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I had originally thrown up this repo to accompany
a talk, but it's received some attention independently
of that talk. So hopefully it'll be better suited
as a stand-alone tutorial with some clarification.
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ansible-pull-example

This repo serves as an example of ansible's pull mode.

I found pull mode somewhat under-documented, so this repo is intended to provide a practical example for people wishing to get started with ansible-pull. In particular, it collects a bit of utility code that should enable some basic workflows.

Running ansible in pull mode makes a different trade-off than the usual centralized ansible workflow. The main benefits are the implicit scaling to a large number of nodes, a simple repository-oriented workflow, and avoiding the need for awx/tower. Drawbacks are mainly that the pull workflow is somewhat obscure, results in eventually consistent infrastructure, and has some gotchas detailed below.

invoking ansible

You'll want to invoke ansible like this if you use this ansible-pull setup:

# pull mode (suitable for automation)
$ ansible-pull -U https://git.example.com/ansible.git -i "$(hostname --short),"

# push mode (development)
$ ansible-playbook -i inventory ./playbook.yml --limit foo.example.com

practical ansible-pull

ansible-pull changes the ansible workflow a little. Usually ansible is run on a central server and targets a set of remote hosts. In pull mode, each remote host pulls the whole ansible repository from source control and runs a copy of ansible with only itself as the sole "remote" host. This results in a few oddities:

  1. inventory_hostname defaults to localhost
  2. groups are unavailable
  3. each play is only applied to the current host (delegate_to doesn't work)
  4. pull codebases are usually slower to iterate on when developing
  5. every host needs a copy of ansible and all modules and their dependencies used by the playbooks installed
  6. hosts must be able to pull the ansible repo
  7. credential management requires a separate solution

Some approaches for mitigating these oddities follow:

While the inventory_hostname is always localhost by default, it can be explicitly specified when invoking ansible-pull.

The unavailability of groups is worked around by tagging each host with their groups in host_vars instead of including this grouping in an inventory. Playbooks can then use this mapping to synthesize the equivalent push mode groups.

These sythetic groups are turned into proper groups by the inventory script that I've provided. This enables push-style development, which allows iterating on changes more quickly than solely relying on the pull flow.

In pull mode, ansible calls a playbook named local.yml by default; the local.yml in this repo does the group synthesis that I described, and then goes on to invoke the example playbook playbook.yml. When developing, you'd invoke playbook.yml in push mode instead, using the inventory script provided.

The one-host-per-play limitation doesn't really have a workaround. If you rely on host_vars or facts from other hosts in a play, you'll need to provide some other data plane for sharing this information. Some reasonable solutions are static info in host_vars, custom lookup plugins, or something like etcd. However, consider that pull mode may not be the right solution if your workflows rely on cross-host communication.

You'll want to install at least ansible on every host participating in pull mode. Note that this also applies to the dependencies listed on each module, and the modules themselves, too, if they aren't in ansible base. In large sites this can add up to a considerable amount of total disk space.

Requiring hosts to track the repository containing your playbooks also implies a few things. The load on your repository server scales linearly in the number of hosts using pull mode and firewalling becomes more difficult. Unless your repository is anonymously and globally readable, you'll need some way of provisioning initial credentials on your target hosts to be able to access it at all. SSH certificates may also be of interest here.

This credentials issue also shows up elsewhere. In many setups, the central server will have some level of access to secrets that are then pushed to remote hosts. In pull mode, each remote host is their own central server, so each one requires access to secrets. This makes several solutions that work well in push mode, like ansible vault, difficult to deploy securely in pull mode. Larger setups will probably want to set up something like Hashicorp's Vault or similar secret management services.

Finally, I've provided a sample ansible-pull role, some example playbooks, and host_vars to help you get started.

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example skeleton repo for setting up ansible-pull infrastructure

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