Why we use Cfengine: memory footprint

Here at Normation, we use Cfengine 3 extensively for configuration management across Linux and Windows servers. A question we get often is why Cfengine?

This is phrased either as What is so great about Cfengine? or What is the difference between Cfengine and Puppet or Chef? (as a reminder of how these 3 projects are related, check out Relative origin of Cfengine, Puppet and Chef).

I’d like to focus this post on memory consumption. Since Configuration Management software runs an agent on each server you want to manage, you want to be careful about the extra resources you’ll need to run it…

Cfengine components

Before getting into the statistics, we need to know what processes we’re looking at.

The main Cfengine process that applies configuration to a managed node is named cf-agent. When this process is run, it reads it’s local configuration (called promises) and attempts to apply that to the local machine, by running various commands. Three daemons can be run to support this process:

  1. cf-execd: In charge of running cf-agent on a regular basis. By default, it fires up every 5 minutes, then reports any changes to the configuration by email. This daemon would normally be run on all managed nodes.
  2. cf-serverd: Acts as a server, accepting incoming connections from authorized machines, for two reasons: sharing files from the local machine (this is used on a policy server, less frequently on managed nodes) and allowing remote on-demand execution of cf-agent. It is often run on all managed nodes, to allow instant policy application or fetching generated reports, but it’s use is optional.
  3. cf-monitord: Collects system statistics, and makes them available to cf-agent so that it may apply different configuration based on a machine’s current status (for example, if a disk is getting full, run some housekeeping operations). It’s use is also optional, but highly useful.


With no further ado, here is the memory consumption we get on our servers for each component:

Graph of RAM (RSS) used by cf-execd, cf-serverd and cf-monitord
Cfengine daemons memory consumption

We couldn’t get graphs for the actual cf-agent process – it’s runtime is just too short for the monitoring probe to pick it up regularly. Running it manually we see it’s memory consumption peaking at 10 megabytes of RAM, with a total runtime of roughly 1.5 seconds.


I think the graphs speak for themselves – each Cfengine daemon uses around 3 megabytes of RAM, and doesn’t have any visible memory leak (valgrind does confirm this). The agent itself sees slightly higher peaks, at around 10 megabytes, for a few seconds every execution.

This is why we trust Cfengine to be run on nodes old and new alike, from physical machines with more gigabytes of RAM than you can use down to tiny virtual machines running on only 128 MB (I’m not sure why, but we have more of the latter… I’m told it’s a budget problem).

The CPU usage of Cfengine is also very lightweight – but much harder to graph. Various other optimizations allow it to be extremely non-intrusive… More on these topics soon!

Some details for the curious:

  • No restarts occurred over the graph period.
  • The promises running while graphed cover system basics: ensuring required packages are installed, configured and running (SSH, monitoring, everyday tools, vim, etc), creating users, checking their passwords, copying SSH keys, and the like.
  • We run cf-agent every 5 minutes.
  • The graph is of RSS (Resident Set Size), or, in other words, the non-swapped physical memory used. The server was not using any swap at the time, so this is effectively the memory consumption of each process, excluding any shared libraries. The only shared libraries used are pretty standard on current UNIX systems: PCRE (Perl Compatible Regular Expressions) and BerkeleyDB, so they’re likely to be loaded already.
  • These graphs are based on Cfengine Community 3.1.4, currently the latest version.
  • Graph generated using Munin.

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