Alex L. Demidov

DevOps/SRE consultant

Building Vagrant-based Development Environment

Over the course of the last few months I have built three different custom Vagrant boxes to create local development environment for two different applications — one is WordPress based and another is Rails one with a few PHP parts.

The problem which Vagrant solved was that both applications are too complex to setup manually. Even when working with WordPress developers didn’t work locally but instead used to edit files directly on live server and even when we imported all code into git they started using integration server for day-to-day development and their workflow looked terrible — change a line, commit, push, wait for deploy script to run, check integration server for results, repeat. Moreover, as a result of this workflow git history looked ugly — myriad of one-line commits with no commit messages, which are painful to merge. For Rails app we needed some CSS/HTML tweaks and there is just no way average front-end developer can setup Rails development environment on Windows.

At first I thought about distributing binary Vagrant box but I still needed to distribute application source code as git repository and Vagrantfile to configure sharing and I was too lazy to setup password protected directory on web server to download binary box and hand out all credentials to individual developers (Vagrant Cloud for organizations hadn’t been available yet). So I decided to make one single git repo with Vagrant configuration and cookbooks and source code repo included as submodule.

It was a while since I did chef cookbook development so I googled a lot at first trying to find what is the best current approach and which tools to use. Cookbook development completely changed over last year or two — there are now test-kitchen, berkshelf, serverspec etc and all these tools are changing very fast — almost any tutorial older than a few months is obsolete.

So far I have found following blog posts as the most current:

In my setup I have followed the second one and cross-checked with the first article. I chose to include in my toolbox test-kitchen, berkshelf, serverspec, chefspec, foodcritic, rubocop and wrap everything with guard (but later disabled test-kitchen run from guard as it was failing). In the beginning I started preparing custom Vagrant base box with veewee but dropped it as I didn’t really need anything custom and standard chef/debian box from worked well.

My main repo has very simple structure — Gemfile with berkshelf, Berksfile with all necessary cookbooks, Vagrantfile and INSTALL file with step-by-step instructions for developers. In www sub-directory I have site source code as git submodule and in cookbooks sub-directory all depended cookbooks vendored using berks vendor cookbooks. At first I used to include my own cookbooks as git submodule too into site-cookbooks but as berks vendor retrieves them anyway I dropped this. Also I decided not to use vagrant-berkshelf plugin to maintain cookbooks as it is deprecated.

For each application I created individual cookbook and one cookbook for common configuration. Each cookbook has own git repo and follows standard layout created by berks cookbook. I have also decided to rely on community cookbooks for all dependencies like MySQL, PHP etc, even though I didn’t do much customization but this decision caused a bit of pain — I had to fork cookbooks for MySQL and monit to support Debian squeeze and had to use alternative cookbook for PHP as phpmyadmin cookbook depends on it. Each cookbook has multiple recipes: for Vagrant setup, for integration server setup and for live server setup as there is some differences between them — SSL support and while integration server runs php-fpm live server still uses mod_php.

At first I followed quite strict TDD/BDD loop — create serverspec tests, then chefspec and then write recipe but after a while dropped chefspec tests as I find writing expect(chef_run).to include_recipe('apache2') and then include_recipe 'apache2' a bit boring. Also running kitchen converge && kitchen verify is quite slow even with a lot of RAM and on SSD disk. I tried to speed up things by switching to LXC but kitchen-lxc seems to be broken and unsupported and using vagrant-lxc with test-kitchen isn’t documented very well and requires building LXC base boxes manually using outdated instructions — some links to configuration templates are 404 and after you build base boxes recent Vagrant complains about outdated box format. My attempts to use more up to date scripts to build base box failed as these scripts just segfaulted on me and I didn’t have time to fix them as manually built base boxes already working. Another issue is that my Linux Mint box had sudo configuration setting which caused vagrant-lxc to fail when used with test-kitchen and a couple weeks passed before I found time to find a solution so all cookbooks were developed slowly using VirtualBox.

But overall development went quite smoothly except for few PHP/WordPress surprises in the end — e.g. PHP with short_open_tag switched fails with syntax error pointing to the end of huge 5K LOC .php file without any hint of real error cause or WordPress shows just blank front page without any error messages in error logs if some plugin fails or missing. But real adventure was still ahead. When all cookbooks were ready and fully tested locally on Linux and Mac OS X it was time to deploy to Windows boxes where everything failed just at the very beginning — Vagrant was launching VirtualBox VMs but unable to ssh into them. Few days of remote debugging using email and I had found that even vagrant init hashicorp/precise failed to work on Windows so I got idea and tried to switch to 32-bit OS image which worked. Later I got RDP access to Window 8 box and launched VirtualBox directly which complained that VT-x is disabled (it needs to be enabled in BIOS and this feature is unavailable on Celeron processors) and it can’t launch 64-bit image. Once I switched images to 32-bit all Windows users were able to use them without much problems, except occasional cases when developers didn’t read documentation and forgot to use git clone --recursive and similar issues.

Another quite problematic issue with Windows was that it is impossible to create symbolic links on shared file system with default settings and Rails app were deployed capistrano style and relied on symbolic links heavily. I had to revamp whole recipe for Rails app and remove all symbolic links to get it working on Vagrant under Windows. Another Rails specific issue is that rvm cookbooks needs special recipe rvm::vagrant to be included before any other recipe if it is run in Vagrant VM.