Chef Habitat early adopters sing app automation praises

Chef Habitat can ease application deployments and updates, and ensure high availability, but there's still a lot of confusion among IT pros about precisely where it fits in the DevOps toolchain.

CHICAGO -- Enterprise IT shops have begun using Chef Habitat, but the application packaging product still faces an uphill battle to convince users of its value in a busy market of DevOps tools.

Chef Habitat helps both existing and newly developed applications deploy smoothly to any IT infrastructure, including VMs, bare metal and Docker containers. Apps packaged with Chef Habitat can be changed at will without manual management of the underlying OS and infrastructure dependencies, and high-availability patterns can travel with the application rather than within the underlying infrastructure.

"Habitat ensures your app will run beyond Docker," said Graham Weldon, technical coordinator of global operations for Rakuten Inc., an e-commerce company based in Tokyo, which has put Chef Habitat into production alongside Docker and Kubernetes container orchestration in the last year.

With Docker, OS packages still need to be managed as well as dependencies, "but in five years you can deploy the exact same [Habitat] artifacts [as today], and it doesn't matter where it runs," Weldon said.

Kubernetes and Docker are the flavor of today, but five years ago, they weren't, and five years from now, who knows where they will be.
Damith Karunaratnedirector of client solutions, Indellient Inc.

Chef Habitat early adopters emphasize this long view of infrastructure automation.

"Kubernetes and Docker are the flavor of today, but five years ago, they weren't, and five years from now, who knows where they will be," said Damith Karunaratne, director of client solutions for Chef consulting partner Indellient Inc., based in Canada. Indellient has helped large enterprise IT organizations put Habitat into production over the last year, including one client that plans to deploy some 3,000 applications with Habitat.

Chef Habitat bridges Kubernetes gaps

In Kubernetes environments in particular, Chef Habitat packaging bundles in high-availability configurations that can be difficult to manage otherwise. It also includes the circuit-breaking mechanisms which break troublesome network traffic loops that some Kubernetes users have deployed service mesh architectures to achieve.

Household names such as Alaska Airlines that use Chef Habitat in Kubernetes environments vouched for the tool's value at ChefConf here last week. Alaska Airlines used Chef Habitat to ease the deployment of some onerous applications, such as JFrog's Artifactory. It also used Chef Habitat to deploy HashiCorp's Vault and Consul software on Kubernetes, and to solve an issue with Vault where updates to the underlying host OS triggered unwanted vault sealing.

Chef further simplified the deployment of Habitat apps on Kubernetes last week with an update that included a Habitat Operator, based on the CoreOS Operator Framework. Users need only one Habitat Operator to deploy any application on Kubernetes.

"Habitat makes it easier to deploy apps on Kubernetes," said Chris Maher, senior automation engineer for the airline. "Application updates get shipped out easily using the Habitat Operator."

Chef also added an exporter utility earlier this year that translates Chef Habitat application plans into Helm charts, which are the Kubernetes community's answer to application deployments. But partners say Chef Habitat has nowhere near the visibility and cachet with the broader market as do Kubernetes and Helm charts.

"The entire world isn't using Habitat, it's using Helm charts," said one Chef reseller partner, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The community and application owners are focused on Helm charts, developing for those and keeping them up to date, not Habitat repos."

The Helm exporter for Habitat will prompt this partner to take another look at how Habitat plans differ from Helm charts, but "that doesn't answer the bigger community question, and that message is important," he said.

Chef Habitat has value, but messaging needs improvement

Chef Habitat was first unveiled in 2016, with key updates in 2017  such as Chef Habitat Builder, which connects Habitat with application code repositories such as GitHub. As part of the last week's update, Chef added an on-premises option for Habitat Builder and support for private application plan depots, two longstanding enterprise wish-list items that will help it gain traction, early adopters said.

"A minority of our legacy apps have been converted to Habitat, because the piece missing until a few weeks ago was the on-premises Habitat Builder," Rakuten's Weldon said.

So far, enterprise adoption has crept along, and there is already a broader community today than there used to be.

"I used to be the top poster by far on the Habitat Slack, and my activity hasn't lessened, but today I'm not even in the top 10," Weldon said.

But while the Chef Habitat results have been compelling in shops where it's gained a foothold, users such as Alaska's Maher struggle toarticulate the tool's value for developers, especially as it compares to Docker and Kubernetes.

Even Chef Habitat true believers acknowledge their organizations needed time to get fully on board with the tool, and said better clarity is needed from Chef about how Habitat fits into the overall portfolio alongside Chef Automate, an umbrella automation monitoring and management tool, Chef InSpec, which handles security and compliance policy automation, and the traditional Chef server, which also offers application cookbooks. Habitat offers a much easier approach to application automation than cookbooks, but that isn't immediately obvious, said Indellient's Karunaratne.

"We struggled for a bit with where exactly the different Chef techs play," he said. "With our large-scale Habitat projects, it has become clear, but everyone doesn't live and breathe this stuff."

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