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Chef vs Ansible: How to Choose the Right Configuration Management Tool

Sunayana Samantaray - January 28, 2021

The world of configuration management (CM) has defined modern-day IT processes. If you are interested in building a career in IT , then learning about CM, along with other IT skills , is essential.

Chef and Ansible are two major examples of CM software. In general, these products are responsible for maintaining the IT system and configuring large management tasks. They’re used to establish and maintain a product’s function, performance, and physical features.

This kind of software helps lessen the workload of network administrators and system developers, especially at a large organization. Since it’s nearly impossible to manually detect and solve every software issue, they can use Chef or Ansible to configure and fix multiple servers quickly.

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The subtle differences between Chef and Ansible can be confusing. But it is crucial to understand these differences in order to choose the best CM tool for your organization. Below we will break down the differences, similarities, pros, and cons of Chef and Ansible so you can make an informed decision.

What Is Chef?

Chef is a powerful configuration tool used for infrastructure automation. It was developed by OpsCode and released in 2009. Since then it has become an industry leader in CM software.

Chef’s automation tool works across a number of platforms using the Ruby programming language with a command-line interface.

Chef is often used as a standalone tool, but due to its open-source code, it is also used in a software as a service (SaaS) capacity for cloud configuration. Learning about SaaS and cloud computing will help you better utilize Chef.

The software runs on a variety of platforms such as Windows, Linux, FreeBSD, Solaris, Cisco IO, AIX, and Nexus. It is also compatible with a large number of cloud platforms like Google Cloud Platform and Amazon Web Services.

What Is Ansible?

Released in 2012, Ansible is another open-source IT automation engine used for CM.  It is made up of many modules for interacting with applications. For example, Ansible can automate interservice orchestration, application deployment, and the complete application lifecycle.

Ansible does not use custom security infrastructure on the client-side, so it is easier to use. The modules are directed to the clients. The results are then sent to the Ansible servers.

The use of SSH keys makes connecting with clients on the platform very easy. Inventory files have the client’s details such as their IP address and hostname, which Ansible can use for configuration.

Another important part of Ansible is its playbook, which is coded using a simple language called Yet Another Markup Language (YAML). Tricky tasks are converted into repeatable playbooks to simplify a configuration. If it’s necessary, the playbooks can be debugged.

Ansible also uses the Python programming language. Servers that need to be configured using Ansible must also use Python. Consider learning to code in Python using online resources.

Chef vs Ansible: Differences and Similarities

There are many differences and similarities between these two programs. Knowing these distinctions is necessary to understand Chef and Ansible. Keep reading to learn more.

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First Difference: Configuration Management

Ansible uses YAML for managing its configuration language. YAML is a human-readable data serialization language designed to be simple and easy to understand. With YAML, configurations are pushed to individual nodes.

In Chef, a different language is used. The system is written in Ruby and Erlang and operated in a Ruby domain-specific language. This language pulls configurations from the server. And it has a steeper learning curve than YAML.

Second Difference: Installation and Setup

Ansible does not require client-server installation. Instead, a secure shell (SSH) is used to log onto a client’s computer. Without the need for the client to run its own setup program, installation is a breeze.

Chef, however, runs on every client’s machine. It has several components, and is therefore harder to set up.

Third Difference: Single Source of Truth

The single source of truth (SSOT) is a strong configuration. But Ansible doesn’t deploy its playbooks with the help of the SSOT configuration, which is less helpful if you are working on network automation.

On the other hand, the server in Chef acts as the SSOT. You can usually upload updated cookbooks to multiple servers. This helps maintain the consistency of cookbooks and the automation processes.

First Similarity: Availability

These tools’ availability is of utmost importance to the user as it makes the software efficient and effective. Both the tools have servers that the users can access.

Chef has a backup server that fills in when the primary server goes down. Ansible follows a similar process. When an active node goes down, a secondary server kicks in.

Second Similarity: Scalability

Both tools are known for being scalable and having the capacity to meet fluctuating demands of users.

Third Similarity: Interoperability

The Chef server and the Ansible server both require a Linux/Unix machine to work. Both of their client workstations can work on Windows.

Chef vs Ansible: Pros and Cons

Lines of code in a computer in blue, pink, red and yellow color.
Different types of programming languages are used in Chef and Ansible.

Below is a pros and cons list of these CM tools. Hopefully, this information will help you choose the right CM tool for your needs.

Chef Pros

  • Simple configuration management. Chef has a pre-packaged template that makes it easy to manage simple, moderate, and complex infrastructure.
  • Ease of use. Chef is very easy to use once you get the hang of it. It is user-friendly and many resources within Chef follow a similar pattern, so it’s relatively easy to develop basic cookbooks from the start. Chef gathers huge amounts of data to give you insights into your system configuration and infrastructure.
  • Ease of migration. If you struggle with coding, don’t worry. Chef provides an easy process of plugging scripts into resources. So, you can migrate from Bash and Powershell scripting seamlessly.

Chef Cons

  • No custom dashboards. Chef does not offer a custom dashboard for users. This would be a very helpful tool to help small organizations keep track of user data.
  • Weak user roles. Chef lacks good Identity and Access Management (IAM) roles. With IAM roles, companies present users with customized data rather than making users filter it themselves.
  • Hybrid cloud deployment. Chef manually conducts cloud deployments. That’s a lot of work if your organization spans multiple clouds.

Ansible Pros

  • Agentless. This feature of Ansible makes the configuration more efficient and effective. Without interference in the configuration slowing down the overall process, Ansible is a more complex system.
  • Reentrant scripts. This is not unique to Ansible but definitely a huge improvement over previous custom scripts. The reentrant scripts allow for a smoother process.
  • Infrastructure as code. The Ansible infrastructure has improvements on its AWS modules. This improves the efficiency of the overall infrastructure playbook and helps it commit to source control.

Ansible Cons

  • Lacks descriptive error messages . The software is good enough to interpret basic errors, but complex issues lack a detailed explanation.
  • Steep learning curve . Ansible is a bit difficult to learn when it comes to playbooks and roles, which is an adverse effect of its power and flexibility.
  • No public storage. There is no public repository domain of playbooks or a manager to facilitate community downloads.

Should You Use Chef or Ansible?

a person wearing headphones and coding on multiple computers
Chef and Ansible are two of the best configuration management tools that organizations can use to achieve system efficiency.

Chef and Ansible are both great CM tools and each has its own benefits. Chef, the older software, is extremely good at handling complex tasks. Ansible is easier to install and use but is limited in the complexity of tasks it can perform.

Overall, if your organization’s systems need to perform complex tasks using Ruby, then you should choose Chef. Otherwise, you are better off choosing Ansible.

Advantages of Choosing Chef

  1. Chef’s powerful automation tools enable organizations to reduce risk throughout the software development life cycle .
  2. Chef offers an uninterrupted channel of software development, including testing, building, deploying, monitoring of applications, and troubleshooting.
  3. Its efficiency is improved by automated cloud infrastructure.
  4. Migrating to a different cloud environment is easy on Chef.

Advantages of Choosing Ansible

  1. It is very easy to set up Ansible. You can use the playbooks without having any programming skills.
  2. Projection of any application environment is possible in Ansible no matter where you deploy it.
  3. You don’t have to install any software for your automated client systems. A separate management structure is not required.
  4. If you are looking to become a web developer , using Ansible will help by automating daily configuration management tasks.

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Sunayana Samantaray

About the author: Sunayana, a certified Executive Coach by the International Association of Professions Career College, is an experienced content writer. She has written about topics such as career changes, education, tech, sustainability, business, and data science. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in International Business and Human Resource Management from the University of Oklahoma.

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