At 37 Signals Joshua Sierles describes how 37 Signals uses Sprinkle to configure their servers within EC2. Sprinkle defines a domain specific meta-language for describing and processing the installation of software. You can find an interesting discussion of Sprinkle's creation story by the creator himself, Marcus Crafter, in Sprinkle Some Powder!.
Marcus divides provisioning tools into two categories:
Sprinkle combines both models together in a chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter approach using normal Ruby code as the DSL (domain specific language) to declaratively describe remote system configurations. 37 Signals likes the use of Ruby as the DSL because it makes learning a separate syntax unnecessary. I've successfully done similar things in Perl. You already have a scripting language, why layer another one on top? One reason not to is that you've now tied configuration and execution together so that only one tool can control the process, but the leverage is so high with this approach it's hard to ignore.
There's all the usual bits about defining packages, dependencies, installation logic, pre and post actions, etc. The format is compact and clear because that's how Ruby is and the operations are task specific so there's no fluff. Capistrano is used to communicate with remote systems though that is pluggable.
37 Signals uses the EC2 security group as way to specify the role an instance should take on when it boots. A configuration script that can handle all roles is shipped with a near complete functional base image. Sprinkle then configures the system the rest of the way based on the passed in role. Joshua says they like this approach better than Puppet because it doesn't rely on a centralized configuration server or "pushing large sets of commands over SSH manually."
There's always one more than one way to do "it" and Sprinkle carves out an interesting niche in the provisioning space. The 37 Signal's approach doesn't scale to a large organization with many different flavor of servers, but for a specific set of tightly cooperating servers it's a very simple, clean, and robust way of doing business.
Related Articles: Product: Puppet the Automated Administration System.