Configuration drift is an important concern for all IAAC developers out there. This post will learn about configuration drift management, its importance, causes, and potential solutions.
What is Configuration Drift?
Application owners must change their apps and underlying infrastructure over time to continuously enhance customer experience. These customers may be either inside or external to the company.
The configuration of the apps and infrastructure changes as a result of those updates and changes. These modifications could be beneficial or degrade the systems’ hardened condition. Configuration drift is the term for this.
How Configuration Drift Works
The potential for configuration drift increases with the complexity of software production and delivery systems. The code is generally transferred from a developer’s workstation to a shared development environment, to test and QA environments, and eventually to staging and production environments.
The potential impact increases with how far along the pipeline the drift occurs. Even minor variations between a package version installed on a developer’s laptop and the version installed on a test server can delay problem debugging. Typically, only staging and production are expected to be replicas of one another. The strain is intense because many businesses deploy new code numerous times daily.
Common Causes of Configuration Drift
Lack of Communication
Sometimes the upstream teams fail to communicate with the downstream partners about the changes made by them, which as a result, breaks down the entire downstream system.
Hotfixes are changes to code made to address a critical problem that cannot wait until the next planned update of the application. Sometimes the engineers working on solving the problem fail to make changes or document the same fix to other environments in the pipeline, which as a result, leads to drift. Often, reintroducing the original problem will solve this drift.
Critical Package Updates
Critical package updates are somewhat similar to hotfixes. Both are performed at a fast rate. The main difference is that critical package updates are applied in hopes of avoiding future incidents. So, such updates can cause drift in the same manner as hotfixes.
Lack of Automation
Automation will not altogether remove the chances of configuration drift. It will just reduce its chances.
Sometimes changes made by developers are temporary. For example, drift occurs if a developer installs a new package on a test server to test some functionality and forgets to revert it to its original state.
Why is Configuration Management Important?
One of the reasons configuration drift can be so damaging is that if no one is continually looking for it, drift can go undiscovered as it gradually undermines the base of your infrastructure, much like a little leak in a house behind a wall.
When the configuration drift is discovered, finding the underlying reason for the configuration drift that caused it all to happen takes time, which is a valuable resource in an emergency.
In Software development, drift is a significant cause of slow release cycles. It can cause unnecessary toil and hamper developer productivity.
You can lower the overall amount needed by identifying duplications or overprovisioning when you have a detailed image of your IT infrastructure.
Clusters with stable and well-known configurations enable batch management and infrastructure construction. Furthermore, the requirement for managing individual settings manually is decreased by limiting unique (or snowflake) servers.
Consistent configurations allow debugging teams to rule out configuration mistakes. Teams can concentrate on other potential causes, resolving tickets quicker because they won’t have to look for configuration discrepancies between servers, server clusters, or environments.
Issues Caused due to Configuration Drift
Insecure configurations are one of the most frequent causes of security breaches. Configuration drift might make other attacks and network breaches more likely, even if you begin with a protected configuration.
Significant downtime may result from a configuration error that enables an attacker to use a DoS flaw or compromise a crucial server. That’s not all, though. Let’s say you modify a network device’s configuration, affecting performance. You can always go back to your “golden configuration,” right? It will take much longer to restore service if that configuration is flawed.
Falling out of compliance
Tight security controls are necessary for compliance with regulations like ISO 27001, PCI-DSS, and HIPAA. Configuration drift might cause you to break compliance if it is not stopped.
A configuration is usually in its most optimum condition when it is in its intended state. Ad-hoc modifications can hinder network optimization attempts by causing bottlenecks and conflicts.
It can take a long time to troubleshoot a network you don’t understand well or does not match your network documentation. This means that configuration drift might result in IT troubleshooting problems that might not have existed or would have been easier to resolve if the network had been in its intended condition, in addition to generating downtime for users.
Common Mistakes to watch out for When Monitoring Configuration Drift
In a perfect world, all of the environment servers for developers (Dev/QA/Staging/Prod) would have the same configurations. Unfortunately, it is not how things operate in the “real” world. In commercial settings, application owners frequently modify the infrastructure when new capabilities are introduced to the software.
Monitoring configuration drift is crucial to ensure that software environments are as homogeneous as possible. Configuring management reduces expenses, boosts productivity and debugging time, and enhances user experience.
To be as successful with monitoring as possible, organizations must avoid mistakes even when they use configuration management and monitor their configuration drift.
The common mistakes are listed below:
Not Maintaining a CMDB
Keeping a configuration management database(CMDB) up to date is a significant element of configuration management. Information on a network’s hardware and software installations can be examined in one place, provided by a configuration management database. Data is collected for each asset or configuration item, providing visibility and transparency in the workplace.
Failure to maintain a CMDB exposes businesses to the danger of not fully understanding how the configuration of one item affects another item. Organizations risk damaging their infrastructure and security without understanding the consequences.
CMDBs can be challenging to administer, particularly as the number of assets rises, but effective database organization and management are crucial for successfully tracking configuration drift and comprehending infrastructure.
Not Having a Plan of How to Monitor Configuration Drift
Organizations frequently have massive, intricate infrastructures that need to be watched over. Determining which components need to be monitored the most is crucial. Otherwise, configuration management may quickly become unmanageable and chaotic.
Organizations must specify which assets are essential for company monitoring and specific business units. The most crucial systems will be watched, which will differ from unit to unit and industry to industry.
Not Monitoring Automatically
Organizations can monitor configuration drift in several ways. However, some approaches are more refined and successful than others.
Manual monitoring of configuration drift is costly and time-consuming. Manual monitoring also exposes the possibility of human error. This is not the best technique to monitor configuration drift unless your company has a very tiny infrastructure footprint.
Automatic monitoring is the most developed and efficient way to keep configurations in the desired state. Dedicated configuration monitoring systems can detect drift instantly and frequently offer solutions, including fast correction. This guarantees that the business’s infrastructure is returned to the desired state as quickly as feasible and with minimal effects.
How to Monitor Configuration Drift:
It becomes obvious why detecting Configuration Drift should be a top concern once you realize the damage it may cause. Knowing what to preserve and why it was presented as a change that created drift is the first step in that process.
Know what you are looking for
You may triage your organization by identifying the components crucial to the organization as a whole and those crucial to each business unit.
This varies by unit and may be expansive in highly regulated industries or solely focus on narrower system-critical files/applications. The importance of the system will determine the frequency and seriousness of monitoring systems.
Set a Baseline
There will always be variances between a production environment and testing stages because of the various settings. The baseline to check for drift is created by defining what each step should be and the types of deviations that are permissible.
Early testing stages might be more suitable for a higher drift allowance than a User Acceptance Testing setting or a zero drift manufacturing stage.
Monitor Your System
The level of monitoring required will vary depending on the maturity of the organization, its current systems, tooling, the total number of configurations that need to be checked, and the level of scrutiny required. Depending on requirements and compliance, monitoring may differ for each unit within an organization.
How to Prevent Configuration Drift
Monitoring must ensure that infrastructure is kept in the appropriate configuration after a baseline of configurations and allowable gaps have been defined. Without a monitoring strategy, constructing configuration plans and documentation wastes time.
Various approaches can be employed to monitor configuration drift, and many businesses will combine methodologies and tools based on their maturity and compliance requirements.
Constant Manual Monitoring
Individual machine configurations can be manually reviewed and compared to a known configuration file. Due to the human aspect, this process is still error-prone and expensive regarding employee hours. I should only be used on a small scale for a few particular server clusters or a company with a modest infrastructure footprint.
A team manually examines server configurations as part of configuration audits, comparing them to a specified model. These audits can be expensive since they require specialist knowledge to determine how a system should be built and then a thorough investigation of any undocumented chance to decide whether or not it should be preserved.
The audit team also makes necessary adjustments to the configuration documents that will be applied during the next audit. Audits are typically retained for high-value or compliance-heavy clusters and regularly executed, generally multiple times a year, due to the time and cost considerations.
Auditing does guarantee consistent and repeatable server configuration on a predetermined schedule.
However, until the next audit, settings will drift and remain more and more.
Real-time Automated Monitoring
Automated real-time monitoring is the most sophisticated way to keep configurations in the desired state. To do this, servers or groups of servers must be created along with a description of how they should be configured utilizing dedicated server setup tools.
These programs will use a lightweight agent to monitor a server’s configuration within that group and compare it to its definition.
This automated process instantly warns about drift and typically provides several choices to correct the server drift.
Inconsistent configuration items (CIs) between computers or devices are the root cause of configuration drift. Configuration drift happens naturally in data center environments when software and hardware modifications are done on the fly without being thoroughly documented or tracked.
Many high availability and disaster recovery system failures are attributed to configuration drift. Administrators should keep meticulous records on the network addresses of hardware devices, along with the software versions installed on them and the upgrades that have been made, to minimize configuration drift.
Naman Yash is a Software Engineering Professional with 2+ years of Cloud Engineering experience in JP Morgan Chase. Currently, Naman is working as a freelance software engineer and content writer. He holds multiple AWS and Terraform certifications… read more