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Setting Up a CI System Part 4: Live Patching Your CI Gateway

This article is part of a series on how to setup a bare-metal CI system for Linux driver development. Here are the different articles so far:

  • Part 1: The high-level view of the whole CI system, and how to fully control test machines remotely (power on, OS to boot, keyboard/screen emulation using a serial console);
  • Part 2: A comparison of the different ways to generate the rootfs of your test environment, and introducing the boot2container project;
  • Part 3: Analysis of the requirements for the CI gateway, catching regressions before deployment, easy roll-back, and netbooting the CI gateway securely over the internet.

In this article, we will finally focus on generating the rootfs/container image of the CI Gateway in a way that enables live patching the system without always needing to reboot.

This work is sponsored by the Valve Corporation.

Introduction: The impact of updates

System updates are a necessary evil for any internet-facing server, unless you want your system to become part of a botnet. This is especially true for CI systems since they let people on the internet run code on machines, often leading to unfair use such as cryptomining (this one is hard to avoid though)!

The problem with system updates is not the 2 or 3 minutes of downtime that it takes to reboot, it is that we cannot reboot while any CI job is running. Scheduling a reboot thus first requires to stop accepting new jobs, wait for the current ones to finish, then finally reboot. This solution may be acceptable if your jobs take ~30 minutes, but what if they last 6h? A reboot suddenly gets close to a typical 8h work day, and we definitely want to have someone looking over the reboot sequence so they can revert to a previous boot configuration if the new one failed.

This problem may be addressed in a cloud environment by live-migrating services/containers/VMs from a non-updated host to an updated one. This is unfortunately a lot more complex to pull off for a bare-metal CI without having a second CI gateway and designing synchronization systems/hardware to arbiter access to the test machines’s power/serial consoles/boot configuration.

So, while we cannot always avoid the need to drain the CI jobs before rebooting, what we can do is reduce the cases in which we need to perform this action. Unfortunately, containers have been designed with atomic updates in mind (this is why we want to use them), but that means that trivial operations such as adding an ssh key, a Wireguard peer, or updating a firewall rule will require a reboot. A hacky solution may be for the admins to update the infra container then log in the different CI gateways and manually reproduce the changes they have done in the new container. These changes would be lost at the next reboot, but this is not a problem since the CI gateway would use the latest container when rebooting which already contains the updates. While possible, this solution is error-prone and not testable ahead of time, which is against the requirements for the gateway we laid out in Part 3.

Live patching containers

An improvement to live-updating containers by hand would be to use tools such as Ansible, Salt, or even Puppet to manage and deploy non-critical services and configuration. This would enable live-updating the currently-running container but would need to be run after every reboot. An Ansible playbook may be run locally, so it is not inconceivable for a service to be run at boot that would download the latest playbook and run it. This solution is however forcing developers/admins to decide which services need to have their configuration baked in the container and which services should be deployed using a tool like Ansible… unless…

We could use a tool like Ansible to describe all the packages and services to install, along with their configuration. Creating a container would then be achieved by running the Ansible playbook on a base container image. Assuming that the playbook would truly be idem-potent (running the playbook multiple times will lead to the same final state), this would mean that there would be no differences between the live-patched container and the new container we created. In other words, we simply morph the currently-running container to the wanted configuration by running the same Ansible playbook we used to create the container, but against the live CI gateway! This will not always remove the need to reboot the CI gateways from time to time (updating the kernel, or services which don’t support live-updates without affecting CI jobs), but all the smaller changes can get applied in-situ!

The base container image has to contain the basic dependencies of the tool like Ansible, but if it were made to contain all the OS packages, it would split the final image into three container layers: the base OS container, the packages needed, and the configuration. Updating the configuration would thus result in only a few megabytes of update to download at the next reboot rather than the full OS image, thus reducing the reboot time.

Limits to live-patching containers

Ansible is perfectly-suited to morph a container into its newest version, provided that all the resources used remain static between when the new container was created and when the currently-running container gets live-patched. This is because of Ansible’s core principle of idempotency of operations: Rather than running commands blindly like in a shell-script, it first checks what is the current state then, if needed, update the state to match the desired target. This makes it safe to run the playbook multiple times, but will also allow us to only reboot services if its configuration or one of its dependencies’ changed.

When version pinning of packages is possible (Python, Ruby, Rust, Golang, …), Ansible can guarantee the idempotency that make live-patching safe. Unfortunately, package managers of Linux distributions are usually not idempotent: They were designed to ship updates, not pin software versions! In practice, this means that there are no guarantees that the package installed during live-patching will be the same as the one installed in the new base container, thus exposing oneself to potential differences in behaviour between the two deployment methods… The only way out of this issue is to create your own package repository and make sure its content will not change between the creation of the new container and the live-patching of all the CI Gateways. Failing that, all I can advise you to do is pick a stable distribution which will try its best to limit functional changes between updates within the same distribution version (Alpine Linux, CentOS, Debian, …).

In the end, Ansible won’t always be able to make live-updating your container strictly equivalent to rebooting into its latest version, but as long as you are aware of its limitations (or work around them), it will make updating your CI gateways way less of a trouble than it would be otherwise! You will need to find the right balance between live-updatability, and ease of maintenance of the code-base of your gateway.

Putting it all together: The example of valve-infra-container

At this point, you may be wondering how all of this looks in practice! Here is the example of the CI gateways we have been developping for Valve:

  • Ansible playbook: You will find here the entire configuration of our CI gateways. NOTE: we are still working on live-patching!;
  • Valve-infra-base-container: The buildah script used to generate the base container;
  • Valve-infra-container: The buildah script used to generate the final container by running the Ansible playbook.

And if you are wondering how we can go from these scripts to working containers, here is how:

$ podman run --rm -d -p 8088:5000 --name registry
$ env \
    IMAGE_NAME=localhost:8088/valve-infra-base-container \
    BASE_IMAGE=archlinux \
    buildah unshare -- .gitlab-ci/
$ env \
    IMAGE_NAME=localhost:8088/valve-infra-container \
    BASE_IMAGE=valve-infra-base-container \
    ANSIBLE_EXTRA_ARGS='--extra-vars service_mgr_override=inside_container -e development=true' \
    buildah unshare -- .gitlab-ci/

And if you were willing to use our Makefile, it gets even easier:

$ make valve-infra-base-container BASE_IMAGE=archlinux IMAGE_NAME=localhost:8088/valve-infra-base-container
$ make valve-infra-container BASE_IMAGE=localhost:8088/valve-infra-base-container IMAGE_NAME=localhost:8088/valve-infra-container

Not too bad, right?

PS: These scripts are constantly being updated, so make sure to check out their current version!


In this post, we highlighted the difficulty of keeping the CI Gateways up to date when CI jobs can take multiple hours to complete, preventing new jobs from starting until the current queue is emptied and the gateway has rebooted.

We have then shown that despite looking like competing solutions to deploy services in production, containers and tools like Ansible can actually work well together to reduce the need for reboots by morphing the currently-running container into the updated one. There are however some limits to this solution which are important to keep in mind when designing the system.

In the next post, we will be designing the executor service which is responsible for time-sharing the test machines between different CI/manual jobs. We will thus be talking about deploying test environments, BOOTP, and serial consoles!

That’s all for now, thanks for making it to the end!