This blog is a joint collaboration between Cisco (Ravi Balakrishnan) and F5 (Patrick Campbell)

It was 2015 when F5 released its first modules to automate tasks related to their BIG-IP Platform.  F5 supported Ansible collections, leveraging their IMPERATIVE REST API, consisting of more than 170 modules today.  As with almost every major IT initiative today, the Data Center infrastructure automation landscape has changed where alignment between IT and business needs is required faster than ever before.  Infrastructure teams are expected to work closely with their business stakeholders to empower them and decrease time to market.  These requirements come with its own set of challenges. Cisco and F5 have been working closely to help their joint BIG-IP & ACI customers in their digital transformation, with the help of Ansible and F5’s BIG-IP Automation Toolchain (ATC).  These capabilities, incorporated in our jointly announced solution  F5 ACI ServiceCenter App, have made it easier to consume F5 BIG-IP application services while decreasing the dependency on L4-L7 domain operations skillset..  There is solid evidence for this.  We’re continually working to make it easier for non-automation experts to leverage both BIG-IP and ACI.

It’s simple to realize that lowering the barriers to use of technology, fosters much broader adoption. The two aspects namely, complexity and adoption are inextricably linked but often overlooked by many product managers and development teams to achieve functionality goals.  In an increasingly DevOps oriented world, there are true benefits of Ansible based automation to avail, when it’s able to augment operational knowledge that was mostly the precinct of NetOps personnel.

Automating an end-to-end workflow

Our goal in context of Cisco ACI is to use Ansible to automate an end-to-end workflow which can be broken down into following tasks: (a) performing L2-L3 stitching between the Cisco ACI fabric and F5’s BIG-IP; (b) configuring the network on the BIG-IP; (c) deploying an application on BIG-IP and (d) automating elastic workload commission/decommission.  In our joint solution, we’ve used Red Hat® Ansible® Tower to execute all these tasks.  Ansible Tower helps scale IT automation, manage complex deployments and speed productivity, and so it’s well suited and effective.  By centralizing control of IT infrastructure with a visual dashboard, role-based access control, job scheduling, integrated notifications, and graphical inventory management, it’s easy to see why we choose to embed Ansible into our approach and suggest its value-props to our joint BIG-IP & ACI customers.

Figure-1: Automating an end-to-end workflow
Figure-1: Automating an end-to-end workflow

Specifically, the Ansible Tower workflow template we’ve created allows ACI and BIG-IP configuration automation playbooks for L4-7 constructs without VLAN information passed.  The APIC L4-L7 constructs can configure Service Graph in applied state. In our digital age, the need to increase an application workload has become much more frequent in handling increases and decreases in traffic to that application.

A real-world example of a service provider who wants to run a website will help illustrate the point.  At the start of the day, let’s say, the website is unpopular, and a single machine (most commonly a virtual machine) is sufficient to serve all web users.  A hosted client has event tickets go on sale at mid-morning, the website suddenly becomes VERY popular, and a single machine is no longer sufficient to serve all users.  Based on the number of web users simultaneously accessing the site and the resource requirements of the web server, requirements may go up such that ten or, so machines are needed. At this point, nine additional machines (virtual machines) are bought online to serve all web users responsively. These additional nine web servers also need to be added to the BIG-IP pool so that the traffic can be load balanced

By late evening, the website traffic slows. The ten machines that are currently allocated to the website are mostly idle and a single machine would be sufficient to serve the fewer users who access the website. The additional nine machines can be deprovisioned and repurposed for some other need.  In the ACI world when an application workload is added, it is learned by the ACI fabric and becomes a part of an Endpoint Group on the ACI fabric.  In the BIG-IP world that workload corresponds to the members of the load balanced pool.  In other words, Endpoint group on APIC = Pool on the BIG-IP and Endpoints in an endpoint group = Pool members on the BIG-IP (application servers handling traffic).  When workload is commissioned/decommissioned it needs to also be added/deleted to a pool member on the BIG-IP.  We can easily use Ansible to automate the process, as it excels at configuration management, adjusts to address components, and optimize the environment through automating Virtual-Servers, Pools, Monitors, and other configuration objects to achieve such a service provider’s operational goals.

Figure-2: Automating Dynamic end points
Figure-2: Automating Dynamic end points


Using Ansible to automate a BIG-IP and Cisco ACI environment

With applications transitioning into the cloud, and organizations embracing application agility, automating infrastructure and application deployment are essential to ensure that businesses stay ahead. It’s a shared goal of F5 and Cisco, to address our customer’s pressing need to make programmability and automation inherent parts of their operational IT processes. Ansible provides BIG-IP and ACI users a simple, yet powerful, multi-tier automation and orchestration platform.  It can help organizations like yours, centralize and accelerate policy driven, application deployment lifecycles, while decreasing the amount of domain knowledge required.

Take a closer look at how to use Ansible to automate a BIG-IP and Cisco ACI environment by using the lab we built with Cisco on their dCloud platform.  More that 4000 of our ‘hands on’ labs have been run since we built it 14 months ago. We’re sure you’ll find value in it too because it’s really all about automation…. really!

Take a closer look:

Ansible, F5 and Cisco ACI Lab



Cisco dCloud Labs:

F5 ACI Service Center App


Ravi Balakrishnan

Senior Product Marketing Manager

Datacenter Solutions