Using Ansible to deploy an AWS environment
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First published at https://nivleshc.wordpress.com

Background

Over the past few weeks, I have been looking at various automation tools for AWS. One tool that seems to get a lot of limelight is Ansible, an open source automation tool from Red Hat. I decided to give it a go, and to my amazement, I was surprised at how easy it was to learn Ansible, and how powerful it can be.

All that one must do is to write up a list of tasks using YAML notation in a file (called a playbook) and get Ansible to execute it. Ansible reads the playbook and executes the tasks in the order that they are written. Here is the biggest advantage, there are no agents to be installed on the managed computers! Ansible connects to each of the managed computers using ssh or winrm.

Another nice feature of Ansible is that it supports third party modules. This allows Ansible to be extended to support many of the services that it natively does not understand.

In this blog, we will be focusing on one of the third-party modules, the AWS module. Using this, we will use Ansible to deploy an environment within AWS.

Scenario

For this blog, we will use Ansible to provision an AWS Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) in the North Virginia (us-east-1) region. Within this VPC, we will create a public and a private subnet. We will then deploy a jumphost in the public subnet and a server within the private subnet.

Below is a diagram depicting what will be done.

Figure 1: Environment that will be deployed within AWS using Ansible Playbook

Preparation

The computer that is used to run Ansible to manage all other computers is referred to as the control machine. Currently, Ansible can be run from any machine with Python 2 (version 2.7) or Python 3 (version 3.5 or higher) installed. The Ansible control machine can run the following operating systems

  • Red Hat
  • Debian
  • CentOS
  • macOS
  • any of the BSD variants

Note: Currently windows operating system is not supported for running the control machine.

For this blog, I am using a MacBook to act as the control machine.

Before we run Ansible, we need to get a few things done. Let’s go through them now.

  1. We will use pip (Python package manager) to install Ansible. If you do not already have pip installed, run the following command to install it
    sudo easy_install pip
  2. With pip installed, use the following command to install Ansible
    sudo pip install ansible

    For those that are not using macOS for their control machine, you can get the relevant installation commands from https://docs.ansible.com/ansible/latest/installation_guide/intro_installation.html.

  3. Next, we must install the AWS Command Line Interface (CLI) tools. Use the following command for this.
    sudo pip install awscli

    More information about the AWS CLI tools is available at https://aws.amazon.com/cli/

  4. To provision items within AWS, we need to provide Ansible with a user account that has the necessary permissions. Using the AWS console, create a user account ensuring it is assigned an access key and a secret access key. At a minimum, this account must have the following policies assigned to it.
    AmazonEC2FullAccess
    AmazonVPCFullAccess

    Note: As this is a privileged user account, please ensure that the access key and secret access key is kept in a safe place.

  5. To provision AWS Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) instances, we require key pairs created in the region that the EC2 instances will be deployed in. Ensure that you already have key pairs for the North Virginia (us-east-1) region. If not, please create them.

Instructions

Create an Ansible Playbook

Use the following steps to create an Ansible playbook to provision an AWS environment.

Open your favourite YAML editor and paste the following code

The above code instructs Ansible that it should connect to the local computer, to run all the defined tasks. This means that Ansible modules will use the local computer to connect to AWS APIs in order to carry out the tasks.

Another thing to note is that we are declaring two variables. These will be used later in the playbook.

  • vpc_region – this is the AWS region where the AWS environment will be provisioned (currently set to us-east-1)
  • my_useast1_key – provide the name of your key pair for the us-east-1 region that will be used to provision EC2 instances

Next, we will define the tasks that Ansible must carry out. The format of the tasks is as follows

  • name – this gives a descriptive name for the task
  • module name – this is the module that Ansible will use to carry out the task
  • module Parameters – these are parameters passed to the module, to carry out the specific task
  • register – this is an optional keyword and is used to record the output that is returned from the module, after the task has been carried out.

Copy the following lines of code into your YAMl file.

The above code contains two tasks.

  • the first task creates an AWS Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) using the ec2_vpc_netmodule. The output of this module is recorded in the variable ansibleVPCusing the registercommand
  • the second task outputs the contents of the variable ansibleVPC using the debugcommand (this displays the output of the previous task)

Side Note

  • Name of the VPC has been set to ansibleVPC
  • The CIDR block for the VPC has been set to 172.32.0.0/16
  • The state keyword controls what must be done to the VPC. In our case, we want it created and to exist, as such, the value for state has been set to present.
  • The region is being set by referencing the variable that was defined earlier. Variables are referenced with the notation “{{ variable name }}”

Copy the following code to create an AWS internet gateway and associate it with the newly created VPC. The second task in the below code displays the result of the internet gateway creation.

The next step is to create the public and private subnets. However, instead of hardcoding the availability zones into which these subnets will be deployed, we will pick the first availability zone in the region for our public and the second availability zone in the region for our private subnet. Copy the following code into your YAML file to show all the availability zones that are present in the region, and which ones will be used for the public and private subnets.

Copy the following code to create the public subnet in the first availability zone in us-east-1 region. Do note that we are provisioning our public subnet with CIDR range 172.32.1.0/24

Copy the following code to deploy the private subnet in the second availability zone in us-east-1 region. It will use the CIDR range 172.32.2.0/24

Hold on! To make a public subnet, it is not enough to just create a subnet. We need to create routes from that subnet to the internet gateway! The below code will address this. The private subnet does not need any such routes, it will use the default route table.

As planned, we will be deploying jumphosts within the public subnet. By default, you won’t be able to externally connect to the EC2 instances deployed within the public subnet because the default security group does not allow this.

To remediate this, we will create a new security group that will allow RDP access and assign it to the jumphost server. For simplicity, the security group will allow RDP access from anywhere, however please ensure that for your environment, you have locked it down to a few external IP addresses.

Phew! Finally, we are ready to deploy our jumphost! Copy the following code for this

I would like to point out a few things

  • The jumphost is running on a t2.micro instance. This instance type is usually sufficient for a jumphost in a lab environment, however if you need more performance, this can be changed (changing the instance type from t2.micro can take you over the AWS free tier limits and subsequently add to your monthly costs)
  • The image parameter refers to the AMI ID of the Windows 2016 base image that is currently available within the AWS console. AWS, from time to time, changes the images that are available. Please check within the AWS console to ensure that the AMI ID is valid before running the playbook
  • Instance tags are tags that are attached to the instance. In this case, the instance tags have been used to name the jumphost win2016jh.

Important Information

The following parameters are extremely important, if you do not intend on deploying a new EC2 instance for the same server every time you re-run this Ansible playbook.

exact_count– this parameter specifies the number of EC2 instances of a server that should be running whenever the Ansible playbook is run. If the current number of instances doesn’t match this number, Ansible either creates new EC2 instances for this server or terminates the extra EC2 instances. The servers are identified using the count_tag

count_tag– this is the instance tag that is used to identify a server. Multiple instances of the same server will have the same tag applied to them. This allows Ansible to easily count how many instances of a server are currently running.

Next, we will deploy the servers within the private subnet. Wait a minute! By default, the servers within the private subnet will be assigned the default security group. The default security group allows unrestricted access to all EC2 instances that have been attached to the default security group. However, since the jumphost is not part of this security group, it will not be able to connect to the servers in the private subnet!

Let’s remediate this issue by creating a new security group that will allow RDP access from the public subnet to the servers within the private subnet (in a real environment, this should be restricted further, so that the incoming connections are from particular servers within the public subnet, and not from the whole subnet itself). This new security group will be associated with the servers within the private subnet.

Copy the following code into your YAML file.

We are now at the end of the YAML file. Copy the code below to provision the windows 2016 server within the private subnet (the server will be tagged with name=win2016svr)

Save the playbook with a meaningful name. I named my playbook Ansible-create-AWS-environment.yml

The full Ansible playbook can be downloaded from https://gist.github.com/nivleshc/344dca91e3d0349c8a359b03853886be

Running the Ansible Playbook

Before we run the playbook, we need to tell Ansible about all the computers that are within the management scope. This is done using an inventory file, which contains a group name within square brackets eg [webservers] and below that, all the computers that will be in that group. Then in the playbook, we just target the group, which in turn targets all the computers in that group.

However, in our scenario, we are directly targeting the local computer (refer to the second line in the YAML file that shows hosts: localhost). In this regard, we can get away with not providing an inventory file. However, do note that doing so will mean that we can’t use anything other than localhost to reference a computer within our playbook.

Let’s create an inventory file called hostsin the same folder as where the playbook is saved. The contents of the file will be as listed below.

[local]
localhost

We are ready to run the playbook now.

Open a terminal session and change to the folder where the playbook was saved.

We need to create some environment variables to store the user details that Ansible will use to connect to AWS. This is where the access key and secret access key that we created initially will be used. Run the following command

export AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID={access key id}
export AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY={secret access key}

Now run the playbook using the following command (as previously mentioned, we could get away with not specifying the inventory file, however this means that we only can use localhost within the playbook)

ansible-playbook -i hosts ansible-create-aws-environment.yml

You should now see each of the tasks being executed, with the output being shown (remember that after each task, we have a follow-up task that shows the output using the debug keyword? )

Once the playbook execution has completed, check your AWS console to confirm that the following items have been created within the us-east-1 (North Virginia) region

  • A VPC called ansibleVPC with the CIDR 172.32.0.0/16
  • An internet gateway called ansibleVPC_igw
  • A public subnet in the first availability zone with CIDR 172.32.1.0/24
  • A private subnet in the second availability zone with CIDR 172.32.2.0/24
  • A route table called rt_ansibleVPC_PublicSubnet
  • A security group for jumphosts called sg_ansibleVPC_publicsubnet_jumphost
  • A security group for the servers in private subnet called sg_ansibleVPC_privatesubnet_servers
  • An EC2 instance in the public subnet representing a jumphost named win2016jh
  • An EC2 instance in the private subnet representing a server named win2016svr

Once the provisioning is complete, to test, connect to the jumphost and then from there connect to the server within the private subnet.

Don’t forget to turn off the EC2 instances if you don’t intend on using them

Closing Remarks

Ansible is a great automation tool and can be used to both provision and manage infrastructure within AWS.

Having said that, I couldn’t find an easy way to do post provisioning tasks (eg assigning roles, installing additional packages etc) after the server has been provisioned, without getting Ansible to connect directly to the provisioned server. This can be a challenge if the Ansible control machine is external to AWS and the provisioned server is within an AWS private subnet. With AWS CloudFormation, this is easily done. If anyone has any advice on this, I would appreciate it if you can leave it in the comments below.

I will surely be using Ansible for most of my automations from now on.

Till the next time, enjoy!

Category:
Amazon Web Services, DevOps
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