Recently, I've been using Ansible to set up some new VOEvent-node deployment scripts. While I'm at it, I've also been converting a lot of messy provisioning shell-scripts (see old version, new version - work in progress). Here are my notes on why Ansible is, IMO, much nicer than plain old shell-scripts, and might be worth your time to learn. Some of this stuff has been covered elsewhere, and I encourage you to go check out the code examples next. However, my take is that in isolation none of the following features are really compelling, and you actually need to use Ansible (or perhaps some other configuration management tool) for a bit to see the full range of benefits and realise what you gain. So, here's a fairly comprehensive feature-list in true 'what have the Romans ever done for us' style:

Parallel execution across multiple machines. This is what attracted me to Ansible in the first place - using the ad-hoc mode to run shell commands across many machines in parallel. Of course, there are other options (e.g. pssh), but it's a big part of what makes Ansible so powerful.

A library of ready-made idempotent 'modules' with a standarized option format for dealing with common operations. A lot of the idempotency (the concept that change commands should only be applied when they need to be applied) you get with Ansible can be achieved through careful shell scripting - always using mkdir -p, carefully cleaning and force-checkouting git repos, etc - and indeed with something like apt-get it's baked in. But, whenever there's a ready-made module, Ansible takes care of those details for you, and also provides you with useful additional options you might not have bothered with when writing shell scripts from scratch, e.g. the apt module allows you to update the cached list of packages prior to downloading, install recommended packages, etc. Likewise the git module provides options to disable host key checking, use a custom SSH key file, perform a recursive checkout, and so on. The module docs serve as handy reminders of things you might need to switch on, and the option-specification format provides an easy-to-read note of how each command should be carried out.

Automatic step-by-step reporting. Ansible encourages you to name each 'task' in your provisioning script, and then reports whether or not that task succeeded with-or-without changes, or failed, and any error messages. All colour coded. This is nice.

Tagging. You can tag your commands, making it easy to execute a subset of a provisioning script without extracting that section or commenting everything else out. Also nice.

Syntax that strikes a balance between ease-of-variable-mangling, sufficient logic-flow control, and readability. Ansible applies the Jinja2 templating language over the underlying YAML syntax, so you can use the subset of Python features that provides - easy access to nested-dict variables, lists, string manipulation, and so on. It also allows you to register the results of a command as a new variable. This provides a dict containing entries telling you if that task succeeded, whether it changed anything, what paths it created, etc. You can then refer back to this variable in later commands, or use it to perform tasks conditionally. On which note, right out-of-the-box Ansible provides a bunch of machine-information variables like the operating-system family, number of CPU cores, timezone, and so on, which often come in handy when customising commands to the system in question.

I find the combination of YAML definition format and Jinja templating quite readable, and certainly easier to skim than equivalent bash. Factors contributing to this are enforced whitespacing, a consistent commands/options format, and basic nested data-structures of the sort that are infuriatingly difficult (if not nigh-on impossible) to use in bash. You will probably need to learn a bit about YAML and Jinja to get the most out of Ansible, but you can mostly pick it up from the examples laid out in the docs. I haven't tried Puppet/Chef personally, so can't compare, but others seem to think Ansible is easier to get to grips with. The drawback of using this slightly unusual hybrid markup/language, rather than say plain bash or ruby, is that occasionally you do have to jump through a hoop or two to fit the task to the language. However, the get-out clause is that you can always fall back to a shell command or script if required.

Composability. Probably the biggest winner over shell-scripts in the long-term, although I get the feeling that the community around Ansible is not quite there yet. Ansible tries to solve the problem of code re-use by formalising a set of conventions for building-blocks called roles, and putting together a sort of 'github for deployment-patterns' called Ansible Galaxy. If things go well, this could effectively become a PyPI or CPAN equivalent for devops. On the other hand, it could devolve to a mess of untested, 'only works for my use-case' style packages - success relies on an active community who are willing to test, review, extend and maintain these packages. Time will tell if this is a realistic ask, but in the meantime at least there's a standardized method for re-use in personal collections.

Downsides? Not many. Ansible only requires SSH, so you can use it with minimal set-up overhead. It can be a bit slow to work through a playbook when it's just checking system-state and not actually changing anything. This can be improved somewhat by setting pipelining to True in your Ansible config. Others report that if you're working with a large number of machines SaltStack is considerably faster in the check-and-do-nothing case. It benefits from a similar Python/YAML markup, but isn't quite as well documented for complete beginners, so that's perhaps a better option if you're working in deployment full-time on large systems - though it does require a client-side installation.

(Edited 2015-07-06, to add note on downsides / Salt-stack, and again on 2015-07-10, after a bit more thought on flexibility vs. readability.)


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