Noah Meyerhans

The weblog

Using FAI to Customize and Build Your Own Cloud Images

At this past November’s Debian cloud sprint, we classified our image users into three broad buckets in order to help guide our discussions and ensure that we were covering the common use cases. Our users fit generally into one of the following groups:

  1. People who directly launch our image and treat it like a classic VPS. These users most likely will be logging into their instances via ssh and configuring it interactively, though they may also install and use a configuration management system at some point.
  2. People who directly launch our images but configure them automatically via launch-time configuration passed to the cloud-init process on the agent. This automatic configuration may optionally serve to bootstrap the instance into a more complete configuration management system. The user may or may not ever actually log in to the system at all.
  3. People who will not use our images directly at all, but will instead construct their own image based on ours. They may do this by launching an instance of our image, customizing it, and snapshotting it, or they may build a custom image from scratch by reusing and modifying the tools and configuration that we use to generate our images.

This post is intended to help people in the final category get started with building their own cloud images based on our tools and configuration. As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, we are using the FAI project with configuration from the fai-cloud-images. It’s probably a good idea to get familiar with FAI and our configs before proceeding, but it’s not necessary.

You’ll need to use FAI version 5.3.4 or greater. 5.3.4 is currently available in stretch and jessie-backports. Images can be generated locally on your non-cloud host, or on an existing cloud instance. You’ll likely find it more convenient to use a cloud instance so you can avoid the overhead of having to copy disk images between hosts. For the most part, I’ll assume throughout this document that you’re generating your image on a cloud instance, but I’ll highlight the steps where it actually matters. I’ll also be describing the steps to target AWS, though the general workflow should be similar if you’re targeting a different platform.

To get started, install the fai-server package on your instance and clone the fai-cloud-images git repository. (I’ll assume the repository is cloned to /srv/fai/config.) In order to generate your own disk image that generally matches what we’ve been distributing, you’ll use a command like:

sudo fai-diskimage --hostname stretch-image --size 8G \

This command will create an 8 GB raw disk image at /tmp/stretch-image.raw, create some partitions and filesystems within it, and install and configure a bunch of packages into it. Exactly what packages it installs and how it configures them will be determined by the FAI config tree and the classes provided on the command line. The package_config subdirectory of the FAI configuration contains several files, the names of which are FAI classes. Activating a given class by referencing it on the fai-diskimage command line instructs FAI to process the contents of the matching package_config file if such a file exists. The files use a simple grammar that provides you with the ability to request certain packages to be installed or removed.

Let’s say for example that you’d like to build a custom image that looks mostly identical to Debian’s images, but that also contains the Apache HTTP server. You might do that by introducing a new file to package_config/HTTPD file, as follows:

PACKAGES install

Then, when running fai-diskimage, you’ll add HTTPD to the list of classes:

sudo fai-diskimage --hostname stretch-image --size 8G \

Aside from custom package installation, you’re likely to also want custom configuration. FAI allows the use of pretty much any scripting language to perform modifications to your image. A common task that these scripts may want to perform is the installation of custom configuration files. FAI provides the fcopy tool to help with this. Fcopy is aware of FAI’s class list and is able to select an appropriate file from the FAI config’s files subdirectory based on classes. The scripts/EC2/10-apt script provides a basic example of using fcopy to select and install an apt sources.list file. The files/etc/apt/sources.list/ subdirectory contains both an EC2 and a GCE file. Since we’ve enabled the EC2 class on our command line, fcopy will find and install that file. You’ll notice that the sources.list subdirectory also contains a preinst file, which fcopy can use to perform additional actions prior to actually installing the specified file. postinst scripts are also supported.

Beyond package and file installation, FAI also provides mechanisms to support debconf preseeding, as well as hooks that are executed at various stages of the image generation process. I recommend following the examples in the fai-cloud-images repo, as well as the FAI guide for more details. I do have one caveat regarding the documentation, however: FAI was originally written to help provision bare-metal systems, and much of its documentation is written with that use case in mind. The cloud image generation process is able to ignore a lot of the complexity of these environments (for example, you don’t need to worry about pxeboot and tftp!) However, this means that although you get to ignore probably half of the FAI Guide, it’s not immediately obvious which half it is that you get to ignore.

Once you’ve generated your raw image, you can inspect it by telling Linux about the partitions contained within, and then mount and examine the filesystems. For example:

admin@ip-10-0-0-64:~$ sudo partx --show /tmp/stretch-image.raw
 1  2048 16777215 16775168   8G      ed093314-01
admin@ip-10-0-0-64:~$ sudo partx -a /tmp/stretch-image.raw 
partx: /dev/loop0: error adding partition 1
admin@ip-10-0-0-64:~$ lsblk 
xvda      202:0    0      8G  0 disk 
├─xvda1   202:1    0 1007.5K  0 part 
└─xvda2   202:2    0      8G  0 part /
loop0       7:0    0      8G  0 loop 
└─loop0p1 259:0    0      8G  0 loop 
admin@ip-10-0-0-64:~$ sudo mount /dev/loop0p1 /mnt/
admin@ip-10-0-0-64:~$ ls /mnt/
bin/   dev/  home/        initrd.img.old@  lib64/       media/  opt/   root/  sbin/  sys/  usr/  vmlinuz@
boot/  etc/  initrd.img@  lib/             lost+found/  mnt/    proc/  run/   srv/   tmp/  var/  vmlinuz.old@

In order to actually use your image with your cloud provider, you’ll need to register it with them. Strictly speaking, these are the only steps that are provider specific and need to be run on your provider’s cloud infrastructure. AWS documents this process in the User Guide for Linux Instances. The basic workflow is:

  1. Attach a secondary EBS volume to your EC2 instance. It must be large enough to hold the raw disk image you created.
  2. Use dd to write your image to the secondary volume, e.g. sudo dd if=/tmp/stretch-image.raw of=/dev/xvdb
  3. Use the script in the fail-cloud-image repo to snapshot the volume and register the resulting snapshot with AWS as a new AMI. Example: ./ vol-04351c30c46d7dd6e

The script must be run with access to AWS credentials that grant access to several EC2 API calls: describe-snapshots, create-snapshot, and register-image. It recognizes a --help command-line flag and several options that modify characteristics of the AMI that it registers. When completes, it will print the AMI ID of your new image. You can now work with this image using standard AWS workflows.

As always, we welcome feedback and contributions via the debian-cloud mailing list or #debian-cloud on IRC.