Simplifying IT automation
IT infrastructure should be simpler to automate. A new method of describing IT configurations and policy as data formats can help us get there. To understand this conclusion, it helps to understand how the existing tool chains of automation software came to be.
In the beginnings of IT infrastructure, administrators seeking to avoid redundant typing wrote scripts to help them manage their growing computer hordes. The development of these inhouse automation systems were not without cost; each organization built its own redundant tools. As scripting gurus left an organization, these scripts were often very difficult to maintain by new employees.
As we all know by the huge number of books written on the topic, software development sometimes has a large amount of time investment required to do it right. Systems management software is especially complex, due to all the possible variables and corner cases to be managed. These inhouse scripting systems often grew to be fragile.
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Automating the configuration management of your operating systems and the rollout of your applications is one of the most important things an administrator or developer can do to avoid surprises when updating services, scaling up, or recovering from failures. However, it’s often not enough. Some of the most common operations that happen in your datacenter (or cloud environment) involve large numbers of machines working together and humans to mediate those processes. While we have been able to remove a lot of human effort from configuration, there has been a lack of software able to handle these higher-level operations.
I used to work for a hosted web application company where the IT process for executing an application update involved locking six people in a room for sometimes 3-4 hours, each person pressing the right buttons at the right time. This process almost always had a glitch somewhere where someone forgot to run the right command or something wasn’t well tested beforehand. While some technical solutions were applied to handle configuration automation, nothing that could perform configuration could really accomplish that high level choreography on top as well. This is why I wrote Ansible.
Ansible is a configuration management, application deployment, and IT orchestration system. One of Ansible’s strong points is having a very simple, human readable language – it allows users very fine, precise control over what happens on what machines at what times.
To get started, create an inventory file, for instance, ~/ansible_hosts that defines what machines you are managing, and which machines are frequently organized into groups. Ansible can also pull inventory from multiple cloud sources, but an inventory file is a quick way to get started:
# add more webservers here
Now that you have defined what machines you are managing, you have to define what you are going to do on the remote machines.
Ansible calls this description of processes a “playbook,” and you don’t have to have just one, you could have different playbooks for different kinds of tasks.
Let’s look at an example for describing a rolling update process. This example is somewhat involved because it’s using haproxy, but haproxy is freely available. Ansible also includes modules for dealing with Netscalers and F5 load balancers, so this is just an example — ordinarily you would start more simply and work up to an example like this: