Server Farming

Nov 10 2010   10:41PM GMT

Cfengine rolls out Nova 2.0, pushes users toward commercial offering

Matt Stansberry Matt Stansberry Profile: Matt Stansberry

The commercial entity behind Cfengine, a popular open source data center automation and configuration tool, recently rolled out a new version of its proprietary offering Cfengine Nova 2.0.

Cfengine has been around since the early 1990s, and boasts some large customers, including companies such as eBay and Google, and is trying now to capitalize on its customer base by converting users to the pay-version.

Free open source systems management tools typically aren’t as automated or easy to understand as their commercial counterparts, so companies need to have a fairly skilled systems admins on staff to make them work. Also many of the proprietary version of these tools include virtualization-specific features, not included in the free versions.

Open source systems management vendors have a lot of levers they can use to convince a data center manager to buy the proprietary or supported version of their software. But you might not think geography would factor into that decision making process.

That is, unless you’re James Genus, System Administrator at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, located in coastal Maine.

The lab’s primary research focus is on the biological productivity in the world’s oceans and it supports genomic sequencing of single cell organisms, which requires some hefty compute power.

“The amount of data the scientists are producing is staggering,” Genus said. “The systems run almost constantly. As this increases, we need to make sure the environment is as stable as possible.”

Genus has been with the lab nearly a decade, and has used the open source version of CFengine for eight years. “I inherited an array of IT platforms and it was a headache,” Genus said. “If I had not found CFengine, I would not be in IT. I want [the scientists] to be able to come in, sit down and work.”

Bigelow recently moved from the open source version of CFengine to its commercial counterpart, CFengine Nova. And according to Genus, the lab’s location was a big factor in that decision.

Researchers are drawn to remote locations like Maine’s Boothbay Harbor, to get away from society and bureaucracy, to get things done, Genus said. But operating in a very isolated location has its risks. Power can go out for three weeks after an ice storm, and self-sufficiency is important.

“There are not many IT resources in Maine, as there are in New York, Massachusetts or San Francisco. Nobody I’ve talked to in this state is using CFengine,” he said. “It baffled me, even going to Red Hat training sessions in Boston, I’d only met a few people who used it, a few people who understood it. Using CFengine Nova, it’s easier for people to wrap their heads around and put it into action.”

Bigelow is largely a Red Hat Linux shop, and Genus said his team uses some of the free open source tools like Satellite and Spacewalk, “but they weren’t up to par with CFengine,” Genus said. “They don’t do the proactive fixing. We use CFengine to make sure services are up and running, make sure services are configured correctly. If something breaks, they recover automatically.”

Genus said he’s heard about CFengine’s competitors in the open source space, Puppet and Chef, but has not looked at them in detail. He said he’s happy about the tool’s ability to scale well.

Which is a good thing, since the lab’s environment is about to get a lot bigger in the next couple years. Genus said Bigelow has plans to build a new mobile data center pod: 22 racks at 50U each, which once virtualized will scale to 3,000 potential nodes.

Check out our Open Source Systems Management tool slideshow for more info.

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