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January 8, 2024

Open Source Automation Tools: The Most Popular Options + How to Choose

Infrastructure Automation
Community & Open Source

When looking at the broad landscape of IT automation tools, you’ll find dozens of tools that seem like viable solutions to your automation needs. Almost all of those tools can be broken down into two categories: Open source automation tools and commercial automation tools. (Open source automation tools with a commercial offering are still considered open source, even if the commercial version has a price tag.)

Open source automation tools have plenty of advantages. When looking over your options, there’s also plenty to consider before choosing the one that’s right for automating tasks and configurations across your infrastructure. Read on for an explanation of why organizations choose open source tools for automating infrastructure and a look at some of the more popular open source automation tools out there.

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What are Open Source Automation Tools?

Open source automation tools are software solutions for automating tasks that are created collaboratively by a community of developers and offered to the public for free. Examples of open source IT automation tools include Puppet, Jenkins, Ansible, and Chef.

Open source IT automation tools are used to automate various tasks in the DevOps lifecycle. Automation tools can be used to automate testing and deployment of software, as well as routine infrastructure management tasks like provisioning and state enforcement.

For a refresher on the function and purpose of IT automation software, read What is IT Automation? (~1300 words, ~7 min. read) >>

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Why Choose Open Source Automation Tools Over Commercial Ones?

Open source automation tools are typically free to use, customizable, and supported by collaborative developer communities. Organizations often use open source software to save money, access new features, and avoid restrictive commercial licenses.

Open source software is known to be more secure, more flexible, and more up-to-date than strictly commercial offerings. Users can inspect the source code of open source projects to scan for vulnerabilities and backdoors; large communities contribute new features and updates to the source codebase constantly; and many open source licenses allow users to modify the software and adapt it to their specific needs.

Cost Isn't the Number-One Factor for Choosing Open Source Tools

Did you know: While open source automation software is often offered free of charge, statistics show that cost isn't the end-all, be-all for most organizations that use open source. In fact, a recent survey showed that cost wasn’t even in the top five reasons organizations use open source software.

OpenLogic’s 2023 State of Open Source Report found that organizations choose open source software for a variety of reasons:

  • Open source software enables access to innovations and the latest technologies (37.96%)
  • Open source software features functionality that improves development velocity (37.61%)
  • Open source software offers stable technology with long-term support from the community (36.7%)
  • Open source software is constantly enhanced and patched with frequent releases (32%)
  • Open source software allows users to contribute to influence the direction of the project (32%)

The fact that open source software is often offered with no license cost, and that it helps reduce cost for organizations, came in at number nine (25.69% of respondents).

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A few of the most popular open source IT automation tools include:

Note: For the purposes of this blog, we’ve limited our purview to open source infrastructure automation tools. Specialized automation tools like Chocolatey, Vagrant, Foreman, Cobbler, Prometheus, and others can perform more specific automation tasks, like package management, testing, alerting, provisioning, deploying containers, and scaling.

A Comparison Table of Open Source IT Automation Tools

Tool 

First Release 

Release Frequency (approx.) 

Platforms/Flexibility 

Language 

Use Cases 

Puppet 

2005 

1/month (PE track) 

4/year (LTS track) 

PuppetDSL (Ruby-based) 

Infrastructure automation + management across enterprise IT systems 

Chef 

2009

1-2/month 

Windows, Linux, cloud + more 

Ruby-based DSL  

Deployment + configuration of servers, storage + networking devices 

Ansible 

2012 

1/month 

Windows, Linux, cloud + more 

 

YAML 

Quick OS configuration + infrastructure deployment 

Salt 

2011 

1/year (LTS and STS) 

Windows, Linux, cloud + more 

YAML 

Individual state management 

CFEngine 

1993 

1/every 18 months (LTS) 

2/year (STS) 

Windows, Linux-likes 

C 

Developer-friendly configuration management with a small agent footprint 

Rudder 

2011 

Every 3 months

Windows, Linux-likes 

 

Scala (web), C (local agent) 

Continuous configuration after deployment 

Note: Terraform is no longer open source. It would normally appear on this list of popular open source automation tools, but in August 2023, HashiCorp transitioned to the Business Source License (BSL) for Terraform. Learn more about HashiCorp’s BSL and its impact on the landscape of open source IT automation tools in a special episode of the Puppet podcast >>

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How to Choose an Open Source IT Automation Tool

You’ve got your criteria and a top-level comparison of open source tools for IT automation. While you’re deliberating between tools to automate tasks and manage your infrastructure configurations, we recommend keeping a few key questions in mind to make sure you make the right choice.

What do you actually need to automate?

To be fair, many automation tools will help alleviate your most immediate pain points like provisioning, troubleshooting, and some scaling. To find the “right” tool – the one that’ll support your infrastructure now and in the long term – you should define as many automation use cases as possible across your organization.

Do you just need to save time on a few repetitive IT ops tasks on one platform? Do you need system, OS, and network automation? What about complex workflows? Or system hardening and multi-OS compliance audit prep? Future-casting can be difficult, but when choosing an automation solution, look further than the starting points. You’ll probably find more use cases for infrastructure automation than you would’ve initially thought – which can rule out a lot of automation tools right off the bat.

What does your infrastructure look like today, and what do you want it to look like in the future?

Some open source IT automation tools can be great for automating certain kinds of tasks. The automation tools that come with your platform, like AWS Config and Azure Automation, can be lifesavers for the infrastructure you’ve got hosted there. But tools like those are often fairly limited in scope and scale.

If your organization’s goals reach beyond the scale of your current IT, those tools will become more of a stumbling block than a time-saver. Which brings us to our next point…

Will you need automations that can manage across multi-cloud and hybrid environments?

In a predominantly digital business world, IT setups rarely stay small or simple. A lot of IT is trending toward migrating to cloud, splitting across multiple clouds, and mixing deployments in a hybrid cloud approach. Then there’s cloud repatriation, a post-pandemic counter-trend where organizations rework their cloud deployments to control costs and redefine their ideal cloud mix.

The point is that your choice of open source tools for IT automation should consider the complexities of cross-deployed infrastructure and the challenges that come with maintaining consistency across them, including consistent automation of tooling and workflows. If you’re already at the point of needing to streamline tasks with automation software, you’re probably on track for growth, which means more sophisticated deployments in the future.

How much time and effort can you spend to implement and manage automations?

Implementing automation often involves developing an automation architecture, defining configurations and scripts, testing, integrating, and a whole lot more effort.

And that’s just to get automation set up and going in the first place. Then there’s ongoing monitoring, optimization, training, documentation, change management, maintenance, and knowledge transfer in case you lose your SME or champion to turnover.

Open source IT automation tools with limited use cases can be faster to set up and implement than enterprise automation solutions, but their limited scope means you’ll be spending more time managing each of them in siloes rather than getting the big picture of your automation.

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Why Open Source Puppet is a Great Automation Tool to Start With

Open Source Puppet is free.

Of course it is! Puppet is deeply rooted in open source, and free access is one of the core principles of open source software.

Puppet has a huge number of use cases.

Application delivery, hybrid cloud management, compliance, configuration management, patching, process automation – with the power of Puppet, the sky’s the limit for your infrastructure automation.

If that sounds daunting, don’t worry: The Puppet Forge has a bunch of free modules – more than 7,000 as of this publication – built by the dedicated Puppet community that help automate tasks and integrate with your stack. It’s also home to premium ones supported by Puppet Labs, like a module that automates compliance enforcement for Windows and Linux.

Puppet is supported by a great community.

Speaking of community, every open source automation tool out there lives and dies by its community (even the ones with commercial options). The Puppet community is thriving and active on Github, the Puppet Community Slack, the Puppet podcast, and pretty much anywhere DevOps lovers gather. There’s hardly a problem they haven’t seen, and in our experience, they’re always willing to lend a hand, no matter your experience level.

Puppet has stood the test of time.

Puppet is one of the most widely used open source automation and configuration management tools out there. It sets the bar for better DevOps, from tooling to thought leadership and pushing DevOps further than anyone thought it could go. The Forrester Wave™: Infrastructure Automation, Q1 2023 said that Puppet’s products “stand out,” and that the roadmap and company vision “align well with changing needs in the industry.” (We agree.)

Puppet Enterprise is right there.

When you need more – more support, more infrastructure, more use cases – Puppet Enterprise is there to help your organization reach its goals. PE is built on the same popular open source code as OSP, with bonus features, capabilities, and support that customers love. Plus, our Professional Services team makes migration of your infrastructure a snap, whether it’s already managed by Puppet or you use another infrastructure automation tool.

“While I believe Open Source Puppet is a fantastic product that already serves the majority of needs, there are some huge benefits we’ve gained by moving to Puppet Enterprise.”

Lucas Crownover, SysAdmin, University of Oregon Information Services

READ CASE STUDY

University of Oregon

If you’re not ready for OSP or PE, Bolt is great for beginners (and also totally free).

Puppet Bolt is an open source, agentless remote task runner from Puppet. Bolt can run commands, scripts, and Puppet code across your infrastructure. While Puppet runs a declarative language model for automation, Bolt runs with convenient imperative code, making it easier to get off the ground. It’s also handy for long-term configuration management. It even integrates with provisioning tools like Terraform.

Check out Open Source Puppet with a free download at the link below. If you’re not sure whether Open Source Puppet or Puppet Enterprise is the way to go, download our free guide.

GET OPEN SOURCE PUPPET   OSP VS PE GUIDE

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