My Current Thoughts on System Administration

April 17, 2015 at 03:35 PM | categories: sysadmin, Mozilla | View Comments

I attended PyCon last week. It's a great conference. You should attend. While I should write up a detailed trip report, I wanted to quickly share one of my takeaways.

Ansible was talked about a lot at PyCon. Sitting through a few presentations and talking with others helped me articulate why I've been drawn to Ansible (over say Puppet, Chef, Salt, etc) lately.

First, Ansible doesn't require a central server. Administration is done remotely Ansible establishes a SSH connection to a remote machine and does stuff. Having Ruby, Python, support libraries, etc installed on production systems just for system administration never really jived with me. I love Ansible's default hands off approach. (Yes, you can use a central server for Ansible, but that's not the default behavior. While tools like Puppet could be used without a central server, it felt like they were optimized for central server use and thus local mode felt awkward.)

Related to central servers, I never liked how that model consists of clients periodically polling for and applying updates. I like the idea of immutable server images and periodic updates work against this goal. The central model also has a major bazooka pointed at you: at any time, you are only one mistake away from completely hosing every machine doing continuous polling. e.g. if you accidentally update firewall configs and lock out central server and SSH connectivity, every machine will pick up these changes during periodic polling and by the time anyone realizes what's happened, your machines are all effectively bricked. (Yes, I've seen this happen.) I like having humans control exactly when my systems apply changes, thank you. I concede periodic updates and central control have some benefits.

Choosing not to use a central server by default means that hosts are modeled as a set of applied Ansible playbooks, not necessarily as a host with a set of Ansible playbooks attached. Although, Ansible does support both models. I can easily apply a playbook to a host in a one-off manner. This means I can have playbooks represent common, one-off tasks and I can easily run these tasks without having to muck around with the host to playbook configuration. More on this later.

I love the simplicity of Ansible's configuration. It is just YAML files. Not some Ruby-inspired DSL that takes hours to learn. With Ansible, I'm learning what modules are available and how they work, not complicated syntax. Yes, there is complexity in Ansible's configuration. But at least I'm not trying to figure out the file syntax as part of learning it.

Along that vein, I appreciate the readability of Ansible playbooks. They are simple, linear lists of tasks. Conceptually, I love the promise of full dependency graphs and concurrent execution. But I've spent hours debugging race conditions and cyclic dependencies in Puppet that I'm left unconvinced the complexity and power is worth it. I do wish Ansible could run faster by running things concurrently. But I think they made the right decision by following KISS.

I enjoy how Ansible playbooks are effectively high-level scripts. If I have a shell script or block of code, I can usually port it to Ansible pretty easily. One pass to do the conversion 1:1. Another pass to Ansibilize it. Simple.

I love how Ansible playbooks can be checked in to source control and live next to the code and applications they manage. I frequently see people maintain separate source control repositories for configuration management from the code it is managing. This always bothered me. When I write a service, I want the code for deploying and managing that service to live next to it in version control. That way, I get the configuration management and the code versioned in the same timeline. If I check out a release from 2 years ago, I should still be able to use its exact configuration management code. This becomes difficult to impossible when your organization is maintaining configuration management code in a separate repository where a central server is required to do deployments (see Puppet).

Before PyCon, I was having an internal monolog about adopting the policy that all changes to remote servers be implemented with Ansible playbooks. I'm pleased to report that a fellow contributor to the Mercurial project has adopted this workflow himself and he only has great things to say! So, starting today, I'm going to try to enforce that every change I make to a remote server is performed via Ansible and that the Ansible playbooks are checked into version control. The Ansible playbooks will become implicit documentation of every process involved with maintaining a server.

I've already applied this principle to deploying MozReview. Before, there was some internal Mozilla wiki documenting commands to execute in a terminal to deploy MozReview. I have replaced that documentation with a one-liner that invokes Ansible. And, the Ansible files are now in a public repository.

If you poke around that repository, you'll see that I have Ansible playbooks referencing Docker. I have Ansible provisioning Docker images used by the test and development environment. That same Ansible code is used to configure our production systems (or is at least in the process of being used in that way). Having dev, test, and prod using the same configuration management has been a pipe dream of mine and I finally achieved it! I attempted this before with Puppet but was unable to make it work just right. The flexibility that Ansible's design decisions have enabled has made this finally possible.

Ansible is my go to system management tool right now. And I still feel like I have a lot to learn about its hidden powers.

If you are still using Puppet, Chef, or other tools invented in previous generations, I urge you to check out Ansible. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

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