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The word "ansible" comes from 1960s sci-fi for a device which can communicate faster than the speed of light over unlimited distances. Though Ansible, the software, certainly does not move at faster than light speed, if you have ever provisioned multiple computers at the same time, Ansible fully lives up to the namesake.

Ansible is a suite of open source software tools for configuring remote systems via the Infrastructure as Code paradigm. Or, rather, this is a fancy way of saying "it's a program that runs scripts on other machines and offers certain guarantees when doing so". One of the big guarantees is idempotence, which you just saw in Control Prep. The basic upside of Ansible is that you can use code to define the state of a machine, and that code can be applied to many machines. As such, you only need to execute one command one time, and it can completely change the state of multiple machines.

Generally speaking, Ansible works by ssh-ing into a remote host, and begins executing commands, such as, copy a file to the host, create a new user, close this port, etc.


Ansible is capable of executing ANY arbitrary code on ANY host in your network that it can log into. As such, one should always read the code to be executed before running an Ansible command. Luckily for us, it is also a part of Ansible framework to explicitly describe, in English, every command to be executed, and print out that description when it is executing.

Ansible Config

Because of the above warning, before we run any command, we should be familiar with the config file we will be using for Ansible. It is in the root directory of the gildedpleb/hab-plays repo. Navigate to where you cloned that repo now. You will need to be in the root of that directly for ALL Ansible commands in this guide. If you simply cloned it earlier and have not moved directories in your terminal, you should be able to get there with:

cd hab-plays

Let's take a look at the config, it should match this:

inventory = ~/.HAB/inventory/hosts ; Location of the hosts file we will use
host_key_checking = False ; This affects ~.ssh/known_hosts and helps aleviate erronious warnings when on a LAN network with DNS resolved hosts
vault_password_file = ~/.HAB/.ansible_vault_access ; Location of the password file we created already
forks = 7 ; The number of concurent threads that can run at the same time

gathering = smart ; Reduces the amount of fact gathering durring plays that contact the same host more than once
fact_caching = jsonfile ; The file type of the fact gathering cache
fact_caching_connection = ~/.HAB/.facts_cache ; The location of that cache

# two hours timeout
fact_caching_timeout = 7200 ; The expiration of that fact gathering cache

Visually Assert Config Is Correct

To make sure everything is in working order, let's ask Ansible to dump whatever it thinks the current config is, and it should match the above:

ansible-config dump --only-changed

You should see the following, and it should match the above, no less and no more:

CACHE_PLUGIN(/Users/<YOU>/<PATH_TO>/hab-plays/ansible.cfg) = jsonfile
CACHE_PLUGIN_CONNECTION(/Users/<YOU>/<PATH_TO>/hab-plays/ansible.cfg) = ~/.HAB/.facts_cache
CACHE_PLUGIN_TIMEOUT(/Users/<YOU>/<PATH_TO>/hab-plays/ansible.cfg) = 7200
DEFAULT_FORKS(/Users/<YOU>/<PATH_TO>/hab-plays/ansible.cfg) = 7
DEFAULT_GATHERING(/Users/<YOU>/<PATH_TO>/hab-plays/ansible.cfg) = smart
DEFAULT_HOST_LIST(/Users/<YOU>/<PATH_TO>/hab-plays/ansible.cfg) = ['/Users/<YOU>/.HAB/inventory/hosts']
DEFAULT_VAULT_PASSWORD_FILE(/Users/<YOU>/<PATH_TO>/hab-plays/ansible.cfg) = /Users/<YOU>/.HAB/.ansible_vault_access
HOST_KEY_CHECKING(/Users/<YOU>/<PATH_TO>/hab-plays/ansible.cfg) = False

Alter Config

You should alter the config to meet your needs best. In particular, you should change forks to match the number of hosts you have. The PoC has 7 hosts, thus 7 forks, so we can run the same plays at the same time on each host without waiting for a previous host to finish first.

the cache

Be advised, the cache is a dump of system details about your hosts. After you run commands, you can view it in plain text in the directory above.

  1. You may want to disable the cash by commenting it out, so that it does not save all this info to disk. This will cost you playback speed.
  2. You may want to delete the cache from time to time, you can find it at the location listed above. Or run the delete command
    rm -rf ~/.HAB/.facts_cache

First Command

We will now execute our first Ansible command to check the validity of a potential host name.

Before we run the command, we are going to walk through everything it does, and thus, how to walk through all Ansible commands. Don't run it just yet, but the command we are going to run is this:

apb Hosts/validate-hostname.yml --extra-vars "hostName=test1"
  • apb is the alias for ansible-playbook which we set earlier. ansible-playbook is the executable for running multiple commands and threads called "playbooks".

  • Hosts/validate-hostname.yml is the actual code that comprises the command. It is this:

    - hosts: localhost
    - include_tasks: tasks/validate-host-name.yml

    In the above code, we see two things:

    • hosts: where the command should run. In this case, on the machine we are running the command from, the localhost.
    • tasks: the tasks which are to run on that host. In this case, it is the tasks located at tasks/validate-host-name.yml

    Heading over to tasks/validate-host-name.yml we see this code:

    - name:
    Make sure all characters in hostnames are lowercase alphanumeric '-' or
    that: hostName is match('^[a-z0-9][a-z0-9.-]{0,}[a-z0-9]$')
    quiet: yes
    "The node name '{{ hostName }}' either: 1. Starts or ends with something
    other than alphanumeric, 2. Is not all lowercase, or 3. Includes an
    invalid character"
    - name: Make sure hostnames are less than 253 characters
    that: hostName | length < 253
    quiet: yes
    fail_msg: "The node name '{{ hostName }}' is longer than 253 characters"

    Spend a second trying to understand this code. It is fairly generic Ansible boilerplate for checking if a passed extra variable hostName is up to snuff. If the tests fail, the fail message is printed.

  • Lastly, in our original command, the --extra-vars "hostName=test1" flag tells Ansible to set the variable hostName to the text "test1" and make it available to our script.

Run It

Replace "test1" with any potential name choice and give it a run. A successful run should not be dissimilar to this:


Moving forward, we will be truncating --extra-vars to -e, which is the short version of that flag.

% apb Hosts/validate-hostname.yml --extra-vars "hostName=test1"
PLAY [localhost] ***********************************************************************************************

TASK [Gathering Facts] *****************************************************************************************
ok: [localhost]

TASK [include_tasks] *******************************************************************************************
included: /Users/<YOU>/<PATH_TO>/hab-plays/Hosts/tasks/validate-host-name.yml for localhost

TASK [Make sure all characters in hostnames are lowercase alphanumeric '-' or '.'] *****************************
ok: [localhost]

TASK [Make sure hostnames are less than 253 characters] ********************************************************
ok: [localhost]

PLAY RECAP *****************************************************************************************************
localhost : ok=4 changed=0 unreachable=0 failed=0 skipped=0 rescued=0 ignored=0

And a failure run might look like this:

% apb Hosts/validate-hostname.yml --extra-vars "hostName=???"
PLAY [localhost] ***********************************************************************************************

TASK [include_tasks] *******************************************************************************************
included: /Users/<YOU>/<PATH_TO>/hab-plays/Hosts/tasks/validate-host-name.yml for localhost

TASK [Make sure all characters in hostnames are lowercase alphanumeric '-' or '.'] *****************************
fatal: [localhost]: FAILED! => {"assertion": "hostName is match('^[a-z0-9][a-z0-9.-]{0,}[a-z0-9]$')", "changed": false, "evaluated_to": false, "msg": "The node name '???' either: 1. Starts or ends with something other than alphanumeric, 2. Is not all lowercase, or 3. Includes an invalid character"}

PLAY RECAP *****************************************************************************************************
localhost : ok=1 changed=0 unreachable=0 failed=1 skipped=0 rescued=0 ignored=0
Yes, this is Overkill

In case you were wondering, yes, it is complete overkill to use Ansible to check a words' validity when any human can read for these very easy checks, or a simple command can do it. In our case, we need this check in Ansible for another script, to fool-proof the system, so we might as well make use of it twice.

What is Ansible Doing Here?

Right off the bat, you should notice that Ansible is following the directions exactly as specified in the .yml file and reporting everything it's doing. First, Ansible gets the list of hosts and gathers information about them. Then, it gets the tasks and begins execution. You will notice it did not do any fact gathering in the fail case above, that is thanks to the cache.

This trite example does not really show of the brilliance of Ansible, only once we get into more complex Ansible commands, will we really see where Ansible shines.

Atypical Ansible Structuring

If you are familiar with Ansible, you will immediately notice that we are not using roles, ansible-galaxy and a host of other best practices and community resources that Ansible scripts are typically designed around. This is intentional. For instance, the role pattern, though undoubtedly useful in commercial host provisioning with large experienced teams and thousands of computers, where an SRE might prefer to rely on the content of the command line args and not the content of the code they map to is not useful here. Here we are trying to read as much of the code as possible, to understand what it is doing. Relying on roles here makes this process opaque to navigate and disorienting to read. Having to open up multiple files and directories to find variables and figure out how they connect with other tasks in yet other files and folders is indirection and does not make for readable or digestible code, which is a first priority for this guide. We are using Ansible as a beginner would use it and reason with it because the expectation is that the audience is indeed beginners.

Now that we have some validated names, and a brief intro on Ansible, let's start networking our hosts together.