Automation Using Ansible

CloudForms 4.1/ManageIQ Darga introduced the possibility of performing automation tasks using Ansible playbooks in addition to or instead of using native Ruby. This automation requires the presence of an Ansible Tower server, added to CloudForms or ManageIQ as a configuration management provider.

Ruby or Ansible?

One of the most powerful features of Ansible as a configuration management tool is the relative simplicity and ease of understanding of its YAML-formatted playbooks. Adding the capability to be able to run Ansible playbooks from Automate as well as run Ruby methods presents us with a dilemma; when to use which?

Ruby methods allow us to access and manipulate all of the objects and their properties within the VMDB. We have a powerful scripting language at our disposal that allows us to make real-time decisions as part of our automation workflow. For example we can determine how many VMs are currently running on each hypervisor in a cluster before making placement decisions during provisioning. The disadvantage is that we need to be fairly comfortable with the Ruby scripting language and the Automate object model to take full advantage and start developing our own automation scripts.

Ansible playbooks allow us to harness the power of the Ansible module library to interact with many systems or infrastructure components in our enterprise that may not be natively supported by CloudForms or ManageIQ (such as load balancers for example). They allow us to do this using an easy to learn and well-documented YAML-based modelling language. We are also able to take advantage of the many thousands of existing Ansible roles that are downloadable from the Ansible Galaxy web site [1]

Whether we use Ruby methods or Ansible playbooks, we can still take advantage of some of the powerful Automate features such as state machines to build our workflows.


When we use Ansible to perform our automation tasks, if helps to be familiar of some of the Ansible Tower terminology.


Playbooks are Ansible’s configuration, deployment, and orchestration modelling language. Each playbook is composed of one or more plays in a list, and a play maps a group of hosts to one or more well defined roles or tasks.

Playbooks are designed to be human-readable and are expressed in YAML format. An example snippet from a simple playbook is as follows:

hosts: webservers
  web_pkg: httpd
  firewall_pkg: firewalld
  firewall_service: firewalld
  - name: Install the required packages
        - "{{ web_pkg  }}"
        - "{{ firewall_pkg }}"
      state: latest
  - name: Start and enable the {{ firewall_service }} service
      name: "{{ firewall_service }}"
      enabled: true
      state: started

More advanced playbooks separate out various sections (such as variable or handler definitions) into separate files that are included into a main playbook file. This logical separation eases maintenance and promotes reuse.


Roles provide Ansible with a way to load tasks, handlers, and variables from external files, based on a known file structure. Assigning a role to a group of hosts (or a set of groups, or host patterns, etc.) implies that they should implement a specific behaviour, i.e. adopt that role. Grouping content by roles also allows easy sharing of roles with other users.

A typical role directory structure might be as follows:

    common/               # this hierarchy represents a "role"
        tasks/            #
            main.yml      #  <-- tasks file can include smaller files if warranted
        handlers/         #
            main.yml      #  <-- handlers file
        templates/        #  <-- files for use with the template resource
            ntp.conf.j2   #  <------- templates end in .j2
        files/            #
            bar.txt       #  <-- files for use with the copy resource
          #  <-- script files for use with the script resource
        vars/             #
            main.yml      #  <-- variables associated with this role
        defaults/         #
            main.yml      #  <-- default lower priority variables for this role
        meta/             #
            main.yml      #  <-- role dependencies


A Project is a logical collection of Ansible playbooks (usually in the form of roles), represented in Ansible Tower. Projects are often stored in a source code management (SCM) system such as Git, and Ansible Tower allows for the importing of projects directly from an SCM, and for the project code to be refreshed immediately before running if required. Projects are stored under the /var/lib/awx/projects directory on the Ansible Tower server.

An example project directory structure might be as follows:


Job Templates

A job template is a definition and set of parameters for running an Ansible Tower job. Job templates allow us to execute the same job many times, by pre-defining such items as the playbook to run, extra variables to pass, inventory to be managed, and credentials that should be used. A typical job template definition in Ansible Tower is shown in Typical job template in Ansible Tower.

Figure 1. Typical job template in Ansible Tower

Job templates are significant when we discuss CloudForms/ManageIQ integration with Ansible Tower, because a job template is the entity that we run from Automate. Ansible job templates visible in CloudForms shows the list of Ansible Tower job templates displayed in the CloudForms WebUI.

Figure 2. Ansible job templates visible in CloudForms

Extra Variables

Ansible playbook variables can be defined in a number of places, but there is an established precedence to determine which value is used when the playbook is run. If a variable of the same name is defined in multiple places, the occurrence defined with the highest precedence will be used (See Ansible variable precedence for the precedence list [2]).

Table 1. Ansible variable precedence
Precedence where defined

lowest precedence

role defaults


inventory vars


inventory group_vars


inventory host_vars


playbook group_vars


playbook host_vars


host facts


play vars


play vars_prompt


play vars_files


registered vars




role and include vars


block vars (only for tasks in block)


task vars (only for the task)

highest precedence

extra vars

We see that extra variables have the highest precedence, and we can define defaults for extra variables in the job template. If the Prompt on launch option is checked then we can also override these default values from CloudForms/ManageIQ when we launch the job template. The precedence ensures that our dynamically defined variables are the ones that are used by the playbook.


A job is an instance of Ansible Tower launching a playbook against an inventory of hosts.


An inventory defines a list of managed hosts that Ansible jobs can be run against. Inventories can contain groups which further sub-divide hosts into logical collections of systems. Groups and their contents can be dynamically generated using an Ansible Tower inventory script (see Definition of an "All Servers" inventory group in Ansible Tower).

Figure 3. Definition of an "All Servers" inventory group in Ansible Tower

We can define several different inventories, and use them in our various job template definitions.

Update on Launch

The Update on launch update option is particularly important when we define dynamic inventory groups to be referenced from CloudForms or ManageIQ Automate. We often wish to call Ansible Tower jobs as part of our provisioning workflow, and so we need an up-to-date inventory that contains our newly provisioned virtual machine. The Update on launch setting ensures that the inventory defined in the job template is always refreshed immediately before the job is run.

The Limit Variable

Many Ansible job templates contain playbooks that have a hosts key defined as all. When we execute a job from CloudForms or ManageIQ, we usually wish to override this and the run the job on one or more specific systems, and the built-in limit variable enables us to to this.

The limit variable is automatically defined for us by Automate and passed to Ansible Tower with a new job request if either of the following two Automate attributes contain valid non-nil values:




These values will be set if we are calling an Ansible Tower job template either from a button on a VM object, or as part of a VM provisioning workflow (after the virtual machine has been created). For these two common use-cases we don’t have to worry about defining the limit ourselves.

Adding the ansible-remote User with a cloud-init Script

As Ansible uses ssh to connect to managed servers and run playbooks, we must ensure that our newly provisioned virtual machines are configured with the ssh credentials required to perform the actions. It is generally considered good practice not to connect at the root user, so the examples described in this book use an account called 'ansible-remote'.

If we are provisioning from 'fat' template we can create the ansible-remote user using a CloudForms/ManageIQ CloudInit-type customization template, called from the Customize tab of the provisioning dialog.

An example cloud-init script to setup the newly provisioning virtual machine as an Ansible Tower managed host is as follows:


ssh_pwauth: true
disable_root: false

  - default
  - name: ansible-remote
    shell: /bin/bash
    sudo: ['ALL=(ALL) NOPASSWD:ALL']
      - ssh-rsa

  list: |
    root:<%= MiqPassword.decrypt(evm[:root_password]) %>
  expire: false

preserve_hostname: false
manage_etc_hosts: true
fqdn: <%= evm[:hostname] %>

We create an Ansible Tower machine credential containing the private key that matches this public key, and we can specify this machine credential when we define our job templates.


We should also ensure that our virtual machine templates are prepared with the cloud-init package. For Red Hat Enterprise Linux this is installed from the rhel-7-server-rh-common-rpms repository.


This chapter has introduced some of the concepts and terminology that we encounter when we use the powerful capabilities of Ansible Tower. In the next chapter we’ll take a look at the new features of Automate that allow us to create Ansible Tower jobs as part of our automation workflows.

Further Reading

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