Letting the Genie out of the bottle

Imagine if you could transform that unstructured Cisco show command screen output into something more useful than just CLI output.

What if there was a way to transform an SSH CLI show command’s response into a RESTful API-like HTTP GET request response in RESTful API-like structured JSON?

Sounds amazing right? Well with Genie this is totally possible. I mentioned the CTAS Genie / pyATS / xPresso solution in My Toolkit post. I also suggested that gathering facts with Ansible is the best place to start with network automation and infrastructure as code.

But the Ansible facts, while impressive, rich, plentiful, and extremely useful, they do not necessarily contain all of the state information that IOS / NXOS CLI show commands provide. Some information, such as CDP neighbors, interfaces, IP addresses, is available with only the ios_facts / nxos_facts modules but for things like the configured Virtual Route Forwarders (vrf) on a router, the IP Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) tables, or the OSPF routing tables you are stuck with crappy old Cisco CLI output right?

Wrong. You now have a magical Genie on your side who is here to grant all your state capture and transformation wishes! And you get more than 3!


– The historic restrictions of using Cisco IOS / NXOS show commands as CLI-only, raw screen / putty logged output, have been lifted.
– Genie parsers provide REST API HTTP GET-like responses to common CLI show commands.
– Ansible integrated allowing for running and parsing show commands at scale.
– I like to create RAW JSON, Nice JSON, Nice YAML, CSV, Markdown, and interactive HTML mind maps from any JSON I can get my hands on. Now I can do it with Cisco show commands!
– Fill the gaps from what is missing from base Ansible facts.
– Build a powerful, dynamic, state aware documentation set for every device in your network from every day show commands.
– Not as difficult as you might think.
– Another modern network automation, infrastructure as code, tool network engineers should include in their skillset.
– The best development team in the business. The Genie / pyATS / xPresso developers have personally helped me out. Find them on Cisco WebEx Teams for often real-time responses.

What is Genie?

Genie is a parser that automatically converts Cisco IOS / NXOS command output into structured JSON. This structured JSON allows developers to then work more programmatically with the output from important, but otherwise useless, show command output.

For example I am using Genie to parse some key show commands and create a dynamic automated library of documentation in different formats.

You can also go a step further with pyATS and write boolean tests (true / false) in Python using the Genie parsed data as your source of test data. The show ip ospf neighbor command, for example, can be executed, parsed with Genie, and then tested with pyATS! All of this can then be wrapped in business logic, scheduling, and protected with RBAC in xPresso.

Amazing but I am not made of money – how much does all this capability cost?

It is all free.

How do I integrate it with Ansible?

The amazing Ansible integration that I am using is thanks to Clay Curtis and his incredible contributions. Thanks to Clay there are two installation steps on top of the standard Ansible installation and an open Python filter plugin – then you are ready to go.

Please visit the Ansible Galaxy role, Cisco DevNet Code Exchange, and GitHub repository for all the details.

Show and Tell

It’s easier to just demonstrate how the Parser can be used with Ansible. Some prerequisites:

– Linux host
– pip install ansible
– pip install genie
– ansible-galaxy install clay584.parse_genie
– SSH access to network devices from this host
– Credentials for the device (prompted)
– The parse_genie Python filter_plugin
– Make sure your ansible.cfg specifies the location of the parse_genie file in filter_plugins.


Example: show vrf

Recall what a show vrf looks like at the CLI:

This could spawn for pages depending on how many VRFs are hosted on the router. Also – how do you work with this output? Log to a putty file and inspect in notepad offline? Not very user friendly.

Let’s Genie parse that same command and see what the output looks like as structured JSON and take the Pepsi Challenge against the CLI.

In a playbook called CiscoVRFFacts.yml I first scope the playbook (CampusDistribution), then prompt for username and password. Note the collection includes Clay’s clay584.genie collection.

Next I run my standard Cisco show command with the ios_command module and register the response (which is RAW unparsed IOS config at this point) Nothing fancy here.

The next step is where we use the filter_plug in to parse the registered raw response and register a new variable that holds the parsed output. Again – this is not very complicated once you understand the syntax.

Note the parsed command is the same as the original command, in this case show vrf, and we have to specify the operating system (Cisco IOS).

You can optionally print these parsed facts, the nice JSON, to the screen.

Resulting in something like this:

We can save this output to a variety of files and manipulate the output in a variety of ways previously unavailable to us with raw standard CLI IOS output.

For starters lets put the RAW JSON response into a JSON file with the Ansible copy module.

Which is good for forensics, audits, security purposes, or for downstream systems that intake raw JSON, but it’s not very human readable.

Add the Ansible filter | to_nice_json to get the output to look like the output that is printed to the screen.

Now this is up for debate but personally I prefer and find YAML even more human-readable than JSON. Let’s make a YAML file with the | to_nice_yaml filter.

As a reminder this is what the show vrf command looks like at the CLI:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-53.png

Now, in YAML:


Going a step further we can try to manipulate the output for business suitable reports in CSV, markdown, and HTML files.

Using yet another Ansible filter, the dict2items, which as the name implies transforms a dictionary to a list of items, we can loop over the original variable {{ pyats_all_vrfs.vrfs }} key and create our CSV / markdown.

(There are some Regular Expression (RegEx) steps that clean up the JSON a bit omitted for brevity)

Add a header row.

And now you have a CSV file!

Similar steps can create a markdown.

And then an HTML mind map can be generated.

Look at all the business and operational value we’ve squeezed out of a simple show vrf command!

All of this code is available on Automate Your Network’s GitHub.

Example: show ip arp

Start with the CLI show ip arp command output, which to be fair isn’t the worst CLI output around, which provides the ARP table for the Global Routing Table.

With more or less the same steps transform this into the same reports.

Setup the playbook:

Run the show ip arp command:

Parse it:

Create your 3 base RAW JSON / Nice JSON / Nice YAML files:

Check out this nice output!

Now anybody, CCNA level or not, can read the ordered structured list and see that VLAN20 has 1 neighbor with an IP of, the age, and the MAC address.

Similar steps to transform the output create the CSV / markdown / mind maps:

Also available on GitHub.

Example: show ip arp vrf {{ vrf }}

The exact same steps can be performs by simply adding show ip arp vrf <vrf name> with the same output as the Global Routing Table.

As a development aside I had big plans for show ip arp vrf {{ vrf }} to be a dynamic and automatically loop over all of the VRFs present on the route. I got pretty far but the parser itself hung me up.

Meaning I had a previous loop over the Genie parsed show vrf command which provided me the VRF name to feed the show ip arp vrf command. This all worked out and I could get the raw unparsed list like this:

– show ip arp vrf “{{ item.key }}”
loop: “{{ pyats_all_vrfs.vrf | dict2items }}”

But when it came time to parse this the following didn’t work.

| parse_genie(command=’show ip arp vrf {{ item.key }}’, os=’ios’)

I think because the parser is treating {{ item.key }} as raw text / the raw command and is not aware of the outer loop and to treat it like a variable. For the same reason I couldn’t write it to prompt for a VRF name. So, yes, I found one edge case drawback where I have to hardcode the VRF. Leave me a note if you see a way around this.


Genie parsers allow network engineers and operators to transform simple Cisco show commands into REST API-like requests with corresponding structured JSON response from the switch. This all magically happens behind the scenes allowing developers to actually make use of the show command output.

The days of setting up your Putty session to log your console to text files for offline analysis of raw standard output are finally over. Now you can work with JSON which in turn can be transformed into YAML, CSV, markdown, and HTML easily.

Along with Ansible facts, Genie parsed state data can solve the lifelong challenge of creating and maintaining good documentation.

Bonus code – show etherchannel summary

I couldn’t help myself and wrote another GitHub repository after finishing the blog. That’s how much I love Genie and how quick and easy it is!

Automate Your Network – Out in the Wild

I am very thankful to everyone who has supported me over the years and especially to anyone who has purchased my first book! I really hope it was worth it and you found value in it.

Some appearances in the wild!


My current toolkit

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”
― Marshall McLuhan

My first attempt at network automation I used the tools that I had used to manage infrastructure with for the past 20+ years. A file editor (notepad) and a file transfer program (WinSCP) on my Windows 10 machine and a Linux (CentOS (at the office) / Ubuntu (at home)) machine. Ansible was the first new tool introduced to me and every other tool here has followed to either support my Ansible development or I was led down the path to discovery because of Ansible. So – installed Ansible on the Linux environment at the office and made sure it had SSH connectivity to my in-band management network.

Ready to go! I had everything I needed to write YAML files and make my playbooks, group / host variable files, and inventory file. I could either write these in Notepad in Windows and transfer them to Linux or just “vi” them directly on Linux. All set right?

As a beginner trying to orchestrate a series of serially executed commands in Ansible playbook tasks I was suffering from a mix of ignorance and arrogance. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And while yes, my playbook would eventually go onto be successful and make a large scale, complex, change across multiple devices without causing an outage of any kind, the process was brutal. Back and forth trial and error with all of these, what turned out to be, unnecessary steps of trying to track my latest version of working code across my development environments.

Shameful filenames like “John_Working_Code_v2_latest_new02.yml” were sprawling out of control and I was starting to feel like a “The Price is Right” contestant where they guess the value of 5 items, pull a lever to see how many they got right, then run back and guess again and try to figure out which ones were correct, then run back and pull the lever again.

Eventually I got all 5 items priced correctly but it was a lot of panic-driven, chaotic, running around, as it turns out, for no reason.

Was there a better way? Surely this isn’t what people mean when they say DevOps or infrastructure as code or network automation. Why would anyone do it this way? It doesn’t scale. It took weeks longer than had I just logged into each router at the CLI and configured the device manually by hand.

Ansible wasn’t that hard – but the tools I was using were simply wrong. Enter the modern toolkit.


– This toolkit took about three years to put together through a lot of hard work and discovery.
– Tools make all the difference.
– You need an Integrated Development Environment (IDE).
– Version and source control are good things. They are not just middle management talk.
– Network automation means treating infrastructure as code.
– You have crossed over from IT into Development; act accordingly.
– Use software development tools to solve software development problems.
– Git. Git. Git. Git. Git. Git.
– Powerful stuff.
– Leads to Continuous Integration / Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) in the long run.
– Both for configuration management as well as state capture, validation, and testing.

Version / Source Control – Git

I start with Git because in order of software installation Git should come first. You want to build up a development environment in order to work with infrastructure as code and you want to have both version (current, working, code; previous working code; testing new things without affecting old working things) and source (source of truth, which copy is the master copy / primary copy / main copy, allow for distributed development) controls (like RBAC but over your code base). For Windows you need to download and install Git (first, before your IDE so Git can be integrated when you install your IDE). But for Linux Git comes pre-installed as a standard.

Git vs GitHub

Git is not GitHub and GitHub is not Git.

Git is the actual software that does the version and source control. Git creates a hidden .git folder that tracks changes inside that Git-enabled folder. Git has commands used to work with code.

GitHub is an online Git repository. The largest collection of code in the universe GitHub provides a free place to store Git repositories (the folder with the .git subfolder tracking all artifacts within the parent folder). GitHub, or other Git hosting repository sites or services, provides the source control over your infrastructure as code.

Git is used to clone Git repositories (GitHub or other Git repository hosting site) locally, that is take a full copy of the remote repository locally, where developers can make changes and then push those changes back into the remote repository.


Git uses branching as it’s version control system. A main branch (previously and sometimes still referred to as master) serves as the known-good, stable, current, source of truth, intent; the master copy of a key for example.

A branch, another full copy of the code with a different identifier from main/master, can be created for development purposes. Bug fixes, feature releases, scaling, or routine changes can be done within a branch, protecting the main branch, and once tested and QA has been performed, the branch is merged through a mechanism known as a pull request, back into main, updating main’s artifacts accordingly.

It might not seem obvious at first but in larger distributed development environments the pull request system allows for cross-team orchestration and collaboration. Pull requests can require approvals and reviews and can then also be used to trigger software builds and releases. The ever evolving history of a piece of infrastructure is completely documented and tracked in the pull request history handling the entire lifecycle of any given product, platform, or host.

My favourite Git-related sites:

Learn Git Branching

Oh Shit Git!

IDE – VS Code

I love VS Code. I really do. After Git is installed download and install VS Code. VS Code is where you will be writing all of your code and reviewing the artifacts your code generates. It is fully Git integrated and aware and things like Git clone, Git add, Git commit, and Git push are all simply point-and-click operations. Split-screen editing, syntax checking, and a vast library of extensions make VS Code my number one pick for an IDE.

VS Code Extensions

Extensions are plug-ins you can install to further enhance VS Code’s already awesome capabilities. There are thousands of extensions available out there. Here is my VS Code extension list that I find helps enhance my infrastructure as code development experience.

My favourite extension:


Development Services – Microsoft AzureDevOps

Formerly Microsoft Team Foundation Server (TFS), AzureDevOps provides development services for distributed development teams in the form of work boards (KANBAN; other Agile systems; waterfall), Git repositories, software builds, tests, and software releases allowing for full CI/CD DevOps.

ADO has the advantage, for me, as being an on-prem / private cloud solution with full enterprise controls (RBAC; AD integration) and feature sets.

Git repositories can transition to SSH key authentication. Docker container images can be build and deployed based on Git triggers and actions which build and deploy Ansible playbooks automatically.

Rich history, version and source controls, and an amazing collaboration space – particularly around Git Pull Requests – which fully enable and charge up infrastructure as code development. Adapt and adopt Agile practices to infrastructure teams.

Docker Integration

Moving towards infrastructure as code and full CI/CD in AzureDevOps Docker has become a very important tool and a key component of my success in DevOps. A Docker container image can be thought of as an immutable CD-ROM/DVD-like ISO (hence the “image” part) which can run, self-contained and without the need for a full blown hypervisor like VMWare or Hyper-V, an operating system and software inside of it. Docker images can be interactive and you can “log into” / shell into them, but any changes made inside this session are discarded when the session ends. Ansible and pyATS can both be “containerized” and run inside Docker container images.

Why is this important?

It allows me to setup a software build (create a Docker container image based on a specified Dockerfile) and software release in AzureDevOps CI/CD pipeline. Now any Ansible playbook or pyATS test I previously scheduled with a human operator executing the automation to fully automated and human-independent CI/CD that is trigger based on Git actions like Pull Requests.

A quick approach to Docker:

– Make it work at the CLI.
– Wrap this / convert this to Ansible playbook.
– Wrap the Ansible playbook in Docker.
– Build and release Docker image based on Git actions that trigger the CI/CD.

A sample infrastructure as code build:

And the matching release:

With detailed logs showing the Ansible playbook and Docker status.

Automation Tool – Ansible

After discovering Ansible in April of 2017 my entire approach to solving infrastructure problems changed. Now I work with an automate-first principal and nearly every solution I’ve developed in the past three years has been an Ansible playbook of some kind. It really has been a one-size-fits-all tool for me. Cisco, Microsoft, Linux, VMWare, Azure, anything with a RESTful API; Ansible has done it all for me.

My key points about Ansible:

– Simple, powerful, agentless.
– No previous coding skills required. This is not like learning Python from scratch.
– Can be used for anything from gathering facts, tactical one-time changes at scale, or full configuration management.

My full AnsibleFest 2020 deck if you want to dive deeper.

Ansible-related file types – YAML, JSON, Jinja2

The loaded term “infrastructure as code” or even “network automation” really boils down to the fact that you will be working with a few new file types to create artifacts like data models, templates and playbooks.

YAML Ain’t Markup Language (YAML)

YAML is a human readable data serialization language. In terms of Ansible both your data models (infrastructure represented as intent-based code) and playbooks (the file containing the serially executed tasks to perform) will be YAML files.

A data model for a switch might look like this:

As you can see the file format is simple, made up of lists of key-value pairs, and very human readable. This represents the intent for this particular device.

A playbook, on the other hand, might look like this:

This playbook is scoped for the CampusAccess group in the Ansible hosts inventory file. Prompts for username and password and then runs the ios_facts module printing the gathered facts on the screen.

JavaScript Object Notation (JSON)

You may not need to write JSON but you should be able to consume JSON if you are working with Ansible. All Ansible facts, for example, are represented in JSON. This is much like a RESTful API that returns JSON in response to an HTTP GET. You may need to write JSON if you are POST / PUT (creating / updating) records with an API as the body of the HTTP POST / PUT will be JSON data.

Ansible facts get returned by default like this as an example of an Ansible-related JSON artifact:


Jinja2 is Ansible’s (and Python’s) templating language. Saved as .j2 files, a Jinja template is exactly that – a template of another file type. Configuration stanzas, JSON, YAML, CSV, markdown, HTML, plain-text; more or less anything can be templated with Jinja2.

Logic is often applied inside a Jinja2 template such as For Loops or If Else End If declarations. Jinja2 also allows for the use of variables – which reference the original data model examples.

The VLANs from the data model of example could be templated for Cisco IOS as follows:

{% for vlan in host_vlans %}
vlan {{ vlan }}
name {{ host_vlans[vlan].name }}
{% endfor %}

I have written many more Cisco IOS Jinja2 templates you can check out.

Automated Documentation with Ansible filters – RAW JSON, Nice JSON, Nice YAML, CSV, Markdown, and Interactive HTML Mind Maps

Probably my favourite, and often overlooked, Ansible capability is to generate automated network and infrastructure state documentation. I do this with Ansible filters. Starting with this simple playbook:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-17.png

The Ansible magic variable – ansible_facts can be transformed. To simply take the RAW JSON inside ansible_facts you can use the Ansible copy module to copy them into a file:

But using Ansible filters – adding | and then the filter, the ugly RAW JSON can be transformed into “nice” human readable JSON:

Or even better – Nice YAML!

Which looks like this:

CSV and Markdown files can also be created using the ansible_facts JSON and another filter, JSON_Query, an SQL-like query tool used against JSON.

So we set_facts (create our own variables) from the parsed JSON:

Which we can then use to make CSV:

Or Markdown:

Mark Map

Mark Map is a nifty little program that converts any valid, well-formed Markdown file into an interactive HTML “mind map”.

You need to have node.js and npm installed in the Linux environment.

curl -sL https://deb.nodesource.com/setup_12.x | sudo -E bash –

Then simply run the one line command referencing the markdown file you want to convert to a mind map.

npx markmap-cli <filename>

The output, which is fully interactive, looks like this:

Ansible Vault

A big part of moving to CI/CD and automated builds and releases from human-driven automation is securing the credentials used to authenticate against any given infrastructure. As all of the infrastructure as code is in a central Git repository you don’t want to store your credentials in plain / clear text. One approach is to use prompted mechanisms for securely handling credentials but this does not lend itself to full autonomous automation in Docker containers.

Ansible Vault provides a way to encrypt full files or in our case specific variables, such as the credentials key-value. Once vaulted the encrypted variable can then be safely stored inside the Ansible group_vars file inside the Git repo for all to see. The matching password to unlock the variable can be provided at runtime (again counter intuitive) or, and this is my approach, saved in plaintext in a file in a secure location on the Linux host.

The magic happens at Docker container image runtime where the password file is mounted as a volume into the Docker image so the Ansible playbook can dynamically unlock the credential variables at runtime. Because the lock and key are separate this is a very secure way to automate Ansible with Docker safely.

To move from something like this, that uses prompted inputs from a human operator

Vaulted variables that can be run non-interactively

Use the Ansible Vault mechanism.

$ ansible-vault encrypt_string ‘string’ –name ‘variable_name’

Where ‘string’ is your enable secret for a Cisco IOS for example.

$ ansible-vault encrypt_string ‘My$ecretKey1’ –name ‘ansible_ssh_pass’
New Vault password: <A Strong Encryption password here>
Confirm New Vault password: <Repeat Strong Encryption password here>

Now you can replace the ansible_ssh_pass variable with the vaulted password.

To make it fully non-interactive save your Vault password ( <A Strong Encryption password here>) to a plain-text file (yes it seems counter intuitive but this is fine and safe) saved somewhere secure on the Linux host.

sudo vi /etc/secrets/AnsibleVault.txt
< A Strong Encryption password here >

(ESC, wq! )

Then, in your ansible.cfg file stored in the same location as the playbooks add the following line under [defaults]

vault_password_file: /etc/secrets/AnsibleVault.txt

The playbook will now securely and automatically authenticate without the need for prompts or for insecurely saving naked credentials in the clear.

Latest tool – Application Programmable Interfaces (APIs) for Infrastructure

APIs have finally arrived for infrastructure in the form of RESTful interfaces on switches and routers, on the Cisco Catalyst 9000 series for example, and other appliances and web services. I have had great success with F5’s AS3 API. Cisco.com has amazing APIs. Cisco Prime Infrastructure and Cisco Identity Services Engine APIs are extremely capable and easy to use. BlueCat Address Manager has an API. They are popping up everywhere!

Command Line Interface: cURL

Client Uniform Resource Locator (cURL) is a command-line tool used to interact with an API. As of May 2018 cURL is even included in Windows by default.

Try it yourself – launch a command prompt (Start -> Run; cmd) and type in:

curl https://quotes.rest/qod

You should get back a Quote of the Day in JSON from the public open RESTful API:

Graphical User Interface: Postman

Postman is a GUI API client. Postman can be used for quick and simply API interactions but is also a very powerful API automation and development tool that should not be dismissed as just a simple API browser.

The same Quote of the API would look like this in Postman:

Automation: Ansible URI Module

Ansible has a universal module, the URI module, that allows for API automation. The follow Ansible playbook, quoteoftheday.yml, can be created to automate the Quote of the Day.

Using additional Ansible tools the JSON can be manipulated to create usable reports from the JSON.

The Quote of the Day playbook is available on Automate Your Network’s GitHub.

Quote of the Day API
0 forks.
3 stars.
0 open issues.

Recent commits:

State Validation: Cisco Testing Automation Solution (CTAS)

The Cisco Testing Automation Solution (CTAS) is actually three distinct tool kits assembled in a pyramid / hierarchy.

Siming Yuan blog 3

The foundation here is parsing. Using the Genie library framework various infrastructure CLI commands are parsed and transformed into JSON output. From there pyATS can run automated boolean tests against the Genie parsed returned key-value pairs. xPresso is a GUI based ecosystem that provides for RBAC, scheduling, and much more advanced and easy to build testing workflows.

Similar to Ansible which has connection strings inside group variables CTAS uses testbed files which describe and provide shell connectivity to run the parsing and testing.

A sample testbed file for a Cisco ISR. Note the password is encrypted using pyATS cryptography methods.

A sample crc_errors pyATS test file, written in Python. This test could be used with the ISR testbed to check for CRC errors on all interfaces.

A sample log, taken from an AzureDevOps CI/CD release inside a Docker container image:

xPresso also offers the automation and orchestration capabilities:


Over the past three years my toolkit as a network engineer has grown dramatically from a humble text editor and a file transfer program to dozens of new tools each with their own amazing capabilities. In short – go get these tools and start using them to solve problems.

– Git
– VS Code
– VS Code Extensions
– GitHub account and repositories for public use
– AzureDevOps for Enterprise use
– Linux of any flavour
– Ansible
– Python
– Docker
– Postman
– cURL
– Ansible URI module
– YAML experience
– JSON experience
– Jinja2 templating experience
– Markdown experience
– HTML experience
– Mind map transformations
– Genie parsers
– pyATS
– xPresso

I am always open to questions, comments, or feedback if you need help getting started!

Downloading the tools and exploring yourself is the best way to get started but I’m here to help!

Just the facts ma’am

Infrastructure as Code and Network Automation – Where to Start

Learning any new skill takes time, patience, a willingness to try and fail, and ideally continuously learn and grow from our mistakes until we grow more and more proficient. The number one question I get is “How do you get started?”. I got started the hard way – trying to automate a tactical, one-time, unique, complicated, large-scale problem out of necessity with little time to learn the best way to approach such a problem. This post is to provide you with safe, easy, valuable, scalable, Ansible playbooks you can copy, study, and modify to fit your infrastructure. I want to stress that the following code does not attempt to change, modify, add, remove, update, or delete any data or configurations. They simply connect, securely, to a target host or set of hosts, capture stateful facts, that is to say, truthful key-value pairs and lists of information about the current state or configuration, parse those facts, and then transform them into useable, human-readable, automated documentation.


– Documenting enterprise networks and servers is tedious work at best.
– Most enterprise documentation is, for a lack of a better word, wanting, if it exists at all.
– Various Ansible modules can be used to gather stateful, truthful, facts from infrastructure.
– Not limited to network devices. Windows, Linux, VMWare provide facts to Ansible as well.
– Easy.
– After you capture facts they are easily transformed into automated state documentation.
– RAW JSON, Nice JSON, Nice YAML, CSV (spreadsheets!), Markdown, and interactive HTML mind maps from Ansible facts.
– Scales n+x devices.
– Safe, secure, no possibility of disrupting the network. Think of it as running a bunch of show commands or doing HTTP GETs.
– Loved by management everywhere.

Enter: Ansible

If you are familiar with me at all you likely already know Ansible is my automation tool of choice. If you are new around here – let me tell you why. I believe Ansible is so easy that I can write a simple blog post with a few lines of code that you should be able to reproduce and make it work for you. There is little to no barrier to entry and your solution complexity will scale along with your personal growth and muscle memory with the tool. So let’s get started.


You are going to need a Linux environment. If you are a traditional Windows user who may not have access to a RHEL, CentOS, Debian, Ubuntu, or other Linux platform you can use the Windows Subsystems for Linux (WSL2) on Windows 10 to run a Linux environment.

For example to install Ubuntu on Windows 10:

Right-click the Windows Start icon – select Apps and Features.


In the Apps and Features window – click Programs and Features under Related Settings on the right side of Apps and Features.


Click Turn Windows Features On or Off in the left (with the shield icon) side of the Programs and Features window.


Scroll to bottom of the Features window and put a check mark beside Windows Subsytem for Linux; Click Ok and close the open windows.


Launch the Microsoft Store.


Search for Ubuntu – click the first result.


Click Install.


Wait for Ubuntu to install.

Press Windows Key and start typing Ubuntu – click and launch Ubuntu.

The first time Ubuntu launches it has to setup – give this some time.

Enter your username and password for Ubuntu.

Update Ubuntu – this step will take some time.

$ sudo apt update

$ sudo apt-get upgrade -y

Install Ansible

Make sure Python is installed.

$ sudo apt-get install python -y

Install Ansible.

$ sudo apt-add-repository ppa:ansible/ansible

$ sudo apt-get update

$ sudo apt-get install ansible -y


You will need a hosts file. This is the foundation for a good, scalable, modular Ansible install base. Hosts can be organized hierarchically to match your physical or logical topologies. The machine hosting Linux must be able to resolve the hosts if you use their hostname and have IP connectivity for the playbooks to work. For a standard Cisco enterprise design you might have a hosts file like this:








Ansible needs to be able to securely connect to the targeted host. There are no agents and Ansible uses SSH, WinRM, or HTTPS as transport protocols. For most devices a username and password are required to authenticate and authorize the Ansible session. There are a few ways that this can be handled but for beginner’s I would setup a prompted mechanism to get going. Eventually you can learn about Ansible Vault but to avoid hard coding plain-text passwords to get started, a mistake even I made when I was beginning to use Ansible, start with prompted interactive playbooks where a human has to enter a username and password.

These connections strings are first setup in what’s known a group variable or group_vars where all of the individual hosts in a group (ie dist01 and dist02 in DIST group) inherit the variables set. Because we have everything nested in [ENTERPRISE], in a folder called group_vars, create the following file.


ansible_connection: network_cli
ansible_network_os: ios
ansible_user: “{{ hostvars[inventory_hostname][‘ios_password’] }}”
ansible_ssh_pass: “{{ hostvars[inventory_hostname][‘ios_password’] }}”

This tells all the hosts in the Enterprise hosts group to use the Ansible network_cli connection mechanism; that the target operating system is Cisco IOS; and that the Ansible user and Ansible passwords are variables.


At the heart of Ansible are playbooks. Playbooks are YAML files made up of key-value pairs and lists of serially executed tasks. The first step in the playbook is to establish the scope of the playbook tasks from either a group or single host in the hosts file or locally using the localhost option. For this example target the Campus Access layer. One of the tasks in these facts playbooks will either call a specific facts module (like ios_facts), use the setup module, or target an API using the uri module. But first, we have to prompt the user for their credentials and store them in variables to be used by the Ansible connection strings in the group vars files.

Create a file called CiscoAccessFacts.yml inside the playbooks folder as follows:

– hosts: ACCESS

– name: ios_user_prompt
prompt: “Enter Cisco IOS Username”
private: no

– name: ios_password_prompt
prompt: “Enter IOS Password”
private: yes

– set_fact:
ios_user: “{{ ios_user_prompt }}”
ios_password: “{{ ios_password_prompt }}”
no_log: true
delegate_to: localhost
run_once: true

Now that we have connection to our devices in the ACCESS group using the prompted credentials which are passed to the group_vars Ansible connection strings we are ready to perform the actual IOS Facts Ansible task as follows:

– name: Gather Ansible IOS Facts
– all

That’s it! Now we have captured the Ansible IOS Facts. Because these are Ansible facts we do not need to register them as a variable; they are stored in the ansible_facts magic variable.

To print your facts to the screen you can use the Ansible debug with the following message as the next task in your playbook:

– debug:
msg=”{{ ansible_facts }}”

Save and run the file.

ansible-playbook CiscoAccessFacts.yml

Answer the prompts for credentials. After authenticating and gathering the facts something like this should be displayed on the screen, except with actual data values completed.

Cisco NXOS_Facts

Much like IOS, Ansible has an NXOS fact module as well. The NXOS module, as expected, provides the same baseline facts as IOS but adds hardware facts such as modules, fans, and power supplies as well as software facts such as features, licensing, and VLANS.

Copy the Campus files and update them accordingly. Typically in a data center where the NXOS facts will gather there is HA configured and paired-devices. These playbooks have been tested on Nexus 9000, Nexus 7000, Nexus 5000, and Nexus 2000 FEX modules.




ansible_connection: network_cli
ansible_network_os: nxos
ansible_user: “{{hostvars[inventory_hostname][‘nxos_user’]}}”
ansible_ssh_pass: “{{hostvars[inventory_hostname][‘nxos_password’]}}”

Notice the change to nxos for the ansible_network_os. The variables are changed for cosmetics as well to match the NXOS platform.


– hosts: DC_ACCESS

– name: nxos_user_prompt
prompt: “Enter Cisco NXOS Username”
private: no

– name: nxos_password_prompt
prompt: “Enter NXOS Password”
private: yes

– set_fact:
nxos_user: “{{ nxos_user_prompt }}”
nxos_password: “{{ nxos_password_prompt }}”
no_log: true
delegate_to: localhost
run_once: true

– name: Gather Ansible NXOS Facts about DC Access

– debug:
msg=”{{ ansible_facts }}”

Save and run the playbook.

ansible-playbook CiscoNXOSAccessFacts.yml

Review the output on the screen and notice the new sets of facts only NXOS can provide.

Notice again the change from ios_facts to nxos_facts but that’s about it. Now you have all of your Data Centre Ansible Facts as well as your Campus!

This is great right? What other facts can we get? How about compute facts! Yes that’s right we can use Ansible to get Windows, Linux, and VMWare (bare metal or virtual guest) facts too using more or less the same steps.

Compute Facts

Ansible is not limited to gathering facts from Cisco or other network devices. In fact Ansible can be used to gather even more facts from compute platforms like Microsoft Windows, Linux of any flavour, and VMWare (both bare metal hosts and virtual guests).

Microsoft Windows Facts

That’s right. We can use Ansible, a Linux-only tool, to gather Microsoft Windows facts! More or less the same approach and building blocks are the same; a hosts file, group vars file, and playbook. Windows hosts, like Cisco hosts, can be logically organized anyway you see fit. Windows hosts can be grouped by product line, OS, function, location, or other values. For now create a simple hosts file with one parent group called Windows.

The requirements and WinRM installation and configuration guide can be found here. Either HTTP or HTTPS can be used because Kerberos is ultimately securing the payload, even if the transport is only HTTP.


The group vars Ansible connectivity variables for Microsoft Windows are as follows:


ansible_user: “{{hostvars[inventory_hostname][‘windows_user’]}}”
ansible_password: “{{hostvars[inventory_hostname][‘windows_password’]}}”
ansible_winrm_scheme: http
ansible_port: 5985
ansible_connection: winrm
ansible_winrm_transport: kerberos

Note the Ansible WinRM scheme needs to be setup as either HTTP or HTTPS and the corresponding Ansible port (5985 for HTTP; 5986 for HTTPS) needs to be selected depending on the transport protocol. Ansible connection is using WinRM and the WinRM transport is specified as Kerberos.

Now in the playbook target the Windows group of hosts and use the same prompted mechanism code as before updating it to reflect Windows cosmetically. The only change to the Facts task is to change from the ios or nxos facts module to the setup module.

– name: Gather Ansible Windows Facts about Windows hosts

– debug:
msg=”{{ ansible_facts }}”

Save the playbook as playbooks/WindowsFacts.yml and run the playbook.

ansible-playbook WindowsFacts.yml

Notice all of the amazing facts Ansible can discover about a Windows host or groups of Windows hosts.

Linux Facts

The great thing about the setup module is that it can be used against Windows and Linux hosts. Meaning you simply need to clone the Windows artifacts (group_vars file, playbook, and hosts inventory) and refactor all of the Windows references to Linux (Linux.yml group var file; [Linux] hosts list; Windows to Linux cosmetic references) but the core Ansible task remains the same:

– name: Gather Ansible Linux Facts about Linux hosts

– debug:
msg=”{{ ansible_facts }}”

However, much like IOS vs NXOS facts, the amount of Linux facts eclipses even the huge list of facts from the Windows hosts. This is due to the native Ansible / Linux coupling and support.


VMWare does not use the generic setup module and has a specific facts module like Cisco IOS or NXOS. VMWare facts actually use the downstream VSphere API and there are 2 additional required fields in addition to an authorized username and password; hostname and esxi_hostname. This module, vmware_host_facts gathers facts about the bare metal hosts; not the virtual guests. From my testing I found it best to target the hostname and esxi_hostname using the esxi hostname in the Ansible hosts inventory file.

– name: Gather vmware host facts
username: “{{ vmware_user }}”
password: “{{ vmware_password }}”
hostname: “{{ inventory_hostname }}”
esxi_hostname: “{{ inventory_hostname }}”

– debug:
msg=”{{ ansible_facts }}”

Very rich JSON similar to that of Linux are provided back including all hardware information about virtual NICs, VMWare datastores, BIOS, and processors.

Microsoft Azure

Even clouds have Ansible Facts! Azure Facts are actually even easier to retrieve because of the simplified authentication mechanism. Username and password still works or you could setup Service Principal Credentials. Inside Azure you need to create an account with at least API read-only permissions. There are some prerequisites to install. First pip install the Ansible Azure libraries.

$ pip install ‘ansible[azure]’

You can create the following file $HOME/.azure/credentials to pass credentials to the various Azure modules without username and password prompts or credential handling.


In the list of Ansible cloud modules find the Azure section. Each Azure module has two components – a config module and an info (facts) module.

Using the same process, along with JSON_Query, and a with_together loop, for example, capture all Azure Virtual Network info. First we have to capture the Azure resource groups and then pass the resource group along to a second API to get the associated networks.

– name: Get Azure Facts for Resource Groups
register: azure_resource_groups

– name: Get Azure Facts for all Networks within all Resource Groups
resource_group: “{{ item.0 }}”
register: azure_virtual_network
– “{{ azure_resource_groups | json_query(‘resourcegroups[*].name’) }}”

Ok great. So what? What can I do with these facts?

So far we have simply dumped the facts to console to explore the various modules. What I like to do with these facts is to create living, automated, stateful, truthful, human-readable, management and operations loves me for it, documentation. With a little work and changing the playbooks from interactive on-demand playbooks to non-interactive fully scheduled and automatically executed periodically these playbooks can now run all by themselves creating snapshots of state in the form of reports.

First I like to capture the RAW JSON as a forensic artifact. The raw facts unchanged and unfiltered, in case audit, compliance, security, or other possible downstream machine code that requires unchanged RAW JSON.

This is easily done in Ansible using the copy module. We have the RAW JSON in a variable, the Ansible magic variable {{ ansible_facts }}, we just need to copy it into a file.

We will need a repository for the new output files so create a documentation folder structure with subfolders for your various platforms.

Add the following line of code, customizing the output file name based on the playbook environment, after the debug. For example the IOS Access Facts playbook.

The Ansible magic variable {{ inventory_hostname }} can be used to reference the current iterated inventory host file target which we will use to identify the parent switch for each of the facts.

– name: Create RAW JSON file
content: |
{{ ansible_facts }}
dest: ../documentation/FACTS/CAMPUS/ACCESS/{{inventory_hostname}}_IOS_Facts_RAW.json

Save and re-run the playbook. All the IOS facts will now be, albeit ugly and unusable, stored in a RAW JSON file.

to_nice filters

Ansible has various filters that can be used to help parse or transform data. Using two of these filters, to_nice_json and to_nice_yaml, we can create human-readable, nice, pretty, and easy to consume JSON and YAML files.

Simply copy and paste the Create RAW JSON file task and modify the new stanzas as follows:

– name: Create Nice JSON file
content: |
{{ ansible_facts | to_nice_json }}
dest: ../documentation/FACTS/CAMPUS/ACCESS/{{inventory_hostname}}_IOS_Facts_Nice.json

– name: Create Nice YAML file
content: |
{{ ansible_facts | to_nice_yaml }}
dest: ../documentation/FACTS/CAMPUS/ACCESS/{{inventory_hostname}}_IOS_Facts.yml

Save and re-run the playbook. Now you should have 2 human readable files. The _Nice.json (displayed in the first screenshot) file and now an even easier to read YAML file:

Traditional Reports from Facts

While the RAW and Nice JSON and YAML files are great for programming, data modeling, logic, templating, and other infrastructure as code purposes they are still not exactly consumable by a wider audience (management; operations; monitoring; capacity planning). Using Ansible’s ability to parse the registered variable JSON and another filter, JSON_Query, an SQL-like tool used to query and parse JSON, we can capture individual fields and place them into CSV or markdown ordered structure.

First we are going to use Ansible’s set_facts module to create our own variables out of the key-value pair and lists in JSON which we can then re-use to create reports.

For IOS Access Facts set the following facts:

– name: Set Facts
image: “{{ ansible_facts[‘net_image’] }}”
version: “{{ ansible_facts[‘net_version’] }}”
serial: “{{ ansible_facts[‘net_serialnum’] }}”
model: “{{ ansible_facts[‘net_model’] }}”
ip_addresses: “{{ ansible_facts[‘net_all_ipv4_addresses’] }}”
disk_total: “{{ ansible_facts | json_query(‘net_filesystems_info.bootdisk.spacetotal_kb’) }} “
disk_free: “{{ ansible_facts | json_query(‘net_filesystems_info.bootdisk.spacefree_kb’) }}”


Now that we have set our own facts / variables from the JSON facts we simply put them into order to create a CSV file.

– name: Create Cisco IOS Access Facts CSV
content: |
{{ inventory_hostname }},{{ image }},{{ version }},{{ serial }},{{ model }},{{ disk_total }},{{ disk_free }}
dest: ../documentation/FACTS/CAMPUS/ACCESS/{{ inventory_hostname }}_IOS_facts.csv

Some of the RAW JSON characters need to be cleaned up to pretty up the CSV file. The Ansible replace module can be used in combination with Regular Expression (RegEx) to clean up the file as follows:

– name: Format and cleanup CSV
path: ../documentation/FACTS/CAMPUS/ACCESS/{{ inventory_hostname }}_IOS_facts.csv
regexp: ‘[|]|”‘
replace: ”

– name: Format and cleanup CSV
path: ../documentation/FACTS/CAMPUS/ACCESS/{{ inventory_hostname }}_IOS_facts.csv
regexp: “‘”
replace: ”

Now we can add the header row to the CSV using Ansibles lineinfile module.

– name: Header Row
path: ../documentation/FACTS/CAMPUS/ACCESS/{{ inventory_hostname }}_IOS_facts.csv
insertbefore: BOF
line: Hostname,Image,Version,Serial Number,Model,Total Disk,Free Disk

Save and re-run the playbook. You should now have a CSV file that looks similar to this but with data values in the rows following the header row.


Think of markdown as HTML-lite. Markdown reports from facts render nicely in browsers or VS Code with the Markdown Preview extension. More or less the same process as the CSV file place the variables between pipes and create a header row. Markdown has strict rules to make well-formed .md files so pay close attention.

– name: Create Cisco IOS Access Facts Markdown
content: |
| {{ inventory_hostname }} | {{ image }} | {{ version }} | {{ serial }} | {{ model }} | {{ disk_total }} | {{ disk_free }} |
dest: ../documentation/FACTS/CAMPUS/ACCESS/{{ inventory_hostname }}_IOS_facts.md

(There is more formatting clean up required which you can find in the GitHub repo links at the bottom)

Using the Ansible looping mechanism, with_items, we need to create 3 header rows for the valid markdown file as follows:

– name: Header Row
path: ../documentation/FACTS/CAMPUS/ACCESS/{{ inventory_hostname }}_IOS_facts.md
insertbefore: BOF
line: “{{ item.property }}”
– { property: ‘| ——– | —– | ——- | ————- | —– | ———- | ——— | ‘ }
– { property:’| Hostname | Image | Version | Serial Number | Model | Total Disk | Free Disk |’ }
– { property:’# Cisco IOS Facts for {{ inventory_hostname }}’ }

This generates a mark down file like this:

Mark Map / Interactive HTML Mind Map

Now that we have a well-formed markdown file we can use a relatively new tool to create a relatively new file type. Markmap is a node.js tool that can be used to transform any markdown file into an interactive HTML mind map.

First install the required libraries (node.js and npm)

curl -sL https://deb.nodesource.com/setup_12.x | sudo -E bash –

Then add the following task after the markdown task.

– name: Generate Cisco IOS Access Facts Mind Map
shell: “npx markmap-cli ../documentation/FACTS/CAMPUS/ACCESS/{{ inventory_hostname }}_IOS_facts.md”
register: markmap

This will generate an interactive HTML page with a mind map of the markdown like this:


Ansible facts are a great way to get started with network automation and working with infrastructure as code. They are safe, non-intrusive, valuable, and typically management approved playbooks to get you started towards configuration management. They are also a great way to document that enterprise network you’ve been neglecting. Using these simple tools and techniques your full enterprise network, from campus to data centre; cloud to WAN; Cisco to Microsoft to Linux to VMWare to Azure or AWS; can be automatically documented with real time stateful facts!

GitHub Repositories

Here are a collection of Automate Your Network developed GitHub repositories you can use to explore the code or even transform into playbooks customized for your environment.

Cisco IOS Facts

Cisco NXOS Facts

Microsoft Windows Facts

Linux Facts

Cisco Prime Infrastructure Facts

DevCentral Connects: An Automation Journey

A colleague, Dan Pacheco, our F5 guru, and I joined the F5 DevCentral Connects podcast to do a show and tell of our AzureDevOps CI/CD treating F5 as infrastructure as code with their AS3 API and Ansible! If you wonder what a CI/CD pipeline looks like or how to really automate infrastructure with an API, data models, Jinja2 templates creating JSON, and Ansible URI module all packaged up in a Docker container that is build and released from Git triggers like a Pull Request!

Check out the video here

AnsibleFest 2020

Wow! I was actually invited to present a 30-minute break-out session at AnsibleFest! Incredible!

You can still watch the session by registering for free and searching for my name or “Automate Your Network: Introducing the Modern Approach to Enterprise Network Management” in the session catalogue.

AnsibleFest 2020

My presentation is also available on my GitHub repository.

BlueCat: Critical Conversations on Critical Infrastructure Ep. 1: “Where’s the automation ‘Promised Land’?”

I was invited by BlueCat to join a round-table discussion with 4 other IT professionals to have an open and honest discuss about the automation “Promised Land”

“Six non-hype network automation lessons from IT pros. Five IT pros get real about network automation during the first Critical Conversation on Critical Infrastructure hosted in the Network VIP community.”

Watch it here