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Raphaël Pinson for Camptocamp Infrastructure Solutions

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All the ways to manage files with Puppet

"Everything is a file" is a very famous Unix principle. And because of this, most of configuration management on Unix/Linux revolves around managing files.

Know your Tools

Puppet, as a configuration management tool, is no exception to this. As a consequence, there are many ways to manage configuration files with Puppet. They all have a reason to exist, and a purpose to fulfill.

Know your tools

Knowing your tools is the object of this blog post, with the following topics:

File Management Approaches

Let's start with a first choice when managing files:

  • managing the whole configuration
  • managing partial configurations

Many practitioners I've met consider that managing whole configurations is the only acceptable way of proceeding, since managing partial configuration does not lead to a predictable final state.

However, managing whole configurations often leads to managing defaults which were carefully chosen for your GNU/Linux distribution and were perfectly fine to keep. It also leads to maintaining lots of different defaults in modules to try and stay as close as possible to the distribution standards when using default values.

So both approaches have pros and cons.

Managing Whole Configurations

This is the approach you take when you want to control the full content of the software configuration. This does not mean however that everything has to fit into a single file; the configuration might be split, and splitting often makes configuration management more flexible.

Static Content

The easiest case is without doubt managing static content, when your file is always the same.

However simple this might seem, there can still be tricks.

Deploying Scripts and Binary Data

For example, scripts and binary blobs can easily be managed this way in Puppet, and we often see code such as:

file { '/usr/local/bin/':
  ensure => file,
  source => "puppet:///modules/${module_name}/",
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That works fine, but if you're trying to deploy a software (maybe even with a tarball, using the puppet-archive module), it's probably better to package it for your distribution and use your package manager (apt/yum/etc.) as the deployment layer. You'll get a much simpler Puppet code, usually better performance, and you'll rely on the package manager's metadata for idempotence:

package { 'myscript':
  ensure => present,
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Another possibility is using the puppetlabs-vcsrepo resource type. The VCS (e.g. Git) will then provide the metadata to ensure idempotence, e.g.:

vcsrepo {'/usr/src/ceph-rbd-backup':
  ensure   => latest,
  provider => 'git',
  source   => '',
  revision => 'master',
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Beware of Source

When using the file type to deploy static content, it is quite common to use the source attribute to specify the file to copy:

file { '/srv/foo':
  ensure => file,
  source => "puppet:///modules/${module_name}/foo",
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This makes use of the Puppetserver's fileserver feature. When using this syntax, every Puppet run will result in a file_metadata HTTP request to the Puppetserver for each file managed, just to get the metadata necessary to decide whether the file needs to be replaced or not.

When many files are managed this way on many agents, this results in lots of HTTP requests being made during catalog application, which will saturate the Puppetserver's JRuby threads and prevent them from processing catalog compilations and reports instead.

Instead, when deploying non-binary content, you can use the file() function with a relative path:

file { '/srv/foo':
  ensure  => file,
  content => file("${module_name}/foo"),
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This is totally equivalent to the previous syntax, except the whole file will be included in the catalog, instead of just a pointer to the fileserver.

Dynamic Content

Very often, static content is not enough to configure your software. You need variables, and a more flexible approach.

Purgeable Types

Native Puppet Ruby types are probably the most flexible way of managing a configuration, as they provide a very fine-grained interface to edit configuration files.

However, they do not manage the whole configuration by default. That is, unless you can use purging with them.

Purging resources in Puppet requires two conditions:

  • a type which supports listing instances (at least one provider has a self.instances method defined)
  • a parameter that can ensure the resource's absence

When both these conditions are met, Puppet can purge the resources it doesn't explicitly manage by:

  • listing all known resources (using the self.instances method)
  • setting all of them to be absent by default
  • overriding the presence with the catalog's explicit resource parameters

There are two main ways of achieving this:

The resources type fits basic needs, by allowing to purge all resources not managed by Puppet. For example:

host { 'localhost':
  ensure => present,
  ip     => '',

resources { 'host':
  purge => true,
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will purge all entries in /etc/hosts except for localhost.

The resources resource type also allows to set exceptions, though only for the user type:

resources { 'user':
  purge              => true,
  unless_system_user => true,
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This is a hard limitation, which the purge type fixes by providing a more flexible interface, allowing to set:

  • fine conditions for purging resources
  • which parameter and value to use for purging.

For example:

purge { 'mount':
  state  => unmounted,
  unless => ['name', '==', ['/', '/var', '/home']],
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will unmount all file systems that are not managed by Puppet, unless they are mounted on /, /var or /home.

In order to manage configurations in full, the purge type can be used with native types that manage configuration file stanzas and know how to list instances.

This is the case of:

For example, you can manage sshd_config in full using the herculesteam-augeasproviders_ssh module with code such as:

sshd_config {
    value => 'yes',

    value => 'no',

purge { 'sshd_config': }
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Content from One Scope

When there are no purgeable types for your configuration file type, and you need to manage the content from a single scope (a single Puppet class), the most obvious option is to use a simple file resource with a template. Prefer EPP templates these days, as they are easier and safer than ERB templates:

file { '/path/to/foo':
  ensure  => file,
  content => epp(
      var1 => 'value1',
      var2 => 'value2',
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Content from Multiple Scopes

When your content needs to come from multiple scopes, a single file resource won't suffice.


If you're lucky and your configuration format supports include statements, this is the easiest way to go. For example:

# Deploy a static file to perform the inclusion
file { '/etc/sudoers':
  ensure  => file,
  content => '#includedir /etc/sudoers.d',

# Deploy each rule as a separate file in the directory
file { '/etc/sudoers.d/defaults_env':
  ensure  => file,
  content => 'Defaults env_reset',

file { '/etc/sudoers.d/foo':
  ensure  => file,
  content => 'foo ALL=(ALL:ALL) ALL',

# Let Puppet purge the directory of all unknown files
file { '/etc/sudoers.d':
  ensure => directory,
  purge  => true,
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Many configuration formats don't support includes: everything has to be in a single file. Managing such a file from multiple scopes requires the use of a concat module.

The most used concat module is the official puppetlabs-concat. It lets you declare a target file where all fragments will be concatenated, and then deploy multiple fragments tagged for this target. For example, the sudoers example above is roughly equivalent to:

concat { '/etc/sudoers':
  ensure => present,

concat::fragment { 'defaults_env':
  target  => '/etc/sudoers',
  content => 'Defaults env_reset',
  order   => '01',

concat::fragment { 'foo':
  target  => '/etc/sudoers',
  content => 'foo ALL=(ALL:ALL) ALL',
  order   => '10',
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Each fragment is deployed separately to the agent, then concatenated to generate the final file.

Content from an Example File

A few years ago, I experimented with yet another option to manage full dynamic content, without losing the benefit of sane distribution defaults.

The camptocamp-augeas_file resource type allows to use a local file on the Puppet agent as a template on which Augeas changes are applied to generate the final file:

augeas_file { '/etc/apt/sources.list.d/jessie.list':
  lens    => 'Aptsources.lns',
  base    => '/usr/share/doc/apt/examples/sources.list',
  changes => ['setm ./*[distribution] distribution jessie'],
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Every time the Puppet agent runs, it will use /usr/share/doc/apt/examples/sources.list as a template and apply the changes using Augeas to generate /etc/apt/sources.list.d/jessie.list. The target file is only written if any changes occur, making it idempotent. If the template changes (e.g. after a package upgrade), the target will be regenerated.

Managing Partial Configurations

Partial configurations have less options to be managed. They're essentially light versions of the options cited above:

Native types

Just as for full configurations, you can use native puppet types (host, mailalias, Augeasproviders types, etc.), without purging them.

In addition, since you don't mind managing files partially, you can also use types which don't support purging, such as ini_setting for INI file types:

ini_setting { "sample setting":
  ensure  => present,
  path    => '/tmp/foo.ini',
  section => 'bar',
  setting => 'baz',
  value   => 'quux',
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or the shellvar type for shell configuration files:

shellvar { "ntpd options":
  ensure   => present,
  target   => "/etc/sysconfig/ntpd",
  variable => "OPTIONS",
  value    => "-g -x -c /etc/myntp.conf",
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Includes work just as for whole configurations, but without purging the directory.

The Augeas Type

If no Augeasproviders exists for your resource type, but Augeas has an available lens for your configuration format, then you can most likely use the augeas resource type to manipulate it.

This is often used to manipulate XML configurations for example:

augeas {'foo.xml':
  incl    => '/tmp/foo.xml',
  context => '/files/tmp/foo.xml/foo',
  lens    => 'Xml.lns',
  changes => [
    'set bar/#text herp',
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I've kept file_line for the end of this list, because this is really the last option you might want to consider (just like exec) since has many downfalls.

However, if you got this far, you're probably either:

  • trying to patch a packaged software, which is a very nasty thing to do; it's much better to repackage it properly (and send the patch to the maintainer 😁, that's how Open-Source works!)
  • edit a weird configuration file such as .bashrc (which the shellvar type usually parses rather fine) or some kind of PHP or Perl configuration… I don't envy you if you have no option of using templates/concat for that!


There many tools to manage files in Puppet.

Do you have other modules/resource types you like to use for this? Let me know in the comments!

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