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Why you might need Ansible and not even know it

doomhammerng profile image Piotr Gaczkowski ・6 min read

Do you want to start using Ansible? Are you already using it, but coming up against challenges? Even if you don’t fall into either category, don’t stop reading. I’m going to show you why you might actually need Ansible and how to best take advantage of it.

Ansible’s catchphrase is “simple IT automation.” This is a pretty accurate description of what it does. In its most popular mode of operation (there are several), you describe the desired state of your machines, and Ansible manipulates them to achieve this state. At this point, you may be thinking “yeah, but we’ve already got shell scripts for that.” Ansible, though, offers several advantages over good old shell scripts.

First of all, the playbook, which describes the desired state, is declarative and written in YAML. Using a playbook means you don’t need to handle the error control and condition checking yourself. It also means no actions will be taken if the state is already satisfied (e.g. apt-get won’t run if an nginx package is already installed).

But this is only part of the story.

The other thing that makes Ansible so powerful is the use of modules. Instead of relying on many third-party applications (sed, grep, jq, useradd, parted, etc.) and parsing their output, you can focus solely on the state itself. This means that regardless of the underlying userspace programs (useradd, adduser, Busybox, BSD, or GNU variants), you can just specify a universal task as follows:

– name: Create the operator user
  user:
    name: operator
    createhome: yes
    groups: wheel
    shell: /bin/sh

In the same way, you would encapsulate parts of your script into separate libraries, Ansible embraces the concept of roles. Roles describe particular states of a machine, together with possible variables, configuration files, or templates. They’re aptly named, and the machine can use roles like docker, nginx, and python, for example. Each of these may then be tested in isolation and reused among all of your projects. They also can encapsulate more abstract concepts like the ansible-hardening role from OpenStack, which makes a target a little bit harder to break.

And the other cool thing? To run Ansible, you only need Python 2.6+ on your target machines and an open SSH connection. There’s no need to install anything else! This means you’re probably ready to start using Ansible right away! Prepare your control machine by running brew install ansible or pip install -user ansible and follow me.

Deployment as Code

Forget about the README located in the project’s root directory. It usually contains all the tedious details on how to deploy to staging or production. With Ansible, the documentation is in the code. It’s testable, it’s reusable, and it can be run by anybody, as long as the person has access to the target machines. It also forms the perfect basis for a Continuous Deployment (CD) pipeline.
Making sure your app is always deployable can also help avert disaster. Instead of figuring out what to do when your servers go down, you simply edit the inventory file and make a fresh deployment to a new set of machines.

Make Sure Your Team Is Ready for DevOps

When the deployment is a part of the codebase, it has to evolve with the codebase. Make sure all of your team is DevOps-enabled and understands how to use Ansible. The best way to do this is to provide a Vagrant environment so each dev can test the deployment process locally.

It’s essential that you test your deployment code in the same way you test your application. Each change to an application that may be relevant to deployment needs to be reflected in changes to Ansible files. For example, if you add new files that must be copied to the server, make sure there’s a corresponding task. If an application starts logging in a particular directory, make sure Ansible creates that directory and sets appropriate permissions.

It’s Easy to Make It Work, Harder to Make It Maintainable

Ansible has its downsides, as well. These aren’t necessarily related to the tool itself, but they do crop up occasionally. Even though Ansible has well-documented best practices, those don’t always help you achieve a single goal. This can lead to the creation of complicated solutions when simple ones would suffice.

Prefer One-Time Deployments

Even though one of the features Ansible advertises is idempotence, it’s still quite easy to write a playbook that won’t work correctly. For example, how do you update service in an idempotent way? You can’t, it’s self-contradictory, which means you have to sacrifice one thing to save another (an update, that is).

There are two concepts that can help with this problem: disposable infrastructure and immutable infrastructure. The two are pretty similar from a deployment point of view. The former assumes that a machine can be easily disposed of at any point in time after a successful deployment. It may be reconfigured in the future, but there’s nothing stopping you from taking it down at any time. The latter also requires that a machine never changes its configuration after it is provisioned.

Both assume your application is located beyond a load balancer (or a reverse proxy). Such a load balancer could be hosted either externally or internally, independent of the rest of the infrastructure. Services that make up your application are registered in the load balancer. The backend configuration is updated dynamically as services come and go. If you want to host the load balancer yourself, confd or consul-template can help with dynamic reconfiguration.

Use and Reuse Roles

Questions like when and how to use roles or what aspects should be configurable don’t have single, straightforward answers. In my experience, it’s best to think of the various use cases for a particular machine and then to encapsulate those use cases in separate roles that can not only be tested in isolation but can also be reused for other projects. Such reuse also leads to better code quality thanks to a larger testing base.

A Galaxy of Possibilities

Ansible Galaxy provides lots of modules we can use. This is similar to Docker Hub or NPM, where you can search for the relevant parts and use them in your project. They are all written adhering to one standard, meaning they should be easily reusable. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

More than once in my career, I’ve happened upon a module that declared compatibility with Debian but was only ever tested on Ubuntu. This may not be a problem if you can choose your base OS. It may mean some additional work in porting it if you want to make use of existing infrastructure.

Version pinning is another problem. We all know that software evolves and that backward compatibility is rarely observed. When modules use several dependencies, it’s crucial that every such dependency is described with an exact version tag. This way, we can avoid the problem of installing a package in the latest version that’s no longer compatible with another part of the system.

When talking about pinned versions, there’s no avoiding the subject of bit rot. Unused software decays. Referenced hyperlinks can become obsolete, releases can be taken down, hosting services may cease operation. Even if a module uses a pinned version, it may become unusable if it’s not regularly tested and updated as needed, which leads us to our next topic.

Testing Is Hard — and Time-Consuming

Ansible usually operates on system services. While it’s possible to test some of its features in containers (e.g., with Docker), this approach will generally fail. Docker can’t test all the kernel operations or systemd calls, because they don’t exist in its scope. To properly test Ansible playbooks, you need VMs. Did you notice the plural? Good, because it’s not enough to test on just one VM.

The most basic test setup should use a clean VM, run the playbook, check the results, and then run the playbook again to check for idempotency issues. But this only gives you limited information. You still don’t know if the playbook will actually deploy in production. The target machine won’t necessarily be a clean VM (unless you’re already using disposable infrastructure).

To mitigate this risk, it may be a good idea to have a separate VM that could serve as “long-term memory.” This VM, in contrast, would not be cleaned after every test deployment but would allow changes to accumulate over time.

Summary

The best way to document code is in the code itself. Considering this simple statement leads us to a logical conclusion — the best deployment documentation is the deployment code. There are many tools to help achieve this, with Ansible being one of them. Personally, I prefer it to Chef or Puppet, but I’ve yet to try Salt or StackStorm.

As with every tool I’ve encountered in my professional life, it also has its downsides. Knowing them up front should help you avoid some of the problems I’ve stumbled upon. Hopefully, learning from my experience will save you time and frustration in your own work.

Originally published at https://www.iamondemand.com on August 10, 2017.

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doomhammerng profile

Piotr Gaczkowski

@doomhammerng

Creator. Efficiency Hacker. Human Jukebox.

Discussion

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Its idempotency is decent ...just that sometimes you have to be fairly deliberate in how you code things to achieve the desired degree of idempotency. Not everyone wants to sort out the logic necessary to create an always-valid when condition.

 

True, sometimes it can be a bit problematic. But again, when compared to shell scripts, you still win with Ansible.

 

Yeah. Easier in all of the CM-oriented tooling (...and each has their own challenges to ensuring actual idempotency that the vendors tend to gloss over).

 

Ansible is a great tool, and in my opinion a massive step up in terms of quality-of-life compared to the complex behemoths that are Salt, Chef and Puppet. We deploy our Google Cloud servers with Ansible (though it was a hassle to make it work with gcloud compute ssh...) and also provision our Vagrant boxes for development and testing with it. This is simple done right!

 

I love Ansible (as you can tell) and it's ease of use (nothing to install at the client side). One drawback for me is the speed of execution. But compared to she'll scripts that could fail, it's still pretty good!

 

It was a cool article, I've not seen much articles here talking about Ansible, it's a really good tool.

I've had some experiences with Ansible but unfortunately on Microsoft Windows Servers enviroments it doesn't work very well.
I could do some basic tasks like copy files and execute basic comands, but sometimes it just doesn't work, maybe I did some stuff wrong.

Another point is that It's not a friendly user tool for a team that don't have a DevOps culture.
In my work we have a deploy team and they work with legacy applications where they needs make changes manualy. I try to implements Ansible to help them, but we have problems with some tasks sometimes because of Ansible and sometimes because of team.

I've had to created a tool to encapsulate all routines and logics to have the job done and Ansible was a good point to start and learn how to create it.

I want to work with that tool of right way some day, it is a art wrote in python.

 

I think the support for Windows Server is getting better and better. You still have to run Ansible on a UNIX box, though, if I'm not mistaken.

And I agree with you, the team culture is a prerequisite to using this tool or any other tool.