pocketknife is a devops tool for managing computers running chef-solo, powered by Opscode Chef.
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pocketknife is a devops tool for managing computers running chef-solo, powered by Opscode Chef.

Using pocketknife, you create a project that describes the configuration of your computers and then deploy it to bring them to their intended state.

With pocketknife, you don't need to setup or manage a specialized chef-server node or rely on an unreliable network connection to a distant hosted service whose security you don't control, deal with managing chef's security keys, or deal with manually synchronizing data with the chef-server datastore.

With pocketknife, all of your cookbooks, roles and nodes are stored in easy-to-use files that you can edit, share, backup and version control with tools you already have.


Why create another tool?

  • knife is included with chef and is primarily used for managing client-server nodes. The pocketknife name plays off this by virtue that it's a smaller, more personal way of managing nodes.
  • chef-client is included with chef, but you typically need to install another node to act as a chef-server, which takes more resources and effort. Using chef in client-server mode provides benefits like network-wide databags and pull-based updates, but if you can live without these, pocketknife can save you a lot of effort.
  • chef-solo is included as part of chef, and pocketknife uses it. However, chef-solo is a low-level tool, and creating and deploying all the files it needs is a significant chore. It also provides no way of deploying or managing your shared and node-specific configuration files. pocketknife provides all the missing functionality for creating, managing and deploying, so you don't have to use chef-solo directly.
  • littlechef is the inspiration for pocketknife, it's a great project that I've contributed to and you should definitely evaluate it. I feel that pocketknife offers a more robust, repeatable and automated mechanism for deploying remote nodes; has better documentation, default behavior and command-line support; has good tests and a clearer, more maintainable design; and is written in Ruby so you use the same stack as chef.


Install the software on the machine you'll be running pocketknife on, this is a computer that will deploy configurations to other computers:

Create a new project, a special directory that will contain your configuration files. For example, create the swa project directory by running:

pocketknife --create swa

Go into your new project directory:

cd swa

Create cookbooks in the cookbooks directory that describe how your computers should be configured. These are standard chef cookbooks, like the opscode/cookbooks. For example, download a copy of opscode/cookbooks/ntp as cookbooks/ntp.

Define a new node using the chef JSON syntax for runlist and attributes. For example, to define a node with the hostname henrietta.swa.gov.it create the nodes/henrietta.swa.gov.it.json file, and add the contents below so it uses the ntp_client role and overrides its attributes to use a local NTP server:

  "run_list": [
  "override_attributes": {
    "ntp": {
      "servers": ["0.it.pool.ntp.org", "1.it.pool.ntp.org", "2.it.pool.ntp.org", "3.it.pool.ntp.org"]

Operations on remote nodes will be performed using SSH. You should consider configuring ssh-agent so you don't have to keep typing in your passwords.

Finally, deploy your configuration to the remote machine and see the results. For example, lets deploy the above configuration to the henrietta.swa.gov.it host, which can be abbreviated as henrietta when calling pocketknife:

pocketknife henrietta

When deploying a configuration to a node, pocketknife will check whether Chef and its dependencies are installed. It something is missing, it will prompt you for whether you'd like to have it install them automatically.

To always install Chef and its dependencies when they're needed, without prompts, use the -i option, e.g. pocketknife -i henrietta. Or to never install Chef and its dependencies, use the -I option, which will cause the program to quit with an error rather than prompting if Chef or its dependencies aren't installed.

Override runlist

Specify the runlist by using the -r option, which will override the one specified in the node, e.g.:

pocketknife -r mycookbook henrietta

Transfer mechanisms

Files can be uploaded to nodes using different transfer mechanisms:

  • tar - Uses one connection for execution of commands and uploads, and sends a tarball that's then extracted. Pros: Pure Ruby, reuses connection. Cons: Can't cope with symlinks, inefficient for sending a small change.
  • rsync - Uses one connection for execution of commands and then runs the rsync command to upload files. Pros: Handles symlinks, and is efficient for sending a small change. Cons: Requires rsync command, rather than being pure Ruby, and doesn't reuse the connection.

You can specify the transfer mechanism with the -t option and the name of the mechanism, e.g.:

pocketknife -t rsync henrietta

Override cookbooks

Override cookbooks in the site-cookbooks directory. This has the same structure as cookbooks, but any files you put here will override the contents of cookbooks. This is useful for storing the original code of a third-party cookbook in cookbooks and putting your customizations in site-cookbooks.


Optionally define roles in the roles directory that describe common behavior and attributes of your computers using JSON syntax using chef's documentation. For example, define a role called ntp_client by creating a file called roles/ntp_client.json with this content:

  "name": "ntp_client",
  "chef_type": "role",
  "json_class": "Chef::Role",
  "run_list": [
  "override_attributes": {
    "ntp": {
      "servers": ["0.pool.ntp.org", "1.pool.ntp.org", "2.pool.ntp.org", "3.pool.ntp.org"]


If something goes wrong while deploying the configuration, you can display verbose logging from pocketknife and Chef by using the -v option. For example, deploy the configuration to henrietta with verbose logging:

pocketknife -v henrietta

If you really need to debug on the remote machine, you may be interested about some of the commands and paths:

  • chef-solo-apply (/usr/local/sbin/chef-solo-apply) will apply the configuration to the machine. You can specify -l debug to make it more verbose. Run it with -h for help.
  • csa (/usr/local/sbin/csa) is a shortcut for chef-solo-apply and accepts the same arguments.
  • /etc/chef/solo.rb contains the chef-solo configuration settings.
  • /etc/chef/node.json contains the node-specific configuration, like the runlist and attributes.
  • /var/local/pocketknife contains the cookbooks, site-cookbooks and roles describing your configuration.


This software is published as open source at https://github.com/igal/pocketknife

You can view and file issues for this software at https://github.com/igal/pocketknife/issues

If you'd like to contribute code or documentation:

  • Check out the latest master to make sure the feature hasn't been implemented or the bug hasn't been fixed yet
  • Check out the issue tracker to make sure someone already hasn't requested it and/or contributed it
  • Fork the project
  • Start a feature/bugfix branch
  • Commit and push until you are happy with your contribution
  • Make sure to add tests for it. This is important so I don't break it in a future version unintentionally.
  • Please try not to mess with the Rakefile, version, or history. If you want to have your own version, or is otherwise necessary, that is fine, but please isolate to its own commit so I can cherry-pick around it.
  • Submit a pull request using github, this makes it easy for me to incorporate your code.


Copyright (c) 2011 Igal Koshevoy. See LICENSE.txt for further details.