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AutoInstall: Automating Platform Installation

or How to install thirty complex servers before morning tea

Gordon Rowell
Gormand Pty Ltd

Peter Bray
Telstra Corporation Limited


AutoInstall is an automated installation system for UNIX hosts. It provides hands-off, reproducible installation of software, patches and individual host configuration for networks of machines

AutoInstall was originally developed to automate the installation of Telstra Intelligent Network sites, which comprise as many as thirty hosts, each with specific hardware, operating system and software configuration. AutoInstall can install an entire site of thirty machines in under two hours, completely unattended. The general nature of AutoInstall allows automated, reproducible installation of any types of system.


Many sites use installation scripts to simplify installation. The installation scripts are normally written to cover a particular installation, and only that installation. Most installation scripts lay down implementation details in code, and this code includes file references which are usually tightly integrated into the scripts. For example, the location of the software repository is likely to be coded into the various scripts which handle software installation.

New installations require new scripts, and each of these would again encode the various fixed locations required for the installation to proceed. Separation of the important information into configuration files helps, but these locations are still visible to the script developer as they are scattered through the code.

AutoInstall uses high-level directives to separate the definition of the function required from the implementation of that function. These directives are independent of the flavour of Unix being installed and AutoInstall understands the concepts of installing software on a local host, installing software on a mounted client system, and testing the configuration on an installation server prior to installation on a live host.

AutoInstall reduces the requirement for installation documentation as the directives define the steps required and the audit logs confirm that all steps were completed. The logging subsystem collects the output from each of the directives and commands. It also keeps track of any command or directive failures and notes these in the summary log, which will be empty for a successful installation.

In a production environment it is often faster to replace a faulty system disk and AutoInstall the host than it would be to call a trained systems administrator to diagnose the problem and suggest a solution. The faulty disks can be removed for analysis while the host is returned to service.

Directive Files

AutoInstall parses the hierarchy of directive files on startup, and logs errors for any unimplemented or incorrectly used directives. The AutoInstall framework allows extra directives to be easily added. This allows common functions to be abstracted into new directives. These can be added to the AutoInstall base, or can be a project specific extension.

AutoInstall directive files use location independent references to files. AutoInstall determines the correct file by applying a search path, which starts with information about a particular host, progresses through the operating system and the operating system family, and ends with common configuration. The use of high-level directive files and the implied search path allows an installer to concentrate on what needs to be installed, not how this is performed for a particular operating system.

The following example is a simplified AutoInstall directive file for Oracle database servers. The configuration avoids references to individual hostnames or sites through the use of AutoInstall variables. The implementation of the referenced directive files is not shown here as they are not of concern to the developer of this directive file. This separation is a major benefit of the modular approach taken.

 # Section 1: Host configuration
 require         OSPatches
 require         DNSClient
 suppress        Software/pine
 require         StandardUtilities
 append          /etc/hosts--${GenericConfig::Hostname}
 replace         /etc/hosts.allow--${GenericConfig::Hostname} 0444 root root
 edit            /etc/inittab-ConsoleXterms
 # Section 2: Account management
 rootpasswd      root-${GenericConfig::Site}
 addaccounts     passwd-${GenericConfig::Site} group-${GenericConfig::Site}
 # Section 3: Disk configuration
 require         DiskSuite-4.1
 partition       c1t[0-5]d[0-4]    OnePartition
 replace         /etc/opt/SUNWmd/md.conf--OneBigSSA 0444 root root
 makefilesystem  /dev/md/rdsk/d40 /export/md/d40 1775 root root
 loopback        /export/md/d40/bigdb /bigdb
 # Section 4: Oracle and database creation
 require         Oracle-7.3.2
 shellscript     CreateDB /bigdb
In section one the operating system patches for this particular operating system are installed. There is no reference to the specific set of patches, as the AutoInstall search path determines the correct OSPatches file to use. The machine is then configured as a DNSClient and standard utilities are installed, except for pine, which has been explicitly suppressed. The /etc/hosts and /etc/hosts.allow files are configured with information specific to the host being installed through the use of the ${GenericConfig::Hostname} variable. The final directive in this section changes the console terminal type to xterms.

In section two various accounts are created, and the root password is set. All of the referenced files use the ${GenericConfig::Site} variable so that separate accounts and root passwords are created for each site.

Section three provides configuration of the disks on the host. This section of the AutoInstall configuration is currently operating system specific as DiskSuite-4.1 is only supported on Solaris. The DiskSuite-4.1 directive file installs DiskSuite, relevant patches, and increases the number of metadevices available. The host is then rebooted which allows DiskSuite metadevices to be used in further directives. AutoInstall continues automatically with the directive following the reboot.

The next directive partitions all of the disks in a SPARCStorageArray on controller one using a partition file called OnePartition. The next three directives provide configuration of DiskSuite to create a single huge filesystem mounted on /bigdb.

The final section installs Oracle and then calls an external shell script to create a database under the /bigdb. The Oracle-7.3.2 directive file installs Oracle and its startup files, adds the appropriate shared memory configuration options to the kernel and reboots the host.

Search Paths

The use of the search path for all file references becomes very powerful when applied to directive files. For example, many projects might require database configuration, but each project might have specific changes to that configuration. The directive file Database-Client might look something like:

 require Database-Client-OSPatches
 require Database-Client-Software
 require Database-Client-Config
Since the search path is applied to all file references, any or all of the directive files can be specialised for each project, or even each individual host. For example, the files actually used in the configuration might be:
If the hierarchy is designed in a modular and reusable way, the project specific trees become quite small and provide very accurate documentation on the specifics of the project. Moving to SunOS 5.6 might simply require the creation of the directive file Configuration/SunOS/5.6/sparc/Directives/Database-Client-OSPatches. Note that this has not changed support for earlier versions such as 5.5.1, just added support for 5.6.

As an example of the power of search paths, a platform under construction might need a utility like sysinfo, which on SunOS 4.x requires a version for each kernel architecture, but on Solaris has a single version for all kernel architectures. The following directive could be used to install the correct version of sysinfo-3.3

 tarpackage /pkgs/sysinfo-3.3 sysinfo-3.3
The directive finds the appropriate version of sysinfo-3.3.tar (optionally compressed or gzipped) in the AutoInstall hierarchy and installs it on the client into /pkgs/sysinfo-3.3.

The search path is constructed from information about the host to be installed. A (greatly simplified) search path is shown below, and is applied from most-specific (Hostname) to least-specific (Common - used when no other match has been found):

 Hostname             (e.g. myhost.some.dom)
 Domainname           (e.g. some.dom)
 Kernel Architecture  (e.g. sun4u)
 Processor            (e.g. sparc)
 OS Version           (e.g. SunOS/5.5.1)
 OS Family            (e.g. SunOS/5.X)
 OS Common            (e.g. SunOS/Common)
 Common               (e.g. Common)
The search path can be significantly more complex than this as AutoInstall supports projects and sub-projects, each of which could provide hierarchies similar to the above. The important point is that the search path is applied to all file references, allowing complex hierarchies to be developed, without changing the directives.

Since sysinfo is architecture and operating system specific, the developer would need to place the appropriate tar archive in the relevant directory, as shown below:

 OS                      Pathname
 SunOS 4.1.3_U1 (sun4m)  SunOS/4.1.3_U1/sun4m/TarPackages/sysinfo-3.3.tar.gz
 SunOS 4.1.3_U1 (sun4c)  SunOS/4.1.3_U1/sun4c/TarPackages/sysinfo-3.3.tar.gz
 SunOS 5.5.1    (SPARC)  SunOS/5.5.1/sparc/TarPackages/sysinfo-3.3.tar.gz
 SunOS 5.5.1    (Intel)  SunOS/5.5.1/x86/TarPackages/sysinfo-3.3.tar.gz
Note that the directive would fail if this configuration were used or tested for a sun4d machine running SunOS 4.1.3_U1 as no tar file exists for the sun4d kernel architecture. AutoInstall does not remove the need to compile each relevant version, but greatly reduces the effort required to install the software on many differing systems. All that is required to make this configuration work for sun4d machines is to place the appropriate tar file in the relevant directory.

File Naming Conventions

All data for AutoInstall is held in standard directory trees on the installation server. It was decided that introducing directory trees to mimic the client directory structure would be inconvenient and create large numbers of directories containing a single file, and so a mapping was introduced to flatten the hierarchy. Leading slashes in filenames are deleted, and all other slashes are converted to underscores. There are also requirements to make multiple changes to the one file in the client's filesystem, and this is supported through the use of the filename comments. Filename comments also enhance the readability of the directive files, as shown in the following example:
 Directive File   Directive                      File to search for
 TerminalServer   append /etc/services--erpcd    etc_services--erpcd
 Bootpd           append /etc/services--bootpd   etc_services--bootpd

User extensibility

AutoInstall is written in PERL and provides several major hooks for users to extend or customise its operation. Each project or sub-project can have a module called, which can do simple configuration such as defining sites and variables, or modifying the search path. For the more adventurous it can add or replace directives or provide additional PreInstall and PostInstall configuration.

We have attempted to keep site-specific code out of AutoInstall, and promote the use of In our own case, we define our host naming convention, and add some site-specific directives. For example, we have added tests to allow a system to be reinstalled while preserving the database disks. These tests replace standard directives with directives which know how to preserve the data on the database disks while allowing reinstallation of the system disks.

Testing and Quality Assurance

AutoInstall contains extensive support for testing and debugging directive files. Because all the code uses a common testing and debugging framework, it is possible to testBuild a configuration on the installation server. Directives understand that they are being called in a testing mode, and do not modify any files. By setting environment variables it is possible to test installation of machines which have a different operating system or machine architecture from the installation server.

For example,

 TARGET_OS=SunOS TARGET_OSREV=4.1.3_U1 testBuild mySunOSbox.some.dom
 TARGET_PROCESSOR=x86 TARGET_OSREV=5.6 testBuild mySolarisPC.some.dom
The ability to test the configuration without requiring additional hardware allows a separation between installation developers and system installers. Once the installation is fully tested the final hardware can be assembled and installed without intervention. AutoInstall directive files are small text files, and so can be easily versioned and compared. Full audit logs are left on the installed platform and can be mailed to a central site as part of the install.

AutoInstall has numerous benefits when it comes to system testing. System installs prior to AutoInstall required a 300+ page installation manual, and took at least a day per machine. System installs for Sun SPARC machines now require the installer to type boot net - install and to check the installation log once the install is finished, in approximately one hour. A typical machine has over 350 directives applied to it after the operating system has been installed, and each of these directives embodies many lower level concepts. For example, the graft directive creates a directory, unrolls a tarpackage, changes the installed permissions and then calls the graft command.

Complete installation testing is now a possibility. System testers can install the machine afresh after all of the developer "fixes" have been applied and tested to ensure that the delivered system is the one that was tested, and that all such "fixes" make it into a formal release. Machines can be identically configured at all sites, including the testbed, so that problems found at one site can be checked and fixed at other sites with certainty.

It is also possible to have reconfigurable testbeds. If a common hardware base is chosen it is feasible to rebuild the testbed for each project as it goes into system testing, and switch between testbed environments through a simple hands-off install. This is particularly useful for retrofitting patches to earlier releases as the testbed can be returned to the state it was in when the application was released.

Designing for reuse

Many of the tasks faced by systems administrators are similar for each operating system - OS patches, tightening security, installation of standard tools and accounts. It is beneficial to spend time building a reusable base which describes these common tasks, so that a new operating system only requires the blanks to be filled, rather than the development of a complete hierarchy.

A rich and reusable base configuration allows rapid development of configurations for new operating systems and one-off machines. It also enforces standards across platforms, which eases administration and support. If the base configuration is suitably rich, it is possible to have extremely small project configuration trees, which have only truly project-specific changes.

An example of such a design might be:

   require VendorOS                       # Top-level wrapper
     require VendorOS-Patches               # Patch set for particular OS
     require VendorOS-BasicSecurity         # Tighten default vendor security 
     require VendorOS-AdditionalTools       # Add vendor tools not in the OS
     require VendorOS-DisableUnusedFeatures # Remove unwanted baggage from OS
   require SystemAdministration
     require SystemAdministration-Basic     # e.g. syslog policy
     require sendmail-removal           
     require qmail-software                 # Install a good MTA
     require qmail-nullclient-config        # A base - may well be overridden
     require xntp-software
     require xntp-client-config             # IP addresses project specific
     require sudo-software
     require sudo-config                    # Sudo permissions project specific
   require CoreUtilities
     require bash-software                  # A decent universal shell
     require sysinfo-software
   require UserEnvironment-Basic
To use this infrastructure, a project might have a directive file MyProject-Baseline which would require PlatformIndependentBaseline and then perform project specific customisations.

The configuration can be tested with testBuild which will flag any missing files or incomplete directives. The placement of directive files in operating system family directories (e.g. SunOS/5.X) allows a standard configuration for all of that family, which can then be overridden for specific versions if required.

Current Status

The original version of AutoInstall was an extended "finish script" for Solaris 2.x JumpStart. The current version supports 35 directives and three pseudo-directives which perform all postinstall customisation for any Unix-like operating system. The native operating system support is used to provide a basic operating system installation, and then AutoInstall is called from an NFS mount to provide all other configuration, in an operating system independent manner.

AutoInstall also provides support for "foreign" operating system installations. For example, SunOS is installed by booting the host across the network under Solaris 2.x and then restoring dumps of SunOS onto the disks. Once SunOS has been installed the same directive files are used for both Solaris and SunOS postinstalls.

The current version of AutoInstall provides full support for Solaris (SPARC and x86), SunOS and preliminary support for SCO and Linux. The AutoInstall hierarchy is installed onto an install server, and the hosts build from that hierarchy, using a read-only NFS mount. AutoInstall has a self-contained toolset which is compiled and used for the relevant architecture and operating system configuration.

A recent addition to the toolset has been a custom Solaris 2.5.1 CDROM, which installs the install server itself. The install server is installed with the customised CDROM and the AutoInstall tape, and installs itself without intervention. The custom CDROM builds the filesystems for AutoInstall, reads the tape, and calls AutoInstall to make any other required changes, including copying and patching the newly installed CDROM image for future installs.

One major benefit of the use of AutoInstall is the standardisation of platform installation across operating systems and architectures. Installing for a different architecture or operating system is a matter of compiling the tools and packages for the target version.

AutoInstall was designed for static installation of hosts. This is both a strength, as it guarantees a known state; and a weakness as it does not cover the full life cycle of deployed platforms. The installation of versioned packages and the use of graft simplifies this task. The Configs package provides a longer term view of platform maintenance, and an eventual merging of AutoInstall and Configs would provide support for the full lifecycle.


The current version of AutoInstall has been in constant use for many projects for two years. Over 200 machines, of more than 100 types, have been installed at various sites. The problems faced are annoying rather than show-stoppers.

The pseudo-directives require, include and suppress are currently executed during configuration parsing. It would be useful to have these evaluated at runtime to allow diversions, or to pass arguments to directive files, based on previous configuration entries. For example, it would be useful to be able to say:

 require       PlatformSupportScripts ${LocalConfig::PSSVersion}
where ${LocalConfig::PSSVersion} has been set at some stage in the directives hierarchy. Even more generally, it would be useful to have default settings of variables, as in the following example from a hypothetical PlatformSupportScripts directive file:
 setvariable   PSSVersion       $1 ${LocalConfig::PSSVersion} 0.0.1
This would set PSSVersion to the first argument passed to this directive file, or to the value of ${LocalConfig::PSSVersion}if that is set, or to 0.0.1 as a default.

The workaround with the current parser is to write directive files using variables which must be set somewhere in the directive hierarchy or the parser will complain. This method of writing directive files exposes too much internal detail to the end-user as top-level directive files end up as:

 setvariable SomeSoftwareVersion 1.2.1
 setvariable ThisSoftwareVersion 3.5.0
 setvariable ThatSoftwareVersion 2.4.3
 require MyProject-Baseline
The other major area of work would be the generalisation of disk, filesystem and mirroring configuration in an operating system independent manner. A metaconfiguration file is required which describes the relationship between disk slices, slice size, filesystems, mirrors and stripes. Much of the supporting infrastructure already exists, but work is required to provide an operating system independent view of these facilities. This information could also be used to generate profiles for the initial operating system installation, for use by JumpStart, KickStart or similar.


AutoInstall provides a complete set of directives for automation of system installation. The use of high level directives allows installers to concentrate on what they want performed, not how this is achieved for a particular platform.

The same directive files are used for automated installation and non-destructive testing and, if designed correctly, for all operating systems and architectures. The standardised error reporting provides a consistency which is difficult to achieve in discrete installation scripts and provides this consistency across architectures and operating systems. The powerful search path mechanism allows generic functionality to be abstracted into common directive files which can then be used in project specific specialisation.

Reproducible, verifiable, hands off installation provides a major boost to the reliable installation of a site. AutoInstall can install a network of thirty machines, including all patches, software and host configuration without intervention, in less time and more reliably than it would take to install a single machine manually.

About the authors

Gordon Rowell is an independent systems and network consultant, specialising in UNIX systems administration. His areas of interest are high-availability systems and reducing the administration overhead of large networks and enjoys writing tools in these areas. His email address is

Peter Bray is an analyst/programmer specialising in infrastructure development on UNIX systems. His computing interests include operating systems, programming languages and object oriented design and analysis. He enjoys studying and specifying the architectural issues of complex systems. His email address is


Graft - Virtual Package Installer by Peter Samuel -

Configs - Host configuration tool by Simon Gerraty -