Red Hat speed fiends celebrate automation

One language called Ansible to rule them all


While tech luminaries fret about the world-killing potential of self-directed computers amid galas and globetrotting, the industry's worker bees see automation as salvation from soul-killing drudgery.

So it was at AnsibleFest in San Francisco on Thursday, which proved to be more sysadmin speed evangelism than freewheeling festival – the substructure of the Marriott Marquis hotel, while spacious, fell short of a rave.

Ansible refers to an instantaneous communications device imagined by author Ursula Le Guin and to, among other things, open source IT automation software acquired by Red Hat in 2015.

Now four years old, the code serves to mechanize the arcane twiddling demanded of developers and IT operations personnel. It aims to make !@#$ing horrible computer administration easier and more productive, by saving time that might otherwise be spent on tedious command line typing and throwing things.

In introductory remarks, Dave Johnson, director of solution architecture at Red Hat, floated an unqualified appreciation for rapid operations: "Any competitive advantage we can get by moving faster is better."

Peter Sprygada, senior principal networking engineer of Ansible at Red Hat, offered similar sentiment: "When you automate, you accelerate." And Justin Nemmers, general manager of Ansible at Red Hat, sounded the same speed-drunk theme: "The key to effective IT management is automation."

Such assertions aren't entirely unexpected from people selling automation software. Nonetheless, they represent a fair approximation of industry and analyst consensus, not to mention common sense. Managing large numbers of servers, routers, and the like tends to be slow and error-prone without automation.

To underscore the real world significance of IT operational speed, Sprygada pointed to an account of how Cisco Advanced Services used Ansible in support of the US Army's Hurricane Harvey relief effort. The project, which involved the setup of Layer 2 VPNs, network state validation and a performance check, would have taken half an hour of manual configuration. It took three minutes with Ansible.

Nemmers during a press conference positioned Ansible as the universal language for automation, a tool that can bring separate systems together.

In a conversation during a break in the scheduled presentations, Galina Reznik, enterprise cloud senior program manager at Microsoft, said automation is what keeps the lights on internally at Azure and said the company is looking to expand its devops offerings to help customers connect systems not based on Microsoft technology.

Reznik noted that automation can also magnify system management burdens, because automating a system tends to be done with a separate resource that itself must be managed.

Questioned about issues with Ansible, an IT admin at a large financial services company who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak with the press said the software falls short when it comes to real-time data. If you want to see whether a configuration has changed, he said, you have to run an Ansible playbook to get that data. It's not available at a glance.

The admin said among other automation options he was aware of, such as Puppet and Chef, he really liked SaltStack, but his company had chosen Red Hat and Ansible.

This buttresses a point made by Nemmers during his presentation: that people issues – organizational intransigence, in the admin's case – represent one of the barriers to the adoption of IT automation.

The other two barriers he described were vendor-specific products and the challenge of integrating automation across organizations.

Coincident with Red Hat's celebration of automation was the obligatory introduction of products and version bumps.

Red Hat Ansible Engine, available October 1, is a service providing Ansible to enterprises. To the open source Ansible software, it adds SLAs, support, priority bug fixes and notifications, extra networking capabilities, and Red Hat Ansible Tower integration. It includes support for about 100 modules out of more than 460 available through the Ansible community.

It comes in another flavor – Red Hat Ansible Engine with advanced networking automation – which adds support for networking-specific Ansible modules from Arista (EOS), Cisco (IOS, IOS-XR, NX-OS), Juniper (Junos OS), Open vSwitch, and VyOS.

And Red Hat Ansible Tower 3.2, coming later this month, was announced along with the open source AWX project, the upstream version of Ansible Tower.

The latest iteration of Tower includes the ability to create custom views for managing machines based on their attributes and instance groups for allocating capacity to specific organizations and resources. It includes source code management capabilities to help teams manage their automation and inventory as code. It also adds custom credential types, for integrating third-party credential storage.

"We're starting to install a culture of automation across your entire environment," said Nemmers. ®

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