Windows Package Management

Windows Package Management

Welcome to the third installment of our Windows-centric Getting Started Series!

In the previous post we covered how you can use Ansible and Ansible Tower to help manage your Active Directory environment. This post will go into how you can configure some of those machines on your domain. Most of this post is going to be dominated by specific modules. Ansible has a plethora of Windows modules that can be found here. As time is not a flat circle, I can't discuss all of them today but only a few that are widely used.

MSIs and the win_package Module

So you got your domain up, you have machines added to it, now let's install some stuff on those machines. I do have a few notes before moving forward in regards to the modules we'll be discussing. The module win_msi is deprecated and will be removed in Ansible 2.8 (current version as of this post is 2.5). In its place you can use win_package which I will be using throughout this post.

Alright, back to installing stuff. The win_package module is the place to be. It is used specifically for .msi and .exe files that need to be installed or uninstalled. These files can also be sourced locally, from a URL or from a network resource.

The parameters within the module add a lot of flexibility. As of Ansible 2.5, you can now list your arguments and the module will escape the arguments as necessary. However, it is recommended to use a string when dealing with MSI packages due to the unique escaping issues with MsiExec.

Below are a few examples of how you can use the win_package module. The first one shows how to install Visual C++ and list arguments:

- name: Install Visual C thingy with list of arguments instead of a string
    product_id: '{CF2BEA3C-26EA-32F8-AA9B-331F7E34BA97}'
    - /install
    - /passive
    - /norestart

Above, we see that the product ID is listed. While Ansible can and does extract the ID from the MSI when it's local, we don't want to force the host to download the MSI if it's not necessary. When you supply the product ID, Ansible can quickly check to see if the package is already installed without downloading a potentially huge MSI from the internet first. You can install without the product ID. An example of this can be found below: 

- name: Install Remote Desktop Connection Manager locally omitting the product_id
    path: C:\temp\rdcman.msi
    state: present

As I stated earlier, you can also download from a network share and specify the credentials needed to access that share. The example below shows it in action, installing 7-zip from a network resource: 

- name: Install 7zip from a network share specifying the credentials
    path: \\domain\programs\7z.exe
    product_id: 7-Zip
    arguments: /S
    state: present
    user_name: DOMAIN\User
    user_password: Password

Windows Package Management and Chocolatey

Unlike most Linux distros, Windows does not have a built-in package manager. Windows does have the Windows App Store but I don't think that a whole lot of those products are making their way into data centers.

There is, however, a community project called Chocolatey that provides a full package management experience for Windows users. It helps take away some of the pain that comes with managing raw setup.exe and .msi files. And wouldn't you know, we have a module for it!

But before we get into talking about the module, let's talk a little bit more about Chocolatey. A good comparison for people who might be Mac users, Chocolatey is similar to that of Homebrew. Chocolatey is designed to easily work with all aspects of managing Windows software (installers, zip archives, runtime binaries, internal and 3rd party software) using a packaging framework that understands both versioning and dependency requirements.

The Chocolatey module is similar in use as its *nix counterparts, simple and powerful. It does have a soft requirement in regards to the version. And what I mean by soft requirement is that it needs v. 0.10.5 to run but if Chocolatey doesn't see that version, it will update it for you. And to add some more sugar to that dessert, if Chocolatey is not present on the machine, the module will install it for you as well before going through with its assigned tasks.

To get started with the module, one of the easiest examples could be installing a lightweight CLI tool. Let's use git because people's workflows are all the same, right?

- name: Install git
    name: git
    state: present

All joking aside, it is that easy to install git. It is just as easy to install a different version of something as well if you need to have a specific version of something. Let's say you need Notepad++, version 6.6. It would look something like this: 

- name: Install notepadplusplus version 6.6
    name: notepadplusplus
    version: '6.6'

One key thing to note when you're stating a version: make sure to enter it as a string (see the two tick marks around 6.6). Reason being is that if it is not entered as a string, it's considered a YAML float. Many valid version numbers don't translate properly into a float and yield the same result (eg, '6.10' != '6.1' for most versioning schemes, but 6.10 as a float will become 6.1), so it's a good habit to always quote version numbers to ensure that they're not re-formatted.

Some packages might require an interactive user logon to make an installation. To pass the correct credentials, you can use become to achieve this. The example below shows an installation of a package that requires the use of become. Note that you can become: System and it will not require you to supply a password.

- name: Install a package that requires 'become'
    name: officepro2013
  become: yes
  become_user: Administrator
  become_method: runas

The win_chocolatey module is strong and powerful but in some scenarios will not work without become. There is no easy way to find out if a package requires become so the best course is to try it without and use become if that fails. 

Packages and Chocolate Bars in Windows Automation

To wrap up this blog post, we covered a couple of ways you can automate the installation of packages for your Windows environment. Whether you are all in on using Chocolatey or need to install some packages, Ansible has the power to do all of that and more for you, in a simple and easy-to-read format.

In our next and final post of the Getting Started with Windows Automation series, we will talk about Security and Updates in Windows using Ansible!