Configuration and Environments

I’ve found myself increasinly frustrated with configuration when programming. It is not a difficult problem, but it gets complicated quickly when the intent is typically for simplicity.

Lets consider a simple command line client that starts a server and needs some info such as a database connection, some file paths, etc. On the surface it seems pretty simple:

$ myservice --config service.conf

But, an operator might want to override values in the config via command line flags.

$ myservice --config service.conf --port 9001

This is all well and good, but what if you need to override something that more sensitive you don’t want showing up in the process table such as the database connection URL. Instead the operator uses an environment variable.

$ export DBURL=mysql://appuser:secret@dbserver
$ myservice --config service.conf --port 9001

By the way, we haven’t talked about things like handling stdin so you can use pipes with your app.

Now, in your code you have to support all these sorts of input and make the configuration available to the code. This typically happens as a singleton of sorts that you import all over the place in your code and tests. This code needs to deal with command line arguments, reading config files, providing overrides in flags and the environment, etc.

There are tons of frameworks to make these problems easier, but they get pretty complicated. What’s more, if you’ve already made some design decisions about how you want to pass around configuration in your application, there is a really good chance that library you chose won’t work with that model and you’ll need to adjust for that. If you have a lot of code, this can be a pretty difficult refactoring, especially if you realize the framework has a bug or doesn’t actually do what it says it does.

Is there a better way?

Maybe? Lately, I’ve been focusing on only using environment variables for configuration. This solves some issues in the code. I don’t have to think about parsing command line flags or dealing with override operations. I also don’t have to create some sort of global singleton because languages provide access to the environment directly. This doesn’t answer things like type conversion, but generally, it is much simpler.

The reason it is simpler is because of withenv. Using we I get config files via YAML and JSON, use the environment and layer overrides as needed as well as codify that layering on the filesystem. I even have a good way to load dynamic values to avoid storing secrets on the file system. The downside is that we becomes a dependency, so this isn’t a reasonable solution for some command line tool you distribute broadly. But, if you’re running network services and driving an operational code base, depending on we is a great way to reduce friction between different systems and have an extremely cross platform means of communicating configuration to your applications.

The larger philosophy that is at play here is the division between delcaring configuration and communicating that configuration to the application. These two aspects are often tightly coupled resulting in a non-trivial amount of code that is tightly coupled throughout an application’s code base. It also leaks into the operational code as configuration files need to be written and rewritten, adding an unnecessary layer of abstraction in order to meet the needs of the application.

Environment variables can be tricky though. While it is non-trivial to inspect the environment of a running process, it may be easy for an attacker to replace the application that is meant to run and capture sensitive data. If you start processes via shell, that can also lend itself to executing dangerous code. With that said, there are many tools to aid in keeping a production filesystem secure such that these sorts of attacks can be avoided for the most part, leaving only rare attack vectors available.

But my app doesn’t use environment variables

The on gotcha about a system such as this is that all apps may not be using environment variables. I’ve tried to deal with this in withenv by allowing writing a config file before starting the app based on a template. Until then, the best I can offer to is write something similar yourself.

Conclusion

I’ve discussed this topic with some folks and have seen a somewhat wide spectrum of positive and negative comments. The folks that have tried withenv and see how to extend it, withenv becomes a critical tool. This makes me believe that it is a good method for constructing an environment and providing it to a process. But, you never know until you try, so please give it a go the next time you find yourself exporting environment variables for some code and see if withenv improves anything for you.