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Lean on these core Ansible features for IT automation success

These six articles break down Ansible playbooks, roles and other key concepts for IT pros who are new to the tool -- or could benefit from a refresher.

Ansible, an open source configuration management tool, reduces workloads for IT admins through automation. The tool checks IT configurations and adjusts them as necessary to drive consistency and reduce configuration drift. However, to reap the full benefits of the tool, IT teams must understand core Ansible features and how they operate.

From the use of Ansible roles and playbooks to best practices for Windows server management, use the following tips to grasp basic concepts of Ansible automation.

Streamline config management with playbooks

Playbooks -- or collections of automation scripts that define configuration management tasks for one or multiple machines -- are core to how Ansible functions. Playbooks offer a more efficient way to use the tool compared to commands issued one by one. Admins can write their own playbooks as YAML files or use prewritten resources from Ansible and its user community.

Before using playbooks, verify that Ansible is installed and operating properly. In addition, run a playbook in "check mode" before actual execution on machines; this enables admins to ensure a playbook makes the intended changes -- without any actual modifications taking place.

Break down a playbook with roles

Roles are an Ansible feature for modularization, as well as for the reuse and sharing of code. They enable IT teams to break out specific pieces of a playbook into independent files, containing variables, tasks and other components.

There are several uses for Ansible roles. For example, to simplify IT automation, an admin can create a playbook of different configuration items, and then use a role to deploy only those items that apply to a specific server type. With time and experience, admins can expand their use of roles.

Further explore Ansible basics.

Use tags, pipelining for better performance at scale

To keep configuration management tasks up to speed, admins must scale and optimize Ansible to match the rate at which their IT systems make connections and consume resources. Otherwise, they might face performance issues.

There are several Ansible features that can promote scalability and ensure optimal performance of the tool. For example, admins can split up jobs across servers, or use tags to run only certain parts of a playbook. Additionally, the pipelining feature can minimize the number of SSH connections to the host machine, thereby boosting performance.

Protect secrets with Ansible Vault

IT teams that need to manage sensitive data -- also known as secrets -- can look to Vault, an Ansible feature that uses the ansible-vault utility and the command-line tool.

With Ansible Vault, admins can store sensitive data as encrypted files and strings, instead of in plaintext. The feature supports two types of encryption: file-level and variable-level. The former encrypts a full file and protects it with a password, while the latter encrypts only a specific variable within a larger file.

Manage Windows with Ansible and PowerShell

While Ansible's origin is rooted in Linux, with some adjustments, IT admins can use the automation tool to manage their Windows systems. Ansible uses the SSH protocol to communicate with Linux machines, but for Windows, the tool must use PowerShell to push out changes instead.

There are other caveats to using Ansible for Windows management. Compared to Linux environments, the tool's setup is more complex, requiring the Windows Subsystem for Linux. However, Windows shops that overcome these challenges can reap the benefits of increased automation for Windows application lifecycle management.

Consider Tower for additional Ansible features

Some enterprise IT shops might crave configuration management features that go beyond the scope of the Ansible command-line tool. In these cases, they can turn to Ansible Tower.

For example, Tower includes a graphical user interface and visual dashboards to track job activity. It also includes more robust security features, such as extensive role-based access controls and integration with both Active Directory and the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol. Before adoption, however, assess pricing differences between Ansible and Ansible Tower, as well as between the various subscription options for Tower itself.

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