Try it out / quick start

  1. Install Consfigurator (Installation).

  2. Create a new directory consfig somewhere where ASDF will pick it up, such as ~/common-lisp/consfig.

  3. Define a Lisp system which represents your configuration.


    (asdf:defsystem :com.example.consfig
      :serial t
      :depends-on (#:consfigurator #:cl-interpol)
      :components ((:file "package")
                   (:file "consfig")))


    (in-package :cl-user)
    ;; this macro is a simple wrapper of DEFPACKAGE which sets up local
    ;; nicknames for packages providing properties and data sources
    (consfigurator:defpackage-consfig :com.example.consfig
      (:use #:cl #:alexandria #:consfigurator))

    If you use Emacs and you have consfigurator.el installed, it will help to activate our major mode in ~/common-lisp/consfig/.dir-locals.el:

    ((auto-mode-alist . (("\\.lisp\\'" . consfigurator-lisp-mode))))
  4. Define some hosts and deployments.


    (in-package :com.example.consfig)
    (in-consfig "com.example.consfig")
    (named-readtables:in-readtable :consfigurator)
    (defhost (:deploy ((:ssh :user "root") :sbcl))
      "Web and file server."
      (os:debian-stable "buster" :amd64)
      (apt:mirrors "")
      (apt:uses-local-cacher) ; sets up apt-cacher-ng
      ;; Set key--value pairs in INI-style files.  Consfigurator will
      ;; uncomment existing lines in preference to adding new ones, for
      ;; readability.
      (file:contains-ini-settings "/etc/systemd/logind.conf"
                                  '("Login" "KillUserProcesses" "no"))
      (apt:service-installed-running "apache2")
      ;; Apply some properties as a non-root user.
      ;; (as "spwhitton"
      ;;   (gnupg:public-key-imported "8DC2 487E 51AB DD90 B5C4  753F 0F56 D055 3B6D 411B"))
      (file:has-content "/etc/foo"
        "Here is my file content.
    It's multiline.  CL-INTERPOL and CL-HEREDOC are also available; the
    latter is particularly useful for shell scripts.")
      (file:has-content "/etc/bar" '("or" "specify" "a" "list" "of" "lines"))
      (file:contains-lines "/etc/some.conf" "FOO=bar") ; preserve rest of file contents
      ;; This will call debootstrap(1) in a way which respects the apt
      ;; cacher and mirror configured above, so setting up multiple
      ;; chroots with the same OS will be fast.
      (chroot:os-bootstrapped. nil "/srv/chroot/test"
        (os:debian-unstable :amd64)
        ;; These two properties are not for debootstrap(1) for but apt
        ;; inside the chroot.
        (apt:uses-parent-proxy) ; use the apt-cacher-ng set up outside chroot
        (apt:uses-parent-mirrors))) ; use the apt mirror set up above

    This assumes that you have your SSH agent etc. set up such that you can ssh to root on athena without having to type a password into ssh’s stdin. You should also enable SSH connection sharing, including ControlPersist.

  5. Get a Lisp REPL started up – M-x slime in Emacs or sbcl at a shell prompt. Evaluate (asdf:load-system "com.example.consfig"), then (in-package :com.example.consfig) (or C-c ~ in Emacs).

  6. You should now be able to evaluate ( to deploy properties to athena, using the connection chain of SSH and then handing over to a remote Lisp image.

Other things to try

Note that some of these violate some of the ideas of declarative configuration management, because they apply individual properties without updating the definitions of hosts. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do, though, and Consfigurator makes it easy to reuse your property definitions in these non-declarative ways.

Try deploying properties to athena using a different connection type

Evaluate something like:

(deploy :ssh

Apply a security update to all your systems

It’s useful to be able to quickly apply a security update across multiple machines without otherwise interacting with their configuration. Supposing you have defined a variable *ALL-MY-SERVERS* which is a list hosts defined with DEFHOST, you can evaluate:

(dolist (server *all-my-servers*)
  (deploy-these :ssh server
                (cmd:single "apt-get update && apt-get upgrade openssl")))

Regex replace a file across hosts

With *ALL-MY-SERVERS* as in the previous example,

(dolist (server *all-my-servers*)
  (deploy-these :ssh server
                (file:regex-replace-lines "/etc/baz" #?/^foo/ "bar")))

(relies on CL-INTERPOL syntax being enabled, as it is in the example consfig above)

Concepts and terminology

We make some simplifications. More precise definitions appear later in this manual.


A machine, container, chroot, or similar. Has a plist of static informational host attributes (“hostattrs”), usually including at least a hostname, and a property application specification defining the properties it has.


Some configuration which a host can have or lack, and which can be added to a host by running some code, possibly just by applying a series of other properties.

For example: the presence of some lines in a config file; a package being installed or absent; the availability of a website.


A means by which properties can be applied to hosts, and multihop connections to other hosts can be established. There are two types of connections: those which interact with the remote host by means of a POSIX shell, and those which apply properties by executing them in a Lisp image running on the host.

POSIX connections can pass input to and return output from processes, but cannot start asynchronous processes for interaction with your Lisp functions. This is so that POSIX connections can be defined to control hosts for which any kind of shell multiplexing is hard or impossible, such as with serial connections providing only a single interactive POSIX sh. For asynchronous interaction, use a Lisp connection.


The combination of a connection and a host. Executing a connection deploys all of a host’s usual properties to that host by means of the given connection. To deploy just a few particular properties, you can use DEPLOY-THESE.

A deployment is itself a property. This is one way in which connections can be nested: one remote host can be used to deploy others, as a controller.

Root Lisp

The Lisp image you control directly when you execute deployments. Typically running on your development laptop/workstation (and not as the root user).

Property application specification (“propspec”)

A specification, in Consfigurator’s DSL, for the properties that a host has and/or lacks. For example,:

(eseqprops (apt:installed postfix)
           (etc-default:contains "locale" "LANG" "en_GB.UTF-8")
           (unapplied (

Property application specifications are applied in order, so properties later in the list usually implicitly depend on properties earlier in the list, though some property combinators can change this.

Unevaluated property application specification (“unevaluated propspec”)

A property application specification, except in atomic property applications of the form (PROPERTY . ARGS), ARGS are expressions to be evaluated to produce the arguments to pass to PROPERTY, rather than those arguments themselves. An unevaluated property application specification can be converted into a property application specification by evaluating each of ARGS.

The main places you will find an unevaluated property application specification is in calls to DEFHOST, DEPLOY, DEPLOY-THESE and DEFPROPLIST. Theses macros converts an unevaluated property application specification into code which will produce the corresponding property application specification.

Prerequisite data

File contents required to apply a property which should be generated or extracted, by the root Lisp, at the time of deployment: a tarball containing the latest version of the web service to be deployed; a secret extracted from an encrypted store; a git bundle from localhost which the target host cannot just git clone to itself.

Prerequisite data is versioned. To replace a secret key, for example, you change the data and bump the version. If there is no version bump, Consfigurator will assume connections can re-use old copies of prerequisite data; this avoids uploading the same data over and over again.

In addition to secrets management, prerequisite data is Consfigurator’s mechanism for the common need to upload files to controlled hosts. The same mechanism is used internally to upload the Lisp code needed to start up remote Lisp images for :lisp connections.


An ASDF system in which you define your hosts and initialise sources of prerequisite data. This system might also define some site-specific properties, default deployments, and helper functions. Typically the system is named COM.EXAMPLE.CONSFIG where is your primary domain name.

The system can contain multiple packages, perhaps to divide up your definitions of hosts and default deployments from your site-specific properties (e.g. you might have a package called COM.EXAMPLE.CONSFIG.SITES).

You can have multiple independent Consfigs loaded into the root Lisp at once, but if you do, then you should avoid using the *CONSFIG* global variable.

Documentation conventions

All unqualified names of Lisp symbols refer to those exported from the CONSFIGURATOR package, because it is assumed that this package is imported unqualified into both user consfigs and Lisp packages providing properties, connection types and sources of prerequisite data.

FOO.BAR:BAZ means a symbol BAZ defined in CONSFIGURATOR.PROPERTY.FOO.BAR, except that DATA.FOO:BAR means a symbol BAR defined in CONSFIGURATOR.PROPERTY.DATA.FOO. These are the recommended package nicknaming schemes for use in consfigs, e.g.:

(defpackage :com.example.consfig
  (:use #:cl #:consfigurator)
  (:local-nicknames (#:file

You can use the DEFPACKAGE-CONSFIG macro to set up all these local nicknames.

Portability and stability

  • The core library should be portable between standards-conforming implementations of ANSI Common Lisp which include support for a few additional, widely-implemented features such as package-local nicknames. Optional packages providing properties and connection types might use implementation-specific functionality. Little to no testing is done by the author on implementations other than SBCL, so testing and portability patches are welcome.

  • Lisp implementations which will run on the hosts you wish to configure must support multithreading and must expose some mechanism for safely calling fork(2) in the presence of non-user threads, like SB-POSIX:FORK in the case of SBCL. The root Lisp does not need to fork(2). With some additional portability patches, it should be possible to host the root Lisp even on systems to which Consfigurator probably can’t apply properties, such as Microsoft Windows.

  • As both Consfigurator and its dependency Osicat make use of CFFI-Grovel, loading Consfigurator into Lisp currently always additionally requires a C toolchain, and development headers for libacl. On GNU/Linux, development headers for libcap are also required. It might be possible to conditionalise further so as to avoid any dependency on a C toolchain for the root Lisp.

  • Little attempt is made by the author to support systems other than Debian GNU/Linux, but again, portability patches are welcome, and the design of Consfigurator should enable supporting other systems.


Many of the good ideas here come straight from Joey Hess’s Propellor. I’m working on Consfigurator because I think Propellor is great, but wanted to add Consfigurator’s POSIX-type connections and arbitrary connection nesting, and I wanted to implement that in Lisp (Propellor only supports something equivalent to a single, unnested Lisp-type connection). Additionally, after five years of using and extending Propellor, I’ve come to disagree with Joey about whether Haskell’s type system helps or hinders using and extending Propellor.