How to write MCollective Agents to run actions in background

The Marionette Collective, or MCollective in short, is a cutting-edge tech for running system administration tasks and jobs in parallel against a cluster of servers. When the number of servers you have to manage grows, the task of managing them, including keeping the OS and packages installed on them updated, becomes without a doubt a nightmare. MCollective helps you drag yourself out of that nightmare and into a jolly dream, where you are the king, and at your disposal is a powerful tool, by merely wielding which you can control all of your servers in one go. I’ll probably do a bad job of painting MCollective in good light, so I’d recommend you read all about it on MCollective’s main website.

Like every good tool worth its while, MCollective gives you the power to extend it by writing what it calls agents to run custom code on your servers to perform any kind of job. You can read about agents here. MCollective is all in Ruby, so if you know Ruby, which is a pretty little programming language by the way, you can take full advantage of MCollective. Incidentally, a part of my day job revolves around writing MCollective agents to automate all sorts of jobs you can think of performing on a server.

For a while I have been perplexed at the lack of support for being able to run agents in the background. Not every job takes milliseconds to finish itself. Most average-level jobs, in terms of what they have to do, take anywhere from seconds to, even longer, minutes. And since I write an API which uses MCollective agents to execute jobs, I often run into the problem of having the API block while the agent is taking its sweet time to run. As far as I’ve looked, I haven’t found support within MCollective for asynchronously running actions.

So, I got down to thinking, and came up with a solution, which you could call a bit of a hack. But insofar as my experience testing it has been, I’ve yet to face any issues with it.

I’ve an example hosted on GitHub. It’s very straightforward, even if crude. The code is self explanatory. At the heart of it is creating your actions in agents to fork and run as childs, without having the parent wait for the childs to reap, and having one extra action for each agent to fetch the status of the other actions. So, essentially, the approach has to be taken for every agent you have, but only for those actions which you wish to run asynchronously. With agents in place, all you’ll need to do is call the agents thus:

$ mco rpc bg run_bg -I node -j
{"status": 0, "result": "2434"}

and repeatedly fetch the status of the async action thus:

$ mco rpc bg status pid=2434 operation=run_bug -I node -j
{"status": 0, "result": ""}

It’s a solution that works. I’ve tested it over a month and a half now over many servers without any issues. I would like to see people play with it. The code is full of comments which explain how to do what. But if you have any questions, I’d love to entertain them subnet of Fastly’s CDN null-routed in Pakistan?

I rely heavily on GitHub and Foursquare every day, the former for work and pleasure, and the latter for keeping a track of where I go through the course of a day. Since yesterday, though, I have been noticing that pages on GitHub have been taking close to an eternity to open, if not completely failing. Even when the page loads, all of the static content is missing, and many other things aren’t working. With FourSquare, I haven’t been able to get a list of places to check in to. Yesterday, I wrote them off as glitches on both Foursquare and GitHub’s network.
It was only today that I realized what’s going on. GitHub and Foursquare both rely on Fastly’s CDN services. And, for some reason, Fastly’s CDN services have not been working within Pakistan.
The first thing I did was look up Fastly’s website and found that it didn’t open for me. Whoa! GitHub’s not working, Foursquare’s not loading, and now, I can’t get to Fastly.
I ran a traceroute to Fastly, and to my utter surprise, the trace ended up with a !X (comms administratively prohibited) response from one of the routers.
$ traceroute
traceroute: Warning: has multiple addresses; using
traceroute to (, 64 hops max, 52 byte packets
 6 ( 157.577 ms 158.102 ms 166.088 ms
 7 ( 236.032 ms ( 236.247 ms 236.731 ms
 8 ( 236.029 ms 236.606 ms ( 236.804 ms
 9 ( 236.159 ms ( 236.017 ms ( 236.115 ms
10 ( 235.838 ms ( 236.237 ms ( 235.998 ms
11 ( 235.980 ms ( 236.211 ms 235.548 ms
12 ( 236.151 ms 235.730 ms ( 235.768 ms
13 ( 236.116 ms 236.453 ms 236.565 ms
14 ( 237.399 ms !X 236.225 ms !X 235.870 ms !X

Now, that, I thought, was most odd. Why was level3 prohibiting the trace?

I went looking for a support contact at Fastly to try and get anything that could explain what was going on. I found their IRC chat room on FreeNode (I spend a lot of time on FreeNode), and didn’t waste time dropping into it. The kind folks there told me that they’d had reports of one of their IP ranges being null-blocked in Pakistan. It was the range. I did some network prodding about, and confirmed that that indeed was the subnet I couldn’t get to from within Pakistan.

$ ping -c 1
PING ( 56 data bytes
64 bytes from icmp_seq=0 ttl=55 time=145.194 ms
--- ping statistics ---
1 packets transmitted, 1 packets received, 0.0% packet loss
round-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 145.194/145.194/145.194/0.000 ms

$ ping -c 1
PING ( 56 data bytes
64 bytes from icmp_seq=0 ttl=51 time=188.872 ms
--- ping statistics ---
1 packets transmitted, 1 packets received, 0.0% packet loss
round-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 188.872/188.872/188.872/0.000 ms

$ ping -c 1
PING ( 56 data bytes
--- ping statistics ---
1 packets transmitted, 0 packets received, 100.0% packet loss

They also told me they’d had reports of both PTCL and TWA where the range in question was null-routed. They said they didn’t know why it had been null-routed but would appreciate any info the locals could provide.

This is ludicrous. After Wi-Tribe filtering UDP DNS packets to Google’s DNS and OpenDNS servers (which they still do), this is the second absolutely preposterous thing that has pissed me off.


Docker is almost the rage these days. If you don’t know what Docker is, you should head on over It’s a container engine, designed to run on Virtual Machines, on bare-metal physical servers, on OpenStack clusters, on AWS instances, or pretty much any other form of machine incarnation you could think of. With Docker, you can easily create very lightweight containers that run your applications. What’s really stunning about Docker is that you can create a lightweight container for your application in your development environment once, and have the same container run at scale in a production environment.

The best way to appreciate the power Docker puts at your fingertips is to try it out for yourself. If you wish to do it, I would recommend the browser-based interactive tutorial on Docker’s website.

While it is easy to build Docker containers manually, the real power of Docker comes from what is known as a Dockerfile. A Dockerfile, using a very simple syntax that can be learnt quickly, makes possible automating the process of setting up and configuring the container’s environment to run your application.

On a weekend I finally took out time for myself and sat down to embrace Docker, not only through the interactive tutorial on Docker’s website, but also on my server. I was half lucky in that I didn’t need to have to set Docker up on my local system or VM, because Linode just happened to very recently introduce support for Docker. I started playing around with Docker commands on the shell manually, and slowly transitioned to writing my own Dockerfile. The result: I wrote a Dockerfile to run a small container to run “irssi” inside it. Go ahead and check it out, please. If you have a system with Docker running on it (and I really think you should have one), you can follow the two or three commands listed on the README file to build and run my container. It is that easy!

Getting back inactive memory on Mac.

     OS X has the habit of keeping recently closed applications in memory so that if they are run again, they load quickly. The part of physical memory used for this purpose is called “Inactive memory”. The “System Memory” tab on the Activity Monitor application gives a break-down of the physical memory, including available free and inactive memory. Because of the way OS X behaves, you may or may not notice your system running low on “free” memory every now and then. This discovery could perplex you, because despite being low on free memory, you can load applications and go about doing your work. This is possible because inactive memory can be released by the OS X kernel’s memory management subsystem on demand. If it finds that the system is running short on free memory, and the user has started an application that is not already loaded in inactive memory, it will gladly comply and release enough of inactive memory to be able to run the requested application.

     I recently found a command line utility on OS X to release most of inactive memory. It is called, “purge”. The short description for “purge”, from its man page, states that its use forces the disk cache to be purged. The “disk cache” actually refers to “inactive memory”. To run this command, you have to type “purge” on (or any other Terminal application that you use). For example:

(Ayaz@mbp) [0] [~]
$ purge

     Before running the purge command, the memory breakdown on my system looked like:

     After the purge command ran, inactive memory went from 858MB down to 270MB.

     You will notice that the system becomes a little unresponsive while purge is flushing the disk cache. That’s fine and nothing to worry about.

     If you can’t find purge on your system, it could be because you have not installed XCode and accompanying development tools. These are available in one of the OS X installation discs. You can now also pay and download XCode from the Mac App Store.

     Have fun and be nice!

Converting a Git repo to Mercurial

     Until today, we had most of the projects on Mercurial repositories hosted on a Windows box in-house. The Mercurial web interface was set up to provide a convenient read-only access to both contributors and non-contributors within. However, the box in question was unreliable, and so was the Internet link it was alive on. And, in this world, there are few things more troublesome than having your source control server unavailable due to an unexpected downtime.

     What’s special about today is that we moved most of our Mercurial repositories to While they will remain private, the contributors as well as the internal non-contributors will be given access to them. Aside from having the repositories on a central server that we can mostly always rely on, having a lovely Web interface to browse and control the repositories, we also get useful goodies like issue trackers, wiki pages, and an easy user management interface. It is a win-win situation for everyone.

     One of the projects I was working on had only been on a local Git repository. I started work on it at a time when I found myself deeply in love with Git. Since BitBucket is a Mercurial repository warehouse, I had to find a way to convert or migrate the Git repository into a Mercurial one.

     I looked around on the Web and found a lot of people recommending the use of the HgGit plugin. As I understood it, this plugin made possible, among other things, the workflow that involved working on a Git repository and pushing the changesets to a Mercurial counterpart. However, the process of setting it up seemed rather complex to me. Plus, I didn’t want to keep the Git repository lying around when I was done with the migration. I wanted to be able to migrate the Git repository to a Mercurial one, push it upstream to BitBucket and make any changes in future in the source code by cloning from the Mercurial repository. What HgGit did seemed rather overkill for my needs.

     I then discovered the Mercurial ConvertExtension. This extension did just what I wanted: Convert repositories from a handful different SCMs into Mercurial. The process of converting a Git (or any other repository) to a Mercurial one through ConvertExtension is very straightforward.

     As a first step, you are required to edit your global .hgrc file to enable the extension thus:


     You are then required to run the hg convert command on your target Git repository thus:

$ hg convert /path/to/git/repo

     This will migrate the Git repository, and store it in the current directory inside a directory named repo-hg. Once inside the newly created Mercurial repository (and this part is important), you have to run the following command to checkout all the changesets:

$ hg checkout

     You may then push the repository with the usual hg push to BitBucket.


     PS: This blog post really helped get me going in the right direction.

Ranting about Mercurial (hg) (part 1)

     The day I got a grip of git, I fell in love with it. Yes, I am talking about the famous distributed version control application: git. I was a happy Subversion (svn) user before discovering git. The day to day workflow with git and the way git worked made me hate Subversion. I was totally head over heels in love with git.

     I have come to a point where the first thing I do when I am about to start a new project is to start a git repository for that project. Why? Because it is so easy and conveneient to do. I really like the git workflow and the little tools that come with it. I know that people who complain about git often lament about its lack of good, proper GUI front-ends. While the state of GUI front-ends for git has improved incredibly and drastically over the years, I consider myself a happy command-line user of git. All my interactions with git happen on the command-line. And, I will admit, it does not slow me down or hinder my progress or limit me in any way in what I do. I have managed fairly large projects on git from the command-line, and let me tell you, if you are not afraid of working on the command-line, it is extremely manageable. However, I understand that a lot of people run away from the command-line as if it were the plague. For those people, there are some really good git GUI front-ends available.

     I have to admit that for someone coming from no version control background or centralized version control background (such as Subversion or CVS), the learning curve to git could turn out to be a litle steep. I know that it was for me, especially when it came to getting to grips with concepts involving pushing, pulling, rebasing, merging, etc. I don’t think I will be off-base here to think that a good number of people who use version control software for fairly basic tasks are afraid of merge conflicts in code when collaborating code. I know I was always afraid of it, until I actually finally faced a merge conflict for the first time. That was the last time I felt afraid of it, because I was surprised to find out how easy it was to deal with and (possibly) resolve merge conflicts. There’s no rocket science to it.

     I have been plenty impressed with git that I wince when I am forced to use any other version control. In fact, I refuse to use Subversion, as an example, and try my best to convince people to move to git. Why? Because git is just that good. I should probably point the reader to this lovely article that puts down severals reasons that explain why git is better that a number of other popular version control applications out there.

     Recently, at work, I have had to deal with the beast they call Mercurial (hg). Yes, it is another famous distributed version control system out there. I was furious at the decision of my peers to select Mercurial for work-related use, and tried my best to convince them to use git instead, but they didn’t give in to my attempts to persaude them. I had no choice but to unwilling embrace the beast and work with it.

     Instantly, I had big gripes with the way Mercurial worked as well as its general workflow. Where I fell in love with how git tracked content and not files, I hated the fact that Mercurial only tracked files. What I mean by that is if you add a file in a Mercurial repository to be tracked and commit it, and then make any changes to the file, Mercurial would automatically add it to the staging commit. Yes, it wouldn’t let you specify manually which files that were changed should be part of the staging commit, something that git does. A staging commit is a staging area where files that have been changed and have been selected to be part of the next commit are loaded to be ready for commit. With git, you have to manually specify which file to add to the staging commit. And I loved doing it that way. With Mercurial, this was done automatically. This in turn brings me to the second big gripe I had with Mercurial: incremental commits. Git workflow places an indirect emphasis on incremental commits. What are incremental commits? In the version control world, it is considered best practice to perform a commit that is as small as possible and that does not break any existing functionality. So, if for example, you have made changes to ten files to add five different functionalities, that may be independent of each other, but would only like to commit one functionality at a time. That is where incremental commits come in action. With incremental commits, you specify only the files you want to be committed and commit them, instead of committing all the changed files in a bunch and add a general purpose commit message. Incremental commits is a big win for me, and I adore that feature. Because with git you had to manually specify which of the changed files you wanted in the staging commit area, incremental commits came easily and naturally. With Mercurial, where it automatically added all changes to tracked files into the staging commit area, it did not.

     So I asked the obvious question: How do we do incremental commits with Mercurial? Aftering sifting through the logs, I found out that it was indeed possible, but in a very ugly way. The Mercurial commit command takes an extra parameter, -I, that can be used to specify which files explicity to make part of the commit. But that wasn’t it. If you had, say, five files of the ten changed files you wanted to commit, you would have to tag the -I switch behind each of those files, otherwise, Mercurial will fail to include the files in the commit. To this day, this little quirk bites me every now and then.

     I will admit that the one thing I really liked about Mercurial was the built-in web server it came with that could provide a web-based interface to your Mercurial repositories for viewing. This was something that was missing from or quite difficult to do with git. And, this was also one of the biggest reasons why my peers at work decided to go with Mercurial for. They all wanted a convenient way to access the repositories over the web.

To be continued.

Using mouse inside Vim on

     When I am writing code, I spend most of my time inside Vim on on MacOS. When I am not writing code, I still end up spending a good bit of my time on, running all sorts of commands, using command-line applications (such as irssi for IRC), and editing files in Vim here and there.

     Coming from Linux, my biggest gripe with Vim on has been the fact that I could not scroll through the Vim window using the wheel on my mouse as I would any normal editor. If I tried to scroll up or down, would scroll through the Terminal session instead and mess everything up. For a long time, I had to contend myself with holding down the Fn and Shift keys and using the Up and Down arrows to scroll back and forth. Anyone who has done this can immediately imagine how annoying this can get.

     So, the other day I had a thought cross my mind and I asked myself, “Vim can’t really be that lame and not support the functionality of scrolling with the mouse properly. I am simply missing out on something.” I looked around, and sure enough, I found that Vim does support all sorts of mouse-related operations on the shell, including properly scrolling up and down. This particular feature of Vim is toggled via the “:set mouse=a” setting. You could go through the help menu, with “:help mouse” inside a Vim session, to see what other values, apart from “a”, that setting can take. But for all intents and purposes, the “a” setting is sufficient.

     I was happy Vim could do that. But, when I toggled it in Vim on, it didn’t work. Scrolling, as before, would only scroll through the buffer and mess up things. I was disappointed.

     Sifting through a couple more threads here and there on the web about Vim, scroll, and, I was able to figure out the reason why, after enabling mouse support on Vim, it didn’t work on As it turns out, eats away all the mouse gestures thrown at it, and does not delegate them to Vim or other applications running within the shell. It doesn’t let them through. Vim wasn’t getting any mouse gestures at all. This was a problem. I thought I had bumped into a big, thick wall that could not be crossed.

     But, I was wrong. Luckily, I somehow managed to find a plugin, by the name of Mouse Term, for that patched’s behaviour of masking mouse gestures and not letting them through to individual applications. Mouse Term, as is mentioned on its home page, requires another, small application, SIMBL, to be installed first to work. In fact, Mouse Term is a SIMBL plugin.

     Once I had SIMBL and then Mouse Term installed and loaded, I could actually scroll through Vim, with the “:set mouse=a” setting, prefectly. Not only that, I noticed something else as well that made me so happy. I use tabs in Vim. Vim makes available half a dozen Vim commands, that start with the prefex “:tab”, to manipulate tabs, navigate through them, etc. If you’ve ever used tabs seriously on Vim, and used these commands to cycle through tabs, for example, you’d understand how frustrating it can get. But, guess what my excitement was about? Not only could I now scroll through a Vim window smoothly, I could also click on the tabs to switch to them. I could also click on the “X” on the top right corner to close a tab. It simply worked.

     The best part is when you have the NERD Tree Vim plugin installed. You can, inside the NERD Tree window, expand and collapse directories and open files simply at the click or double click of the mouse. As a Vim user, what more could you want?