» Consul vs. Chef, Puppet, etc.
It is not uncommon to find people using Chef, Puppet, and other configuration management tools to build service discovery mechanisms. This is usually done by querying global state to construct configuration files on each node during a periodic convergence run.
Unfortunately, this approach has a number of pitfalls. The configuration information is static and cannot update any more frequently than convergence runs. Generally this is on the interval of many minutes or hours. Additionally, there is no mechanism to incorporate the system state in the configuration: nodes which are unhealthy may receive traffic exacerbating issues further. Using this approach also makes supporting multiple datacenters challenging as a central group of servers must manage all datacenters.
Consul is designed specifically as a service discovery tool. As such, it is much more dynamic and responsive to the state of the cluster. Nodes can register and deregister the services they provide, enabling dependent applications and services to rapidly discover all providers. By using the integrated health checking, Consul can route traffic away from unhealthy nodes, allowing systems and services to gracefully recover. Static configuration that may be provided by configuration management tools can be moved into the dynamic key/value store. This allows application configuration to be updated without a slow convergence run. Lastly, because each datacenter runs independently, supporting multiple datacenters is no different than a single datacenter.
That said, Consul is not a replacement for configuration management tools. These tools are still critical to set up applications, including Consul itself. Static provisioning is best managed by existing tools while dynamic state and discovery is better managed by Consul. The separation of configuration management and cluster management also has a number of advantageous side effects: Chef recipes and Puppet manifests become simpler without global state, periodic runs are no longer required for service or configuration changes, and the infrastructure can become immutable since config management runs require no global state.