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      Automating Initial Server Setup with Ansible on Ubuntu 18.04


      When you first create a new Ubuntu 18.04 server, there are a few configuration steps that you should take early on as part of the basic setup. This will increase the security and usability of your server, working as a solid foundation for subsequent actions.

      While you can complete these steps manually, automating the process will save you time and eliminate human error. With the popularization of containerized applications and microservices, server automation now plays an essential role in systems administration. It is also a way to establish standard procedures for new servers.

      This guide explains how to use Ansible to automate the steps contained in our Initial Server Setup Guide. Ansible is a modern configuration management tool that can be used to automate the provisioning and configuration of remote systems.

      Pre-Flight Check

      In order to execute the automated setup provided by the playbook we’re discussing in this guide, you’ll need:

      • Ansible installed either on your local machine or on a remote server that you have set up as an Ansible Control Node. You can follow Step 1 of the tutorial How to Install and Configure Ansible on Ubuntu 18.04 to get this set up.
      • Root access to one or more Ubuntu 18.04 servers that will be managed by Ansible.

      Before running a playbook, it’s important to make sure Ansible is able to connect to your servers via SSH and run Ansible modules using Python. The next two sections cover how to set up your Ansible inventory to include your servers and how to run ad-hoc Ansible commands to test for connectivity and valid credentials.

      Inventory File

      The inventory file contains information about the hosts you’ll manage with Ansible. You can include anywhere from one to several hundred of servers in your inventory file, and hosts can be organized into groups and subgroups. The inventory file is also often used to set variables that will be valid for certain hosts and groups only, in order to be used within playbooks and templates. Some variables can also affect the way a playbook is run, like the ansible_python_interpreter variable that we’ll see in a moment.

      To inspect the contents of your default Ansible inventory, open the /etc/ansible/hosts file using your command-line editor of choice, on your local machine or an Ansible Control Node:

      • sudo nano /etc/ansible/hosts

      Note: some Ansible installations won’t create a default inventory file. If the file doesn’t exist in your system, you can create a new file at /etc/ansible/hosts or provide a custom inventory path using the -i parameter when running commands and playbooks.

      The default inventory file provided by the Ansible installation contains a number of examples that you can use as references for setting up your inventory. The following example defines a group named servers with three different servers in it, each identified by a custom alias: server1, server2, and server3:


      server1 ansible_host=
      server2 ansible_host=
      server3 ansible_host=

      The server:vars subgroup sets the ansible_python_interpreter host parameter that will be valid for all hosts included in the servers group. This parameter makes sure the remote server uses the /usr/bin/python3 Python 3 executable instead of /usr/bin/python (Python 2.7), which is not present on recent Ubuntu versions.

      To finish setting up your inventory file, replace the highlighted IPs with the IP addresses of your servers. When you’re finished, save and close the file by pressing CTRL+X then y to confirm changes and then ENTER.

      Now that your inventory file is ready, it’s time to test connectivity to your nodes

      Testing Connectivity

      After setting up the inventory file to include your servers, it’s time to check if Ansible is able to connect to these servers and run commands via SSH. For this guide, we will be using the Ubuntu root account because that’s typically the only account available by default on newly created servers. This playbook will create a new non-root user with sudo privileges that you should use in subsequent interactions with the remote server.

      From your local machine or Ansible Control Node, run:

      • ansible -m ping all -u root

      This command will use the built-in ping Ansible module to run a connectivity test on all nodes from your default inventory, connecting as root. The ping module will test:
      if hosts are accessible;
      if you have valid SSH credentials;
      if hosts are able to run Ansible modules using Python.

      If instead of key-based authentication you’re using password-based authentication to connect to remote servers, you should provide the additional parameter -k to the Ansible command, so that it will prompt you for the password of the connecting user.

      • ansible -m ping all -u root -k

      Note: Keep in mind that some servers might have additional security measures against password-based authentication as the root user, and in some cases you might be required to manually log in to the server to change the initial root password.

      You should get output similar to this:


      server1 | SUCCESS => { "changed": false, "ping": "pong" } server2 | SUCCESS => { "changed": false, "ping": "pong" } server3 | SUCCESS => { "changed": false, "ping": "pong" }

      If this is the first time you’re connecting to these servers via SSH, you’ll be asked to confirm the authenticity of the hosts you’re connecting to via Ansible. When prompted, type yes and then hit Enter to confirm.

      Once you get a “pong” reply back from a host, it means you’re ready to run Ansible commands and playbooks on that server.

      What Does this Playbook Do?

      This Ansible playbook provides an alternative to manually running through the procedure outlined in the Ubuntu 18.04 initial server setup guide and the guide on setting up SSH keys on Ubuntu 18.04.

      Running this playbook will cause the following actions to be performed:

      1. The administrative group wheels is created and then configured for passwordless sudo.
      2. A new administrative user is created within that group, using the name specified by the create_user variable.
      3. A public SSH key is copied from the location defined by the variable copy_local_key, and added to the authorized_keys file for the user created in the previous step.
      4. Password-based authentication is disabled for the root user.
      5. The local apt package index is updated and basic packages defined by the variable sys_packages are installed.
      6. The UFW firewall is configured to allow only SSH connections and deny any other requests.

      For more information about each of the steps included in this playbook, please refer to our Ubuntu 18.04 initial server setup guide.

      Once the playbook has finished running, you’ll be able to log in to the server using the newly created sudo account.

      How to Use this Playbook

      To get started, we’ll download the contents of the playbook to your Ansible Control Node. This can be either your local machine, or a remote server where you have Ansible installed and your inventory set up.

      For your convenience, the contents of the playbook are also included in a further section of this guide.

      To download this playbook from the command-line, you can use curl:

      • curl -L -o initial_server_setup.yml

      This will download the contents of the playbook to a file named initial_server_setup.yml on your current local path. You can examine the contents of the playbook by opening the file with your command-line editor of choice:

      • sudo nano initial_server_setup.yml

      Once you’ve opened the playbook file, you should notice a section named vars with three distinct variables that require your attention:

      • create_user: The name of the non-root user account to create and grant sudo privileges to. Our example uses sammy, but you can use whichever username you’d like.
      • copy_local_key: Local path to a valid SSH public key to set up as an authorized key for the new non-root sudo account. The default value points to the current local user’s public key located at ~/.ssh/
      • sys_packages: A list of basic system packages that will be installed using the package manager tool apt.

      Once you’re done updating the variables inside initial_server_setup.yml, save and close the file.

      You’re now ready to run this playbook on one or more servers. Most playbooks are configured to be executed on all servers from your inventory, by default. We can use the -l flag to make sure that only a subset of servers, or a single server, is affected by the playbook. To execute the playbook only on server1, you can use the following command:

      • ansible-playbook initial_server_setup.yml -l server1

      You will get output similar to this:


      PLAY [all] *************************************************************************************************************************************** TASK [Make sure we have a 'wheel' group] ********************************************************************************************************* changed: [server1] TASK [Allow 'wheel' group to have passwordless sudo] ********************************************************************************************* changed: [server1] TASK [Create a new regular user with sudo privileges] ******************************************************************************************** changed: [server1] TASK [Set authorized key for remote user] ******************************************************************************************************** changed: [server1] TASK [Disable password authentication for root] ************************************************************************************************** changed: [server1] TASK [Update apt] ******************************************************************************************************************************** changed: [server1] TASK [Install required system packages] ********************************************************************************************************** ok: [server1] TASK [UFW - Allow SSH connections] *************************************************************************************************************** changed: [server1] TASK [UFW - Deny all other incoming traffic by default] ****************************************************************************************** changed: [server1] PLAY RECAP *************************************************************************************************************************************** server1 : ok=9 changed=8 unreachable=0 failed=0

      Once the playbook execution is finished, you’ll be able to log in to the server with:

      • ssh sammy@server_domain_or_IP

      Remember to replace sammy with the user defined by the create_user variable, and server_domain_or_IP with your server’s hostname or IP address.

      In case you have set a custom public key with the copy_local_key variable, you’ll need to provide an extra parameter specifying the location of its private key counterpart:

      • ssh sammy@server_domain_or_IP -i ~/.ssh/ansible_controller_key

      After logging in to the server, you can check the UFW firewall’s active rules to confirm that it’s properly configured:

      You should get output similar to this:


      Status: active To Action From -- ------ ---- OpenSSH ALLOW Anywhere OpenSSH (v6) ALLOW Anywhere (v6)

      This means that the UFW firewall has successfully been enabled. Since this was the last task in the playbook, it confirms that the playbook was fully executed on this server.

      The Playbook Contents

      You can find the initial server setup playbook in the ansible-playbooks repository in the DigitalOcean Community GitHub organization. To copy or download the script contents directly, click the Raw button towards the top of the script, or click here to view the raw contents directly.

      The full contents are also included here for convenience:


      - hosts: all
        remote_user: root
        gather_facts: false
          create_user: sammy
          copy_local_key: "{{ lookup('file', lookup('env','HOME') + '/.ssh/') }}"
          sys_packages: [ 'curl', 'vim', 'git', 'ufw' ]
          - name: Make sure we have a 'wheel' group
              name: wheel
              state: present
          - name: Allow 'wheel' group to have passwordless sudo
              path: /etc/sudoers
              state: present
              regexp: '^%wheel'
              line: '%wheel ALL=(ALL) NOPASSWD: ALL'
              validate: '/usr/sbin/visudo -cf %s'
          - name: Create a new regular user with sudo privileges
              name: "{{ create_user }}"
              groups: wheel
              shell: /bin/bash
          - name: Set authorized key for remote user
              user: "{{ create_user }}"
              state: present
              key: "{{ copy_local_key }}"
          - name: Disable password authentication for root
              path: /etc/ssh/sshd_config
              state: present
              regexp: '^PermitRootLogin'
              line: 'PermitRootLogin prohibit-password'
          - name: Update apt
            apt: update_cache=yes
          - name: Install required system packages
            apt: name={{ sys_packages }} state=latest
          - name: UFW - Allow SSH connections
              rule: allow
              name: OpenSSH
          - name: UFW - Deny all other incoming traffic by default
              state: enabled
              policy: deny
              direction: incoming

      Feel free to modify this playbook or include new tasks to best suit your individual needs within your own workflow.


      Automating the initial server setup can save you time, while also making sure your servers will follow a standard configuration that can be improved and customized to your needs. With the distributed nature of modern applications and the need for more consistency between different staging environments, automation like this becomes a necessity.

      In this guide, we demonstrated how to use Ansible for automating the initial tasks that should be executed on a fresh server, such as creating a non-root user with sudo access, enabling UFW and disabling remote root login.

      If you'd like to include new tasks in this playbook to further customize your initial server setup, please refer to our introductory Ansible guide Configuration Management 101: Writing Ansible Playbooks.

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      Initial Server Setup with Debian 9


      When you first create a new Debian 9 server, there are a few configuration steps that you should take early on as part of the basic setup. This will increase the security and usability of your server and will give you a solid foundation for subsequent actions.

      Step One — Logging in as Root

      To log into your server, you will need to know your server’s public IP address. You will also need the password or, if you installed an SSH key for authentication, the private key for the root user’s account. If you have not already logged into your server, you may want to follow our guide on how to connect to your Droplet with SSH, which covers this process in detail.

      If you are not already connected to your server, go ahead and log in as the root user using the following command (substitute the highlighted portion of the command with your server’s public IP address):

      Accept the warning about host authenticity if it appears. If you are using password authentication, provide your root password to log in. If you are using an SSH key that is passphrase protected, you may be prompted to enter the passphrase the first time you use the key each session. If this is your first time logging into the server with a password, you may also be prompted to change the root password.

      About Root

      The root user is the administrative user in a Linux environment that has very broad privileges. Because of the heightened privileges of the root account, you are discouraged from using it on a regular basis. This is because part of the power inherent with the root account is the ability to make very destructive changes, even by accident.

      The next step is to set up an alternative user account with a reduced scope of influence for day-to-day work. We'll teach you how to gain increased privileges during the times when you need them.

      Step Two — Creating a New User

      Once you are logged in as root, we're prepared to add the new user account that we will use to log in from now on.

      Note: In some environments, a package called unscd may be installed by default in order to speed up requests to name servers like LDAP. The most recent version currently available in Debian contains a bug that causes certain commands (like the adduser command below) to produce additional output that looks like this:

      sent invalidate(passwd) request, exiting
      sent invalidate(group) request, exiting

      These messages are harmless, but if you wish to avoid them, it is safe to remove the unscd package if you do not not plan on using systems like LDAP for user information:

      This example creates a new user called sammy, but you should replace it with a username that you like:

      You will be asked a few questions, starting with the account password.

      Enter a strong password and, optionally, fill in any of the additional information if you would like. This is not required and you can just hit ENTER in any field you wish to skip.

      Step Three — Granting Administrative Privileges

      Now, we have a new user account with regular account privileges. However, we may sometimes need to do administrative tasks.

      To avoid having to log out of our normal user and log back in as the root account, we can set up what is known as "superuser" or root privileges for our normal account. This will allow our normal user to run commands with administrative privileges by putting the word sudo before each command.

      To add these privileges to our new user, we need to add the new user to the sudo group. By default, on Debian 9, users who belong to the sudo group are allowed to use the sudo command.

      As root, run this command to add your new user to the sudo group (substitute the highlighted word with your new user):

      Now, when logged in as your regular user, you can type sudo before commands to perform actions with superuser privileges.

      Step Four — Setting Up a Basic Firewall

      Debian servers can use firewalls to make sure only connections to certain services are allowed. Although the iptables firewall is installed by default, Debian does not strongly recommend any specific firewall. In this guide, we will install and use the UFW firewall to help set policies and manage exceptions.

      We can use the apt package manager to install UFW. Update the local index to retrieve the latest information about available packages and then install the firewall by typing:

      • apt update
      • apt install ufw

      Note: If your servers are running on DigitalOcean, you can optionally use DigitalOcean Cloud Firewalls instead of the UFW firewall. We recommend using only one firewall at a time to avoid conflicting rules that may be difficult to debug.

      Firewall profiles allow UFW to manage sets of firewall rules for applications by name. Profiles for some common software are bundled with UFW by default and packages can register additional profiles with UFW during the installation process. OpenSSH, the service allowing us to connect to our server now, has a firewall profile that we can use.

      You can see this by typing:


      Available applications: . . . OpenSSH . . .

      We need to make sure that the firewall allows SSH connections so that we can log back in next time. We can allow these connections by typing:

      Afterwards, we can enable the firewall by typing:

      Type "y" and press ENTER to proceed. You can see that SSH connections are still allowed by typing:


      Status: active To Action From -- ------ ---- OpenSSH ALLOW Anywhere OpenSSH (v6) ALLOW Anywhere (v6)

      As the firewall is currently blocking all connections except for SSH, if you install and configure additional services, you will need to adjust the firewall settings to allow acceptable traffic in. You can learn some common UFW operations in this guide.

      Step Five — Enabling External Access for Your Regular User

      Now that we have a regular user for daily use, we need to make sure we can SSH into the account directly.

      Note: Until verifying that you can log in and use sudo with your new user, we recommend staying logged in as root. This way, if you have problems, you can troubleshoot and make any necessary changes as root. If you are using a DigitalOcean Droplet and experience problems with your root SSH connection, you can log into the Droplet using the DigitalOcean Console.

      The process for configuring SSH access for your new user depends on whether your server's root account uses a password or SSH keys for authentication.

      If the Root Account Uses Password Authentication

      If you logged in to your root account using a password, then password authentication is enabled for SSH. You can SSH to your new user account by opening up a new terminal session and using SSH with your new username:

      After entering your regular user's password, you will be logged in. Remember, if you need to run a command with administrative privileges, type sudo before it like this:

      You will be prompted for your regular user password when using sudo for the first time each session (and periodically afterwards).

      To enhance your server's security, we strongly recommend setting up SSH keys instead of using password authentication. Follow our guide on setting up SSH keys on Debian 9 to learn how to configure key-based authentication.

      If the Root Account Uses SSH Key Authentication

      If you logged in to your root account using SSH keys, then password authentication is disabled for SSH. You will need to add a copy of your local public key to the new user's ~/.ssh/authorized_keys file to log in successfully.

      Since your public key is already in the root account's ~/.ssh/authorized_keys file on the server, we can copy that file and directory structure to our new user account in our existing session with the cp command. Afterwards, we can adjust ownership of the files using the chown command.

      Make sure to change the highlighted portions of the command below to match your regular user's name:

      • cp -r ~/.ssh /home/sammy
      • chown -R sammy:sammy /home/sammy/.ssh

      Now, open up a new terminal session and using SSH with your new username:

      You should be logged in to the new user account without using a password. Remember, if you need to run a command with administrative privileges, type sudo before it like this:

      You will be prompted for your regular user password when using sudo for the first time each session (and periodically afterwards).

      Step Six — Completing Optional Configuration

      Now that we have a strong baseline configuration, we can consider a few optional steps to make the system more accessible. The following sections cover a few additional tweaks focused on usability.

      Installing man Pages

      Debian provides extensive manuals for most software in the form of man pages. However, the man command is not always included by default on minimal installations.

      Install the man-db package to install the man command and the manual databases:

      Now, to view the manual for a component, you can type:

      For example, to view the manual for the top command, type:

      Most packages in the Debian repositories include manual pages as part of their installation.

      Changing the Default Editor

      Debian offers a wide variety of text editors, some of which are included in the base system. Commands with integrated editor support, like visudo and systemctl edit, pass text to the editor command, which is mapped to the system default editor. Setting the default editor according to your preferences can help you configure your system more easily and avoid frustration.

      If your preferred editor is not installed by default, use apt to install it first:

      • sudo apt install your_preferred_editor

      Next, you can view the current default and modify the selection using the update-alternatives command:

      • sudo update-alternatives --config editor

      The command displays a table of the editors it knows about with a prompt to change the default:


      There are 8 choices for the alternative editor (providing /usr/bin/editor). Selection Path Priority Status ------------------------------------------------------------ * 0 /usr/bin/joe 70 auto mode 1 /bin/nano 40 manual mode 2 /usr/bin/jmacs 50 manual mode 3 /usr/bin/joe 70 manual mode 4 /usr/bin/jpico 50 manual mode 5 /usr/bin/jstar 50 manual mode 6 /usr/bin/rjoe 25 manual mode 7 /usr/bin/vim.basic 30 manual mode 8 /usr/bin/vim.tiny 15 manual mode Press <enter> to keep the current choice[*], or type selection number:

      The asterisk in the far left column indicates the current selection. To change the default, type the "Selection" number for your preferred editor and press Enter. For example, to use nano as the default editor given the above table, we would choose 1:


      Press <enter> to keep the current choice[*], or type selection number: 1 update-alternatives: using /bin/nano to provide /usr/bin/editor (editor) in manual mode

      From now on, your preferred editor will be used by commands like visudo and systemctl edit, or when the editor command is called.

      Where To Go From Here?

      At this point, you have a solid foundation for your server. You can install any of the software you need on your server now.

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