Best Practices

Table of Contents

Version Control and Configuration Policy

CFEngine users version their policies. It's a reasonable, easy thing to do: you just put /var/cfengine/masterfiles under version control and... you're done?

What do you think? How do you version your own infrastructure?

Problem statement

It turns out everyone likes convenience and writing the versioning machinery is hard. So for CFEngine Enterprise 3.6 we set out to provide version control integration with Git out of the box, disabled by default. This allows users to use branches for separate hubs (which enables a policy release pipeline) and enables Design Center integration.

Release pipeline

A build and release pipeline is how software is typically delivered to production through testing stages. In the case of CFEngine, policies are the software. Users have at least two stages, development and production, but typically the sequence has more stages including various forms of testing/QA and pre-production.

Design Center

The CFEngine Design Center is a way to augment your policies (in a way that does not conflict or override your own policies) through a GUI, using modular testable policies called sketches. It's like a Perl CPAN for CFEngine but with a GUI and awesome sauce mixed in.

How to enable it

To enable masterfiles versioning, you have to plan a little bit. These are the steps:

Choose your repository

You have two options: use the default local Git repository which comes with CFEngine Enterprise, or use a remote Git repository accessible via the git or https protocol. The first option is good for getting started quickly, but we strongly recommend the second option: using a remote repository, populated with the contents of the 3.6.x branch of our masterfiles repository at

Using the default local Git repository

The default repository is a local directory on the hub and set up by the cfengine-hub package. It's the default in the Mission Portal VCS integration panel and resides in /opt/cfengine/masterfiles.git.

PLEASE NOTE: you must use user "cfapache" to interact with this repository safely on the hub.

You do not have to do anything to set up this repository - it's already preconfigured and prepopulated out of the box. You just need to enable VCS deployments as described below.

To check out this default repository, run the following commands on your hub (everything needs to be run as user cfapache for the permissions to be set correctly. The first two commands setup some basic information needed by git to manipulate the repository):

git config "your@email.address"
git config "Your Name"
su - cfapache
git clone /opt/cfengine/masterfiles.git

And then make all the changes in the checked-out masterfiles repository.

Using a remote repository

To use a remote repository, you must enter its address, login credentials and the branch you want to use in the Mission Portal VCS integration panel. To access it, click on "Settings" in the top-left menu of the Mission Portal screen, and then select "Version control repository". This screen by default contains the settings for using the built-in local repository.

Settings menu

VCS settings screen

Make sure your current masterfiles are in the chosen repository

This is critical. When you start auto-deploying policy, you will overwrite your current /var/cfengine/masterfiles. So take the current contents thereof and make sure they are in the Git repository you chose in the previous step.

For example, if you create a new repository in GitHub by following the instructions from, you can add the contents of masterfiles to it with the following commands (assuming you are already in your local repository checkout):

cp -r /var/cfengine/masterfiles/* .
git add *
git commit -m 'Initial masterfiles check in'
git push

Enable VCS deployments in the versioned

In the file in your versioned masterfiles, change

#"cfengine_internal_masterfiles_update" expression => "enterprise.!(cfengine_3_4|cfengine_3_5)";
"cfengine_internal_masterfiles_update" expression => "!any";


"cfengine_internal_masterfiles_update" expression => "enterprise.!(cfengine_3_4|cfengine_3_5)";
#"cfengine_internal_masterfiles_update" expression => "!any";

This is simply commenting out one line and uncommenting another.

Remember that you need to commit and push these changes to the repository you chose in the previous step, so that they are picked up when you deploy from the git repository. In your checked out masterfiles git repository, these commands should normally do the trick:

git add
git commit -m 'Enabled auto-policy updates'
git push

Now you need to do the first-time deployment, whereupon this new and the rest of your versioned masterfiles will overwrite /var/cfengine/masterfiles. We made that easy too, using standard CFEngine tools. Exit the cfapache account and run the following command as root on your hub:

cf-agent -Dcfengine_internal_masterfiles_update -f

Easy, right? You're done, from now on every time is run (by default, every 5 minutes) it will check out the repository and branch you configured in the Mission Portal VCS integration panel.

Please note all the work is done as user cfapache except the very last step of writing into /var/cfengine/masterfiles.

How it works

The code is fairly simple and can even be modified if you have special requirements (e.g. Subversion integration). But out of the box there are three important components. All the scripts below are stored under /var/cfengine/httpd/htdocs/api/dc-scripts/ in your CFEngine Enterprise hub.

The script is loaded by the deployment script and does two things. First, it redirects all output to /var/cfengine/outputs/dc-scripts.log. So if you have problems, check there first.

Second, the script sources /opt/cfengine/dc-scripts/ where the essential parameters like repository address and branch live. That file is written out by the Mission Portal VCS integration panel, so it's the connection between the Mission Portal GUI and the underlying scripts.

This script is called to deploy the masterfiles from VCS to /var/cfengine/masterfiles. It's fairly complicated and does not depend on CFEngine itself by design; for instance it uses rsync to deploy the policies. You may want to review and even modify it, for example choosing to reject deployments that are too different from the current version (which could indicate a catastrophic failure or misconfiguration).

This script also validates the policies using cf-promises -T. That command looks in a directory and ensures that in the directory is valid. If it's not, an error will go in the log file and the script exits.

NOTE this means that clients will never get invalid policies according to the hub, although a 3.5 or older client could still receive policies that are only valid in 3.6. So make sure you test with 3.5 or older if you anticipate that problem during migration, but in a homogeneous client population this is a wonderful guarantee. and

These scripts are run by the Mission Portal whenever the user configures sketches. They enable the Mission Portal to check out the policies, make changes to them, and then commit and push them back.

Design Center integration

The Design Center integration Just Works when you follow the procedure above to enable the VCS integration. You can then go into the Mission Portal, configure any sketch, and voila, in minutes that sketch will be activated across your infrastructure.

Manual policy changes

If you want to make manual changes to your policies, simply make those changes in a checkout of your masterfiles repository, commit and push the changes. The next time runs, your changes will be checked out and in minutes distributed through your entire infrastructure.


To conclude, let's summmarize the benefits of versioning your masterfiles using the built-in facilities in CFEngine Enterprise 3.6

  • easy to use compared to home-grown VCS integration
  • supports Git out of the box and, with some work, can support others like Subversion
  • tested, reliable, and built-in
  • Design Center integration
  • supports any repository and branch per hub
  • your policies are validated before deployment
  • integration happens through shell scripts and, not C code or special policies


When running CFEngine Enterprise in a large-scale IT environment with many thousands of hosts, certain issues arise that require different approaches compared with smaller installations.

With CFEngine 3.6, significant testing was performed to identify the issues surrounding scalability and to determine best practices in large-scale installations of CFEngine.

Moving PostgreSQL to Separate Hard Drive

Moving the PostgreSQL database to another physical hard drive from the other CFEngine components can improve the stability of large-scale installations, particularly when using a solid-state drive (SSD) for hosting the PostgreSQL database.

The data access involves a huge number of random IO operations, with small chunks of data. SSD may give the best performance because it is designed for these types of scenarios.

Important: The PostgreSQL data files are in /var/cfengine/state/pg/ by default. Before moving the mount point, please make sure that all CFEngine processes (including PostgreSQL) are stopped and the existing data files are copied to the new location.

Setting the splaytime

The splaytime tells CFEngine hosts the base interval over which they will communicate with the policy server, which they then use to "splay" or hash their own runtimes.

Thus when splaytime is set to 4, 1000 hosts will hash their run attempts evenly over 4 minutes, and each minute will see about 250 hosts make a run attempt. In effect, the hosts will attempt to communicate with the policy server and run their own policies in predictable "waves." This limits the number of concurrent connections and overall system load at any given moment.