HEAT or Ansible in OpenStack? Both!

Someone asked me today whether he should use HEAT or Ansible to automate his OpenStack deployment. My answer is that he should use both! It’s helpful to understand the original design decisions for each tool in order to use each effectively. OpenStack HEAT and Ansible were designed to do different things, although in the opensource tradition, they have been extended to accommodate some overlapping functionalities.

Cloud Native

In my post on What is Cloud Native, I show the five elements of application life cycle that can be automated in the cloud (image shown below). The two life cycle elements in blue, provision and configure, correspond to the most effective use of HEAT and Ansible.


OpenStack HEAT for Provisioning

HEAT is designed to capture details related to infrastructure and accommodate provisioning of that infrastructure on OpenStack. CloudFormation does the same thing in AWS and Terraform is an abstraction that has providers for both OpenStack and AWS (and many others).

HEAT provides vocabulary to define compute, storage, network and other infrastructure related resources. This includes the interrelationships between infrastructure resources, such as associating floating IPs with compute resources or binding a compute resource to a specific network. This also includes some bookkeeping items, like assigning key pairs for authentication and naming resources.

The end result of executing a heat template is a collection of one or more infrastructure resources based on existing images (VM, or volume).

Ansible for Configuration

Ansible, on the other hand, is designed to configure infrastructure after it has been provisioned. This includes activities like installing libraries and setting up a specific run time environment. System details like firewalls and log management, as well as application stack, databases, etc. are easily managed from Ansible.

Ansible can also easily accommodate application deployment. Activities such as moving application artifacts into specific places, managing users/groups and file permissions, tweaking configuration files, etc. are all easily done in Ansible.

The end result of executing an Ansible playbook is ready-to-use infrastructure.

Where is the Overlap?

Ansible can provision resources in openstack. HEAT can send a cloud-init script to a new server to perform configuration of the server. In the case of Ansible for provisioning, it is not nearly as articulate or granular for the purpose of defining infrastructure as HEAT. In the case of HEAT configuring infrastructure through cloud-init, you still need to find some way to dynamically manage the cloud-init scripts to configure each compute resource to fit into your larger system. I do use cloud-init with HEAT, but I generally find more value in leaving the bulk of configuration to Ansible.

Ansible inventory from HEAT

When using HEAT and Ansible together, it is necessary to generate the ansible inventory file from HEAT output. To accomplish this, you want to make sure HEAT outputs necessary information, like IP addresses. You can use your favorite scripting language to query HEAT and write the inventory file.

Example using both HEAT and Ansible

A while ago I published two articles that showed how I develop the Ansible configuration, and then extend that to work with HEAT for deploying complex, multi-server environments.

Install and configure a Multi-node Hadoop cluster using Ansible

Bulid a multi-server Hadoop cluster in OpenStack in minutes

The first article lays the foundation for deploying a complex system with Ansible. The second article builds on this by introducing HEAT to provision the infrastructure. The Ansible inventory file is dynamically generated using a python script and the OpenStack CLI.


While there is some ambiguity around the term provision in cloud parlance, I consider provision to be the process of creating infrastructure resources that are not generally configured. I refer to configuration as the process of operating against those provisioned resources to prepare them for a specific use case, such as running an application or a database. HEAT is a powerful tool for provisioning resources in OpenStack and Ansible is a great fit for configuring existing infrastructure resources.

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About Daniel Watrous

I'm a Software & Electrical Engineer and online entrepreneur.

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