In this tutorial, I’ll take you through using Chef and Homebrew to manage your home directory in Mac OS X. I’ve also included a neat cookbook which will allow you to use Homebrew as your native packaging system in Chef.


  • Chef is awesome.

  • You can grab the cookbook to use Homebrew as the native packaging system for Chef on GitHub at chef-homebrew.

  • Managing your configuration isn’t just for servers.

  • If you spend any time at a command line, you owe it to yourself to use tmux (or screen).

  • The formatting of the code samples on this post is a work in progress… Sorry.

Getting Started with Chef

Mac OS X, and the current breed of open source developer tools (notably Homebrew and RVM) introduce an interesting possibility when it comes to managing one’s home directory. These mechanisms allow you to install arbitrary packages, owned and run by your own user.

So, you’ve got a package manager which installs software and allows you to start/stop services. You’ve got a bunch of configuration files, both for those services, and dotfiles in your home directory. What’s the best way to manage these? With some sort of configuration management tool, of course! There’s plenty to choose from (including lcfg, cfengine and Puppet) but the one I’ve been working with on and off for the past couple of years is Chef.

How do you get started? Well, personally, I’d just choose one piece of configuration to manage. Let’s say, for example, that you want to manage your tmux configuration. Let’s create a cookbook for that. Start with a repository:

mkdir personal-chef
cd personal-chef
touch README
git init
git add .
git commit -m "First post."

I like to use bundler to manage gem dependencies. There’s only one dependency right now – chef – but we might as well start out sensibly. Create a Gemfile in the root of your repository and give it the following content:

source :rubygems
gem 'chef'

Save that and run:


which will install chef & its dependencies. You might want to noodle around with a .rvmrc to get an isolated gemset for the project too (I do), but that’s very much a personal taste thing (that I’ll cover in another post).

Now let’s create a really basic configuration for chef-solo to allow it to put things in the right place, and to find its roles & cookbooks. Create a config folder in your new repository and add the following to config/solo.rb:

root_path = File.expand_path(File.join(File.dirname(__FILE__), '..'))

cookbook_path   File.join(root_path, 'cookbooks')
role_path       File.join(root_path, 'roles')

# Move all the state stuff from /var/chef. I wish there was a single config
# variable for this!
state_root_path = File.expand_path('~/.chef/state')
file_cache_path  "#{state_root_path}/cache"
checksum_path    "#{state_root_path}/checksums"
sandbox_path     "#{state_root_path}/sandbox"
file_backup_path "#{state_root_path}/backup"
cache_options[:path] = file_cache_path

I haven’t caught all the paths pointing to /var/chef but it has been enough for chef to stop whining at me so far. ;-)

Now let’s create ourselves some data that tells chef what we want to do with ourselves. As the configuration grows larger, I’m probably going to want to introduce roles, but let’s keep it simple for now. Create config/mathie.json (adjust to taste!) and fill it in with the following:

  "run_list": [ "recipe[tmux]" ]

Very simple for now. The final bit of context we’re going to want before we get to the interesting bits is a quick script to run chef. Here’s one I prepared earlier, called

chef-solo -c config/solo.rb -j config/mathie.json $*

(That should probably be bundle exec chef-solo but it failed the time I tried it, and I haven’t yet tracked down why.) Make it executable:

chmod +x ./

Add that lot to your git repository and commit if you haven’t been doing so already (little and often!). The last thing we need to do before we can verify the machinery is working is create a skeleton for the cookbook itself:

mkdir -p cookbooks/tmux/recipes
touch cookbooks/tmux/recipes/default.rb

All being well, the next thing we can do is test that it’s all wired up correctly:


which should spit out ~6 lines from chef saying that it’s starting, finishing and tidying up. If that doesn’t work so well, try:

./ -l debug

(which is why we stuck the $* on the end of the chef-solo invocation in there!) and see if you can see what’s going wrong. If you can’t, drop me a comment and I’ll see if I can help!

Converging on tmux

So, we’ve got the infrastructure in place. Next thing we need to figure out is installing packages. Chef has some neat separation between what it refers to as ‘resources’ and ‘providers’ so that, in your recipes, you can say:

package 'tmux'

and it will do the right thing, no matter what platform you’re on. Unfortunately, Chef doesn’t ship with the ability to manage packages with Homebrew. That’s why I come in. I’ve put together a cookbook which will install homebrew if it doesn’t already exist, keep it up to date and, most importantly, hook into Chef to use Homebrew as the native package manager. Let’s pull that wonderful cookbook in using git’s subtree merge strategy (which, since we’re DevOps Ninjas, in this situation, is pretty much the way forward):

git remote add -f homebrew git://
git merge -s ours --no-commit homebrew/master
git read-tree --prefix cookbooks/homebrew -u homebrew/master
git commit -m "Pull in mathie's awesome Homebrew cookbook."

(If I’ve just lost you, or you’re not using Git, head to and stick the contents of that repository in cookbooks/homebrew.)

Now we should be good to go with getting tmux installed through Homebrew. Edit cookbooks/tmux/recipes/default.rb so that it contains:

include_recipe 'homebrew'
package 'tmux'

Save and commit (early and often!). Now run ./ It should bumble around for a bit, installing Homebrew if you haven’t got it already, and installing tmux using Homebrew. Run it again, and it shouldn’t do a whole lot. Win.

Converging a tmux configuration

Last thing we’re going to do here, just to demonstrate managing configuration too, is installing a managed ~/.tmux.conf file. Add the following to cookbooks/tmux/recipes/default.rb:

template "#{ENV['HOME']}/.tmux.conf" do
  source "tmux.conf.erb"

and create cookbooks/tmux/templates/default/tmux.conf with your favourite tmux configuration. Let’s say, for example, that you’re on Mac OS X and you want to know the current battery level in your status bar:

set -g status-right "#[fg=green]#(pmset -g ps |awk 'BEGIN { FS=\"\t\" } /InternalBattery/ { print $2 }')"

(kinda useful, huh?) Now run:


and your tmux configuration will magically be installed into ~/.tmux.conf. Neat, huh?


Chef isn’t just for managing your massively scaled production infrastructure. You can use it to manage lots of other things too, including your home directory. The win here is magnified with each computer you work with (home desktop, work desktop and a laptop while you’re out and about?).

So, have you tried using Chef to manage your home directory? How did you find it? Good stuff? Bad stuff? What other strategies have you tried?

Update In addition to publishing the Cookbook on Github as chef-homebrew I’ve also uploaded it to the Opscode Cookbooks. Get it here: homebrew.

A Sneak Peek at
The Internet

If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in my new project, A Sneak Peek at The Internet. What happens when you enter into your web browser and hit return? A Sneak Peek at The Internet will take you on a deep dive through the network stack, from HTTP, SSL, TCP and IP, all the way down through the data link layer, back up to Facebook's data centres, and then on the return journey back to the browser.

There's more fun, excitement and peril than a Disneyland rollercoaster!