Update / Notice: This post was written in 2008. The world has changed since then. A lot. We have good, easy configuration management like Puppet, Chef, etc. (which, in fact, I use to manage my desktop and laptop) and, more importantly, creating and destroying servers can be done in seconds rather than hours. In short, in my opinion, this post is a rant about a problem that no longer exists. If you’re still thinking of things the way this post does, you’re doing it wrong.

For one of my wonderful classes, Internet Security, I’m doing a presentation on “patch management”. While I’m obligated to cover Windows - and, of course, will talk about MacOS - I’ll obviously be spending a good deal of time on the Unix/Linux side of things. This has gotten me thinking about one of my biggest problems with Linux (and specifically OpenSuSE, my usual default distro. Patch management is utterly awful.

Here’s the problem: I have about a dozen machines under my control. I need to keep them all up-to-date. Currently, I manually do patches and upgrades via YaST or zypper. I thought about scripting this through zypper, but that doesn’t make any sense - the packages on the machines are far from homogenous, so there’s no clear way to make one script that updates them all. I considered using Puppet or CFengine or something of that sort, but that’s too heavy-weight for me - for only a dozen machines, many of which are personal or development only, that’s a lot to keep track of by hand, and a lot of work defining which patches should be applied, and which machines shouldn’t be changed.

My other peeve is distribution upgrades. About three of my machines are still running OpenSuSE 10.0 or 10.1, both of which are unsupported, and no longer even have downloads available. Why? Becuase I’ve done major OpenSuSE upgrades before, broken a LOT of stuff, and I simply can’t risk that on machines that can’t stand extended downtime. This process *needs* to be made easier. Bottom line - it should be made no more difficult or unreliable than a kernel upgrade. IMHO, the biggest selling point for Solaris is its’ ability to do a total upgrade to a second partition, and switch-over at runtime. Why doesn’t Linux (or SuSE) have this yet?

What’s my ideal solution? A curses application that uses text-file backends (curses so I can run it over SSH even if I have a slow link or high latency, like from a SSH session on my cell phone, if need be). The app would allow me to list all of the machines I want managed. It would connect to the machines over standard SSH, and would leave an extensive audit trail of what’s done, both on the management console and on the machines (as well as running as a dedicated user). The application would maintain an inventory of all of the packages on every machine. It would check daily for new patches/updates to any of those packages, and e-mail me a daily summary of what’s new, including all dependency changes, and which machines need the update. It would also allow me to define, on a per-machine (or per-group-of-machines) basis, rules for packages that must stay at their current version - i.e. I have a bunch of PHP4 apps, so machine X needs to stay at PHP4. The e-mail summary would include any packages that aren’t going to be updated for a specific machine because of dependency/version rules, as well as warnings about any new packages that have a dependency that has a rule set. I could then run the main curses app on my admin machine and, starting from NO selections, select which updates I want to apply and whether I want to ignore or create new rules to keep something at its current version, on a per-machine or per-group basis. This curses app would generate a file (XML?) of what to do (which would also be generated or edited by hand, easily). The XML file would then be fed into a script that downloads all of the needed packages to a central (local) mirror (or, optionally, for remote machines, has them download locally on the machine), checksums them, and then installs them (running commands over SSH) on all applicable machines. It would then keep a log of all changes, both on each machine changed (in a master changelog file) and on the central administrative machine. Most importantly, the curses interface would have a simple, quick way to back out any specific update or group of updates for all machines, a group of machines, or one machine. All data needed to back out a change would be kept on each machine (say, cleaned up at the next update of that package and all of its’ dependencies) with machine-readable instructions kept in a central file, allowing local rollbacks - i.e. a machine goes down, I realize that it was because of an update to package X, and on the local machine I can check the changelog, see an entry like “Package X updated 1.0.0 to 1.0.1 on yyyy-mm-dd, Change ID 1234” and then, to rollback, simply issue a command like “patchmgt rollback 1234” on the effected machine.

Just some ideas, and a little rant.


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