1. Vagrant: Why?

    In a previous post, I mentioned that we — at Fictive Kin — over the past several years have managed to build a development environment that works pretty well, and that I’m proud of.

    When (if) everything is working properly, we can get a new team member — even one with little technical knowledge (though indeed a small amount is required) — up and running on a development environment within a few minutes.

    This dev setup mirrors our other environments (qa + staging, production) as closely as possible. Core to my devops philosophy is that you should be working in the same configuration as where you deploy (again, with a few only-if-necessary changes).

    When things go wrong on production, they can be a huge pain to debug. Having a production setup with different paths, different sets of libraries/environments, or even a different operating system to what developers, designers, managers, and QA folks are using is just asking for trouble.

    In the past, I’ve worked on apps that had no “official” development environment. Developers were expected to set up the app on their own, usually without much in the way of instruction or documentation. Developers sometimes like this — we tend to like to do things our own way — but I’ve learned that while it might be convenient for development, it can be disastrous for production. What if the developer installs a very different version of the RDBMS (database) software? What if they’re using / to denote paths when they should be using \? Or if their workstation has a case-insensitive filesystem, but production’s filesystem (correctly) matches case? What if they’ve got the wrong, incompatible version of a library/package installed, or — worse yet — a completely different version of PHP, Python, Node, or Ruby?

    Even if everything goes well and the developer sets up their environment perfectly, there is a time penalty to this. I was once on a client contract at a very high per-hour rate and needed to spend almost two days setting up my (their) environment — which I was still not sure was correct — needlessly costing our client what might have been thousands of dollars, instead of being able to immediately focus on the project at hand.

    The process of getting team members up and running on a functional development environment can be painful. Especially if your team is remote and can’t always easily have someone inspect broken setups… or if members spend a lot of time travelling and are not always blessed with reliable, always-on Internet connections, making cloud-based development setups impractical.

    Our core values for this kind of setup are relatively simple in idea, but not always so in practice. They’ve changed a bit over time, but here are a few that spring to memory:

    • should be quick and easy to set up
    • shouldn’t require much technical knowledge beyond the ability to install some packaged software and navigate some simple commands (cd, mkdir, ls) in Terminal
    • must be able to be managed remotely, when online, so ops can patch security problems and make architectural changes — even if this management is invoked by the user
    • must mirror production as closely as possible
    • can require an Internet connection to get up and running, but then should work offline (such as on an airplane) whenever the app allows
    • must keep the app separated from other apps/development, and must be secure when the hosting workstation joins an untrusted network
    • joins a VPN so other peers/team members can be invited to “take a look at my VM to see what I’m working on”
    • actively prevents unskilled team members from making mistakes that could trickle into production, such as installing incorrect versions of libraries

    There are many other things that our development environments do, but I believe these to be the most important.

    To accomplish this, we use Vagrant, VirtualBox, Debian Linux, Salt, our app stack, and many other parts that we’ll avoid for the purposes of this article. Vagrant and VirtualBox allow us to run “virtual machine” computers within our main workstations.

    On production we also use Debian and Salt plus our app stack and the other bits. Instead of Vagrant + VirtualBox, we deploy in AWS EC2. But as mentioned above: our development stack mirrors production as closely as possible.

    I’m sure this practice matches what some of you already so. Others might use a containerized system (such as Docker). We don’t deploy on Docker, so we also don’t develop on Docker. Maybe one day we will deploy on Docker. At which time, we’ll find a way to make our development environments use/simulate this.

    Still, others of you may develop directly on your workstations. Perhaps a Mac running the stock Apache + PHP, or a Windows box with Python and a dev server listening directly on a HTTP socket. I would discourage this, based on the above mantra of development-matches-production.

    Worse yet, some of you may be developing and deploying applications by editing files on production servers, or uploading individual files, directly. Please don’t do this; it only leads to pain.

    So, we’ve established some core guidelines, and a base set of software. In the next part, we’ll talk about how we (at Fictive Kin) bootstrap our development environment Virtual Machines.