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At DebConf held last year, Lee Garrett, a Debian maintainer for Ansible talked about some of the best practices in the open-source, configuration management tool. Ansible runs on Unix-like systems and configures both Unix-like and Microsoft Windows. It uses a simple syntax written in YAML, which is a human-readable data serialization language and uses SSH to connect to the node machines. Ansible is a helpful tool for creating a group of machines, describing their configuration and actions.

Ansible is used to implement software provisioning, application-deployment security, compliance, and orchestration solutions. When compared to other configuration management tools like Puppet, Chef, SaltStack, etc, Ansible is very easy to setup. Garett says that due to its agentless nature, users can easily control any machine with an SSH daemon using Ansible. This will assist users in controlling any Debian installed machine using Ansible. It also supports the configuration of many things like networking equipment and Windows machines.

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What are Ansible role patterns?

Ansible uses a playbook as an entry point for provisioning and defines automation through the YAML format. A playbook requires a predefined pattern to organize them and also needs other files to facilitate the sharing and reusing of provisioning. This is when a ‘role’ comes into the picture. 

An Ansible role which is an independent component allows the reuse of common configuration steps. It contains a set of tasks that can be used to configure a host such that it will serve a certain function like configuring a service. Roles are defined using YAML files with a predefined directory structure. A role directory structure contains directories like defaults, vars, tasks, files, templates, meta, handlers. 

Some tips for creating good Ansible role patterns

An ideal role must have a ‘roles/<role>/task/main.yml’ format, thus specifying the name of the role, it’s tasks, and main.yml. At the beginning of each role, users are advised to check for necessary conditions like the ‘assert’ tasks to inspect if the variables are defined or not. Another prerequisite involves installing packages, using apps on CentOS machines and Yum (the default package manager tool in CentOS) or by using the git checkout. 

Templating of files with abstraction is another important factor where variables are defined and put into templates to create the actual config file. Garrett also points out that a template module has a validate parameter which helps the user to check if the config file has any syntax errors. The syntax error can fail the playbook even before deploying the config file. For example, he says, “use Apache with the right parameters to do a con check on the syntax of the file. So that way you never end up with a state where there’s a broken configure something there.” 

Garrett also recommends putting sensible defaults in the ‘roles/defaults/main.yml’ layout which will make the defaults override the variables on specific cases.

He further adds that a role should ideally run in the check mode. Ansible playbook has a –check which basically is “just a dry run” of a user’s complete playbook and –diff will display file or file mode changes in the playbook. Further, he adds that a variable can be defined in the default and in the Var’s folder. However, the latter folder is hard to override and should be avoided, warns Garrett.

What are some typical anti-patterns in Ansible?

The shell and command modules are used in Ansible for executing commands on remote servers. Both modules require command names followed by a list of arguments. 

The shell module is used when a command is to be executed in the remote servers in a particular shell. Garrett says that new Ansible users generally end up using the shell or command module in the same way as the wget computer program. According to him, this practice is wrong, since “there’s currently I think thousands of three hundred different modules in ansible so there’s likely a big chance that whatever you want to do there already a module for that just did that thing.” 

He also asserts that these two modules have several problems as the shell module gets interrupted by the actual shells, so if the user has any special variables in the shell string and if their PlayBook is running in the check mode then the shell and the command module won’t run. 

Another drawback of these modules is that they will always refer back to change while running a command which makes its exit value zero. This means that the user will have to probably get the output and then check if there is any standard error present in it. 

Next, Garrett explored some examples to show the alternatives to the shell/command module – the ‘slurp’ module. The slurp module will “slope the whole file and a 64 encoded” and will also enable access to the actual content with ‘path file.contents’. The best thing about this module is that it will never return any change and works great in the check mode.

In another example, Garrett showed that when fetching a URL, the shell command ends up getting downloaded every time the playbook runs, thus throwing an error each time. This can again be avoided by using the ‘uri’ module instead of the shell module. The uri module will define the URL every time a file is to be retrieved thus helping the user to write and create a parameter. At the end of the talk, Garrett also threw light on the problems with using the set_facts module and shares its templates. Watch the full video on Youtube.

You can also learn all about custom modules, plugins, and dynamic inventory sources in our book ‘Mastering Ansible’ written by James Freeman and Jesse Keating.

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