Chef and Puppet are often held up as the two big names in the first generation of IT automation. About the same time that virtualization was growing to dominance, these two companies, and the open source initiatives they're involved with, sprung up to allow IT operators to automate their server setup and deployment.
The rationale for these players was obvious: Since servers were no longer physical items that needed to be set up in person every time, it made sense that organizations could develop "recipes" for their servers, thus eliminating repetitive setup tasks and speeding up the deployment of servers.
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Since those days, however, enterprise IT has become far more complex. The rise of DevOps, moves towards the use of microservices and containerization, and increasing heterogeneity around most enterprise IT organizations have led to a burgeoning number of tools falling into the automation space. Chef has broadened its product portfolio to suit and delivered a number of solutions to answer these different use cases.
That is all well and good, but it does tend to introduce some more complexity. So, it is interesting to see a big announcement coming from ChefConf today: Chef Automate. It's a new commercial offering designed to unify the entire Chef product portfolio into a single offering. Most important, this single offering is going to leverage a shared workflow pipeline and compliance tooling to deliver (in theory) more agility and velocity. (Disclosure: Chef covered my travel and accommodation to attend its annual user conference.)
In addition to the combination of Chef's Delivery and Compliance tools, Automate includes a new visibility feature that delivers analytics across all of the resources an organization uses.
Automate also builds upon Chef's recent introduction of Habitat, a new open source project to automate applications. Habitat is designed to give applications the intelligence to self-organize and self-configure. It lets applications run independently of infrastructure and can, therefore, be run on a wide variety of runtime environments—from bare metal and virtual machines all the way to containers like Docker, grid systems like Mesosphere or Kubernetes, or even PaaS systems like Pivotal CloudFoundry.
Anyway, back to Automate. The idea of Automate is to deliver a cohesive fabric across all of an enterprise's applications and different environments. Chef believes Automate will provide visibility, unified workflow and proactive compliance.
Available under an annual subscription, Automate includes commercial support for Chef, InSpec and Habitat. Bear in mind that these three open source projects are all under the Apache 2.0 license and available for free download.
Chef is also announcing a new certification program to offer training and credentials for people involved in the software development, delivery and administration worlds.
Unquestionably, the world of enterprise IT is becoming more complex. As such, it is critical for Chef to help its customers make sense of this complexity and create broad fabrics that automate, monitor and control infrastructure of all the different types customers use.
It is also an interesting reflection on the tension felt by a company leveraging open source projects and trying to build a commercial business on top of them. These enterprise-level products may not be significantly different from the free tools available, but they tick the not-insignificant boxes that enterprises have around service-level agreements (SLAs), service and compliance.
While Chef is justifying its commercial offerings, it also needs to make sure it doesn't miss out to the automation companies created more recently. This is all the more important given the insane amounts of innovation happening across the Kubernetes, Mesos and Docker worlds. Whether Chef has done enough, and whether its core products are sufficiently svelte to really deliver agility to its customers, is the big question. Time will give us an answer to that one.
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