Ansible's rise is fueling Red Hat's reinvention

A company built on helping customers digest complex software is finally learning the power of ease of use

Ask a Red Hat salesperson what is her favorite product to sell, and she’ll probably tell you OpenShift. Close on its heels, however, is Ansible, the open source automation platform Red Hat acquired in late 2015. Ansible has been on a tear of late, quickly rising to become the hottest devops tool in the market.

The question is why. A bigger question, however, is what it means for Red Hat. For a company that thrives deep in the bowels of enterprise infrastructure, Ansible (and OpenShift) represent a march toward a simpler way to deliver IT.

Popular with the geeks

The reason Ansible is so popular within Red Hat’s field is that it’s wildly popular with enterprise IT. How popular? Well, Ansible already finds its way into a third of all Red Hat deals, as Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst indicated on the company’s most recent earnings call. That is staggering when you consider that Red Hat didn’t acquire Ansible until late 2015, and Ansible didn’t even exist as a project until 2012 or as a company until 2013. For Ansible to be contributing in a significant way to Red Hat’s $2 billion-plus in annual revenue is a major accomplishment.

It’s also surprising. After all, it’s not as if Ansible was first to market. Puppet, Chef, and CFEngine all spent years in market before Ansible arrived, yet if we look at what the developer crowd is most interested in talking about, it’s Ansible by a wide margin, as RedMonk has detailed.

Sure, Ansible still has a ways to go to unseat the leading devops tool, Puppet, at least according to jobs data. At its current trajectory, however, that may simply be a matter of when, not if.

Understanding Ansible’s rise

Yet we’re still left with the question of why. That is, why is Ansible so popular?

One reason may be its versatility. As Box engineer Demetri Mouratis told me, “Ansible ... started as an orchestration tool, [then] backed into config[uration] management[, thereby] kill[ing] two birds with one stone.”

Ansible also has the benefit of having been born later than Puppet, with the intention to orchestrate multitier applications in the cloud, rather than software stacks living on servers in an enterprise datacenter. This makes it easy to implement an “immutable server architecture” to create, destroy, or move servers at will across different clouds without taking a hit in service uptime.

Ultimately, the primary driver of Ansible’s breakout success is its simplicity. It’s easy to write and maintain automation workflows with Ansible, and for a newbie, the plethora of modules make it easy to get started. As Martin Ruseve has written, Ansible is a “tool that is powerful like Chef and Puppet, but simple just like bash scripts and fab files.”

This marriage of power and simplicity makes Ansible a hit with sys admins and developers alike, and it follows on the heels of other software or services that have seen broad adoption in recent years, like Amazon Web Services or MongoDB. Ironically, these same characteristics may be reshaping Red Hat.

What Ansible does for Red Hat

For Red Hat, Ansible is a handy complement that boosts the value of its cloud products like OpenShift and OpenStack, as acting CFO Eric Shander said on the company’s most recent earnings call:

Ansible is often sold as part of a broader solution. One of the reasons we acquired the company is it’s a great standalone automation solution, but in a scale-out world, automation becomes increasingly important. So our customers who want to buy CloudForms often also acquire Ansible.... I would bet that most of our OpenStack and OpenShift customers buy at least a degree of Ansible as well.... It becomes a core component of the way you’re going to manage an automating modern infrastructure.

It’s important to stress, however, that both Ansible and OpenShift break Red Hat’s traditional playbook. Red Hat has long helped make complex open source software safe for enterprise adoption, but not necessarily easy to use. Developers seeking simpler deployment have moved to public cloud services like AWS, while those who wanted to build within their datacenters have tended toward Red Hat.

With Ansible (and OpenShift), however, Red Hat is leading its geeky clientele to an easier way of automating or modernizing their IT. Ansible allows the Red Hat user base to muck around in infrastructure without wading quite as deep as before. Or, rather, it allows Red Hat customers to choose to automate some tasks while getting into the gears on others. An enterprise may still need to glue IT services and infrastructure together, but Ansible’s YAML makes it easier.

All of which is making Red Hat operate more like a cloud company, as it in turn helps its enterprise customers take positive steps toward doing the same. I’ve chided Red Hat that it needs to “get real about the cloud.” With Ansible and OpenShift, Red Hat is doing that on its own terms and at its own pace—a rate that seems to fit the preferences of its customers.