Maintaining two or three Linux machines is not that hard of a task. For many years I have thought it was not worth the effort to automate - regular backups and version-controlled configuration files seemed to be just enough.
And then Ansible had blown my mind.
It all started with a web server and a series of subpar hosting providers. Setting that server up for the first time was an adventure. Repeating the setup for the first relocation has given me a chance to introduce some improvements but was otherwise uneventful. I started dreading the process when the need for the third iteration had arisen. I was willing to put up with sluggishness and several short downtimes just to delay the move to a new server. That was not OK.
Automating has clearly become a worthwhile task. I chose Ansible because it doesn't require any special software on the controlled machines and because it is mature enough to remain backwards compatible after updates. There are numerous reviews of pros and cons of different configuration management systems, but that's outside the scope of this article.
Ansible has definitely succeeded at the task I've thrown it at. That was expected. What I couldn't foresee is how this experience would affect my mindset - it was like a breath of fresh air! I have suddenly started to understand why there exists all the buzz around the cloud and why cloud service providers are dominating the market of virtual servers.
With my Ansible playbook I did not just automate the setup process, I created an enforceable specification of what my server has to be like. At any time in the future after executing the same playbook I can be certain that all configurable parameters will be at the values I've defined.
Idempotent behavior allows me to run the playbook again and again without fear of breaking anything. It should be noted though, that not all Ansible modules are idempotent and one should always check the documentation before incorporating a new module into the playbook.
There is even an option to take it one step further to truly immutable infrastructure where any server can die at any point and no harm will be done. This approach is for a bigger scale than a humble hobby project, though.
I have limited the immutability effort to a gentle reminder in /etc/motd and a policy among administrators (me, myself and I) that no configuration changes are to be made via shell connection.
Now it is incredibly easy for me to replicate that web server. It requires only one command and a short coffee break. That means I can switch the hosting provider at any moment I want. Choosing the hosting company has become a non-issue: I invest only a minimal payment and no labor at all. If I don't like what I get I'll be gone in no time.
Easy replication also means I can fire up another server for testing purposes, then destroy it in a couple of hours and it will cost me only a few cents because of hourly billing that most providers offer nowadays.
Setting up a new server used to be somewhat similar to moving into a new apartment. First, there was scrupulous comparing of offers, after that a dramatic moment of signing the lease and then the silent minutes alone in empty apartment, staring at the walls. Each server was important and loved, breaking or destroying it on purpose was unthinkable.
Now it's more like checking into a room at the hotel. And you get to be a celebrity and send the rider list in advance, so that everything is set up to your liking when you arrive. You can also check out at any moment without worrying about the lease. There is no need to lug your favorite vimrc along because you won't be editing anything there, in fact you'll hardly ever spend any time logged in at all.
Randy Bias has summed this attitude in the pets versus cattle analogy. I think it's quite on point even when you're managing a single machine, not the fleet of servers.
And last, but not least, all you do with Ansible is automatically documented in the playbook. You can use any version control system to track when any particular change was introduced and why. That allows to revert the unwanted changes as easily as was introducing them in the first place.
When you're outside the professional IT crowd it is not obvious that the cloud infrastructure and the corresponding tools are within the reach of hobbyist enthusiasts. But they are and they offer just as much value for personal projects as they do in production environment.
If you find yourself tinkering with Linux administration more than once a week it'll be worthwhile to try out Ansible or some other configuration management tool.