Linux Philosophy Saves the Day – Automate Everything!

Last Updated on 09/20/2019 by dboth

One of my articles in this section is about the Linux Philosophy and its impact on the daily activities of system administrators like myself. One of the basic tenets of the Linux Philosophy is to “Use software leverage,” and one of the important corollaries of that tenet is to “Automate everything.”

Lots of installs

I have always had several – as many as 14 or 15 computers at one time – and, with the advent of VMWare® and VirtualBox®, a similar number of virtual machines that I use for testing. I also install Linux on customer systems. As a result I do frequent installations of Linux. Sometimes several a day. This results in the need to do fast, repeatable installations.

For example I have a favorite set of configurations that I do for things like Midnight Commander. I also have a number of fonts that I like to install that are not part of most default installations. I could install each font manually using YUM, and I could make the configuration changes to Midnight Commander manually each time I do an install, but that take a lot of time and gets to be very tedious and boring.

When I was doing all of this manually, I forgot things. I started keeping lists of things to do but that was still very time consuming. So over the years I have developed a process that ensures that installations are done quickly, reliably and that I don’t forget to install or configure anything.

I first do a pretty basic installation. I configure the disk partitioning and logical volumes the way I want and I – maybe – install the KDE desktop. I do not go through the entire list of available packages or groups and try to remember which ones I want to install to get just exactly the right tools I want on my computers.

Scripting repetitive tasks

Over the years I then developed what was at first a fairly simple BASH script that I ran to do the configurations and installation of the other RPM packages that I wanted.

As time went on that simple script evolved to include options that allowed me to tailor that standard installation for differing needs for my own and customer systems based on whether they were to be desktops, servers, or classroom systems. I added options that enabled me to select one or more of the several available desktop environments for installation. I created various configuration files that needed to be installed and determined that the best way to do that was to create an RPM package that included those files, some of which were more scripts that I have created over the years to perform various other repetitive tasks, as well as my post installation script.

I also expanded my script to enable the same functionality with CentOS as I had for Fedora.

The RPM package is in itself a form of automation because it relieved me of the need to remember which files to install and where.

The RPM package now installs about 2 dozen files and the post installation script I have been improving for about ten years is up to over 1300 lines of code, and more than 800 comment lines.

Even using the RPM and the post installation script, it could take up to an hour to complete all of the work required to get each one of many computers I install up to my standards. I certainly don’t miss the days of typing all of those instructions by hand and waiting for each to complete before typing in the next one.

From desirable to necessity

Everything was going along nicely and although I could have done all of that work manually, it has been much easier to use my automation. A few months ago Fedora 21 appeared on the scene and the automation I have created over the years has now become a necessity.

For those of you who are not familiar with Fedora 21, the installations have changed dramatically with this release. There are now three separate installation ISO images, Desktop, Server and Cloud. I have used both Desktop and Server ISOs for installation and I dislike them both intensely. I think the new installations are terribly limiting for the vast majority of Fedora users.

There is no simple install image. The Desktop ISO is a live image. There are no options for installing any packages during the installation except those that are in the live image ISO. None. If I want to install the KDE – or any other – desktop instead of GNOME (which I do) I have to download the KDE spin or install it after the initial installation. I cannot do it from the primary installation medium, the live image.

I cannot even choose to install LibréOffice. There is no way to do that during installation. I have to install that and many other things after the initial installation. In my opinion this is a huge stumbling block to many would-be Linux users, especially the noobs.

Fortunately my post installation RPM and script allow me to do just that with very little fuss. And, yes, I have had to make a few adjustments to my script – as I have with every new release – to accommodate some of the changes between releases.

My penchant for following the Linux Philosophy has paid off exceedingly well for me. Because I take the time to “Automate everything,” I have personally experienced very little disruption due to a major change in the way Fedora Linux handles installations.

So here is what I have gained by automating my installations.

  • Save time on every installation.
  • Installations are consistent.
  • Zero to minimal disruption when major changes to distribution installation are introduced.

Of course there are other ways to do the automation of a Linux installation and configuration, and many tools that can be applied to that task such as Kickstart, Puppet, Satellite Server, and others. I have used Kickstart extensively (see the article I wrote with a colleague for Linux Magazine Complete Kickstart but my script just works very well for me in my current environment and meets my needs – and that is the name of the game in Linux.