Michael Trojanek (relativkreativ) — Bootstrapper and creator of things

This is one of my most popular articles. It was published on February 17th 2016 and received its last update on November 11th 2018. It takes about 6 minutes to read.

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How to use Ansible's lineinfile module in a bulletproof way

The lineinfile module is one of the most powerful ones in Ansible's toolbox. While it can introduce a lot of problems when used wrong, it pays to make yourself familiar with a bulletproof way to edit configuration files.

Ansible's lineinfile module is used to add, change or remove a single line in a file.

Before using it, you should make sure that the task you want to accomplish cannot be done with Ansible's template or copy module:

They allow you to prepare an entire file upfront (either with or without variable expansion) which gives you complete control over the file's contents. So wherever possible, prefer the copy and template module over manipulating a file with the lineinfile module.

Unfortunately, there are cases where this is not possible:

Once you are sure that you have to use the lineinfile module, the tricky part is to channel its powers and make it do what you want.

Idempotency at all times

If you have read Efficient Rails DevOps or are following my articles, it will not have escaped your notice that I am preaching idempotency at all times when building Ansible tasks.

This means that an Ansible task which introduces a change to your system must not report the same change again when run a second time.

This becomes more and more important once your playbooks start to grow. It is crucial for any operator to be properly informed about things that have changed and things that have not.

Let's reuse the example from above and make our SSH daemon listen on the IP address 1.2.3.4.

The first approach

The easiest way to do so is by using the following task:

- name: Listen on 1.2.3.4
  lineinfile:
    dest: /etc/ssh/sshd_config
    line: "ListenAddress 1.2.3.4"
    state: present

The line ListenAddress 1.2.3.4 will be added at the end of the sshd_config file because we did not specify where to put it. Ansible is smart enough to not add this line more than once as long as the last line of the sshd_config file is not changed. So while a bit wonky, our task is idempotent and does what we want.

However, this approach is dangerous: Our server is now listening on the address 1.2.3.4 but it may also listen on other addresses we do not know about.

Next iteration

The goal for our task is to make our SSH daemon listen on the one (and only the one) IP address we specify.

When we take a step back and examine the necessary steps, we will see that we actually need two tasks to accomplish this:

Removing unwanted lines can be done with this task:

- name: Remove lines with unwanted occurrences of ListenAddress
  lineinfile:
    dest: /etc/ssh/sshd_config
    regexp: "^ListenAddress (?!1.2.3.4)"
    state: absent

What's not so obvious here is the (?!1.2.3.4): This is a regular expression construct called negative lookahead:

The regular expression ^ListenAddress (?!1.2.3.4) matches lines starting with ListenAddress, followed by a space, then not followed by 1.2.3.4. For our task, this means that all ListenAddress directives are removed except those which specify the IP address 1.2.3.4.

Now that our file is clean, we can add the correct directive. Specifying a place where to add the line enables Ansible to judge whether this task needs to be executed or not on future runs:

- name: Listen on 1.2.3.4
  lineinfile:
    dest: /etc/ssh/sshd_config
    line: "ListenAddress 1.2.3.4"
    insertafter: "^#?AddressFamily"

This task will add the line ListenAddress 1.2.3.4 directly under the line starting with AddressFamily (comment or not).

A real life example

In real life, you will often need to add more than one line to a file. This can easily be achieved with Ansible's with_items syntax and a little regular expression trickery (if you find yourself in need to add blocks to a file often, take a look at the blockinfile module).

Let's edit our example sshd_config file to make the SSH daemon listen on multiple IP addresses. If you are using Digital Ocean's floating IPs, you may want to make your server accept SSH connections on its public and private IP — in this example, the public IP is 46.101.70.239 and the private IP is 10.19.0.6.

First, we have to update our regular expression to preserve lines containing ListenAddress for both IPs:

- name: Remove lines with unwanted occurrences of ListenAddress
  lineinfile:
    dest: /etc/ssh/sshd_config
    regexp: "^ListenAddress (?!46.101.70.239|10.19.0.6)"
    state: absent

Then we can use Ansible's with_items syntax to loop over both IPs and add the appropriate ListenAddress directives to the file:

- name: Listen on 1.2.3.4
  lineinfile:
    dest: /etc/ssh/sshd_config
    line: "{{ item.line }}"
    insertafter: "{{ item.insertafter }}"
  with_items:
    - { line: "ListenAddress 46.101.70.239", insertafter: "^#?AddressFamily" }
    - { line: "ListenAddress 10.19.0.6", insertafter: "ListenAddress 46.101.70.239" }

Note that the line containing the public IP gets added under the line specifying the AddressFamily whereas the ListenAddress call for the private IP gets added under the one for the public IP.

The definitive version

To be correct, we have to escape the IPs' dots in regular expressions and write them like 46\.101\.70\.239 — otherwise the . would not match an actual dot but any character (this should not be much of a problem in this case but it's better to be on the safe side).

In your actual playbook the IP addresses will probably be stored in variables which leads us to the final version of our tasks (using Jinja2 filters to escape the dots in our IP addresses where appropriate):

- name: Remove lines with unwanted occurrences of ListenAddress
  lineinfile:
    dest: /etc/ssh/sshd_config
    regexp: "^ListenAddress (?!{{ public_ip|replace('.', '\.') }}|{{ private_ip|replace('.', '\.') }})"
    state: absent

- name: Listen on public and private IP
  lineinfile:
    dest: /etc/ssh/sshd_config
    line: "{{ item.line }}"
    insertafter: "{{ item.insertafter }}"
  with_items:
    - { line: "ListenAddress {{ public_ip }}", insertafter: "^#?AddressFamily" }
    - { line: "ListenAddress {{ private_ip }}", insertafter: 'ListenAddress {{ public_ip|replace(".", "\.") }}' }

Using this bulletproof approach to edit lines in configuration files will make your Ansible tasks a lot more robust.

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