Friends Don't Let Friends Use Refreshonly

Update 2017-09-03: A code example included an invalid resource reference. Many thanks to Jo Rhett for pointing it out.

Manifest imperfection

The goal of any Puppet manifest is to describe a desired state. Puppet’s abstraction model breaks this down into an arbitrary set of discrete resources. Each resource describes a specific piece of system state.

file {
		owner => 'root',
		mode  => '0600',

This approach is oft proven to yield very maintainable and readable code. But of course, setting up a piece of software on a machine is often impossible without resorting to some OS commands that must be run in a scripted fashion. Such commands will have an effect that is required before some resources can be synchronized at all.

Enter the exec type, one of the less typical resource types in Puppet.

exec {
	'apt-get update':
		logoutput   => 'on_failure',
		before      => Package['from-new-repo'],

It does not so much represent a state that Puppet can figure out how to reach. Instead, it gives the user the opportunity to tell Puppet exactly how to proceed. This is less powerful than Puppets usual way of expressing things in a platform agnostic fashion. That’s why exec should only be used if all else fails.

As a consequence, a resource like the above cannot easily be found to be in sync. Puppet will synchronize it during each agent transaction. There is a reasonable way around that, but let’s focus on the central issue first.

Make it extra quick and dirty

Since software setup instructions tend to read like “install package X, then run command Y, then command Z and finally start the service”, it is tempting to translate this into a manifest verbatim.

class software_x {
	package { 'X': ensure => installed }
	exec { 'Y': }
	exec { 'Z': }
	service { 'X': ensure => 'running', enable => true }

The commands should run only during initial setup. The easy way to achieve this is to

  • make the package notify the execs and
  • add the refreshonly parameter

In simple manifests like this one, the notify can be expressed by the modified dependency arrow ~>.

class software_x {
	package { 'X': ensure => installed }
	exec { 'Y': refreshonly => true }
	exec { 'Z': refreshonly => true }
	service { 'X': ensure => 'running', enable => true }

In a perfect world, this will do just what you expect, but this structure is quite fragile. Consider the following resource that may be part of the same manifest.

class sys_setup {
	package {
			ensure => 'installed',
			before => Exec['Y'],

This is contrived, but a similar structure can just emerge in real life, especially when there are a couple of relationships between whole classes.

Danger, Will Robinson

The Package['site-definitions'] resource has now become a dependency of Exec['Y']. If for any reason, the site-definitions package cannot be successfully installed (think failing post-installation hooks) during the Puppet agent transaction that should also set up software X, the system under management ends up in a bit of a pickle.

Package X will be installed, because it has no relation to the sys_setup class and its contents whatsoever. Puppet should then run two commands only once. But because a dependency failed, Exec['Y'] will be skipped during this transaction. This is where refreshonly backfires rather terribly.

The exec resources will only refresh themselves when they receive a notification. In many cases, such commands get only one chance to fire. The subscribed resource is already in sync (package X is installed). During all follow-up agent runs, Puppet will detect this and not touch the package resource anymore. There will be no new notifications for Exec['Y'] and the system will remain in an inconsistent state.

Even worse, it’s quite difficult for the user to detect this and recover from this state. They would have to uninstall the X package again and let the agent run, so that a new notification is generated. If such a class is part of a Forge module, there is no way for them to figure this out, short of analyzing the manifest and deducing which exec resources were missed.

You’re Doing It Wrong

With the exec resource type considered the last ditch, its refreshonly parameter should be seen as especially outrageous. To make an exec resource fit into Puppet’s model better, you should use one of the following parameters instead.

  1. creates whenever there is a file that will only exist after the command completed successfully or
  2. onlyif or unless with a more generic query

There is almost always the way to figure out whether a command has been run successfully. I tend to prefer the creates attribute for its simplicity. Some commands will not create files, though (think database CLI manipulation). Their results have to be checked through other commands that are run first, through unless or onlyif. They are equivalent except for the logical value of the query result.

Make sure to read up on the details of these parameters in the official documentation and please - avoid refreshonly whenever you can.