Should the Baracus Project be a member of your A-Team?

As stated in the Puppet article, we have been investigating alternative solutions to the closed source server build and management options on the market.  Novell has been sponsoring a project called Baracus.  Baracus is an open source project that is trying to become the next generation system for booting, building and managing power used by systems.  It seems like something we should check out so we did.  The project was announced to the public on November 19, 2010.  How good or bad could it really be?

For testing the system out, we choose to download the projects SuSe Studio created VM.  Being  a Novell project, it’s based on OpenSuse 11.2, with all of the setup steps in the documentation done for you.  A few normal admin tasks to change passwords, setup my account and the other normal system stuff got the system up.  To make everything work, there are a few other things you will need to do like setup a DHCP server.  While not required, a DNS server would make life easier also, so keep that in mind when starting out.  With almost any distribution you can set both of these up pretty easily.  I suggest installing webmin if you have never done it before.  It will help you get them up and running, with clean configuration files at least.  The documentation from the project is already at a point where the setup instructions are amazingly complete.  I was able to login to the Web GUI without any issue and start roaming around.  The system is very well thought out.  The look, feel and options included show that this system was built by system administrators for system administratos.   It’s not the prettiest looking interface, but it works and things are grouped logically.  They give you the option of using the WebGUI or command line.  A few of the commands really have to be run via the command line at this point but they seem to be working on improvements in a timely fashion.  There have been two updates since I downloaded this in November, both with noticeable improvements.  

How does it work?
The system does a three step boot process.  The first boot interrogates the system hardware and builds a hardware profile and uploads it to the Baracus Server.  Once uploaded, or registered, you will see the servers MAC Address in a list and be able to view what step the process is at.  The second boot will either boot and bring the server to a halt, allowing you time to choose the configuration options, or start building it if you already have that setup.  The third, fourth if you paused to configure, boot sets the server to boot off of either the local disk or network boot location depending on your choice of configuration.    When we say, “configuration options” here, we mean that you set up almost anything you want to do to a server.  This can be from upgrades/patches to turning it into a net booted system.

The first thing that impressed me with this system was that it’s not just a Suse build system.  As of the writing of this article you can build Debian, OpenSuse, SuSe Linux Enterprise Desktop and Server, Fedora, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Ubuntu, OpenSolaris, ESX 4.x, Windows 7 and 2008 server, and Xenserver.  There are examples of silent configuration files available for most if not all of the systems listed.  Updating these files and adding them to the database used by Baracus is easy and took a few minutes.

The Virtual Machines only come with OpenSuse pre-installed.  So I set off to figure out how to add Ubuntu.  It turns out it was one command.  Here it is, “basource add –isos –distro ubuntu-10.10-x86_64”.  That’s it.  It goes out and downloads the ISO, puts it in the proper location, creates the needed mount points, and adds it to the database so that you can build servers from it.  If you want to do a silent install of the supported OSes all you have to do is make your modifications to the appropriately named file and issue another command to add that configuration to the database.  In just longer than the time it took the system to download the ISO, I was ready and testing my first build of Ubuntu 10.10 over a network connection with a silent install.  Having spent hours or nights in the past setting up systems to be able to build and boot off of the network, this was pretty impressive.  I have now setup Fedora and multiple OpenSuse versions.

On the network here we built an Ubuntu 10.10 VMWare system in roughly 15 minutes.  We set up custom disk partitions, setup our users, groups and additional software packages.  With a few more changes we had a script setup to update the repos and patch the system.  Then finally set up some scripts to automatically configure Puppet.  Now in less than 20 minutes we can take a raw VMWare Server and have it completely configured and up to date.  Having done all of this in the WebGUI, I tried doing it from the command line. It worked just as well and was actually a little faster.

So it’s so green what is wrong with it?
Really there are very few misses in the WebGUI, documentation and command line.  A few things we believe to be either documentation errata or bugs.  These did not show themselves however until I tried to bend it to what I wanted.  The problems with the WebGUI are mostly that we would like to see better errors to the user in a few odd spots and more AJAX like behaviors.  Having the assigned machine names instead of MAC addresses would be really helpful, as would some other views of the systems.  The groups functionality seemed too hard to use and isn’t offering enough right now.  Most of the documentation seems complete but more documentation on errors and what to do about them needs to be flushed out.  Where we had problems though, it didn’t take long to find and fix the problem.

Our Conclusion
Baracus is a great system that should be an amazing system with just a few cleanup and documentation fixes.  At this time I am not sure it’s really ready for people to use in production.  So we here are say try it but don’t rely on it just yet.

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