Beware: deleteing a file in Chef doesn't actually delete it

Note - this is slightly clickbait, as this behaviour is somewhat documented in the Chef docs for the file resource, although it is not made obvious, and can be a little gotcha.

I ran into this issue recently where I was doing an audit of one of my cookbooks to ensure that no plaintext credentials were being left on the box, despite me telling Chef to remove the file.

I had a Chef recipe such as:

file '/tmp/abc.txt' do
  content 'secret file'

# do something with the credentials file

file '/tmp/abc.txt' do
  action :delete

When running this on a node, Chef told me that it had deleted the file as part of the Chef run:

Starting Chef Client, version 13.6.4
Creating a new client identity for default-debian using the validator key.
resolving cookbooks for run list: ["fake-cookbook::default"]
Synchronizing Cookbooks:
  - fake-cookbook (0.1.0)
Installing Cookbook Gems:
Compiling Cookbooks...
Converging 2 resources
Recipe: fake-cookbook::default
  * file[/tmp/abc.txt] action create
    - create new file /tmp/abc.txt
    - update content in file /tmp/abc.txt from none to c78470
    --- /tmp/abc.txt     2018-04-29 20:39:28.783960115 +0000
    +++ /tmp/.chef-abc20180429-100-12fjr5z.txt   2018-04-29 20:39:28.783960115 +0000
    @@ -1 +1,2 @@
    +secret file
  * file[/tmp/abc.txt] action delete
    - delete file /tmp/abc.txt

Running handlers:
Running handlers complete
Chef Client finished, 2/2 resources updated in 01 seconds
Finished converging <default-debian> (0m37.63s).

And when logging onto the box, I can verify that this file no longer exists:

$ ls -al /tmp
total 32
drwxrwxrwt 1 root    root       62 Apr 29 20:39 .
drwxr-xr-x 1 root    root      152 Apr 29 20:38 ..
-rw-r--r-- 1 root    root    23425 Apr 29 20:38
drwxr-xr-x 1 kitchen kitchen   146 Apr 29 20:39 kitchen
-rw-r--r-- 1 root    root        2 Apr 29 20:38
-rw-r--r-- 1 root    root      419 Apr 29 20:38 stderr

But when looking around, I found that there was a folder on the node with the file intact:

$ find /tmp/kitchen/backup/

Note that in Test Kitchen's case, this is /tmp/kitchen/backup, but in a regular Chef client run, it will be the value of file_backup_path in the client.rb.

It turns out that this is because a file resource's property backup defaults to 5, which means that there is actually a copy of the file with its super secret contents:

$ cat /tmp/kitchen/backup/tmp/abc.txt.chef-20180429203928.788594
secret file

The best way to avoid this is simply to add the backup false property:

 file '/tmp/abc.txt' do
   action :delete
+  backup false

And as we can now see, that folder no longer exists with a copy of our secret file!

$ find /tmp/kitchen/backup
find: `/tmp/kitchen/backup': No such file or directory

Written by Jamie Tanna on , and last updated on .

Content for this article is shared under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial Share Alike 4.0 International, and code is shared under the Apache License 2.0.

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