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Ansible vs. Puppet: What you need to know

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Ansible and Puppet are community open source IT automation tools. Both can simplify IT operations and DevOps work by automating routine tasks such as configuring and provisioning systems, deploying software, and managing updates across large numbers of servers or endpoint devices.

Ansible is known for its ease of use, thanks to a more flexible agentless approach, which requires no additional software to be installed on the targets being automated. By contrast, open source Puppet and Puppet Enterprise have traditionally favored an agent-based approach, requiring additional software to be installed on each machine. Ansible and Puppet take different approaches to the automation itself, with Ansible utilizing human-readable language for configuration files and procedural automation (defining steps to be run in order). Puppet, on the other hand, uses a domain specific language (requiring knowledge of the Ruby programming language) and declarative automation (defining the desired state).

This article will help explain the similarities and differences between Ansible and Puppet in greater detail.

Where do Ansible and Puppet fit in the wider landscape of IT automation tools? Ansible, Puppet, Salt, and Chef make up 4 of the most commonly used open source IT automation tools. All 4 are available as enterprise versions sold by different corporate entities:

  • Red Hat® Ansible® Automation Platform is supported by Red Hat.
  • Puppet Enterprise, Puppet Bolt and other products are supported by Perforce.
  • VMware Aria Automation (Salt) is supported by VMware.
  • Chef Enterprise Automation Stack is supported by Progress.

Ansible

Ansible is an open source, command-line IT automation software application written in Python. It can configure systems, deploy software, and orchestrate advanced workflows to support application deployment, system updates, and more. Red Hat Ansible Automation Platform is a subscription product built on the foundations of Ansible with numerous enterprise features.

Ansible’s strengths come from its community. Its main GitHub repository draws thousands of contributors, and has tens of thousands of repositories that depend on it, as of fall 2022. A popular user conference, AnsibleFest, takes place every year, and Ansible Meetups happen on a frequent basis around the world. This enthusiastic user community reflects a large pool of Ansible expertise, with contributors who keep Ansible robustly integrated with other popular software projects. Ansible users can access hundreds of modules and plugins that help extend its capabilities.

Ansible is designed with a focus on simplicity and ease-of-use. It also emphasizes security and reliability, featuring minimal moving parts. It uses OpenSSH for transport (with other transports and pull modes as alternatives), and uses a human-readable language (YAML) in Ansible Playbooks that is designed for getting started quickly without a lot of training.

Ansible uses the concepts of a control node (where Ansible is executed from) and managed nodes (the endpoints being automated), which can include a Linux® servers, Windows servers, network devices, and many other bare metal, virtual, public cloud and containerized platforms. Since Ansible is agentless, it can communicate with a vast number of endpoints without requiring an application or service to be installed on the managed node. For example, many network switches and routers are closed systems that often cannot have software agents installed on them. 

Ansible uses a procedural (or imperative) programming approach, which tries to preserve the configuration of an IT infrastructure by defining the steps to reach a desired state.

Puppet

Open source Puppet is an open source IT automation application written in Ruby, offered as a series of available products including Puppet Enterprise. Scalability is a main benefit of Puppet. Puppet employs a model-driven approach with imperative task execution, and is designed to automate hybrid infrastructure at large scale.

Puppet has an active open source community, but with fewer contributors and fewer projects dependent on it than Ansible, based on GitHub insights in fall of 2022. Contributions to its main repository have slowed significantly.

Puppet was also designed to work differently than Ansible. Puppet is usually run as an agent-based solution, requiring a piece of software on every device it manages, though it also includes agentless capabilities.

Puppet follows the concept of declarative programming, meaning the user defines the desired state of the machines being managed. Puppet uses a Domain-Specific Language (DSL) for defining these configurations. Puppet then automates the steps it takes to get the systems to their defined states. Puppet handles automation using a primary server (where you store the defined states) and a Puppet agent (which runs on the systems you specify).

Agent-based architecture describes an infrastructure and automation model that requires specific software components called agents to run on the inventory being managed. The agent and all of its dependencies need to be installed on every target node, requiring additional security checks and rules. This can become a challenge when it’s time to automate objects on which the agent is unavailable or not allowed to run. It also requires agents to be maintained as part of the maintenance support life cycle for organizations.

Agentless architecture, which Ansible uses, describes a way to automate and manage IT devices without requiring any agent software installed on managed environments. The control software connects to remote machines over standard and secure SSH connections and begins managing them without a lengthy setup process. This architecture eliminates the need to maintain a deployment system of agents once the provisioning and configuration is completed.

Declarative programming is a method of writing code to describe the desired outcome of the program, rather than detailing how to do it. It is focused on the end state using declarative language, instead of the specific commands and steps needed to get there. 

Procedural, or imperative, programming is a method of writing code to provide the computer with a list of instructions—a step-by-step guide—to completing a task. It is focused on the process, instead of the end state. For its automation language, Ansible uses YAML, a human-readable data-serialization language. The YAML syntax is interpreted and executed in a procedural manner, meaning that the automation workflow is executed in the sequence in which it was written.

Choosing an automation solution requires considering not just features available in today’s software, but the longer-term outlook for the platform. Ansible stands out for its highly active open source community and commercial backing from Red Hat.

It’s also common for organizations to use multiple automation solutions. Ansible connects to a large ecosystem of integrations, and can be used in conjunction with many other automation and configuration management tools—as an orchestrator of automators. Ansible can be used to automate systems on public cloud hyperscalers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform (and many more).

Compared to Puppet, Ansible is a preferred choice for users who can reuse existing knowledge and expertise, and who prioritize ease of use and an agentless automation solution. It also benefits from a large community of contributors, is widely adopted, and is highly regarded for its integration with other tools.

With open source at its core, Red Hat Ansible Automation Platform is a hardened, tested paid subscription product that offers full life cycle support for organizations. Its upstream project, Ansible, benefits from the experience and intelligence of its thousands of global contributors. 

Ansible Automation Platform includes numerous upstream components, more than 130 Red Hat Ansible Certified Content Collections from 60+ partners, and as-a-service return on investment (ROI) tools that take the guesswork out of installing, configuring, and supporting automation in your organization. It creates an end-to-end automation experience aimed at cross-functional teams while providing a plug-and-play experience between automation developers, engineers, and operations teams.

Red Hat Ansible Automation Platform’s features—like Red Hat Insights and automation analytics—provide accessible information on the performance of your automation, allowing you to measure your impacts and monitor or resolve issues with greater precision. Automation mesh lets you scale control and execution capacity independently, delivering automation closer to the endpoints that need it, with little or no downtime, allowing you to reach a consistent automation experience from the datacenter, to the cloud, to the edge locations

As a choice for agentless, easy-to-use IT automation, Ansible stands ahead of the pack for its simplicity and strong user community.

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