When an ansible task fails

It’s been a frustrating week. If it can break, it has broken and lately I’ve been shining up my ansible to fix it. So I find myself trying to use my shiny new playbooks to address problems and to get my machines to all line up. Today my ansible-playbook ... run hung up on an arm based mini-nas that I have in my vacation house. My first assumption was that ansible was the problem That was wrong. To find the problem, I ran the playbook and then logged onto the machine seperately. A quick ps alx gave me this little snippet:

1001 43918 43917  2  52  0  12832  2076 pause    Is    1       0:00.03 -ksh (ksh)
   0 43943 43918  3  24  0  18200  6916 select   I     1       0:00.04 sudo su -
   0 43946 43943  2  26  0  13516  2776 wait     I     1       0:00.02 su -
   0 43947 43946  2  20  0  12832  2024 pause    S     1       0:00.03 -su (ksh)
   0 51594 43947  3  20  0  13464  2572 -        R+    1       0:00.01 ps alx
   0 51578 51527  2  52  0  12832  1980 pause    Is+   0       0:00.01 ksh -c /bin/sh -c '/usr/local/bin/python3.9 /root/.ansible/tmp/ansible-tmp-1694615369.904476-9336-34642038817669/Ansib
   0 51579 51578  3  52  0  13536  2552 wait     I+    0       0:00.01 /bin/sh -c /usr/local/bin/python3.9 /root/.ansible/tmp/ansible-tmp-1694615369.904476-9336-34642038817669/AnsiballZ_pkg
   0 51580 51579  3  40  0  36756 23668 select   I+    0       0:01.51 /usr/local/bin/python3.9 /root/.ansible/tmp/ansible-tmp-1694615369.904476-9336-34642038817669/AnsiballZ_pkgng.py
   0 51582 51580  0  52  0  21388  9048 wait     I+    0       0:00.04 /usr/sbin/pkg update
   0 51583 51582  1  52  0  21708 10104 ttyin    I+    0       0:00.19 /usr/sbin/pkg update

This is relevant because because it traces the process tree from my ssh login all the down to the process that’s hung up. Note well that the pkg update run at PID 51583 is in a ttyin state. Running pkg update manually gave me this:

# pkg update
Updating FreeBSD repository catalogue...
Fetching packagesite.pkg: 100%    6 MiB   3.3MB/s    00:02
Processing entries:   0%
Newer FreeBSD version for package zziplib:
To ignore this error set IGNORE_OSVERSION=yes
- package: 1302001
- running kernel: 1301000
Ignore the mismatch and continue? [y/N]: 

The why of all this doesn’t really matter much. In this case the machine is running a copy of FreeBSD that’s stale, 13.1, and pkgng is asking my permission to update to a package repository from FreeBSD 13.2. What’s important here is a basic debugging technique. The important question is: How does ansible actually work under the covers? The answer is, each ansible builtin prepares a 100k or so blob of python that it spits in …/.ansible/tmp on the remote machine. Then it uses the local python interpreter to run that blob. The python within the blob idempotently does the work. My blob needed to verify that the sudo package on my box. For reasons that I don’t understand but also really don’t mind, it wanted to make sure that the local package collection was up to date. It’s not normal for a box to hang on pkg update but it’s not crazy either.

Ansible step zero

In my previous article I showed the steps to take to build an ansible repository that you could grow to fit your existing infrastructure. The first step here to setup the repository that you built to self-bootstrap. For that you’ll need to flesh out your inventory and build your first playbook.

Building Inventory

Ansible is driven off of an inventory. The inventory specifies the elements of your infrastructure and the groups them. This is to make things easy to manage. Ansible is compatible with three kinds of inventory: Inventory specified as a Windows style .ini formatted static file, or specified in a yaml file, or finally specified dynamically. Dynamic inventory is the holy grail. I recommend starting with a yaml inventory.

Although both yaml and ini style inventories have roughly the same capabilities, I prefer yaml because if you work with ansible, you’re going to become good friends with yaml no matter what. If you aren’t familiar with yaml format, find some time to study it. yaml is just a markup format that allows you to structure things. I didn’t really get yaml until I played with the python yaml module. I realized that yaml, like json, allows you to write python variables into a file in a structured fashion. the python yaml module can read a properly formatted yaml file and will return a python variable containing the contents of the yaml “document” or it can take any python variable, an array, a dict, a static, and write it such that another python program could read it. Yaml differs from json in that it’s generally parseable and readable by human beings. If the consumer of your data is program, use json. If a human is expected to read it, use yaml.

Your starting yaml inventory should look something like this:

          - ansible
          - terraform
          - git
          - emacs

          my_domain: mydomain.com
          my_host: maestro-test

This defines an inventory with one group: maestro-test. It includes one machine at IP address and it defines some variables for the group. This should be stored in an approriately named file:


In the Ansible directory.

The first playbook

With an inventory, you can build a playbook. The first playbook looks like this:

- hosts: maestro-test
- tasks:
    - name: Install standard packages
        name: "{{ item }}"
        state: latest
      with_items: "{{ std_pkg }}"

    - name: Install additional packages
        name: "{{ item }}"
        state: latest
      with_items: "{{ add_pkg }}"

This should be installed in a file named something like:


in the Ansible directory. At this point presuming that you have a machine, physical or virtual at into which you can ssh, as root, you can bootstrap your maestro as follows:

chris $ ansible-playbook -i base-maestro-inventory.yml --user root base-maestro-playbook.yml

And that should install the correct packages onto your maestro test box. I’ll revisit this article later to add users.

Getting started with Ansible, et al

For admins, young and old, getting started with orchestration tools like ansible I believe that the wise man’s first move is to create an orchestration workstation. This machine will have: ansible, terraform, git, and  your favorite editor. You are going to use this machine as the basis for infrastructure as code for your organization for the short term future. Basically, you’ll stop using this machine for infrastructure as code once you get to the point where you can repeatably automate the creation and change management of things. At that point the role of this machine will be testing infrastructure changes. And there will be another machine exactly like this one that controls your production infrastructure.

The first thing that this machine should be able to do is replicate itself. That’s a simple task. In Unix terms you are looking at a box that can:

  • allows you to log in via ssh keys
  • allows you to edit the ansible and terraform configurations which
  • are stored in git so that they are version controlled

That really specifies three users, you, ansible, and terraform. Also, as specified before, you need a hand full of packages: ansible, git, and your favorite editor. The whole thing looks pretty similar to this:

chris $ mkdir Ansible
chris $ git init Ansible
chris $ cd Ansible
chris $ mkdir -p files/global group_vars host_vars roles/dot.template/{defaults,files,handlers,tasks,templates,tests}
chris $ find * -type d -exec touch {}/Readme.md \;
chris $ touch Readme.md
chris $ git add . && git commit -m 'Initial revision.'

That builds an ansible configuration as a git repository and checks in the first revision. It also populates the ansible repository with directories that  roughly correspond to ansible best practices. This will be a working repository which you are going to build out to support your infrastructure. You’ll do this by adding inventory, playbooks and roles bespoke to your needs.

More on this later.