The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <>

Handling SSH host key prompts in Ansible

2015-11-25, updated 2015-12-17

I've written about the various SSH improvements in Ansible 2, including a rewrite of the connection plugin. Unfortunately, the problem that originally motivated the rewrite currently remains unsolved.

Competing prompts

If you ssh to a host for which your known_hosts file has no entry, you are shown the host's key fingerprint and are prompted with Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)?. If you run ansible against multiple unknown hosts, however, the host key prompts will just stack up:

The authenticity of host 'magpie (a.b.c.d)' can't be established.
ECDSA key fingerprint is 2a:5a:4c:4b:e0:40:de:8b:9b:e6:0f:90:45:68:89:fc.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)? The authenticity of host 'hobby (e.f.g.h)' can't be established.
RSA key fingerprint is 61:84:90:47:f7:0f:7b:a2:d5:09:98:6f:bb:3c:50:d9.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)? The authenticity of host 'raven (i.j.k.l)' can't be established.
RSA key fingerprint is ab:97:c2:7d:b6:8e:c3:ab:78:a2:20:04:af:9c:6f:2b.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)?

The processes compete for input, so typing “yes” may or may not work:

Please type 'yes' or 'no': yes
Please type 'yes' or 'no': yes
Please type 'yes' or 'no': 

Worse still, if some of the targeted hosts are known, output from their tasks may cause the prompts to scroll off the screen, and ansible will appear to hang.

Inter-ssh locking

The solution is to acquire a lock before executing ssh and releasing it once the host key prompt (if any) is negotiated. Ansible 2 had some code copied from 1.9 to implement this, but it was agonisingly broken. It wouldn't have always acquired the lock or released it correctly, but the actual locking was commented out anyway because of lower-level changes, so it just scanned known_hosts twice for every connection. Even if the locking had worked, the lock would have been held until ssh exited.

I submitted patches (12195, 12212, 12236, 12276) to add a connection locking infrastructure and use it to hold a lock only until ssh had verified the host key (not until it finished). Although most of the changes were merged, the actual ssh locking was rejected because it would (unavoidably) wait for ssh to timeout while trying to connect to unreachable hosts.

One of the maintainers recently said they may reconsider this (because it's painful to deal with any number of newly provisioned hosts otherwise), so I have opened a new PR, but it has not yet been merged.

Update: The maintainers went with a different approach to solve the problem. Instead of using locking inside the connection plugin, this checks the host key as a separate step at the strategy level, at the expense of having to parse the known_hosts file to check if a host's key is already known. I think that's a fragile solution, but it does eliminate the locking concerns and improve upon the status quo.

Another update: The commit referenced above was reverted later the same day, for some reason the maintainers did not see fit to record in the commit message. So we're right back to the broken starting point.

Enabling SSH pipelining by default in Ansible


While writing about ansible_ssh_pipelining earlier, it occurred to me that pipelining could be made to work with requiretty, thus saving having to edit /etc/sudoers, and even making it possible to use su (which always requires a tty). This would mean pipelining could be enabled by default, for a noticeable performance boost.

Here's a working implementation (see the commit message for gory details) that I've submitted as a PR for Ansible 2. Let's hope it's merged soon.

More control over SSH pipelining in Ansible 2

2015-11-04, updated 2015-11-18

SSH pipelining is an Ansible feature to reduce the number of connections to a host.

Ansible will normally create a temporary directory under ~/.ansible (via ssh), then for each task, copy the module source to the directory (using sftp or scp) and execute the module (ssh again).

With pipelining enabled, Ansible will connect only once per task using ssh to execute python, and write the module source to its stdin. Even with persistent ssh connections enabled, it's a noticeable improvement to make only one ssh connection per task.

Unfortunately, pipelining is disabled by default because it is incompatible with sudo's requiretty setting (or su, which always requires a tty). This is because of a quirk of the Python interpreter, which enters interactive mode automatically when you pipe in data from a (pseudo) tty.

Update 2015-11-18: I've submitted a pull request to make pipelining work with requiretty. The rest of this post still remains true, but if the PR is merged, the underlying problem will just go away.

Pipelining can be enabled globally by setting “pipelining=True” in the ssh section of ansible.cfg, or setting “ANSIBLE_SSH_PIPELINING=1” in the environment.

With Ansible 2 (not yet released), you can also set ansible_ssh_pipelining in the inventory or in a playbook. You can leave it enabled in ansible.cfg, but turn it off for some hosts (where requiretty must remain enabled), or even write a play with pipelining disabled in order to remove requiretty from /etc/sudoers.

- lineinfile:
    dest: /etc/sudoers
    line: 'Defaults requiretty'
    state: absent
  sudo_user: root
      ansible_ssh_pipelining: no

The above lineinfile recipe is simplistic, but it shows that it's now possible to disable requiretty, even if it's by replacing /etc/sudoers altogether.

Note the use of another Ansible 2 feature above: vars can also be set for individual tasks (and blocks), not only plays.

SSH configuration in Ansible 2


The ability to use “jump hosts” with Ansible is another often-requested feature. This has been discussed repeatedly on the mailing list and on Stackoverflow, has had a number of howto articles written about it, and multiple independent implementations have been submitted as pull requests to Ansible.

The recommended solution was to set a ProxyCommand in ~/.ssh/config. This meant duplicating inventory data and keeping two sources of connection information in sync. It worked, but grew rapidly less manageable with a larger inventory. Similarly, the ssh_config inventory plugin was a makeshift solution at best.

This post describes the general mechanism provided in Ansible 2 (not yet released) to make SSH configuration changes—including jump hosts—without depending on any data external to Ansible.

SSH configuration

The ssh_args setting in the ssh_connection section of ansible.cfg is a global setting whose contents are prepended to every command-line for ssh/scp/sftp. This behaviour has been retained unmodified for backwards compatibility, but I don't recommend its use, because it overrides the default persistence settings.

In addition to the above, the new ansible_ssh_common_args inventory variable is appended to every command-line for ssh/scp/sftp. This can be set in the inventory (for a group or a host) or in a playbook (for a play, or block, or task). This is the place to configure any ProxyCommand you want to use.

ansible_ssh_common_args='-o ProxyCommand="ssh -W %h:%p"'

In addition to that, the new ansible_ssh_extra_args variable is appended only to command-lines for ssh. There are analogous ansible_scp_extra_args and ansible_sftp_extra_args variables to change scp and sftp command-lines. This allows you to do truly odd things like open a reverse-tunnel to the control node with -R (which is an option only ssh accepts, not scp or sftp).

The --ssh-common-args command-line option is useful when debugging (there's also --ssh-extra-args, --scp-extra-args, and --sftp-extra-args). Note that any values you set on the command-line will be overriden by the inventory or playbook settings described above (which seems backwards, but that's how Ansible handles other command-line options too).

Also note that ansible_user, ansible_host, and ansible_port are now preferred to the old ansible_ssh_* versions.

Internal changes

Once again, the modest user-visible changes are accompanied by major changes internally. The SSH connection plugin was rewritten to be more maintainable, and an entire class of “my connection just hangs” and other bugs (especially around privilege escalation) were fixed in the process.