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Enterprises weigh Chef Automate as totality vs. choice

Chef Automate bakes several tools into a single offering that hits the spot for many enterprises, though there is also overlap with existing tools.

AUSTIN, Texas -- It's a time-honored dilemma for enterprise IT buyers and vendors alike: Is it better to seek a one-stop shop or get the best of all worlds?

That's something large enterprises will have to weigh, as Chef Software Inc. integrates many of its products into a new end-to-end offering, called Chef Automate.

Chef Automate layers a workflow (formerly Chef Delivery) and visibility, which originated with Chef Analytics, as well as compliance checks (Chef Inspec), over its core Chef and Chef Enterprise tools.  

The software was designed for large and varied environments, according to a demo by Chef engineers in a keynote presentation here at ChefConf this week. "Let's say you're in multiple data centers and have multiple Chef servers, and you push a change out," said Seth Falcon, vice president of engineering for Seattle-based Chef, during the demo. "Did that change make it to the entire fleet? It would be really great if there was a place you could go to see the state of your entire infrastructure."

Chef Automate is that single point of visibility, Falcon said, and it can also provide centralized monitoring of Chef Solo deployments, which allow using cookbooks without requiring access to a Chef server.

This detail, and the ability to drill down into debugging information from the Chef Automate console, drew applause when demonstrated.

IT pros want broad reach, with options

Chef kept the product tightly under wraps until its release, so most users couldn't examine it very thoroughly. Many are interested in at least investigating the product further; although, for some large enterprises, the product could be difficult to assimilate, given potential overlap with existing tools that are also in use.

Ron Tatro, principal engineer at Target Corp., based in Minneapolis, said he hadn't had a chance to take Automate for a test drive, but it looked interesting, especially as it offers new visibility into multiple Chef environments from a single portal.

"We're especially interested in the insight piece for managing a complex organization," Tatro said.

Mark Kirby, senior vice president and CTO of IT at Liberty Mutual Insurance, based in Boston, also didn't rule out a look at Chef Automate, along with Chef Compliance, but he is unsure how it will fit in with the firm's existing robust set of DevOps tools. "I worry that [Chef Automate] might be duplicative or overlap with what we have already -- any large enterprise has a lot of other components that need to plug in."

Enterprises tend to choose multiple tools in response to specific problems, said Antonio Tamer, senior DevOps engineer for Early Warning Services LLC, a small financial services company with an office in Austin, Texas. Still, he said his company would probably also look into Chef Automate.

Putting product pieces together

Meanwhile, some in attendance said it was good to see Chef tying its product pieces together with Chef Automate.

"[They're] committing to ... extend beyond just solving the single configuration management piece of the puzzle," said Phil Watts, DevOps artificer for REAN Solutions Inc., an IT consulting firm in Herndon, Va.

"Inspec and Chef Compliance were a huge commitment in a direction that made me commit to Chef ... particularly working with a customer base in the healthcare and government sectors that value security," Watts added.

Initially, Watts had some concerns about Habitat, and whether platform as a service and infrastructure as a service integrations would be too restrictive. But after discussions with the engineering team, he said he was put at ease by the presence of an API to allow control over elements of infrastructure and supporting services to be integrated in an accessible and flexible way.

[They're] committing to ... extend beyond just solving the single configuration management piece of the puzzle.
Phil WattsDevOps artificer, REAN Solutions Inc.

The comprehensiveness of Chef Automate also is good strategy for Chef as a company competing with rivals such as Puppet, according to some attendees.

"As a former Puppet Enterprise user, they've addressed every reason we have to purchase Puppet Enterprise and tacked on local reporting," said Shaun Mouton, senior systems engineer for Kasasa Ltd., a financial technology and marketing services company in Austin, Texas. "I'm sure they have some iterations to go, but it looks interesting."

Still, there's more on the to-do list for Chef as it develops Automate.  For instance, Mouton said he would like to see a Hosted Chef option for Automate.

"If I want to convince my company to adopt something with all the bells and whistles of Chef Automate, I might not get local capacity to test it," he said. "We're always looking for tools to show a high-value, low-friction way to work with them."

The company is relatively new to Chef and just starting to build out its environment, "but I'm sure it will be a fast runway for us," said Karl Katzke, also a senior systems engineer for Kasasa. "We have lots of old physical infrastructure to forklift into the cloud, and keeping ourselves sane while doing that is a challenge it seems like Chef Automate could help us with."

Still, Chef has released a barrage of products in the last year, from Chef Analytics to Chef Automate. Are all these Chef products digestible?

"Every step forward is a logical one," Katzke replied.

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for TechTarget's Data Center and Virtualization Media Group. Write to her at bpariseau@techtarget.com or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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How do you think Chef Automate will fit into your existing workflow?
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I don’t see it as being a good fit right now. Our Chef usage doesn’t really fit the profile described in the article, and we don’t currently experience the problems that Automate appears to address.
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I think for us the decision would boil down to choice, and whether Chef Automate produces the same level of compliance monitoring/reporting that we’ve grown accustomed to from our current toll set.
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