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Alex Hildyard

I do a lot of application and server configuration, and have tended to view the complexity of this strictly in terms of the complexity of the ultimate configuration to be deployed. For example, specific APIs aside, I would tend to regard installing a server certificate as a more complex activity than, say, copying a file or adding a Registry entry.

My prejudice stemmed I think from my conception of a sequential deployment script that not only had the explicit prescription to apply a specific server configuration, but also made the implicit presumption that the server in question was in a good known state. Scripts like this fail for hundreds of reasons -- the default website didn't exist; the application had already been deployed; the application had already been partially deployed and failed to rollback fully, and so on. And so the problem is that the more complex the configuration activity, the more scope for error in any individual part of that activity, and therefore the greater the chance the server in question will not end up at exactly the desired configuration level.

Recently I was introduced to a completely different mindset, which, for want of a better turn of phrase, I will call the "make it so" mindset.

It's extremely simple both to explain and to implement. In place of the head-down, imperative script you used to use, you substitute a set of checks -- much like exception handlers -- around each configuration activity, starting with a check of the current system state. Thus the configuration logic becomes: "IF these services aren't started then start them, and IF XYZ website doesn't exist then create it, and IF these shares don't exist then create them, and IF these shares aren't permissioned in some particular way, then permission them so."

This works. Really well, in my experience.

  • Scenario 1: You want to get a system into a good known state; it's already in a good known state; you quickly realise there is nothing to do.
  • Scenario 2: You want to get the system into a good known state; your script is flawed or the system is bust; it cannot be put into that state. You know exactly where (at least part of) the problem is and why.
  • Scenario 3: You want to get the system into a good known state; people are fiddling around with the system just now. That's fine. You do what you can, and later you come back and try it again
  • Scenario 4: No one wants to deploy anything; they want you to prove that the previous deployment was successful. So you re-run the deployment script with the "-WhatIf" flag. It reports that there was nothing to change. There's your proof.

I mentioned two technologies in the title -- MSI and MSDeploy. I am thinking specifically of the conversation that took place here. Having worked with both technologies, I think Rob Mensching's response is appropriately nuanced, and in essence the difference is this: sometimes your target is either to achieve a specific new server state, or to rollback to a known good one. Then again, your target may be to configure what you can, and to understand what you can't. Implicitly MSDeploy's "rollback" is simply to redeploy the previous version, whereas a well-crafted MSI will actively put your system into that state without further intervention. Either way, if all goes well it will leave you with a system in one of two states, whereas MSDeploy could leave your system in one of many states. The key is that MSDeploy and MSI are complementary technologies; which suits you best depends as much on Operational guidance as your Configuration remit.

What I wanted to say was that I have always been for atomic, transactional-based configuration, but having worked with the "make it so" paradigm, I have been favourably impressed by the actual results. I'm tempted to put a more technical post up on this in due course.

Posted on Wednesday, June 27, 2012 2:42 PM | Back to top

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