Ansible in Jenkins

Ansible is a powerful tool for automation of your IT infrastructure. In contrast to chef or puppet it does not need much infrastructure like a server and client (“agent”) programs on your target machines. We like to use it for keeping our servers and desktop machines up-to-date and provisioned in a defined, repeatable and self-documented way.

As of late ansible has begun to replace our different, custom-made – but already automated – deployment processes we implemented using different tools like ant scripts run by jenkins-jobs. The natural way of using ansible for deployment in our current infrastructure would be using it from jenkins with the jenkins ansible plugin.

Even though the plugin supports the “Global Tool Configuration” mechanism and automatic management of several ansible installations it did not work out of the box for us:

At first, the executable path was not set correctly. We managed to fix that but then the next problem arose: Our standard build slaves had no jinja2 (python templating library) installed. Sure, that are problems you can easily fix if you decide so.

For us, it was too much tinkering and snowflaking our build slaves to be feasible and we took another route, that you can consider: Running ansible from an docker image.

We already have a host for running docker containers attached to jenkins so our current state of deployment with ansible roughly consists of a Dockerfile and a Jenkins job to run the container.

The Dockerfile is as simple as


FROM ubuntu:14.04
RUN DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive apt-get update && apt-get -y dist-upgrade && apt-get -y install software-properties-common
RUN DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive apt-add-repository ppa:ansible/ansible-2.4
RUN DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive apt-get update && apt-get -y install ansible

# Setup work dir
WORKDIR /project/provisioning

# Copy project directory into container
COPY . /project

# Deploy the project
CMD ansible-playbook -i inventory deploy-project.yml

And the jenkins build step to actually run the deployment looks like


docker build -t project-deploy .
docker run project-deploy

That way we can tailor our deployment machine to conveniently run our ansible playbooks for the specific project without modifying our normal build slave setups and adding complexity on their side. All the tinkering with the jenkins ansible plugin is unnecessary going this way and relying on docker and what the container provides for running ansible.

Our voyage to service separation – Part II

Recap of the situation

In the first part of this blog series, we introduced you to our evolutionary grown IT landscape. We had a room full of snow- flaked servers and no overall concept how to use them. We wanted our services to be self-contained and separated. So we chose the approach of virtualization to host one VM per service on a uniform platform. We chose VirtualBox, Vagrant and Ansible to help us along the way.
This blog entry tells you about the way and our experiences and insights.

The migration

In order to migrate every service you use to its own virtual machine (VM), you’ll need a list or map of your services first. We gathered our list, compared it to reality, adjusted it, reiterated everything, added the forgotten services, drew the map, compared again, drew again and even then missed some services that are painfully obvious in hindsight, like DNS or SMTP. We identified more than 15 distinct services and estimated their resource profile. Then we planned the VM layouts and estimated the required computation power to host all of them. Then we bought the servers.

We started with three powerful hosting servers but soon saw that there is a group of “alpha VMs” with elevated requirements on availability and bought a fourth hosting server with emphasis on redundancy. If some seldom used backoffice service goes down, that’s one thing. The most important services of our company should not go down because of a harddisk failure or such.

Four nearly identical hosting servers to run 15+ VMs on required a repeatable process to set things up. This is where the first tip comes into play:

  • Document everything. Document all the details. Have your Wiki ready and write a step-by-step tutorial for every task you perform. It’s really tedious and probably a bit cumbersome at first, but it will pay of sooner and better than you’d imagine.

We started the migration process with the least important services to get a feeling for the required steps. It turned out later that these services were also the most time-consuming ones. The most essential and seemingly complex services took the least time. We essentially experienced the pareto effect but in reverse: We started with the lowest benefit for the highest cost. But we can give two tips from this experience:

  • Go the extra mile. Just forget about the pareto effect and migrate all services. It’s so much more fun to have a clean IT landscape map than one where most things are tidy but there’s an area marked “here be dragons”.
  • Migration effort and service importance aren’t linked. Our most important service was migrated in about half an hour. Our least important service needed nearly three days. It’s all about the system architecture of the service and if it values self-containment.

The migration took place over the course of a few months with frequent address changes of our tools and an awful lot of communication for cutoff dates. If you need to migrate a service, be very open about the process and make sure that the old service address won’t work after the switch. I cannot count the amount of e-mails I wrote with the subject prefix “IMPORTANT!”. But the transition went smooth and without problems, so we probably added some extra caution that might not have been necessary.

After the migration

When we had migrated our last service in its own VM, there were a lot of old servers without any purpose anymore. We switched them off and got rid of them. Now we had nearly two dozen new servers to care for. One insight we had right after the start of our journey is that virtualized servers require the same amount of administration as physical ones. Just using our old approaches for the new IT landscape wouldn’t cut it. So we invested heavily in automation and scripted everything. Want to set up a new CI build slave? Just add its address into Ansible’s inventory and run the script (“playbook”). All servers need security updates? Just one command and a little wait.

Gears by Pete BirkinshawLearning to automate the administrative tasks in the right way had a steep curve, but it’s the only feasible way. We benefit heavily from the simple fact that we forced ourselves to do it by making it impossible to handle the tasks manually. It’s a “burned bridges” approach, but upon reaching the goal, it really pays off. So another tip:

  • Automate everything. Even if you think you’ll perform this task just a few times – that’s exactly the scenario to automate it to never have to bother with the details again. Automation is key if you want to scale your IT landscape to reasonable sizes.

Reaping the profit

We’ve done the migration and have a fully virtualized setup now. This would not be very beneficial in itself, but opens the door for another level of capabilities we simply couldn’t leverage before. Let me just describe two of them:

  • Rethink your backup strategy. With virtual machines, you can now backup your services on an appliance level. If you wanted to perform this with a real server, you would need to buy the exact same hardware, make exact copies of the harddisks and store this “clone machine” somewhere safe. Creating an appliance level backup means to stop the VM, export it and restart it. You’ll have some downtime, but everything else is just a (big) file.
  • Rethink your service maintainance strategy. We often performed test upgrades to newer versions of our important services on test machines. If the upgrade went well, we would perform it again on the live server and hope for the best. With virtual machines and appliance backups, you can try the upgrade on an exact copy of the live server over and over again. And if you are happy with the result, you just swap your copy with the live server and everything’s fine. No need for duplicated procedures, you always work with the real deal – well, an indistinguishable copy of it.

Conclusion

We’ve migrated our IT landscape from evoluationary to a planned virtualized state in just about a year. We’ve invested weeks of work in it, just to have the same services available as before. From a naive viewpoint, nothing much has changed. So – was it worth it?

The answer is short and clear: Absolutely yes. Even in the short time after the migration, the whole setup performs smoother and more in a planned way than just by chance. The layout can be communicated clearer and on different levels. And every virtual machine has its own use case, to the point and dedicated. We now have an IT landscape that obeys our rules and responds to our needs, whereas before we often needed to make hard compromises.

The positive effects of documentation and automation alone are worth the journey, even if they are mere side effects of the main goal. +1, would migrate again.

Our voyage to service separation – Part I

What you need to know

We are a small software development company with a home-grown IT infrastructure. The euphemism for such a state is “evolutionary grown”, denoting a process that was shaped by the most elementary forces, often implicitely. One such implicit force is laziness: If there is a quick way to do things, it will be done this way. Why invest effort if everything works just fine?
During an internal safety review, we identified our IT landscape as a risk factor. It was designed to meet yesterday’s and perhaps today’s demands, but in no way aligned to our strategic vision. We decided to invest in our IT to bring it to a planned state that we are confident will sustain our demands of tomorrow – or be easily adaptable.

Where we started

Our starting point was a room full of servers that were bought at some point to serve a specific need like “be the build box”. Every server started with a good reason to exist and evolved from there. Some gathered more and more services, some were repurposed and some idled along. We identified only two servers that were essential for the company: one was the continuous integration server master and one hosted nearly all mission-critical services at once. The latter server was also our oldest machine in production usage. It was secured against data loss, but not against outages. So everytime this server went down, our company essentially came to a stop because all services were offline. Luckily, it went down very infrequently, but it still identified as a clear single point of failure.

Where we wanted to go

containersIn April 2014, the heartbleed vulnerability was published. We luckily weren’t affected on a large scale, but took it as a wake-up call to review our IT setup and to develop a strategy to mitigate the effects of disasters similar in scope to heartbleed while we still have time. We wanted to have our IT in a condition where we actually choose which risks we take instead of just hoping for the best. So we sat before a whiteboard and outlined the goals: We wanted to separate and self-contain every essential service, so that the compromising or outage of one service doesn’t affect the others. That means one machine (or container) per service. To gain flexibility, we also planned to separate our IT landscape into two layers: The “metal layer” provides the computation power, while the “appliance layer” realizes the services. We wanted to be able to implement the appliance layer nearly independtly to the metal layer, which means to use some sort of virtualization. In modern words, we wanted to have a “cloud platform” to deploy our service applications on. We just don’t wanted it out on the internet but in our computer center. To sum up, we wanted to separate hardware and software and move every service in its own compartment.

What technologies we chose

We thought about fitting technology for a long time but settled for a small-scale, bottom-up approach: Start with just a few metal machines (hosts) and use a familiar virtualization product. In our case, this meant two standard servers, Linux and Oracle’s VirtualBox to run the virtual computers. There sure are more professional and powerful virtualization products out there, but we had years of experience (and sometimes frustration) with VirtualBox and didn’t want to rely on an unknown technology. It’s not exciting, but works well enough for our use case – and we knew that beforehands.
We decided against any fancy cloud or grid software to combine the hosts to a pool and just planned the hosting of the virtual machines (VMs) statically by hand. This might mean that one host gets bored while another host cannot handle the pressure anymore. It will be our responsibility to take that problem into account. This approach primarily achieves one thing: it keeps everything rather simple. Each host has a list of VMs and that’s it. If we want to migrate a VM to another host, we have to do it manually.
To create the VMs, we used Vagrant, which turned out fine for three-quarters of our machines, but proved toxic for the remaining ones. Vagrant is a very handy tool for developers to quickly launch a VM, but it makes a lot of assumptions that might not match your specific requirements. We essentially abandoned Vagrant after the initial phase.
During the migration phase of our services, we adopted another tool to solve the problem of scaling effects in maintainance. It’s another story to maintain 20+ servers instead of the handful we had beforehands. Luckily, Ansible proved useful to automate most of our normal administration tasks. This transition from manual to automated administration wasn’t part of the original plan, but is one of the biggest payoffs. But that’s stuff for the next blog entry.

What’s next?

In this first part of our story to regain control of our IT landscape, we described the starting point, the plan and the tools. In the next part, you’ll hear about the migration and where we ended up. We will also point out our experiences along the way and hopefully give some useful tips if you think of reshaping your services, too: Click here to read part two of the series.

Snowflakes are a bad sign

snowflakeFirst, allow me a bad joke: If you enter your server room and find real snowflakes, it might be a sign that your air conditioning is over-ambitious. But even if you just enter your server room, you probably see some snowflakes, but in the metaphorical sense.

Snowflake servers

Snowflakes are servers with an unique layout. I cannot say it better than Martin Fowler two years ago in his Bliki posting SnowflakeServer, but I’m trying to add some insights and more current tools. The term probably originates in the motto that everybody is a “precious unique snowflake”. This holds true for humans and animals, but not for machines. Let’s examine how a snowflake is born. Imagine that in the beginning, all servers are the same: standard hardware, a default operating system and nothing more. You pick one server to host a special application and adjust the hardware accordingly. Now you already have an hardware snowflake – not the worst thing, but you better document your rationale behind the adjustment in an accessible way – a wiki page specifically for that server perhaps. Because sooner or later, that machine will fail (or become hopelessly obsolete) and needs to be replaced – with adequate hardware. Without your documentation, you’ll have to remember why the old machine had that specific layout – and if it was sufficient. I’ve seen the “ancient server” anti-pattern much too often: A dusted machine, buzzing like an asthmatic pensioner in the last corner of the server room, and nobody was allowed near. Because there are no spare parts (VESA local bus isn’t supported anymore), if one part fails, the whole system is doomed – operating system and software included. Entire organizations rely on the readiness for duty of one hardware assembly – and almost always a crude one.

Server as cattle

The ancient server happens more likely when you treat your servers like pets. This is the crucial mental switch you’ll have to make: servers are cattle, not pets. They have numbers, not names. They can be monitored, upgraded and fostered, but at the end of the day, they serve a clearly defined business case and deserve no emotional investment of the owner. If a pet gets hurt, you take it to the veterinary and cure it. If cattle gets sick, you call the veterinary to make sure it’s not contagious and then replace the affected individuals – to cure them would be more expensive. Pets live as long as they can, cattle has a dacattlete of expiry. And our cattle (servers) really isn’t sentient, so stop treating it like pets.

Strategies to run a ranch

Our current answer to make the transition from pet zoo to cattle ranch without significantly increasing the amount of metal in our server room can be boiled down to three strategies:

  • Virtualize the logical machines. Instead of working on “real metal machines”, more and more of our services run inside virtual machines. This allows for a clearer separation of concerns (one duty per machine) and keeps the emotional commitment towards the machine low. Currently, we use VirtualBox and Docker for this task. Both are easy to set up and fulfill their task well.
  • Remove the names from real metal machines. We really number our real machines now. Giving clever names to virtual machines is still possible, but not necessary: they are probably only accessed using DNS aliases that specify their use, like “projectX-database” or “projectY-webserver”. We even choose the computer cases for our machines accordingly to separate the pets (unique cases) from cattle (uniform cases).
  • Specify the machine. The virtualized hardware must be described and explained (e.g. why this particular machine needs twice the normal RAM ration). Currently, we use Vagrant to specify the hardware and operating system of our virtual machines. The specifications are stored in a version controlled repository, so there is a place where most of our server infrastructure is described in a deployable fashion. Even more, all necessary third-party software products are specified, too. Imagine a todo list of what to install and prepare, like the one you’ve handed over to your admin in the past, but automatically executable. We currently use Ansible for our configuration management because it has very low requirements for the target platform itself and has a low learning curve.

Applying these three strategies, every (logical) machine in our server room should be reproduceable. They are still individuals, specifically tailored for their jobs, but completely specified and virtualized. The real metal machines only run the bare minimum of software necessary to host the logical machines. None of the machines promote emotional attachment – they are tools for their job.

Data is snow

One important insight is that persistent data will turn your machine into a snowflake over time (we use the term as a verb: “data will snowflake your machine”). You will become emotionally and financially attached to this data – otherwise, there is no need to persist it in the first place. We don’t have a panacea here yet. You probably want to use a database and a sophisticated backup strategy here. Just make sure that the presence of precious data on it doesn’t obscure your stance towards the machine. You want to keep the data and still be able to throw the machine away.

Don’t stop at machines

We are software developers, so we cannot deny that the concept of snowflaking is very helpful for our own projects, too. Every dependency that we can bring with us during deployment (called “self-containment” or “batteries included” in our slang) is one less thing of “snowflaking” the target machine. Every piece of infrastructure (real, virtualized or purely conceptual) we implicitly rely on (like valid certificates, SSH keys or passwords and database locations) will snowflake the target machine and should be treated accordingly: documented, specified and automated. If you hot-fix a production server, it’s definitely a huge snowflaking action that needs to be at least carefully documented. You can’t avoid snowflaking completely, but strive to mimize the manual amount of it and then sanitize the automated part.

Snowflaking is a concept

We’ve found the term of “snowflaking” very useful to transport the necessity and value in documenting, specifying and automating everything that doesn’t happen on a developer machine (and even there, the build process is fully automated). Snowflaked enviroments tend to be expensive in maintainance and brittle in operations. The effort to mitigate the effects of snowflaking pays off very soon and is highly reuseable. But even more powerful is the change in the mindset as soon as the concept of “snowflaking” is understood. It’s a short term for a broad range of strategies and values/beliefs. It’s a powerful and scalable concept.

We’d love to hear your experiences

You’ve probably experimented with various tools and concepts to manage your servers, too. What were your experiences and insights? Add a comment below, we are looking forward to your input.

Ansible: Play it again, Sam

Recently we started using Ansible for the provisioning of some of our servers. Ansible is one of many configuration management / provisioning tools that are popular right now. Puppet and Chef are probably more widely known representatives of their kind, but what attracted us to Ansible was the fact that it’s agentless: the target machines don’t need an agent installed, all you need is remote access via SSH. Well, almost. It turns out that Python is also required on the remote machines, otherwise you’ll be limited to a very basic set of functionality (the raw module). Fortunately, most Linux distributions have Python installed by default.

With Ansible you describe the desired target configuration as a sequence of tasks in a YAML file called Playbook: package installation, copying files, enabling and starting services, etc. The playbook is semi-declarative. Each step usually describes a goal, e.g. package XY should be present. Action is only taken if necessary. On the other hand it’s also very imperative: steps are executed sequentially and you can have conditionals and loops (e.g. “with_items”). You can also define handlers, which are executed once after they have been notified, for example if you want to restart the Apache web server after its configuration has changed.

Before a playbook is applied to a remote machine Ansible will query “facts” about this machine. These facts are available as variables in the playbook. You can also define your own variables.

A playbook is usually applied to a set of machines. Available machines are listed in a separate file, the inventory, where they can be grouped by roles. With one command you can configure or update all the machines of a specific role at once. You can also execute a “dry run”, which simulates a playbook run and tells you what changes would be applied.

So far our experience with Ansible has been good. The concepts are easy to grasp. YAML syntax requires getting used to, but at least it’s not XML. On the website the actual documentation is a bit hidden among promotion for their commercial products, but you can also directly visit docs.ansible.com.