Tuesday 14 September 2010

Saving Effort and Time is Hard Work

As both my regular readers well know, I've been using a couple of Macs1 as my main systems for some time now. As many (if not most, these days) Web developers do, I run different systems (Windows and a raft of Linuxes) using VMWare Fusion so that I can do various testing activities.

Many Linux distributions come with some form of automation support for installation and updates2. Several of these use the (generally excellent) Red Hat Anaconda installer and its automation scheme, Kickstart. Red Hat and the user community offer copious, free documentation to help the new-to-automation system administrator get started.

If you're doing a relatively plain-vanilla installation, this is trivially easy. After installing a new Fedora system (image), for example, there is a file named anaconda-ks.cfg in the root user's home directory, which can be used to either replay the just-completed installation or as a basis for further customisation. To reuse, save the file to a USB key or to a suitable location on your local network, and you can replay the installation at will.

Customising the installation further, naturally, takes significant additional effort — almost as "significant" as the effort required to do the same level of customisation manually during installation. The saving grace, of course, is that this only needs to be done once for a given version of a given distribution. Some relatively minor tinkering will be needed to move from one version to another (say, Fedora 13 to 14), and an unknowable-in-advance amount of effort needed to adapt the Kickstart configuration to a new, different distribution (such as Mandriva), since packages on offer as well as package names themselves can vary between distros3.

It's almost enough to make me pull both remaining hairs out. For several years, I have had a manual installation procedure for Fedora documented on my internal Wiki. That process, however, leaves something to be desired, mainly because it is an intermixture of manual steps and small shell scripts that install and configure various bits and pieces. Having a fire-and-forget system like Kickstart (that could then be adapted to other distributions as well), is an extremely seductive idea.

It doesn't help that the Kickstart Configurator on Fedora 13, which provides a (relatively) easy-to-use GUI for configuring and specifying the contents of a Kickstart configuration file, works inconsistently. Using the default GNOME desktop environment, one of my two Fedora VMs fails to display the application menu, which is used for tasks such as loading and saving configuration files. Under the alternate (for Fedora) KDE desktop, the menu appears and functions correctly.

One of the things I might get around to eventually is to write an alternative automated-installation-configuration utility. Being able to install a common set of packages across RPM-based (Red Hat-style) Linuxes such as Fedora, Mandriva and CentOS as well as Debian and its derivatives (like Ubuntu), and maybe one or two others besides, would be a Very Handy Thing to Have™.

That is, once I scavenge enough pet-project time to do it, of course. For now, it's back to the nuances of Kickstart.


1. an iMac and a MacBook Pro. (Return)

2. Microsoft offer this for Windows, of course, but they only support Vista SP1, Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008. No XP. Oops. (Return)

3. Jargon. The term distro is commonly used by Linux professionals and enthusiasts as an abbreviation for "distribution"; a collection of GNU and other tools and applications built on top of the Linux kernel. (Return)

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