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Knife commands to treat the Chef server like a filesystem
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Knife Essentials


knife-essentials has been merged to Core Chef as of Chef 11 and active development is going on there (though bugfixes are still accepted here, they will need to get into chef too).


knife-essentials provides a number of useful knife commands that allow you to manipulate Chef using a common set of verbs that work on everything that is stored in the Chef server.

knife diff cookbooks/*apache*
knife download roles data_bags cookbooks/emacs
knife upload apache*
knife list data_bags/users
knife deps roles/base.json
cd cookbooks && knife show *base*

More verbs will be added as time goes by.


This plugin can be installed as a Ruby Gem.

gem install knife-essentials

You can also copy the source repository and install it using rake install.


  • Unified commands that work on everything

knife-essentials thinks verbs come first. There are only a few things you need to do with pretty much everything in the system: you upload them, download them, look at them, edit them, list them, diff them, and delete then.

knife-essentials provides a number of verb commands: knife diff roles and knife list roles among them. These commands work on all types of objects, as well. You can type knife diff roles, or knife diff data_bags/users/jkeiser.json.

  • Treat the Chef server is like your filesystem

knife-essentials treats the Chef server like a mirror of a Chef repository. Most of the stuff you do with the Chef Server is based on your local repository--a set of files in directories like roles, data_bags, cookbooks, etc. The Chef Server has objects that match them--in fact, you can upload and download the files on your filesystem to change the file server.

This makes learning the knife commands easy, and makes important commands like diff, upload and download extremely simple to do and easy to understand.

  • Take context into account

    When you're in the roles directory, the system knows that's what you are working with. Just type knife show base.json and it will show you the base role from the server. knife-essentials knows.


chef_fs installs a number of useful knife verbs, including:

knife diff [pattern1 pattern2 ...]
knife download [pattern1 pattern2 ...]
knife list [pattern1 pattern2 ...]
knife show [pattern2 pattern2 ...]

These commands will list data on the server, exactly mirroring the data in a local Chef repository. So if you type knife diff data_bags/*s, it will diff all data bags that end with s.

The commands are also context-sensitive. If you are in the roles directory and type knife show *base*, you will get the current Chef server contents of all roles that contain the word base in them.

The Knife commands generally run off file patterns (globs you can type on the command line). Patterns can include *, ?, ** and character matchers like [a-z045].


To run the knife plugin functionality, install a version of Chef > 0.10.10:

gem install chef

knife diff

knife diff [pattern1 pattern2 ...]

Diffs objects on the server against files in the local repository. Output is similar to git diff.

knife download

knife download [pattern1 pattern2 ...]

Downloads objects from the server to your local repository. Pass --purge to delete local files and directories which do not exist on the server.

knife list

knife list [pattern1 pattern2 ...]

Works just like 'ls', except it lists files on the server.

knife show

knife show [pattern1 pattern2 ...]

Works just like knife node show, knife role show, etc. except there is One Verb To Rule Them All.

knife deps

knife deps [pattern1 pattern2 ...]

Given a set of nodes, roles, or cookbooks, will traverse dependencies and show other roles, cookbooks, and environments that need to be loaded for them to work. Use --tree parameter to show this in a tree structure. Use --remote to perform this operation against the data on the server rather than the local Chef repository.


There are several variables you can set in your knife.rb file to alter the behavior of knife-essentials


chef_repo_path PATH|[PATH1, PATH2, ...]

This is the path to the top of your chef repository. Multiple paths are supported. If you do not specify this, it defaults to cookbook_path/.. (for historical reasons, many knife.rb files contain cookbook_path.)

If you specify this or cookbook_path, it is not necessary to specify the other paths (client_path, data_bag_path, etc.). They will be assumed to be under the chef_repo_path(s).


client_path PATH|[PATH1, PATH2, ...]
cookbook_path PATH|[PATH1, PATH2, ...]
data_bag_path PATH|[PATH1, PATH2, ...]
environment_path PATH|[PATH1, PATH2, ...]
node_path PATH|[PATH1, PATH2, ...]
role_path PATH|[PATH1, PATH2, ...]
user_path PATH|[PATH1, PATH2, ...]

The local path where client json files, cookbook directories, etc. are stored. Each supports multiple paths, in which case all files/subdirectories from each path are merged into one virtual path (i.e. when you knife list cookbooks it will show you a list including all cookbooks from all cookbook_paths).

You generally do NOT need to specify these. If you do not specify an _path variable, it is set to chef_repo_path/clients|cookbooks|data_bags|environments|nodes|roles|users. Each of these supports multiple paths. If multiple paths are supported, and a new object is downloaded (say, a new cookbook), the object is downloaded into the first path in the list. Updated objects stay where they are.


versioned_cookbooks true

This option, when set to true, will cause knife-essentials to work with multiple versions of cookbooks. In this case, your /cookbooks directory will have cookbook directory names of the form: apache2-1.0.0, apache2-1.0.1, mysql-1.1.2, etc. A full download of /cookbooks will download all versions, And a diff of a specific version will diff exactly that version and no other.

This is super handy, especially combined with repo_mode "everything," as it will allow you to back up or restore a full copy of your Chef server.


repo_mode "everything"

By default, knife-essentials only maps "cookbooks," "data_bags," environments," and "roles." If you specify repo_mode "everything", it will map everything on the server, including users, clients and nodes.

The author is not particularly happy about the necessity for this, and will try to get rid of it as soon as a way is found to avoid violating the Principle of Least Surprise. The reason things are split this way is that most people don't store users, clients and nodes in source control. knife deps fares very poorly due to the way things are; but knife diff gets surprising if it shows nodes, which aren't usually in your repo.


knife-essentials supports wildcards internally, and will use them to sift through objects on the server. This can be very useful. However, since it uses the same wildcard characters as the Unix command line (*, ?, etc.), you need to backslash them so that the * actually reaches the server. If you don't, the shell will expand the * into actual filenames and knife will never know you typed * in the first place. For example, if the Chef server has data bags aardvarks, anagrams and arp_tables, but your local filesystem only has aardvarks and anagrams, backslashing vs. not backslashing will yield slightly different results:

# This actually asks the server for everything starting with a
$ knife list data_bags/a\*
aardvarks/ anagrams/ arp_tables/
# But this ...
$ knife list data_bags/a*
aardvarks/ anagrams/
# Is actually expanded by the command line to this:
$ knife list data_bags/aardvarks data_bags/aardvarks
aardvarks/ anagrams/

You can avoid this problem permanently in zsh with this alias:

alias knife="noglob knife"
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