It took me a while to wrap my head around a Chef role. It sounds simple enough at first — a collection of recipes that allows a node to act in a certain capacity, as say, a Redis server — but Chef also deals in cookbooks, which are also collections of recipes. So then what’s the difference between a cookbook and a role?
A cookbook is a collection of recipes relating to a particular piece of technology. The nginx cookbook, for example, contains several recipes related to building and configuring nginx:
nginx::source builds nginx from source,
nginx::ohai_plugin provides the Ohai plugin as a template,
nginx::passenger builds the passenger gem, etc.
A node is a single server, and Chef can apply a variety of recipes to the node to set it up as needed. Those recipes can be selected from a variety of cookbooks, and we don’t have to use every recipe in a given cookbook. So how do we package the particular mix of recipes we need for a certain type of node? In a role.
For lack of a better analogy, you could think of a role as a multi-course meal made from several recipes pulled from a variety of cookbooks. A couple from a Pasta cookbook, one from a French Cuisine cookbook, one from a Pastries cookbook. The meal won’t be made from every single recipe in those books, just the desired ones.
Recipes can include each other too, like mixins in Ruby (the
nginx::source recipe, for example, includes the
nginx::ohai_plugin recipe as part of it) but let’s not add to the confusion just yet.