Ansible versus Terraform Demystified

Ansible versus Terraform Demystified

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Ansible and Terraform are two very powerful but unique open source IT tools that are often compared in competitive discussions.  We often see comparisons of the two tools - but many times, these comparisons are done purely from a "spec sheet" comparison. This type of comparison, while an interesting read, doesn't take into account using the products at scale or if the comparison is realistic as a binary all-or-nothing approach. We at Red Hat have been helping enterprises for over 20 years and have a good idea how most IT administrators are using these two tools in production. Although both tools can generally do most things, we typically see that they are each leveraged by means of their biggest strengths as opposed to having to choose one or the other.

Spoiler:  The two tools are better together and can work in harmony to create a better experience for developers and operations teams.

Both Ansible and Terraform are open source tools with huge user bases, which often leads to cult followings because of the classical "hammer" approach.  That is, if my only tool is a hammer, every problem will start resembling a nail. This ends up trying to solve new problems the only way I know how, rather than trying another tool that might be more effective.  It is never a great idea to only understand one tool and its approach and philosophy. Instead, you should open your mind to understanding why different tools and platforms exist, and why successful organizations may be using both.  In this blog we will go over the differences and similarities between Ansible and Terraform, the open source projects and their downstream enterprise products.  Keep in mind that this is a blog and to check the date for relevancy as products and projects are constantly changing and evolving.


Terraform is an open source project that is sponsored by the company HashiCorp. Terraform is one of several open source projects that have been productized by HashiCorp; other projects include Vagrant, Packer, Consul and Vault.  HashiCorp specifically has a design philosophy called the Tao of HashiCorp where they want their projects and products to be simple, modular, and composable. In this case, each project and product pairing has well defined scopes and for larger workflows you would combine multiple projects and products.  They define Terraform with the following purpose:

Terraform is the infrastructure as code offering from HashiCorp. It is a tool for building, changing, and managing infrastructure in a safe, repeatable way. Operators and Infrastructure teams can use Terraform to manage environments with a configuration language called the HashiCorp Configuration Language (HCL) for human-readable, automated deployments. source

Terraform is mainly command-line only, but is well integrated with a set of popular public clouds. Terraform is great at provisioning fixed sets of cloud infrastructure and tearing them down afterwards.  HashiCorp provides two productization methods of Terraform for customers, they can either self-manage their custom deployment with Terraform Enterprise or they can use their managed service Terraform Cloud. Their business tier provides drift detection, SSO Audit logs, self-hosted agents and customized concurrency.


Ansible is an IT automation tool. It can configure systems, deploy software, and orchestrate more advanced IT tasks such as continuous deployments or zero downtime rolling updates.  Most people are familiar with community Ansible, which is the command-line tool for running Ansible Playbooks.  Like Terraform, Ansible focuses on simplicity and ease-of-use.  Ansible uses YAML syntax for Ansible playbooks.  We use YAML because it is easier for humans to read and write than other common data formats like XML or JSON.

Red Hat Ansible Automation Platform is the product that is offered to customers.  It is built on the foundations of Ansible with numerous enterprise features, combining more than a dozen upstream projects into an integrated, streamlined product. Each product component also has a specific purpose with a well defined scope similar to HashiCorp's design philosophy.  For example, the automation controller is the Web UI and API for Ansible automation, which is based on the upstream project AWX.  This component is bundled into the platform to manage automation. Ansible Automation Platform is available to be run on-premises and charged by node (rather than by user) or you can use the managed service offering on Microsoft Azure.

To summarize, both Ansible and Terraform have open source command-line only versions.  They both have products available with enterprise features such as a Web UI or SSO.  The primary difference for their community versions is that Ansible is an multi-purpose automation tool, whereas Terraform is an infrastructure as code tool.  The confusion starts occurring because there are numerous use cases that could potentially be solved by either tool, and both Ansible and Terraform have plugins to call each other.  For example, many Ansible experts simply provision AWS resources with an Ansible Playbook and might not understand why others use an entirely different tool. Similarly, Terraform experts might create and destroy entire instances for even the smallest configuration change (see next section about immutability).

Immutable Infrastructure: The Killer App?

Terraform takes an immutable approach to infrastructure.  If you are unfamiliar with immutable infrastructure, it is defined as instances that do not change over time or are unable to be changed. To greatly simplify, an IT operator can create a declarative file (a Terraform HCL file) that represents in structured data what they want their end-state cloud footprint to look like and deploy this with Terraform.  One of the advantages of this approach is that it creates a single source of truth (that HCL file) that can be deployed over and over again without having to understand how it gets to the end-state.  This approach can be simple and elegant for individuals getting started quickly but depending on the size of infrastructure can become complex and hard to manage. Another advantage of an immutable approach is that it is just as easy to tear down (de-provision) your cloud resources. This allows developers to quickly spin up resources, test something, then tear them down.

Ansible, by design, takes an imperative approach to automation.  You simply have a task list that iterates through each resource.  You would tell it to provision this VPC, this subnet, then this VM.  The advantage of this approach is it is very simple to understand, there is no hidden magic, which helps it become easy to troubleshoot.  The disadvantage is usually it is more cumbersome to do teardowns and de-provision without knowing the correct order.  I have to delete the instance, then the security group, and so on and so forth. However, Ansible has support for calling both AWS CloudFormation (another immutable and declarative approach for AWS), and Terraform.  In fact, Ansible Automation Platform does this for all major public clouds, and encourages people to use their preference for provisioning and de-provisioning.  This is a great example of how Terraform and Ansible are better together.

Important: Although Ansible is not universally immutable, depending on how you implement your individual tasks, some Ansible tasks can be immutable.

Here's an example: You can have an Ansible Playbook that provisions a Linux virtual machine into a public cloud using a CloudFormation Template, and then subsequently installs an application via the dnf Ansible module. This activity would be entirely immutable by Ansible.  Most Ansible modules are designed to be idempotent so that they only make changes when they need to.  Ansible is extremely flexible, and it's easy to just automate shell commands which are not idempotent and change every time the playbook is run.  This showcases how Ansible shines as a multi-purpose automation tool versus a discrete infrastructure as code tool.  

Use Cases Compared

If you read all the articles about Terraform, you will find they are public-cloud focused. This is where immutable infrastructure works well and Terraform is great at provisioning cloud resources and applications for AWS, Azure, Docker, GCP, and OCI.  However, there is more to IT operations than automated infrastructure provisioning and this is why Ansible is extremely popular as well.  This is not a knock on Terraform, it is a specific tool with a specific purpose and ethos designed purposely to do infrastructure as code.  However, this infrastructure as code wholly depends on how you define your infrastructure.  Is my critical Cisco IOS network switch not infrastructure?  IT Infrastructure can mean a lot of different things to different IT administrators depending on if they are a network engineer, cloud operations engineer, system administrator or have another title or role.

Ansible focuses on automation with a variety of use cases that are typically divided up into domains, due to their legacy silos:

  • Infrastructure automation - includes automation of Linux and Microsoft Windows, as well as storage vendors like NetApp, PureStorage, and HPE.
  • Network automation - includes physical switches, routers, load balancers, and SDN controllers from popular vendors such as Arista, Cisco, F5 and Juniper.
  • Security automation - integrates SIEM, IDPS, and firewalls from vendors like IBM, Checkpoint, and ITSM tools like ServiceNow.  
  • Edge and hybrid cloud footprints.

Moving to an Event-Driven IT Strategy

As opposed to Terraform, Ansible is more focused on the entire IT workflow. For example, consider the following workflow:

  1. Deploy a Web Application to AWS.
  2. Update your ServiceNow ITSM with Web Application Information.
  3. Run a schedule to check every hour that the Web Application is responding on the correct ports or use event streams to monitor ports and the application for further automation.
  4. Update/Create a ServiceNow ticket if the Web Application stops responding and attempts automation for remediation.

In the above example, it is not enough to simply provision a web application into a public cloud.  There are other steps that need to take place in this automation workflow.  We need the automation to sync with the customer\'s ITSM tool, and include event-driven checks for the web application to ensure it is operating correctly (we call this continuous IT compliance).  Stateful automation can even guarantee this service is kept running while human operators make changes out of band from your automation.

Better: Ansible Orchestrating Terraform

Terraform is an excellent cloud provisioning and de-provisioning tool for infrastructure as code.  Ansible is a great all-purpose, cross-domain automation solution.  Both have an amazing open source communities and well supported downstream paid products.  What we see with the community, customers and even our own IT workflows is that you can combine these tools and solutions to create even more amazing IT workflows.  If you are already invested with Terraform, Ansible simply allows you to wrap those HCL templates into more holistic automation workflows. Ansible further extends your automation allowing you to add tasks like configuration management and application deployment to the Terraform IaC deployment.

How are people using Ansible?

We've noticed that many IT administrators refer to the specific "cloud deployment and retirement" use case rather than looking at other cloud operations use cases, such as Day 2 operations.  To help spark some ideas, let's highlight some Ansible cloud automation use cases today outside of just provisioning and de-provisioning cloud resources.

  • Infrastructure visibility - This is simply using Ansible to retrieve information from your public clouds to understand your cloud footprint.  This is very helpful for brownfield environments where there are numerous IT administrators configuring resources out-of-band from each other.  When there isn't a forced IT process, it is a great starter use case because it is read-only and requires no production changes.
  • Compliance - We need to not only treat cloud infrastructure as code, but also the cloud as code.  For example, we can enforce IAM policies and make sure there is a common experience across public clouds.  Another example would be to force a tag policy across your instances for billing and auditing and shutting down instances out of compliance.  What's great about Ansible is that it can operate and enforce these policies on mutable and immutable infrastructure.
  • Business continuity - Ansible can help keep the lights on.  Move and copy resources off cloud, create and manage policies for backups and build automation to manage disruptions and failures.
  • Cloud operations - Ansible can automate Day 2 activities.  This includes application deployments and CI/CD pipelines, lifecycle management and enforcement as well as OS patching and maintenance.
  • Cloud migration - Ansible can help move workloads to where you need them.  For example, adopting automation for your on-premises infrastructure can help operators adopt public cloud.  Making sure your source of truth is automation versus the on-box configurations is the first step for cloud migration.  Ansible automation can also reduce friction for migration to cloud native, allowing developers to migrate off legacy infrastructure.  By using Ansible automation, an IT group can help unify automation architecture across legacy and cloud-native.
  • Infrastructure optimization - Adopting clouds can help IT operators save time and money, but initially it\'s hard to predict costs and understand how your billing requirements change.  Having an automation strategy can help you keep costs under control by turning off unused resources, rightsizing cloud resources and combining with use cases like infrastructure visibility, you can easily recover orphaned resources and make sure there are no surprise costs.
  • Infrastructure orchestration - We talked about this previously, but how are you integrating everything that's not in your public cloud? Orchestration is simply how we break down silos and integrate with infrastructure outside the cloud.  This allows IT operators to orchestrate business outcomes versus tech silos and apply consistent compliance across all infrastructure.
  • Automated troubleshooting - As your IT team gains confidence with automation, we can move towards an event-driven architecture.  This allows IT teams to respond faster to incidents, speed up meantime to resolution and integrate with an organization's ITSM solution.

Are people succeeding?

The quick answer? Yes! Even automating Terraform with Ansible! But holistic automation goes beyond doing one thing well in the cloud. Ansible can automate and orchestrate physical, virtual and cloud resources. It can automate the provisioning, configuration management, and manage Day 2 operations of network devices, Windows servers, storage and of course Linux. But regardless of what people decide to use to solve a problem, we've found that the real issues aren't with "what" or "how" a problem is solved from a technology perspective, but more about standardizing across technology domains while growing up and out to scale across the entire IT organization.

One of the most impressive and recent success stories using Ansible Automation Platform in the cloud was by Asian Development Bank. The published case study details how they modernized their infrastructure while at the same time modernizing their workforce, allowing them more time to focus on more important things, like innovative projects and new service offerings. They standardized on Terraform for Day 0 while standardizing on Ansible Automation Platform for Day 1 and Day 2 operations. Check out their story in the embedded video!

Final Thoughts

The confusion between Ansible and Terraform has existed for some time, either through inaccurate (or outdated) source material or through inexperience in using either/both technologies. This blog post (while somewhat biased) should help to at least start the conversation around the deeper connections between Ansible and Terraform. Every situation, use case, and person implementing the solution can be different, but because of these factors we believe Ansible is the best solution for automation.