USENIX Technical Program - Paper - Proceedings of the 12th Systems Administration Conference (LISA '98)
A Configuration Distribution System for Heterogeneous Networks
AbstractThis article presents a configuration distribution system that assists system administrators with the tasks of host and service installation, configuration and crash recovery on large and heterogeneous networks. The objective of this article is twofold. First, to introduce the system's modular architecture. Second, to describe the platform independent protocol designed to support fast and reliable configuration propagation.
Service configuration is one of the most common tasks for the system administrator. It is also one of the most critical, since it impacts network performance, resilience, predictability, and security. This task becomes increasingly difficult as the size and heterogeneity of the networks increase. As pointed out in , some of the reasons for this increase in complexity are:
Several works have proposed methods and tools to assist service configuration and management [1,2,3,4,5,6,7]. A common underlying characteristic of those works is the existence of a (central or distributed) repository of configurations. The possibilities of configuration consistency checking and easy recovery of host configuration after a serious system's crash are just a few of the advantages of having a configuration repository. In , the repository holds configuration for various services and allows consistency analysis to be performed among different services.
Once service configurations are stored in a repository or database, they must be propagated to target hosts on the network. This article addresses the problem of distributing service configuration from a (possibly distributed) database to network hosts. It presents a configuration distribution system and a propagation protocol for configuration distribution in large heterogeneous networks. Hereafter, the system and protocol are referred to as CDS.
The following section provides an overview of configuration management and establishes the scope of the work presented in this article. Later, related work is compared to the approach of this article, and the CDS modular architecture is presented. Then, the propagation protocol is described in depth and some details of the CDS implementation are provided. Finally, some conclusions are presented.
An Overview of Configuration Management
The Network File System (NFS)  is a widely used service that provides file sharing among hosts in the network. NFS is used here to illustrate the problem of configuration management. The following steps are usually performed to manually configure the NFS service: [Note 1]
This manual process only works for small networks or in situations in which changes in the configuration of servers and clients are seldom necessary. However, even in those situations system administrators prefer to use some automated support to avoid inconsistencies and insecurities that may arise from human error. Furthermore, this support can be critical during crash recovery, when a machine must be promptly reconfigured to its state prior to the crash. Ideally, to configure the NFS on large and critical systems, the administrator should perform a number of tasks in a coherent and consistent form:
The CDS supports configuration propagation and activation, and provides a platform to be used by any system implementing the task of configuration planning, consistency checking and generation of configuration files. A system that supports these tasks is fully described in . This system uses the CDS as its configuration propagation and activation mechanism.
A Comparison with Related Approaches
Recently, several systems were developed to assist the task of host/service configuration and management [2,3,4,5,6,7,10]. Generally, these solutions were designed to resolve local requirements. However, their technologies identify and evaluate various characteristics of the configuration process. There are many ways to classify and evaluate configuration distribution systems. This section addresses and compares the main techniques used to distribute and activate service configuration from a database to network hosts.
The configuration propagation can be performed using several distribution mechanisms. Other works [2,3,4,5,6,7,10] have used the following approaches: remote commands, TCP/IP socket, NIS, NFS or a specific protocol developed using the Remote Procedure Call (RPC) mechanism.
In UNIX systems, the rcp, rsh, and rdist commands can be used to allow remote copy and processing. The main drawback of r-commands is the need for privileged access on the remote hosts, which is a major security drawback. Config  uses rdist to distribute the configuration files from the repository to the network hosts. This repository is created in a server host as hierarchical directories, which can be replicated in other hosts. OMNICONF  also uses r-commands (in particular rsh) to manipulate files and directories that keep the configuration of the hosts in a central database.
Mechanisms based in the client/server model can be developed using the socket interface presented in TCP/IP environments. Its disadvantage is the requirement to manipulate the data formats of each platform. The main advantage is to require only the TCP/IP protocols running for using the solution. In addition, they do not demand privileged access on the remote hosts. However, it is very difficult and complex to work directly using the socket interface.
Other approaches have used a combination of NIS and NFS to distribute configuration information. The lack of an incremental update mechanism causes serious performance and network-traffic problems when using NIS in large networks. Moreover, NIS has notorious security problems. Furthermore, to use these distribution mechanisms requires all services on which they depend, to be up and running before any configuration distribution can be performed. Another drawback with NFS is to limit the database to be implemented using only flat files.
The lcfg  uses NIS to distribute configuration files that are stored in the central database. GeNUAdmin  propagates the configuration information using the rsh command, and retrieves data and programs using the NFS. Its database is centrally implemented with directories and files. According to the paper, it seems that Gutinteg  uses the NFS to propagate the configuration files and software packages, which are stored in directories and files in a central server.
Another solution is to design and implement a distribution protocol using RPC. One clear advantage of this approach is that the configuration distribution system only needs the RPC system to be running. Therefore, it can be used to configure every service that is started up after the RPC system in the boot process. Besides, a simple and clear design can lead to a safe and robust protocol because it uses a standard to represent external data and does not need privileged access on the remote hosts.
AUTOLOAD  and Aurora  use RPC based protocols. The former implements the mechanisms to propagate configuration and software package information from a central database that is implemented using flat files.
For the reasons cited above, the design and implementation of an RPC based protocol is the most interesting approach, despite its inherent complexity. This is also the approach used to implement the system presented in this article.
Almost all the systems presented above make use of a central database structured as a hierarchical set of files and directories. The system that is proposed in this article does not impose any database organization or architecture. The database can be implemented using a relation/object-oriented DBMS or flat files. Moreover, it supports several architectures: central, distributed or replicated.
When a configuration is modified in any host, the systems cited above use either a pull or a push mechanism, never both. CDS supports both pull and push mechanisms to propagate configurations.
The CDS Architecture
CDS allows host and service configuration information to be consistently defined, stored in a database and propagated to the corresponding hosts on a heterogeneous network. The propagation of the configuration information is controlled by a uniform, simple and efficient protocol, designed especially for the system.
Using automated tools to define the service configuration, the network administrator initializes the configuration process of a given service. After this initialization, the protocol reads the configuration information from the database and transfers it to the hosts, where specified operations are performed. The database provides the following features to the system:
Figure 1: System's Architecture.
Each component of the architecture is discussed below:
The system's architecture provides the independence between its components, allowing the design and implementation of each component to be performed in an autonomous way. This independence is supported in the following way:
The FLASH Project , where this work is developed, has activities centered in each system's component. The following section presents the Protocol's architecture, components and operations.
The Configuration Protocol
As discussed before, the Protocol was designed using the Remote Procedure Call (RPC) paradigm. RPC allows access to remote services through a procedure-oriented interface, which is based on the client-server model. The RPC server is a program that implements a set of procedures that are called by the RPC clients. A program number and procedure numbers internally represents the program and its procedures.
To support differences in data representations among several platforms and network technologies, RPC uses the External Data Representation (XDR) standard, which provides common data representation over the network. RPC/XDR ensures portability across different hardware platforms, operating systems, network architectures and transport protocols.
The configuration propagation must be robust even in conditions of high network and CPU load. For this reason, the Protocol ought to reduce the traffic over the network and the processing load in the hosts. In addition, the Protocol must offer a mechanism for immediate configuration of services. The Protocol reduces the traffic load using messages that carry a small amount of information. Furthermore, the Protocol's operations generate negligible traffic when the host does not require modification in its configuration.
The network's resources are used more intensively only when an action requires the transference of a file stored in the Database. However, in this case, the Protocol divides the file in blocks that are transferred over independent messages. This message partitioning avoids peaks of network traffic.
To minimize CPU load on the Servers and to allow the immediate configuration of services, the Protocol has two activation modes:
Structure of the Configuration Information
The Protocol employs the concepts of tasks and actions to define the configuration structure, as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2: The Configuration Structure.
A host configuration is an ordered set of tasks, where each task is responsible for configuring a given service. A task defines an ordered set of actions, where each action performs a phase in the configuration process of a given service, and thus, must be transferred to and sequentially executed on the Client side. Upon the execution of all tasks, the services of the Client host are properly configured.
For instance, to configure a given NFS server to export a new file system, the actions would be first to copy the modified NFS export file onto the server and then either to execute a command to export the new file system or reboot it and activate the changes.
The result of executing the actions is the installation, execution or removal of programs, scripts or configuration files on the Client. There are five types of actions implemented by the Protocol:
The Reboot action can appear in any position of the action list of a given task. When a Reboot action appears in the middle of an action list, the Client is rebooted and then resumes the execution from the first action that follows the Reboot in the list. The Execute, Script, and Copy actions perform their operations over a file identified in the action. The Protocol defines that this file can be stored in the following places:
Architecture of the Service
The Protocol is based on the RPC's client-server programming model, where the RPC client requests the configuration information and the RPC server processes the request and transmits the result to the client. Hence, as illustrated in Figure 3, the RPC client and server are implemented on the Client and Server, respectively.
Figure 3: Service Architecture.
The trap mechanism is also based on the RPC model. In such case, the RPC client sends the trap signal to the RPC server, which processes the signal initializing a new Protocol iteration. On that account, as shown in Figure 3, the RPC client and server are implemented on the ToolBox and Client, respectively.
The Protocol uses the concept of stateless Server, which does not need to keep information about the Protocol's state on the Clients. This feature allows the recovery from failure on the Server to be performed in a simple way.
The Protocol's Operations
The Protocol is defined by a set of procedures called by the Clients and processed by the Servers. These procedures are synchronous, that is, once the procedure finishes its execution, the Client can assume that the operation has been completed and any data bound to the request are stable in the Database.
The Protocol is defined by the following procedures:
The Protocol represents each host, task and action using a single identifier stored in the Database. These identifiers are used as arguments for and answers from the procedures. Their representation formats are dependent of the DBMS used to implement the Database. Therefore, the Clients and Servers must manipulate the identifiers as a set of non-interpreted bytes that indicate the host, task or action manipulated by the procedures. The ToolBox generates the identifiers when a host, task or action is created in the Database. These identifiers implement a simple protection mechanism since the Server can check, for instance, if a given action belongs to the specified task or a given task belongs to the specified Client.
The Configuration Process
In both pull and push mode, the configuration process is implemented through the following sequence of operations on the Client side:
Figure 4: Select Server.
Figure 5: Send Program Number.
Figure 6: Request Configuration.
In case of failure of a given Server, the Client can continue the current Protocol iteration with another Server, exactly from the point where the failure has happened. To do that, the Client must identify other Servers using the Request Server procedure, and then, continue the interaction with the selected Server. So, when the Client receives an RPC error, it must call the Request Server procedure to identify another Server and continue with the Protocol iteration.
The confirmation procedures allow a given Client to reboot and continue the configuration process without redoing actions and tasks previously confirmed. In such case, when the Client calls the Request Tasks and Request Actions procedures, the Server informs only the tasks and actions that were not configured yet.
The Trap Mechanism
The trap mechanism allows the administrator to indicate modifications in the configuration of a given host. It is composed by a single RPC procedure. This mechanism forces the Protocol activation without waiting for the pull mode. Taking into account the Client's state when a trap is received, its processing can be performed in two ways:
The trap mechanism has a single RPC procedure, called Send Trap, which is responsible for sending the signal from the ToolBox to a given Client (Figure 7).
Figure 7: Send Trap.
Initially, the ToolBox reads the Client program number from the Database. This number was previously stored when the Client activated the first iteration of the Protocol and called the Send Program procedure (Figure 5). Then, the ToolBox calls the Send Trap procedure to notify the presence of modifications in the Client's configuration. According with the Client's state, the Protocol is immediately activated or delayed, as discussed above.
Upon the receipt of the trap signal, the Client instantly sends a status code to the ToolBox. This code indicates the current state of the Client: executing the Protocol or waiting the timer of the pull mode. The ToolBox is unblocked when it receives this status code.
The Database Access Interface
The Interface is composed of a set of eleven procedures, directly related to the operations supported by the Protocol. These procedures perform the data representation format conversion between the Protocol and the Database:
The other eight procedures of the Interface have names and functionality that are similar to the Protocol's procedures: Send Program, Request Tasks, Request Actions, Read File, Confirm Action, Confirm Task, Confirm Configuration, and Send Error.
For example, when the Client calls the Request Tasks procedure of the Protocol, the Server activates the same procedure of the Interface to retrieve the information from the Database (Figure 8). In this case, the Interface converts the data format between the DBMS and Server representation, and then, the Server sends the information to the Client.
Figure 8: Interface's Procedures.
The Interface allows the Protocol to be independent of the DBMS. To use the Protocol with another DBMS, only the Interface has to be changed. The Interface allows the Server to remain connected to the Database during its execution, without opening a new connection for each request. This behavior enhances the performance of the system.
An implementation was developed to validate and evaluate the system's architecture and the Protocol. This implementation was developed in C language for Sun Solaris 2.5.1. The availability of the current implementation to others platforms depends on the portability of the C language and RPC library.
The design and implementation of the ToolBox, the data model of the Database and the interaction mechanism between ToolBox and Database are not included in this paper. However, to validate the Protocol implementation, these elements (ToolBox and Database) were developed.
The Database was implemented using the O2 object-oriented database management system . The Database has a set of object classes to represent the configuration structure, pointed out previously. The Toolbox was implemented as a set of programs in O2C, a language that belongs to the O2 System. It has been used and tested to perform some tasks to configure the NFS service.
The Protocol was developed using Remote Procedure Call (RPC)  and its Client and Server programs were written in C. The Interface was coded in C to access the O2 database and was integrated to the Server.
The implementation has full functionality according to the specification of the Protocol. Future works must include security and access control mechanisms among Clients and Servers. Initially, we have to evaluate the encryption mechanisms provided by RPC platform, for instance, the Data Encryption Standard (DES).
The Client can be protected by defining a new kind of service that identifies the trusted Servers for a given Client. So, when the Client retrieves the list of available Servers through the Request Server procedure, it can check if the Servers are reliable. The Server processes any request only when the host, task and action identifiers belong to the host sending the request.
The broadcast mechanism used by the Protocol facilitates the initialization of the Clients and Servers, but does not allow a Client to use a Server in a different physical network. Multicast mechanism can be used to allow Servers and Clients to be in different networks.
The Server is executed as a single thread. This feature imposes some processing delays in medium-size networks. In large networks, these delays can become noticeable. To eliminate this problem, a new version of the Server can be developed using multithreads.
Deployment and Use of the System
To use the system, the administrator must install and activate its components appropriately. Figure 9 shows a typical installation and activation of the system.
Figure 9: Typical Environment.
First, the DBMS used to keep the Database must be activated in the network. In our case, the O2 System must be activated. The Clients do not access the Database directly. They retrieve their configuration information through the Servers. So, the Client hosts do not need execute any software related to the DBMS. On the Server side, when the DBMS supports access over the network, only one host executing the DBMS is needed. The current implementation needs only a single host executing the O2 System.
The next step is to choose the hosts that will act as Servers. There must be at least one Server in each network segment. To obtain higher levels of resilience, it is suggested to install more than one Server in each segment. To minimize traffic on the network and increase the performance of the system, it is suggested to install a Server and the DBMS software on the same host.
Since the Servers are installed, the administrator must install and activate the Client in each host that needs its configuration to be managed. Even the Servers have to execute the Client code if they need to be managed. This is also valid for hosts executing the DBMS software.
At this point, the system is running and the services can be configured using the ToolBox. As discussed before, different implementations of the ToolBox, with different functionality, can be constructed using the CDS as the configuration propagation and activation platform. In , a full-scale configuration management system is described, that uses CDS as the underlying distribution mechanism.
The Configuration Distribution System (CDS) presented in this article has several important features, including:
The facilities of the Interface can be used to design a new architecture based in multiple Databases with different structures and formats. In such architecture, the Database must store the location of the host's configuration. Prior to process a request, the Server identifies the location of the Client's configuration, and then processes the request.
When compared with existent solutions, in particular those presented in [2,3,4,5,6,7,10], the system presents a number of advantages: a) new services and platforms can be added naturally by constructing their specifications in the Database. b) consistency is greatly improved by the DBMS, instead of flat files, as in all works cited above. c) the configuration information can be used by several others system administration tools merely by accessing the Database. d) the system is, in fact, a generic framework that can be extended to support application and software package management, although to show how this can be done is out of the scope of this paper.
The implementation is stable and has been used to assist the administration of the network of the Department of Informatics, UFPE.
The FLASH project is co-funded by the Brazilian Government agency CNPq, through the ProTeM-CC Program (Phase III) and by the Center for Advanced Studies and Systems at Recife (CESAR). Glêdson E. da Silveira receives a scholarship from CAPES.
The system is currently packaged for distribution and can be retrieved from https://www.di.ufpe.br/~flash.
Glêdson E. da Silveira is a lecturer of the Department of Informatics at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (DIMAp/UFRN), Brazil. He holds a M.Sc. in Computer Science from the Catholic University (PUC) from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Currently, he is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Informatics at the Federal University of Pernambuco (DI/UFPE), Brazil. Reach him electronically at <email@example.com>.
Fabio Q. B. da Silva is an Associated Professor of the Department of Informatics at the Federal University of Pernambuco, Brazil, where he coordinates the FLASH Project. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Edinburg, Scotland. He is also the Finance Director of the Center for Advanced Studies and Systems at Recife (CESAR), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promote Industry/University interaction (https://www.cesar.org.br). Reach him electronically at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
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Note 1: The configuration of most services uses similar sequence of steps.
Note 2: All other procedures have similar interaction model..
This paper was originally published in the
Proceedings of the 12th Systems Administration Conference (LISA '98), December 6-11, 1998, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
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