Exploring Red Hat Satellite Server 6

Bumpy Start

© ® Markus Feilner CC-BY-SA 4.0

© ® Markus Feilner CC-BY-SA 4.0

Article from Issue 171/2015
Author(s): , Author(s): , Author(s):

Red Hat's Satellite system management solution provides an amazing range of capabilities, but it isn't quite ready for orbit.

A typical environment today, comprising dozens or even hundreds of computers, would have been practically unmanageable with the on-board tools in the past. Luckily, modern IT setups support higher levels of automation. Because all system vendors recognize this fact, SUSE, Canonical, and Red Hat all have competing network management solutions on the market. Linux market leader Red Hat recently launched version 6 of the Satellite management server tool [1].

Satellite consists of several modular components glued together within a unified web interface. Some important components include:

  • Management module – Manage systems. Start and stop services and virtual machines. Assign and change permissions. Find systems that meet search criteria. You can group systems according to use, making it possible to manage several servers as if they were one.
  • Provisioning module – Deploy, configure, and update bare-metal systems and virtual machines. Manage configuration files. Provision RPM-based applications.
  • Monitoring module – Monitor resource usage, optimize performance, configure notifications, and generate reports.

As you will learn later in this article, Satellite actually gets help behind the scenes from several other open source management tools, such as the popular Puppet.

Satellite is Red Hat's foot in the server management market door. The Satellite server supplies features that let administrators manage large networks and additional hardware in a meaningful and convenient way.

Satellite 6 is an add-on for Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Admins can choose whether to use RHEL 6 or RHEL 7. If you are installing a new Satellite server, you will probably go for RHEL 7, because it offers newer software and is supported for a longer period of time. If the server is running on RHEL 7, you can still use RHEL 6 clients with the server.

Our attempts to try out Red Hat's latest Satellite met some early complications (see the box titled "Strange Marketing"), but we got the system running and discovered that, although this satellite still hasn't exactly gotten into orbit, it does offer some significant improvements over previous versions.

Strange Marketing

Many unusual events cropped up when it came to testing Red Hat's Satellite 6. The first curiosity occurred before the product even reached our editorial office. Although Red Hat started sending marketing email weeks ago, beating the drum for Satellite 6, we were bluntly told that a test release for the press wasn't available at the time. Did that mean they wanted us to buy the product just to test it? Not impossible, but very unusual.

Finally, a member of our editorial team managed to get their hands on a couple of ISO images through their industry contacts, and it seems that Red Hat took note: shortly after this issue went to press, Red Hat (in the knowledge that they couldn't hold up the press) finally agreed to a test.

Why was Red Hat acting so strangely? Had the company found dangerous bugs in the betas of the new version that they wanted to remedy before a test?

It's hard to guess Red Hat's reasons for refusing a test, but the results of our lab suggests that Satellite 6 has a few engineering skeletons in the cupboard. We also discovered that some trainers in Red Hat sessions are issuing warnings about the product and advising people to wait for 6.1.

Setting Up

Red Hat offers several ways to get Satellite as a software program, including on DVD. The DVD includes a script you can run on a version of RHEL 6.6 or RHEL 7 that converts your RHEL system into a Satellite server. The installation was not easy in our tests. The script we used for this review did not run on our system. The vendor is aware of the issue [2], and according to Red Hat [3], a new version is available via the Red Hat customer portal.

Installing all the packages for Satellite server via the matching repository and RHEL package manager makes more sense, anyway. If you purchase a Satellite license from Red Hat, you are automatically given the repository information, and with some luck, you can deploy Satellite 6 via the drop-down menu.

Installing through Red Hat does save you an encounter with the two scripts that are intended to lead to a working Satellite installation at the end of the day (Figures 1 and 2). When we first tried to install, the katello-install script failed so miserably that the only way out was to re-install the system.

Figure 1: The installation of Satellite 6 on RHEL 7 is a frustrating experience if you try to use the shell script on the DVD.
Figure 2: Without a patch, nothing worked with the CD we managed to procure, but Red Hat claims to have fixed the problem.

Attempt number two actually worked after running the script a couple of times, but the errors displayed in the process were anything but intuitive. Finally, we had a complete Satellite 6 instance ready for testing (Figure 3). Red Hat definitely needs to improve the installation and offer an option for using a GUI to install Satellite from a CD or DVD.

Figure 3: Success: After the Satellite install, the front end comes up in a web browser.

A Little History

To date, Red Hat has used its own development, Spacewalk, in its Satellite products. Red Hat invented Spacewalk at a time when there was no talk of alternative open source system management tools like Puppet. The first versions appeared on Red Hat systems as early as 2001.

In the early days, Spacewalk brought the same experience to corporate networks that Red Hat offered through its official network. Features included a wide range of highly practical functions, such as local mirror servers for RPM updates, which all local servers can then install without unnecessarily hogging the wire. Over time, the developers expanded Spacewalk, adding functions such as license management for individual systems or centralized package installation at the push of a button.

With the emergence of Puppet, Chef, Ansible, and other similar solutions, Spacewalk appears more and more behind the times. Red Hat is beginning to remedy the situation with Satellite 6, which offers a significantly larger range of functions than Spacewalk.

At the same time, Red Hat is pressed for time: the SUSE manager [4] and MaaS (Metal as a Service) [5], together with Canonical's Landscape program, are gnawing away at Satellite's market segment. The combination of radical conversion and time pressure is therefore rather explosive. A problem with the launch would lead to real chaos at Red Hat.

Components

Satellite 6 is a "comprehensive life cycle management system," according to Red Hat. The Satellite solution relies on well-known components such as Puppet, Foreman, and Git. Admins can manage the server in Satellite after installing a machine in the rack. Updates are ideally installed automatically – after all, virtual servers just create extra overhead that Satellite immediately offloads.

Puppet is hidden under the hood; if admins prefer not to touch it, they don't need to. Satellite also offers the possibility for admins to use Puppet's full range of features: The Puppet variant installed in Satellite 6 is directly connected with Puppet Forge in the background, and anyone who wants to use their own modules can integrate them: Git is also part of the Satellite 6 package, which means you can check out files from remote repositories.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux has to be installed on new boxes because Satellite exclusively uses Red Hat as the guest system. (Cloud VMs on Amazon, or within the limits of OpenStack clouds, are supported, but more of that later.)

In Puppet talk, Foreman [6] is an external node classifier (ENC). Foreman builds on Puppet but only uses Puppet as a tool and adds its own functions. For example, Foreman comes with a PXE installer. The admin creates the host, including a MAC address, and ensures that the server searches for boot images using PXE. Foreman subsequently provides the right image, and in combination with Kickstart files, delivers a RHEL server on your fresh hardware.

Then the manifest in Puppet ensures that the server contains the software and the configuration that the admin wants. Satellite 6 does not, by the way, rely on the Foreman GUI; instead, it seamlessly integrates Foreman into the content view.

The team of Puppet and Foreman made a good impression in our lab; now that Red Hat relies on standard components, new possibilities are opened to the admin. Satellite 6, tuned with additional modules for Puppet, dramatically exceeds the capability of any previous Spacewalk hacks from the past in terms of functionality and comfort.

Satellite 6 also comes with a service designed to support discovery: The discovery feature automatically scans the network for hosts that it does not already know. On the basis of various settings, the admin can then decide whether to add other systems to Satellite management, and if so, how to configure them.

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