Note that as of 2022-11-16 (November 16, 2022), this is still under development and not yet used for a live deployment, although it is used for development (local) deploys.


These are notes on using Packer to create the base images Daniel uses for his personal ‘cloud’1 infrastructure. The basic philosophy for these base images is that they should be:

  1. ‘Golden’ (that is they should be ‘clean’ images ready for provisioning with the help of cloud-init).
  2. Relatively generic (i.e. they should contain those things which are common to the instances to be deployed, but not instance-specific configuration or packages).
  3. Relatively small (this makes them easier to upload for use with the applicable ‘cloud’ infrastructure).
  4. Prefer ‘systemd’ networking and DNS resolution to the default Debian ‘ifupdown’ networking. (Mostly because ifupdown is showing it’s age and is quite a pain to work with).
  5. The same base image should be usable in any of the different deployment environments (development, staging/testing, and production) in which Daniel will create instances.

In addition, because Daniel uses Libvirt to host his infrastructure, the images are prepared for that environment and are not totally generic.

Overview of the code repository

The repository contains the following basic elements:

  1. The actual Packer ‘code’ (build definitions, variable definitions with defaults, and supporting files).
  2. CI2 using GitLab’s ‘pipelines’
    1. Verifying basic commit checks have passed (using pre-commit), including file syntax, formatting, spell checking, and code style.
    2. Validation of the Packer configuration using packer validate CLI command.
    3. When a manual trigger is applied, running a test of the image building.
  3. An EditorConfig file so that supported text/code editors will make it easy to maintain the ‘code style’ for the repository.
  4. Basic documentation of usage, acknowledgements, getting help, contributing to the project, and copyright and licensing.

Viewing the code

The code (less personalisation via private variables) for generating Daniel’s base images is available in a GitLab repository called ‘DFD Debian VM images using Packer Qemu’.

Code Discussion

Packer template (code) and supporting files

Build definition

  • Consists mostly of variable definitions (below) to specify things like:

    • The amount of memory given to the virtual machine
    • The base hardware to emulate (currently qemu machine type pc-q35-5.2)
    • The target image name, format, compression, and output location
    • The image on which we base our image (an official debian ‘cloud’ image)
  • Additionally specifies the parameters for communicating with the virtualised system.

    • Expects the user running Packer to have ssh-agent active and have already added the SSH private key for the public key for the admin user (below)
    • Includes variables for how long to wait for SSH to respond and the ssh username (which is the default admin user for the image).

Cloud-Init definition

  • This is where the bulk of the image customisation occurs.
  • The userdata is the import part and defines the cloud-init modules to run, and their settings. Currently:
    • bootcmd (shell commands to run early): Set the default etckeeper git branch to main.
    • runcmd (shell commands to after write_files, near the end of cloud-init). See variable settings (in the README for the code)
    • Make sure groups adm, sudo, ‘and sudonp exist.
    • Increase the size of the ‘root’ (/) partition to expand to fill all empty space on the OS volume.
    • Upgrade and install packages (see variable settings (in the README for the code)) for the package list.
    • SSH host key types to generate: Also see variable settings (in the README for the code).
    • Create an admin user (member of the adm, sudo, and sudonp groups, which grants the user extra permissions and allows the use of sudo). Username, description, and SSH key (for image creation only) are defined in the variables.
    • Write files:
      • Configure members sudonp group to be able use sudo without a password
      • Configure policy for unattended upgrade of packages and any needed reboot
      • Disable network configuration via cloud-init usual network configuration mechanism (it doesn’t do what we want, at least with Debian 11 (Bullseye), which is what we use).
      • Set the default configuration for the first network interface to use systemd-networkd (ipv4 DHCP, no ipv6, no mDNS or LLMNR, and set the metric for the interface’s default route so that if we have another interface we can easily set the second interface to be preferred or after the first network interface on a virtual system deployed using the base image we create).

Provisioning script

  • Quite basic
    1. Wait for cloud-init to finish operation successfully (otherwise fails the build).
    2. Clean out the data used for the cloud-init run so that we get a pristine image.
    3. Tweak the networking setup to exclusively use systemd-resolved for DNS.
    4. Clean out the systems unique machine-id (since we’re creating a base image to be used by machines that will need their own id).
    5. Clear out the SSH public keys used to communicate with the image.
    6. Ensure the image state is consistent (sync command).

Variables (with their defaults)

CI Discussion

When the CI tests are applied

pre-commit checks

  • On a push directly to the doci branch
  • On a merge request from any branch other than doci.

Packer validation

  • On a push directly to the doci branch
  • On a merge request from any branch other than doci.

Packer build test

  • On an action on the doci branch, but only if a manual trigger is applied when the build test stage is reached.

  1. Using Libvirt/KVM on bare metal servers from OVH. Daniel finds this more flexible and less expensive than using public cloud offerings. ↩︎

  2. Continuous Integration (but not Continuous Delivery or Deployment). This means the code has to pass automatic tests to be applied to the GitLab repository, but that the infrastructure is not automatically updated on a merge to the ‘main’ branch. ↩︎