Chef Policyfiles—The Preferred Way to Package Chef
By Michael Hedgpeth · November 2, 2016
Chef Policyfiles—The Preferred Way to Package Chef

In the Chef ecosystem, policyfiles are the preferred way to manage dependencies and changes for nodes. This post gives an overview of the feature, so you can get up and running with this. This feature takes away so many problems with the traditional environment and role-based mechanism for updating cookbooks.

Why Policyfiles?

Early on in my Chef adoption, it became clear that I couldn’t deliver on the strict change management controls within the legacy Chef workflow without a lot of work. With the traditional Chef workflow, you can update a cookbook in production, and all of a sudden all of your nodes are running different code. Was it tested this way before? We hope so! We hope so doesn’t cut it when you’re dealing with an enterprise as large and complicated as NCR. Our entire business rests on the trust our customers put in us to securely handle their financial transactions.

With Policyfiles, you can guarantee that the exact same cookbooks that ran in earlier environments will run in later environments. You get real change management that is intuitive and doesn’t leave you trying to explain the intricacies of Chef dependency management while remediating an incident. It just works.

Another benefit we get out of Policyfiles is it makes Chef easier to learn. Rather than burdening the user with a complex structure of roles, cookbooks, environments, and pinning, I can simply show them a Policyfile and show them the workflow I outline below. This greatly speeds up the time I spend teaching my colleagues Chef. I challenge the Chef veterans who are reading this to explain Chef to someone using the workflow outlined below and watch the magic: you’ll see that they really get it at the end, and they went from nothing to a working solution far more quickly than you’re used to.

Policyfile Workflow

The best way to understand the Policyfile feature is by walking through an example. We’ll configure a webserver for one of our apps with Policyfiles.

Policyfile.rb file

The first thing we’ll start with is the Policyfile.rb itself. A Policyfile declares the name, run list, sources, and attributes for a node or group of nodes.

Though Policyfile.rb is the default name for the policyfile, you can name it whatever you want. On our projects, there are usually many Policyfiles: we could have myapp-webserver.rb and myapp-database.rb. The name that you use has to be unique in your Chef server.

If you’re just starting out, the Policyfile will go in your application’s cookbook repo. As you advance, you’ll probably want to separate it into its own repository, because the frequent revisions of the lock file outlined below will clutter up your version control history. Over time, we have migrated all of our policyfiles into their own application-based repositories.

Creating the Policyfile

It’s always good to start out with a generated policyfile to make the adoption a little easier. There are two ways to do this:

First, you could generate the Policyfile directly:

chef generate policyfile Policyfile.rb

Or you can add the -P flag to the chef generate cookbook command:

chef generate cookbook myapp -P

Either way, you have a Policyfile generated and ready to go.

Basic Contents

Once the Policyfile is generated, it should look like this:

name 'webserver' # will be used later in Client.rb on the Node
default_source :supermarket, '' # this uses only internal cookbooks

run_list 'recipe[myapp::webserver]' # the run list of recipes; won't contain roles

# where to find cookbooks that are outside of the default_source
cookbook 'myapp', git: ''

Let’s go over the elements:

Environment-specific settings

Pretty quickly you’ll run into situations where you have environment-specific settings. This is better avoided if at all possible; one possible solution is to use Consul to deal with environment-specific settings. However, it’s also important to make progress, so you’ll probably want to declare the settings in a structure that includes the policy_group.

# in the Policyfile:
default['qa'] = {
  myapp: {
    database: 'qaserver01'
default['uat'] = {
  myapp: {
    database: 'uatdbsrv32'
default['production'] = {
  myapp: {
    database: 'proddbsrv62'

Then in our recipe code, we can reference the policy_group and easily get to our setting:

database = node[node.policy_group]['myapp']['database']

Or you could take it one step closer and include the poise-hoist cookbook in your run_list and simply write:

# with poise-hoist, you can't tell if you're using policyfiles
database = node['myapp']['database']

If you want to learn about this in more detail, check out my follow-up post that dives into this more deeply.

Creation of the Policyfile.lock.json file

Now that you have a declaration of what you want to run on a machine and your environment-specific settings declared, it’s time to create a point-in-time snapshot of specific dependencies Chef will use on a node. This is your actual policy, and it is stored in your Policyfile.lock.json file. This is the file that your node will read to pull dependencies down and run them locally.

To generate your Policyfile.lock.json file, run:

rm Policyfile.lock.json # remove any old lockfiles first
chef install Policyfile.rb

This generates the following important attributes at the top of the file:

  "revision_id": "6156a875a7c0eb06ce9gdc9e3d4f19809752942efd6dd20888ddd9fd8bbbd43b5",
  "name": "platform",
  "run_list": ["recipe[platform::default]"]

Later down the file, we can see the output for one of our cookbooks:

  "windows": {
    "version": "1.40.0",
    "identifier": "54a9b2515c853919c4953893997899584d4cefba",
    "dotted_decimal_identifier": "23830481377985849.7253019596134776.168604533059514",
    "cache_key": "",
    "origin": "",
    "source_options": {
      "artifactserver": "",
      "version": "1.40.0"

You can see here that there is a very specific declaration of the dependency for the cookbook. This is in the policyfile so if we wanted to regenerate all dependencies from this Policyfile.lock.json, we can do so as long as we still have connectivity to the repositories on which the dependencies are stored. It’s important to also note that the identifier here also doubles as a checksum of the cookbook contents. If the contents change, but nothing else changes, then chef-client will refuse to run the policy. This is a tamper-proof mechanism that increases your ability to predict what code will run on your servers.

Remember, we are running this code with elevated privileges, so if you’re running in production, it’s incredibly important to predict what will happen. You can’t easily predict outcomes without policyfiles.

Pushing it to the Chef Server

Now that we have a lockfile built, it’s time to make the policy active for our nodes. If our nodes, Chef Server, and development machine are all on the same network, we can simply push the policy to the Chef Server directly. If you’re doing this within CI, and it’s possible on another agent or at another time, you’ll want to run chef install first to ensure the cookbooks are locally cached. The chef install command will not replace the lockfile if it already exists.

chef install Policyfile.rb # to ensure dependencies are loaded
chef push qa Policyfile.rb

This will push the policy and all dependencies declared in the lockfile to the Chef Server for the qa policy group. Once you run this command, you can guarantee that you can run it on a node. No more remembering to upload a specific dependency; it’s simply there for you to run and will include the exact same cookbooks that are in the lockfile.

The qa above is your policy group. A policy group, similar to an environment, is a logical group of nodes that you want to have the same policy. Since many times you’ll be using the same Chef Server to manage multiple environments, you’ll want to split your nodes into different policy groups, so you can make sure that you are flowing policy changes through a pipeline before they get to production.

Also, note that you should never run the chef update command. The results of this are not easily predictable, so I’ve stayed away from it. If you need to regenerate a lockfile, remove the old one and run chef install. If you want to push the policy, ensure that the dependencies are loaded with the chef install command and then push it with chef push.

Setting up Chef Client

To get your node to have the appropriate policy name and group, you need to update its attributes. The easiest way to do this is when bootstrapping the node itself:

knife bootstrap mywebserver --policy-group qa --policy-name webserver

If you, like me, have a node-centric bootstrapping mechanism, your bootstrapper will need to update node attributes using the -j flag. First, create attributes with the policy_name and policy_group in them:

  "policy_name": "webserver",
  "policy_group": "qa"

And then run:

chef-client -j attributes.json

From there your node will use that policy.

I used to manually add the settings to client.rb directly, but now know that this is bad because it will mean I have to manually update them again if I ever need to change it. Setting them in the node attributes directly allows me to change them remotely on the Chef Server.

Packaging it for Air-Gapped environments

You’re not always going to have a connected Chef Server available and may need to transfer your policy to an Air-Gapped environment. Policyfiles make this process incredibly easy because they package all dependencies into one file. To do this, start by running:

chef export Policyfile.rb . -a

This will export the all cookbooks listed in the Policyfile.lock.json and the lockfile itself into a single archive. Now you can transfer this file to the air-gapped environment however you are used to doing so.

This is an essential element of the benefits of Policyfiles in a security-conscious environment: You get to keep the same controls you have in place while you begin implementing Chef! Yes, eventually you’ll do a

CI/CD pipeline like Chef Workflow but don’t let that get in the way of getting value out of the Chef ecosystem! That’s the absolute worst thing you could do. Create value early and often. Work around your existing controls and change the parts that you have buy-in to change. Repeat that and soon enough you’ll be in a good place.

Once you’ve generated the archive and transferred the file to your air-gapped environment, it’s time to load it up on the Chef Server, you can run:

chef push-archive qa Policyfile-6156a875a7c0eb06ce9gdc9e3d4f19809752942efd6dd20888ddd9fd8bbbd43b5.tar.gz

Again, we’re declaring a policy group here, but this is pretty much the same as the chef push command above. Your policy is active for that policy group on the Chef Server, and you can rest assured that all cookbooks are there ready to be used.

Pipeline management

We’re going to want to add this workflow to a pipeline that we can manage in CI. The process will roughly consist of:

  1. Cookbook builds, which include running Test Kitchen, ChefStyle linting, etc.
  2. Promotion to an internal supermarket (if you have one)
  3. Updating pinned versions of those cookbooks in the Policyfile or in specific cookbooks through a pull request
  4. Whenever the Policyfile.rb changes, or on demand, or when dependencies are updated, rebuild the Policyfile.lock.json file and check it in
  5. Push the Policyfile.lock.json file to the Chef Server for locally available resources. If there is a pipeline, push to one policy group at a time and make sure they work before pushing out even further.
  6. If there isn’t a Chef Server connected to your build environment, post the policyfile archive to be loaded by your air-gapped environment. Much of this can be automated, but you’ll find that there is a step where you have to physically deal with the air-gapped environment (by definition).

Which Policy is Active?

As I said before, this revision id that is generated as a part of your lockfile will be the single identifier for this policy from here on out. So to see which policy is active you can simply run:

chef show-policy webserver

Which will generate:


* qa:  6156a875a7

Here you have the first ten characters of your revision id, and you have clarity with the exact version of the policy that is active for the qa group. If you’re checking in your lockfiles through a pipeline, this revision id should be stored with your lockfile in your git repo, and thus you can understand when it was created. You have a great understanding of the exact changes that went into your environment.

Similarly, when you run chef-client, you see exactly the revision id and policy that is used:

PS D:\chef> chef-client
Starting Chef Client, version 12.11.18
Using policy 'webserver' at revision '6156a875a7c0eb06ce9gdc9e3d4f19809752942efd6dd20888ddd9fd8bbbd43b5'

So at all levels, you have repeatability and traceability of all changes.


The Chef Community should further adopt Policyfiles because they are easier to learn than the legacy workflow, give you better control over change management, and are more flexible for security-conscious implementations. I recommend using Policyfiles for any significant Chef implementation in any enterprise.