Understanding Privilege Escalation in Ansible Playbooks

Configuration ManagementAnsible
Part of the Series: How To Write Ansible Playbooks

Ansible is a modern configuration management tool that doesn’t require the use of an agent software on remote nodes, using only SSH and Python to communicate and execute commands on managed servers. This series will walk you through the main Ansible features that you can use to write playbooks for server automation. At the end, we’ll see a practical example of how to create a playbook to automate setting up a remote Nginx web server and deploy a static HTML website to it.

Just as with regular commands that you execute on a terminal, some tasks will require special privileges in order for Ansible to execute them successfully on your remote nodes.

It is important to understand how privilege escalation works in Ansible so that you’re able to execute your tasks with appropriate permissions. By default, tasks will run as the connecting user - this might be either root or any regular user with SSH access to the remote nodes in an inventory file.

To run a command with extended permissions, such as a command that requires sudo, you’ll need to include a become directive set to yes in your play. This can be done either as a global setting valid to all tasks in that play, or as an individual instruction applied per task. Depending on how your sudo user is set up within the remote nodes, you may also need to provide the user’s sudo password. The following example updates the apt cache, a task that requires root permissions.

Create a new file called playbook-07.yml in your ansible-practice directory:

  • nano ~/ansible-practice/playbook-07.yml

Then add the following lines to the new playbook file:

- hosts: all
  become: yes
    - name: Update apt cache
        update_cache: yes

Save and close the file when you’re done.

To run this playbook, you’ll need to include the -K option within the ansible-playbook command. This will make Ansible prompt you for the sudo password for the specified user.

  • ansible-playbook -i inventory playbook-07.yml -u sammy -K

You can also change which user you want to switch to while executing a task or play. To do that, set the become_user directive to the name of the remote user you want to switch to. This is useful when you have several tasks in a playbook that rely on sudo, but also a few tasks that should run as your regular user.

The following example defines that all tasks in this play will be executed with sudo by default. This is set at the play level, right after the hosts definition. The first task creates a file on /tmp using root privileges, since that is the default became_user value. The last task, however, defines its own become_user.

Create a new file called playbook-08.yml in your ansible-practice directory:

  • nano ~/ansible-practice/playbook-08.yml

Add the following content to the new playbook file:

- hosts: all
  become: yes
    user: "{{ ansible_env.USER }}"
    - name: Create root file
        path: /tmp/my_file_root
        state: touch

    - name: Create user file
      become_user: "{{ user }}"
        path: /tmp/my_file_{{ user }}
        state: touch

Save and close the file when you’re finished.

The ansible_env.USER fact contains the username of the connecting user, which can be defined at execution time when running the ansible-playbook command with the -u option. Throughout this guide, we’re connecting as sammy:

  • ansible-playbook -i inventory playbook-08.yml -u sammy -K
BECOME password: PLAY [all] ********************************************************************************************** TASK [Gathering Facts] ********************************************************************************** ok: [] TASK [Create root file] ********************************************************************************* changed: [] TASK [Create user file] ********************************************************************************* changed: [] PLAY RECAP ********************************************************************************************** : ok=3 changed=2 unreachable=0 failed=0 skipped=0 rescued=0 ignored=0

When the playbook is finished running, you can log onto the remote node(s) to verify that two new files were created on /tmp, each with different ownership information:

  • ssh sammy@
  • ls -la /tmp/my_file*
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 0 Apr 14 13:19 /tmp/my_file_root -rw-r--r-- 1 sammy sudo 0 Apr 14 12:07 /tmp/my_file_sammy

For more detailed information about privilege escalation in Ansible, please refer to the official documentation.

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