The Mistake

A common practice of mine in developing Ansible playbooks is to write a few pieces (add a role, write some tasks, etc.), run the playbook, add some more, run again, and so on. At the end, I have a working playbook that I can apply to other hosts - or so I think.

The mistake is that running that playbook on another target runs the whole playbook at once, not incrementally as I did when I was writing it. This means that unless I only ever add new tasks and roles after the ones I’ve already run, and I never go back and make changes to earlier ones, the order of tasks will be different, but that might not be obvious. Here’s an example.


This week some colleagues and I are teaching the 2019 Galaxy Admin Training at Penn State. For this training, we decided to do away with command line editing as much as possible (although a student may choose not to use Ansible when they get home, the methods taught here apply to deployment and configuration management in general). This means we (which is to say, mostly Helena) developed a training exercise for deploying Galaxy with Ansible.

As I do in development, we had the students build their playbooks step by step. At the end of the day, in preparation for the next day, I ran the playbook on all the unused training cloud instances so that they’d be up to date, if anyone needed to switch instances. That’s where the problems began:

TASK [Create the Galaxy FTP upload dir]
fatal: [jan-2019-training-inst-3]: FAILED! => {
    "changed": false,
    "msg": "chown failed: failed to look up user galaxy",

To understand what’s happened, have a look at the playbook:

- hosts: galaxyservers
    - name: Create the Galaxy FTP upload dir
        path: "/srv/galaxy/ftp"
        owner: galaxy
        group: galaxy
        mode: 0750
        state: directory
    - galaxyproject.repos
    - galaxyproject.postgresql
    - role: natefoo.postgresql_objects
      become: true
      become_user: postgres
    - galaxyproject.galaxy
    - usegalaxy-eu.supervisor
    - geerlingguy.nginx
    - galaxyproject.proftpd

When building the playbook, we added the FTP dir creation pre_task when adding the galaxyproject.proftpd role (and we added the roles in the order seen, running the playbook between each one). The galaxyproject.galaxy role creates the galaxy user. So on a fresh target system, the pre_task no longer works, since we now run it before the role that creates the user, when the first time around, we ran it after.

Running it as a post_task doesn’t work either. Galaxy starts when usegalaxy-eu.supervisor’s handlers fire, at the end of all the role executions, before any tasks or post_tasks run. And when that happens, you get:

RUNNING HANDLER [Restart Galaxy] *********************************************
fatal: [jan-2019-training-inst-3]: FAILED! => {
     "changed": false,
     "msg": "galaxy: stopped\ngalaxy: ERROR (spawn error)\n"

And the error is:

ubuntu@jan-2019-training-inst-3:~$ sudo supervisorctl tail galaxy stderr
python threads support enabled
your server socket listen backlog is limited to 100 connections
your mercy for graceful operations on workers is 60 seconds
mapped 306752 bytes (299 KB) for 4 cores
created farm 1 name: job-handlers mules:1,2
*** Operational MODE: threaded ***
added /srv/galaxy/server/lib/ to pythonpath. path is: /srv/galaxy/server/lib/, ., , /srv/galaxy/venv/bin, /srv/galaxy/venv/lib/python2.7, /srv/galaxy/venv/lib/python2.7/plat-x86_64-linux-gnu, /srv/galaxy/venv/lib/python2.7/lib-tk, /srv/galaxy/venv/lib/python2.7/lib-old, /srv/galaxy/venv/lib/python2.7/lib-dynload, /usr/lib/python2.7, /usr/lib/python2.7/plat-x86_64-linux-gnu, /usr/lib/python2.7/lib-tk, /srv/galaxy/venv/local/lib/python2.7/site-packages, /srv/galaxy/venv/lib/python2.7/site-packages
DEBUG:galaxy.containers:config file './config/containers_conf.yml' does not exist, running with default config
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "/srv/galaxy/server/lib/galaxy/webapps/galaxy/", line 49, in app_factory
    app =, **kwargs)
  File "/srv/galaxy/server/lib/galaxy/", line 67, in __init__
  File "/srv/galaxy/server/lib/galaxy/", line 830, in check
  File "/srv/galaxy/server/lib/galaxy/", line 815, in _ensure_directory
    raise ConfigurationError("Unable to create missing directory: %s\n%s" % (path, e))
ConfigurationError: Unable to create missing directory: /srv/galaxy/ftp
[Errno 13] Permission denied: '/srv/galaxy/ftp'

We’re running Galaxy with privilege separation, so /srv/galaxy is owned by root. This failure is the reason we added the pre_task in the first place.

The solution in this case was relatively simple: galaxyproject.proftpd has an option to create the FTP directory, which I enabled. If not, however, this would be difficult to fix. There’s no way to insert tasks between roles unless you run all of your roles from tasks using include_role, which is a hack. Assuming I don’t want to modify roles I’ve fetched from Ansible Galaxy (no relation) to create the dir, the next best solution would be to create a single-task role to run after galaxyproject.galaxy to create the FTP directory. Not ideal.


There are really two problems here, as far as I’m concerned.

  1. Ansible doesn’t have a way to specify that tasks can fail and should be retried at a later time. I actually came to Ansible from CFEngine which (it’s been a few years, but as I recall) ran in passes - actions it attempted could fail, but it’d run other actions anyway and retry the failed ones later. Ansible has no such mechanism, its execution is pretty much linear. The fact that you can’t insert a task between roles is really just an annoyance that makes it difficult to work around this larger complaint.

  2. I try to write the world’s most generalized and unopinionated roles, but Ansible does not make this easy. Creating directories isn’t always as simple as you might think. Naïve roles will just use a become or assume they are running with the appropriate privileges, but neither of these are appropriate for a role that’s going to be used by others, and could downright fail if the directory is on, for example, NFS with root squashing. The galaxyproject.proftpd’s option to create the FTP directory is disabled by default for this reason (indeed, I myself can’t use it for This is why I end up writing a lot of my own roles, and the reason they end up so complex.

    There is no construct in Ansible for a role to assert that it needs certain privileges, and for the consumer of the role to configure the method by which those privileges should be obtained. You run a role as either the user you logged in as, or with become, but that’s too limiting. The galaxyproject.galaxy role, for example, needs to create some files as one user and some as another, and execute commands or perform actions as both of those users. If it can’t do that, you either have to:

    1. Run everything as one user, this is less secure,
    2. Use “enable/disable” variables and a bunch of whens on a bunch of include_tasks’s to break the role up by privilege, then instruct role consumers on how to run the role multiple times with the correct combination of remote_user or become/become_user and the enable/disable vars set as role vars, or
    3. Some kind of nutty kludgery to actually provide the missing assert/configure functionalty.

Somewhat related, but Ansible does not make it easy to see what privileges it’s obtaining and how it’s obtaining them. You can see most of this with -vvv but it’s not easy: The ssh user is displayed on the first line after the task header, but only if ansible_user/remote_user is set on some level. The become_user is buried in the module execution command lines.


My complaints in the discussion aside, the takeaway is that simply building a playbook that works is not sufficient, it needs to be run again from scratch. In addition, any time you’re adding to it later, always consider whether the tasks you’re adding depend on other things set up by the playbook. If they are, further consider whether those dependencies run earlier or later in playbook. Forgetting this consideration is a trap I’ve fallen in to many times.