Setting up development machines: Ansible edition

A little over a year ago I posted on using Puppet for setting up development machines. This approach prooved useful as during that time I did setup a new machine several times and benefited from the mostly automatic installation with Puppet. Github is thinking the same on a bigger scale. Earlier this year they introduced Boxen which is using Puppet to setup mac-development machines.

The space of deployment- and configuration management tools is exploding these last years and it is not always feasible to evaluate all of them. The benefit of Puppet over all these tools is its huge userbase and online resources. However the steep learning curve can be a huge pain coupled with the fact that most of the modules online are not reusable at all and mostly serve a documentation for “how not to work with Puppet”. On top of that Puppet is only for configuration management and not suitable for deployment of applications.

Introduction to Ansible

I came across a blog post on Ansible by the awesome guys at which lead me to investigate Ansible. It is essentially a hybrid between Capistrano and Puppet, solving both the deployment and configuration management problems with a focus on simplicity. In fact the learning curve of Ansible is much more flat than that of Puppet and you can read the whole documentation and understand even the advanced concepts in a few hours.

Ansible is used from a developer- or continuous-integration-machine, which executes tasks on hosts from an inventory. You only need SSH servers running and private keys to connect to them to get it working. With the inventory of hosts to operate on, you can chose to execute ad-oc commands using the ansible command or playbooks using the ansible-playbook command. Playbooks are files written in YAML.

Read Sanders post on the Qandidate blog to get an introduction to Ansible.

Development-Machine Setup

Using Ansible to setup a development machine is a bit pointless, given that Ansible excels at remote task execution and distribution. The benefit in development-machine setup over Puppet is the simplicity of configuration compared to Puppet modules + DSL.

For demonstration I have converted the puppet examples from my blog post on Puppet to Ansible. To start we have to create a folder and create a new file inventory in it containing our local machine:

localhost   ansible_connection=local

This is necessary to convince the remote task execution part of Ansible that localhost exists and there is no SSH necessary to get into that machine.

Now I can create playbooks for the different tools I might want to install and setup, such as Vim in a vim.yml:

- hosts: localhost
    - name: Install VIM
      apt: pkg=vim state=present
      sudo: yes
    - name: Install Dotfiles
      git: >
    - name: Create .vimrc Symlink
      file: >
    - name: Compile and Install Command-T plugin
      command: >
        rake make

You can see here, tasks are a list of commands to execute. They are always executed in order and stop when the first task in the chain fails. Like in puppet you try to make those tasks idempotent through flags such as creates, signaling when a task needs to be or was already executed. I can optionally use sudo to run commands such as installing packages.

To execute the playbook I call:

$> ansible-playbook -K -i inventory vim.yml

With the -i flag I define the pool of hosts to run on, in our case the local machine and the playbook applies the hosts filter to that inventory. The -K parameter prompts me to enter the sudo password for my Ubuntu machine, otherwise the tasks will fail.


Compared to Puppet, the configuration management of Ansible simplifies a lot of the assumptions for example on ordering and reusability of tasks. For a part-time “devop” like me this is great news, as I don’t need to understand a complex tool and can focus on solving problems.

On top of that the deployment features of Ansible with parallel remote execution over SSH make Ansible a powerful tool that I hope to use much more in the future.

More about: Ansible / Automation