From Automation Noob to…Automation Noob with a Plan

Note: This post is being published at the same time as a lightning talk that is being delivered at Nutanix .NEXT 2018 by the same title. It contains link to the various resources mentioned during the talk.

I’ve been working in IT for 15 years and I think my story is very similar to that of many of my peers. I had some programming courses in college, but decided that I was more interested in infrastructure and chose the route of a systems administrator over that of an application developer.

Early in my career most of my tasks were GUI or CLI driven. Although I would occasionally script repetitive tasks, that would usually consist of googling until I found someone else’s script that I could easily change for my purposes. Most of the coding knowledge I had gained in college I either forgot or was quickly outdated.

Fast forward to the current IT infrastructure landscape and automation and infrastructure as code are taking over the data center. Not wanting to let my skills languish, I have embarked upon improving my skills embrace the role of an infrastructure developer.

The purpose of this blog post is not to teach the reader how to do anything specific, but to share what methods and tools I’ve found to be useful as I attempt to grow my skill set. My hope is that someone will be undergoing the same career change as myself and find this to be useful. I’ve heard many tips and tricks some of which I have taken to heart as I work towards my goal. I will devote a bit of time to each of these:

  • “Learn an language.”
  • “Pick a configuration management tool.”
  • “Learn to consume and leverage APIs.”
  • “Have a problem to solve.”

I’m going to take these one by one and break down my approach so far.

Learn a Language

When I first heard this I was unsure which language I should learn and where I should start. I actually cheated a bit on this one. I chose two languages: Python and PowerShell. I chose these based on the fact that they are both powerful, widespread, and well suited to most tasks I would want to automate.

PowerShell

To get away from googling other people’s PowerShell scripts and actually create something myself I wanted to actually understand the language and how it handles objects.

I’d heard many mentions of the the YouTube series “Learn PowerShell in a Month of Lunches” by Don Jones. I made my way through this series and have found it very valuable in understanding PowerShell. There is a companion book by Don and Jeff Hicks available as well. I have not purchased the book myself, but have heard good things.

Another great way to learn PowerShell or any other number of technologies is Pluralsight. Jeff Hicks, one of the authors of the previously mentioned book, also authored a course named “Automation with PowerShell Scripts.” I am still making my way through this course but like pretty much everything on Pluralsight it is high quality. If you have access to Pluralsight as a resource I highly recommend taking advantage of it.

Python

I was even less familiar with Python than I was with PowerShell before making the decision to enhance my automation skills. Although I understand general program principals, I needed to learn the syntax from the beginning. Codecademy is a great, free resource for learning the basics of a language. I made my way through their Learn Python course just to get basics under my belt.

Codecademy was a great way to get started understanding Python syntax, but left me with a lot of questions about actual use cases and how to start with scripting. Enter another “freeish” resource, Packt. I say freeish because Packt gives away free ebook every day. I check this site every day and have noticed that some books have popped up multiple times. Many of these are Python books and one that I have been spending my time on in particular is Learning Python by Fabrizio Romano. My favorite method of learning is to have a Python interpreter and the book opened in side by side windows on my laptop. Not pictured is the code editor will keep opened in the background or on another monitor.

LearningPython

Another resource worth mentioning is Google’s free Python course. I’ve only looked at this briefly and have not spent much time on it yet. It appears to be high quality and easy to follow, and at $0 the price is right!

Pick a Configuration Management Tool

There are many of these out there and choosing the right one can be difficult. What makes one better than the other? You’ve got Puppet, Chef, and Ansible for starters. Fortunately for me the decision was easy as my employer at the time was already using Puppet, so I just decided to dive in.

The first thing I did was download the Puppet Learning VM. This a a free VM from Puppet that will walk you through learning the functionality of puppet, not just by reading the included lessons (pictured below), but by accessing the VM itself by SSH and actually interacting with Puppet.

LearnPuppet

You can run this VM in a homelab or even on your old PC or laptop given you install something like VMware Workstation or VirtualBox. Learning Puppet takes place in the form of quests. You are given an objective at the end of a module that you must achieve within the Puppet VM and you will see progress indicator on the screen informing you when you have completed various tasks. This is one of the coolest “getting started” guides that I have ever come across and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

As great as the Puppet Learning VM was, I wanted to strike out on my own and really get to know the product. To do this, I used old hardware at work to setup a lab and mirror our production environment as best I could. When things didn’t work my troubleshooting efforts usually led me to the Puppet User Group on Google.

This is a great resource for anyone who has questions while trying to learn Puppet. I’ll be honest and admit that I’m not very active in this group. I mostly just subscribe to the daily digest, but reading other people’s questions and seeing how they resolved their issues has been very helpful for me.

Where things got really interesting with Puppet was when I broke my vCloud Director lab entirely. By recycling many of the Puppet modules and manifests from my production environment I managed to overwrite the response file of my vCD lab. These response files are specific to each installation of vCD and are not portable. Although this was a lab and I could just start over, I was determined to fix it in order to get a better understanding of vCD. This taught me an important lesson about paying attention to the entirety of the configuration you will be enforcing, regardless of the tool you are using.

Learn to consume and leverage APIs

This one is the newest too me and I am only getting started. Recently vBrownBag hosted a series called “API Zero to Hero” and I watched them all. I also have downloaded Postman and use it to play with an API every time I want to learn a little more.

When it comes to actually doing something with an API, I am interested in leveraging the API in Netbox, the excellent DCIM tool by Jeremy Stretch of Digital Ocean, to provision and assign things like IP addresses, VLANs, etc. and save myself some manual work.

Have a problem to solve

All the learning in the world won’t do you much good if you don’t apply it. Shortly after acquiring a little bit of PowerShell knowledge I felt comfortable enough to write some basic scripts that helped me save some time in the Veeam Console. I delivered a vBrownBag tech talk on this at VMworld 2017 and you can view it in the video below if you are interested.

Long story short. I wanted to quickly change a single backup job on dozens of Veeam Backup jobs. Rather than click through all of them I dug through the Veeam PowerShell documentation and tested things out until I came up with 7 lines of code that would allow me to toggle storage integration on or off for all backup jobs.

Bonus Tips

Now that I’ve walked through my approach to the various pieces of advice I received over the years, I’m going to leave you with a couple more.

Pick a code editor and use it

We are long past the days of quickly editing .conf files in vi or parsing data in Notepad++. There are numerous code editors available and I’ve tried a few like Sublime Text and Atom Text. My favorite that I’ve settled on is Microsoft Visual Studio Code. It’s robust, lightweight, and extensible. What more could you want?

Use version control

Project.ps1, ProjectV2.ps1, and ProjectV2final.ps1 are not acceptable change tracking in an era of Infrastructure as Code. Its important to learn and use version control as you are creating and updating your automation projects. The most popular and widely used resource for this is git and more specifically GitHub if you want to host your code publicly, or GitLab to host the repositories yourself.

To get started learning Git, once again I would recommend starting with CodeCademy if you are completely new. They have a Learning Git class that is a suitable introduction. If you already have the basics handled, then you may want to learn some of the more advanced concepts outline in the vBrownBag #Commitmas series.

Making sense of it all

At this point you can tell that I have my work cut out for me. I have listed several different skills that I am trying to learn or plan on learning to stitch together into a useful skill set. If you find yourself in the same situation, the best encouragement I can give you is to keep at it.

You may not be able to sit and learn everything you need without interruption. I certainly haven’t. But whenever I have some spare time available I go back to the latest course or YouTube series I’m working on and try to make progress. If you are reading this post and find yourself in a similar position, I encourage you to do the same and keep at it!

Slides from the lightning talk related to this post are available here. Links to all the resources from this blog post are embedded in the slides as well.

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