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Ansible Tutorial for Beginners: Step-by-Step Explanation

Ansible is pretty familiar in the software industry as a prominent cloud computing configuration tool. Easy to use with a straightforward installation process, the applications of Ansible go beyond configuration management to include task automation, application deployment, and more. Ansible has a free to use and smooth learning curve that further encourages its widespread adoption.

This Ansible tutorial for beginners will introduce you to the basics of Ansible and help you learn Ansible step-by-step.

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What is Ansible?

Ansible is an open-source, cross-platform automation and orchestration software tool. Ansible enables configuration management, software provisioning, and software deployment at scale. It can run and configure Windows and Unix-like systems to provide infrastructure as code and have its own declarative language. The automation capabilities of Ansible apply across hybrid clouds, IoT, and on-premises infrastructure, resulting in efficient IT environments.

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1. Plays 

A play refers to a fundamental unit of configuration and orchestration. It is a sequence of tasks that are executed on a set of hosts defined in the inventory.

2. Plugins

Plugins are a powerful tool that extends the functionality of the core framework. They allow users to customise and enhance various aspects of Ansible’s operation, including inventory management, connection types, task execution, variable handling, and more. Plugins provide a flexible and modular way to adapt Ansible to different environments. Ansible plugins are implemented as Python modules and are organised into different types based.

3. Ansible Automation Platform

The Ansible Automation Platform is a comprehensive solution offered by Red Hat that provides a centralised hub for managing, orchestrating, and scaling Ansible automation across an organisation. It enhances the capabilities of Ansible by providing a web-based graphical user interface (GUI), a RESTful API, and additional features for collaboration.

Ansible Basic Terms and Concepts

Before proceeding further into the Ansible tutorial, acquaint yourself with basic terminologies and concepts.

Control Node: Control node is a machine with Ansible installed. Any computer (except a Windows machine) with a Python installation can be used as a control node to run Ansible, and users can have multiple control nodes.

Managed Nodes: The managed nodes are the network devices or servers managed with Ansible. Also referred to as a host, a managed node does not have Ansible installed.

Tasks: A task is a unit of action in Ansible comprising a module, its arguments, and other parameters. Users can execute a single task once using an ad hoc command. 

Playbooks: Ansible playbooks are blueprints of automation tasks consisting of ordered lists of tasks. Playbooks are written in YAML.

YAML: YAML is a human-readable data-serialisation language, primarily used in writing configuration files, a human-readable data-serialisation language. 

Inventory: The inventory is a list of managed nodes and often includes information such as the IP address for each managed node. Ansible inventory, also known as Hostfile, can organise managed nodes for easy scaling by creating and nesting groups.

Modules: A module is the unit of code Ansible executes for specific use. Users can invoke different modules in a playbook or a single module with a task. 

Roles: An Ansible role is an independent component that allows breaking a playbook into multiple files. Logically breaking a playbook into components makes it easier to reuse and simplifies writing playbooks. 

Collections: An Ansible collection is a format for packaging and distributing content, including playbooks, modules, roles, and plugins. 

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The Ansible Architecture

Next, in this Ansible tutorial for beginners, we will look at the Ansible architecture. 

Ansible Architecture

Source

From the above diagrammatic representation, it is pretty evident that the Ansible architecture comprises the following components:

CMDB: CMDB or Configuration Management Database is a repository or data warehouse for the IT infrastructure.

Public or Private Cloud: The cloud is a network of remote servers hosted on the internet for data processing, management and storage.

Ansible Playbook: The user writes code in a playbook that interacts with the CMDB and the Ansible automation engine.

Users: Users are the creators of Ansible playbooks and have a direct link with the Ansible automation engine.

Inventory: Inventory is a component of the Ansible automation engine and helps provision automation usage. 

Modules: Ansible connects to nodes and pushes out scripts called Ansible modules to the nodes. Ansible then executes the modules and removes them after completion. 

API: Ansible APIs enable the interaction between end-to-end modules.

Plugins: A plugin is a piece of code enhancing the core functionality of Ansible. Users can write their plugins or choose from a list of handly Ansible plugins.

Hosts: A host is a Linux, Unix or any other type of machine getting automated by Ansible.

Networking: Ansible helps automate different networks using the agentless automation framework. It uses a data model distinct from the Ansible automation engine and seamlessly spans the various hardware.

The Ansible Workflow

The following diagram summarises the Ansible workflow.

 Ansible Workflow

Source

The Ansible Management Node controls the playbook’s execution and makes secured SSH connections with the host machines to execute small modules and software. The inventory file has the list of hosts where the Ansible modules need to run. Once installed, Ansible removes the modules. The modules library resides on any machine and does not require servers, databases or daemons. 

What can Ansible do?

Now that we have discussed the fundamentals of Ansible let’s look into its operations below.

  • Configuration Management: Ansible is a simple, secure, highly-reliable, and most consistent solution for configuration management. Ansible configurations are simple data descriptions of machine-parsable and human-readable infrastructure for easy comprehension.
  • Application Deployment: Ansible simplifies managing application deployment, eliminating the manual deployment process. Machines only require Ansible installation for quick deployment.
  • Orchestration: Ansible is an open-source orchestration engine, allowing users to define infrastructure once and scale it up or down based on needs. The high-end orchestration capabilities of Ansible ensure well-structured organisation and management of the interactions between various configuration tasks.
  • Resource/Server Provisioning: Ansible can provision virtualised hosts and hypervisors, network devices, bare-metal servers and the latest cloud platforms. With Ansible provisioning, users can easily transition into orchestration, application deployment and configuration management using human-readable automation language.
  • Security and Compliance: Whether it is locking down users and groups, applying firewalls, or setting custom security policies, users can secure any part of their system using Ansible. Security automation using Ansible facilitates rapid identification and remediation of threats without manual intervention.

Benefits of Using Ansible

What makes Ansible so popular as an IT automation tool? Here’s a look at the manifold benefits of this open-source platform.

  • Simple: Setting up and managing the Ansible infrastructure is relatively easy since its playbooks are written in YAML, a human-readable data serialisation language. 
  • Agentless: Ansible does not require any agent or additional software to work on the clients or host systems. 
  • Modular: Ansible has 750+ built-in modules to simplify IT infrastructures’ automation, configuration, deployment, and orchestration.
  • Efficient: Since Ansible does not require any servers, databases or daemons to work, it improves efficiency by making more space for resources.
  • Secure: Ansible is secure with flawless operations, thanks to SSH and Python.

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Inventory Management: Organising Your Infrastructure in Ansible

Inventory management in Ansible refers to the process of organising and categorising the hosts or nodes in your infrastructure that Ansible will manage. Ansible uses a simple INI file format to define the inventory, which contains information about the hosts and their attributes. This inventory file acts as a central configuration file for Ansible, enabling you to specify which hosts to target and how to group them for specific tasks.

Here are some guidelines for organising your infrastructure in Ansible using inventory management –

1. Inventory File Format

Ansible inventory is typically defined in an INI file format, although other formats like YAML or dynamic inventory scripts are also supported. Create a new file, such as “inventory.ini,” and define your inventory within it. The inventory file usually consists of sections, where each section represents a group of hosts or a specific host.

2. Defining Hosts

Within each section, you define the hosts that belong to that group. Specify the host’s IP address or domain name, one per line, under the corresponding section. You can use host patterns to define multiple hosts using a common pattern.

3. Grouping Hosts

Grouping hosts allows you to perform actions on multiple hosts simultaneously. You can define multiple sections to categorise your hosts based on their roles, environment, location, or any other criteria that make sense for your infrastructure. Group names can be hierarchical, allowing you to create subgroups.

4. Variables and Attributes

You can assign variables and attributes to hosts or groups within the inventory file. Variables allow you to define custom settings or parameters for specific hosts or groups.

5. Dynamic Inventory

Ansible also supports dynamic inventory, which generates the inventory file dynamically based on external systems like cloud providers or CMDBs. Dynamic inventory scripts can be written in various languages like Python, Bash, or Perl. Dynamic inventory allows you to automatically update the inventory as your infrastructure changes.

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Is Ansible easy to learn?

Ansible uses simple syntax written in YAML, a human-readable data serialisation language. So, you need not master special coding skills to understand Ansible playbooks. It is pretty easy to learn Ansible’s mechanics. Also, setting up Ansible is pretty straightforward.

Should I learn Ansible or Python first?

Since Ansible is written in Python and inherits a lot from the programming language, learning Python will equip you better to deal with Ansible. Moreover, Python is the standard choice for writing Ansible modules which you will do at some point during your learning curve.

What are the prerequisites to learning Ansible?

Before learning Ansible, ensure that you have basic Linux administrator skills. In addition, it is good to have access to a Linux system for setting up Ansible.

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