Configuration 4 GNU (CFG)

A Solution to the Problem of Configuration in Linux


What is configuration in Linux? What do experienced system administrators do when they need to, for example, modify the access rights to a web site or change the network settings for their server? Invariably, they're going to login into the machine and edit a text file using a Unix editor such as vi or Emacs. That by itself isn't that bad, but depending on which application you want to configure and which Linux distribution you happen to be using, the location of the file you need to edit and maybe even the format of the file could be completely unknown.

This is the current state of configuration in Linux. It is a bad state. Configuration of system-level properties, such as network interfaces and hostname, vary widely from one distribution to the next. System-level applications, such as Apache and Samba, each have a different method of configuration. Some tools and distributions provide applications to ease configuration, while some only provide a man page for the configuration file and leave it up to the user to edit. About the only positive thing about Linux configuration, is that is almost exclusively uses human-readable, human-editable text files.

This article is not going to talk about the existing state of configuration, however. This topic has been well discussed already. Instead, this article will describe what it could be. This article is a kick-off to a 9-month, 2-person project to address configuration in Linux. Hopefully, it won't be limited to 9 months or 2 persons though. We invite your feedback and participation in this project as we go.


In order to develop a system that people will use and give direction to the project, some goals need to be defined. The primary goal is to setup a clear architecture where various components of the system are clearly defined and separated. This is what this document will attempt to do. Following are some more specific goals, categorized into user requirements, data requirements, process requirements, and interface requirements.

User Requirements

  • The system should be easy enough to use and provide enough help that new Linux users can use it.
  • The system should be flexible and powerful enough that even advanced users will use it.
  • Administrators should be able to delegate access to various components of system configuration to other users (i.e. you should not need to give out the "root" password to give someone access).
  • Application developers who want to make their software configurable by this system will not modify their existing application or make their application dependent on it.
  • The system will be uniform across distributions. For example, a script written to update network configuration on RedHat will work properly if run on Debian, because the interface is the same.
  • Internationalization and localization should be stressed throughout the project, so users from anywhere in the world can use their own languages to configure their systems.

Data Requirements

  • Configuration data is stored in the native configuration files for the applications they configure. This allows the system to work with existing configuration applications, as well as allowing the users to hand-edit the files if necessary.
  • Other data used by the system is stored in human-readable, human-editable files.
  • Mechanisms should exist to keep secure data secure and to backup/restore data.

Process Requirements

  • The most obvious process that needs to be available are methods to "get" and "set" configuration data.
  • Some configuration systems may need additional user-defined actions, such as an "activate" action which will tell the appropriate application to reload itself so that the new configuration info is used.

Interface Requirements

  • Support the ability for many different type of applications to access the configuration data using this architecture. Interfaces would include a command-line program, GUI using Gnome or KDE, a Web interface and perhaps even an LDAP interface.
  • Programming interfaces between components should allow the different components to be written in any programming language.
  • User-interface elements for configuration (e.g. the forms and wizards as described below) are defined at a level below the very front-end so that multiple interfaces can use the same elements.

A Three-Tier Architecture

The architecture will be divided into many front-ends, a middle-layer, and many back-ends. The front-ends will provide the user interface. This will allow command-line utilities that can be used in scripts, GUI interfaces for machines that have X installed, as well as remote interfaces such as Web and LDAP. The middle layer will provide shared functionality between the front-end interface and the back-ends. It could also be given capabilities like logging changes, access control, and caching configuration info. Finally, the back-ends are the programs that actually read and manipulate the native configuration files. There may be backends for reading XML files and Win INI style files, as well as specialized backends for reading more complex configuration files (e.g. Apache).

The Three-Tier Architecture
Command Line Utilities GUI Web LDAP Specialized Tools (e.g. "go back" utility)
Provides access control, logging, caching, and any other shared functionality, as appropriate.
Simple text files INI-style configuration XML configuration Specialized configuration (e.g. Apache, Sendmail)

How the layers communicate exactly is something to be decided in the design phase, but it should be something that will allow each front-end and each back-end to be written in any particular programming language that is best suited for the task. Perl, for instance, would probably be best suited for most of the back-ends, since it can easily parse and modify text files.

Modeling the Configuration Data as a Directory

One major feature of this three-tier design is that front-ends are designed to handle configurating anything. In other words, the front-ends know nothing about the programs and distributions they are configurating; they only provide an easy-to-use and consistent view of the configuration. How can you tell the front-end that you want to modify, for instance, the list of users that are allowed to access one of your Samba shares? This is where the directory approach comes in.

Configuration will be modeled as a directory, or hierarchy, similar to the way GConf and the Windows registry does configuration. Applications and system settings will be put into logical groups. Back-ends will be responsible for handling configuration "underneath" a particular branch of the directory.

A proposed hierarchy
Path Description
/ All configuration for the local machine is done under the "root". This root itself could be placed into another directory, which would be important for remote administration.
/apps Contains configuration defining how some system applications run. These are not daemons--meaning they don't run all the time. Examples might include sudo and Debian's apt-get.
/daemons Contains system applications, such as Apache, sendmail and Samba. These are applications that normally run in the background, and are equivalent to "services" in MS Windows.
/daemons/samba This is where the back-end of Samba would exist. Anything under this path will be handled by the Samba back-end, which would be responsible for mapping the configuration of smb.conf into a directory.
/hardware Contains properties to configure hardware (e.g. sound card module and network card IO address and IRQ number).
/network Configures network interfaces (e.g. IP address and default gateway).
/system Contains system-level settings, such as hostname, default runlevel, and boot-loader settings.
/users Manage addition/modification/deletion of system users and their properties.

Particular configuration locations are not fixed. Users should be allowed to rename, move around, or group system applications if they choose. As applications are installed, they will be placed in a suitable default location. Localization should be considered as well, so applications can be grouped using words from a user's native language. Users should also be able to create second copies of some applications, in case they want to run more than one version of the same application and they have more than one configuration file to edit.

Forms, Wizards, and Metadata

The system described so far does not present an interface much different than the registry presents in Windows. If you want to make a modification, you must navigate through a hierarchy and know the name of the attribute you want to add or modify. This is probably worse than editing the configuration files, because with configuration files you at least have the comments that were built in. This is where forms, wizards, and metadata come in.


Forms will give users a window where they can see the important information and edit it using text boxes, list boxes, buttons and other common controls. The information is presented in an organized way and may be split into multiple tabs or pages if there is a lot of data to present. Forms can probably be best thought of as providing an interface like Webmin in order to modify configuration.

Forms are defined using an implementation-independent language, such as XML Forms. The same form definition files could be used to create dialog boxes and web pages. Forms are distributed with a program that supports the configuration system, or they may be provided by a third-party. As new versions of a particular distribution or system application are released, the forms may need to be updated to support new features.

Here is a screenshot of a prototype of what a Samba share form might look like. Notice how the properties for this share are organized into four tabs, one of which is a generic "Other" tab which is capable of showing all properties. On the "General," "Permissions," and "Users" tabs, the application will show a form based on an XML form definition file that describes a layout of controls and bounds the data on the form to certain attributes of the Samba share.

Prototype screenshot


While forms allow users to manipulate existing configuration data, wizards will give users oppurtunities to add things to the configuration. Take for example, adding a Samba share: adding a Samba share requires not just changing an attribute but rather adding a whole section to the configuration file. Wizards will ask the user all the information needed to create something and then perform the steps necessary to do it. Wizards overlap somewhat with forms, because they will probably ask for the same information that the forms manipulate. Wizards, like forms, can probably be defined using XML Forms.

Wizards could also be created to install entire services. If integrated into a particular distribution, you may be able to use a wizard to add Samba to your computer. The wizard will use the facilities provided by the distribution to download and install Samba onto your computer, and then create an appropriate default configuration file.


Finally, metadata is information about the configuration data. Metadata could include the following items:

  • Descriptions of configuration items (e.g. excerpts from the application's manpages).
  • Data type and constraints (e.g. this attribute must be a filename; another attribute can be any string). XML Schema may provide a language for this.
  • Default values
  • Comments in the configuration files as parsed by the back-end.
  • Access Control Lists, for defining who has what type of access to the configuration.
  • History Log, for keeping track of what changes were made and who made them.

Of course, metadata will be available to the front-ends. The front-ends with a higher level of user interaction may wish to display descriptions of the items and the comments associated with them.

Access Control

Access control defines who has access to read and/or change particular parts of the configuration. Access control will allow the root user to delegate out control of the configuration to other users. This is important if more than one person is to administer a system, because a person who only needs to manipulate user accounts may not want access to the whole system.

Access control could potentially be quite flexible. In the traditional Unix filesystem, files and directories have three types of permission and can be applied to the owner of the file, a group, and everyone. While pretty flexible, it has certain limitations, such as giving two groups different levels of access while still denying access to everyone else. An access control language for Unix configuration could be much more flexible, allowing access to any number of users and groups and also allowing very detailed types of access.

Access control is also useful when you start talking about logging, because it allows users to make changes as themselves instead of as root.


As users make changes to the configuration, it should be logged. The log could contain a date, the change that was made, and the user that made the change. If it is a remote access method, the IP address of the connecting machine could also be recorded.

A rich logging system would allow the creation of utilities that can "go back" to previous states of configuration. If someone made some changes that messed up the system, a "go back" utility could be used to revert the configuration to the state it was in just before those changes were made.

This "go back" utility would exist as a front-end, just like the command-line interface and the GUI interface. It wouldn't know anything about how to manipulate the configuration files; it would only know how to access the list of changes that were made and revert them.

Remote Administration

In the world of Unix, managing a computer remotely is easy, thanks to the wonders of SSH and remote X. For many users, these methods of remote administration may be enough. But for those administrators who manage a lot of servers, we may be able to provide for them as well.

Imagine a single program that you can browse to multiple machines with and edit their configurations from that single program. This program will handle connecting to the appropriate servers automatically and providing the proper credentials to access the configuration.

Furthermore, imagine that when there's a new exploit for BIND, you do a search for all BIND programs (from all the servers in your organization), disabling them all in one keystroke, applying the patch, and re-enabling BIND on all of them.

Configuration Data Distribution

Remote administration could be taken to the next step by storing multiple copies of a computer's configuration on different servers. The primary source of the data remains the computer that the configuration data is for, but secondary copies could automatically be kept on "peer" servers. This provides the unique ability to access configuration data when the server in question is down.

Furthermore, what if you were allowed to modify the configuration data when the computer is down? The modified data will be kept on the "peer" computer and when the original computer comes back up, it will have to synchronize. The synchronization could lead to critical changes so it may be best to synchronize before any daemons are started.

The ideas presented here about remote administration and data distribution are quite idealistic, and outside the initial scope of this project. These ideas will give the project something to aim for, though.

Where to Start

At this point we'd like to get feedback from the Linux and Open Source community. We'd like to answer questions like:

  • Is this something worth striving for?
  • Is it necessary to start from scratch or can one of the existing configuration programs (e.g. LinuxConf, WebMin) incorporate some of these ideas?

Addressing details like what programming languages should be used and how to interface the various components are not necessary right now. These things will be decided later, during the design phase.

We'd also like you to visit our project site at SourceForge. Go to

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