mentioned before - there’s no serious installation on each node. As long as you have SSH authorized keys for each node, you can add as many as you’d like directly from the config file on the master server.

Similar to Ansible, it’s fairly easy to add and remove server nodes to Puppet. The Puppet Master server component can quickly pick up on new server Puppet Agents to distribute commands for updates and configuration. Most services on Puppet run over HTTP like web applications, so it’s easy to create a load balancer with high availability/performance and you won’t see a drop in efficiency.

Chef Nodes are bootstrapped by the Chef Workstation and managed by Chef agents. Adding new nodes is done through your workstation machine, which adds them to a master list on the Chef master Server. Each of these nodes has a ‘run-list’, which is basically everything it needs to get up to the desired state, so setup is automated after that initial point. Chef gets updates from each server node every 30 minutes, and logs the status of the server for compliance requirements.

 

Compliance Management

Ansible Tower by Red Hat has a component for compliance management, to track changes and upgrades. It’s baked in, but if you need more resources, Ansible Galaxy has roles that you can utilize as well.

The Chef Compliance Server provides a number of pre-configured compliance profiles and rules for audit readiness for organizations like the Center for Internet Security (CIS). Like Ansible Tower, the Chef Compliance Server manages reporting and event logging. CCS uses a simple scripting language for writing audit controls, which includes audit resources that you can implement according to your industry/technical compliance requirements.

Puppet Enterprise offers a number of pre-built security and compliance and modules in Puppet Forge. It also has a strong set of reporting and logging tools for compliance reporting needs, so most of your security and compliance functions can be automated.

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So in the end, which platform is best? Well, and I know you don’t want to hear this, but it depends on your needs. Personally, I like Chef because I came from a Ruby development background, and AWS has created OpsWorks for Chef Automate, which makes it easier to integrate Chef into your system if you’re using AWS exclusively.

Even so, you can’t beat the lightweightness of Ansible. And I still can’t get over the fact that Puppet actually called me. The clear factor here is that all three of those cloud configuration management tools all have expansive communities and modules, so there’s no worry on a lack of resources.

Many companies run multiple cloud management solutions, and just as many run multiple public, private and/or hybrid cloud environments. It’s important to evaluate multiple open source solutions before investing in an enterprise license. While all three limit you to around ten nodes on the open source versions, it’s a great way to test a cloud management solution being implemented in one of your divisions.

So, give an orchestration platform a try - it’s a great opportunity for companies looking to reduce IT complexity and accelerate their productivity.

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