While dropping root account passwords completely in favour of sudo is an option in many cases, we prefer keeping root passwords around for when we need direct console access. We keep these passwords in an encrypted password-store (we will write about this in a later blog post this season), and change them when someone should no longer have access or the passwords approach three months in age.

We prefer “horse” passwords for ease of communicating verbally, and use “diceware” with the EFF large wordlist to generate the password, but changing the playbook to use “apg” or similar should be simple. For Ubuntu, the diceware .deb in newer versions of Ubuntu can be installed also on xenial without issues.


We use Ansible extensively for day to day operations, so it was only natural to create a playbook for the password change. While ansible does have a rather fragile “interface” (playbooks you write can sometimes stop working even on non-major ansible upgrades), the small work with keeping playbooks up to date is more than worth it when looking at how much work and time Ansible saves. Doing a task (like replacing the root password) can easily be done no hundreds of hosts with a single command, as long as you’ve got a playbook for it.

Ansible inventory

I won’t go into much detail, but we’re using a dynamic inventory pulling information directly from our CMDB, which contains a master list of all nodes for every rig (project) we manage. The method described in this post works just as well with a static inventory file.

The process

The procedure we want to execute for each host group, is basically:

  1. Generate a new password
  2. Update the password-store entry for the host
  3. Update the password on the server

When procedures are automated this way, new features tends to appear over time (“hey, why don’t we add this bit as well?”), and the full playbook we’ve ended up with does a lot of extra checking/verification, ensuring that the required tools are present, pre-hashing the password before transferring it to the server, forcing a recheck of our Icinga checks that monitors password age, etc.

The playbook

Let’s do breakdown of the playbook

First is a prep section, where we check for required versions and software et al. This is executed locally (on “localhost”).

- hosts: localhost # run locally
  any_errors_fatal: true # stop if anything is wrong
  become: false # do as myself, not root


We need to ensure that we’ve been given the “-e hostlist=$something” argument.

    - name: assert hostlist variable is set
          - "false"
        msg: playbook must be executed with '-e hostlist=$hosts', where $hosts can be hostgroup or fqdn
      when: (hostlist is undefined) or (hostlist | trim == '')

Next, make sure that our locally installed ansible is fresh enough. Ansible supplies its own version number in the “ansible_version_string” variable, so we just check that.

    - name: assert ansible version
          - "{{ ansible_version.string | version_compare('2.2', '>=') }}"
        msg: Ansible 2.2 or above is required

In addition to the base ansible installation, we also need the ansible “expect” module version 3.3 or above. This module is installed through an additional package. Debian and RedHat based systems have different checks.

Note that “ansible_os_family” returns what the distribution is based on, not the distribution itself. “Debian” is Debian-based systems (including Ubuntu), and “RedHat” is RedHat-based systems (including CentOS and Fedora).

To check versions, we first run dpkg-query or rpm, and store (“register”) the result of the execution for later use. The resulting dict/hash contains keys like stdout (all the stdout in a string), stdout_lines (array of strings, one per line of output), stderr, stderr_lines, rc (exit value), and more. We then ensure that the stdout and rc of the command is what we need.

    - name: look up python-pexpect version (osfamily=debian)
      command: dpkg-query --showformat='${Version}' --show  python-pexpect
      register: pexpect_version
      failed_when: 0
      when: ansible_os_family == 'Debian'
    - name: assert python-pexpect version (osfamily=debian)
          - "{{ pexpect_version.rc == 0 }}"
          - "{{ pexpect_version.stdout | version_compare('3.3', '>=') }}"
        msg: python-pexpect 3.3 or above is required
      when: ansible_os_family == 'Debian'

    - name: look up pexpect version (osfamily=redhat)
      command: rpm -q --qf "%{VERSION}" pexpect
      register: pexpect_version
      failed_when: 0
      when: ansible_os_family == 'RedHat'
    - name: assert pexpect version (osfamily=redhat)
          - "{{ pexpect_version.rc == 0 }}"
          - "{{ pexpect_version.stdout | version_compare('3.3', '>=') }}"
        msg: pexpect 3.3 or above is required
      when: ansible_os_family == 'RedHat'

We also need to ensure that diceware is installed. We do this by just running “diceware –version”, and making sure that it had an exit value of 0, through the same “register” mechanic as above. If you prefer another password generator, just replace “diceware” with something else.

    - name: probe diceware
      command: diceware  --version
      register: diceware_present
      failed_when: 0
    - name: assert diceware installed
          - diceware_present.rc == 0
        msg: diceware password generator is required

We’ve got all the preprequisites to do the password changing we need. As a final prep we do a git-pull of the password-store git repository, to avoid merge conflicts when we update passwords in it.

    - name: git pull password-store
      command: "pass git pull --rebase"

All the prep work is now finished. It’s time to start the main tasklist that will loop once for each host in the supplied hostlist(s), generating a unique password for each host, setting it in the password-store, and setting it on the host in question.

- name: update root password on {{ hostlist }}
  hosts: "{{ hostlist }}" # run this list of tasks once for each host in the
                          # supplied hostlist
  become: false # do it as my own user (not root) by default
  any_errors_fatal: true # stop the playbook completely if something fails
  serial: 1 # stop "pass insert" from tripping over its own feet
    # Settings for a Nagios/Icinga server with a password age check that needs a
    # forced refresh after setting the password.
    icinga_server: monitoring.example.com
    icinga_check: Root password age


Our dynamic ansible inventory defines some variables for each customer project, which are only used in the password-store file path. Remove these, or exchange with your own. If you remove/exchange these, also change the password path in the password-store further down.

    - name: assert required variables are defined
      delegate_to: localhost # run it on local workstation instead of remote server
          - "inventory_hostname is defined"
          - "project_team is defined"
          - "project_handle is defined"
        msg: not all of project_team, project_handle and inventory_hostname are defined

Now we can finally generate a password. Swap out diceware with your password generator of choice. Output should be one password (and only that). “apg -n 1” is a good alternative. The “register: dice” stores stdout (amongst others) in the “dice” hash/dict for use in the following tasks.

    - name: generate new password
      delegate_to: localhost
      command: diceware --no-caps -d ' ' -w en_eff
      register: dice

The next task is to insert the password into the password-store by running “pass insert”.

We use the ansible “expect” module to submit the password when “pass insert” asks for it. The “expect” module searches command output for a given regex, and submits a given string as response. In this case “(?i)password” is the regex (a case insensitive search for “password”), which will prompt ansible to respond with the stdout from the above password generation command.

Some ansible inventory variables for the hosts in question are used to construct the path to the password in the password-store. Modify the path in the command to suit your environment and password-store hierarchy.

    - name: update password in password-store
      delegate_to: localhost # run it on local workstation instead of remote server
        command: "pass insert -f {{ project_team.0 }}/{{ project_handle }}/{{ inventory_hostname }}/root"
          (?i)password: "{{ dice.stdout }}"

Next we generate the password hash. We want to do this locally to avoid sending the password in cleartext to the host in question, as that might end up in ansible tempfiles. We again use the “expect” module to submit the earlier generated password when mkpasswd asks for it. We again use “register” to store the result for later.

    - name: generate password hash
      delegate_to: localhost # run it on local workstation instead of remote server
        command: mkpasswd --method=sha-512
          (?i)password: "{{ dice.stdout }}"
      register: password_hash

This is the task that actually sets the password on the remote host. The ansible “user” module takes a sha512-hashed password and updates it on the host in question (note the absence of a “delegate_to”).

We use the last line of the stdout of the previous “mkpasswd” command, since some versions of mkpasswd are chatty on stdout, stating generic info before the password hash itself.

    - name: change password for root user
      become: true # do this as root
        name: root
        password: "{{ password_hash.stdout_lines[-1] }}"

Finally, we’ve have an Icinga check to alert us when a root password is due for change. The Icinga check is only executed once a day, so we force a recheck to immediately get it to an OK state. Just delete this block if this is not relevant for your needs.

    - name: "recheck icinga {{ icinga_check }} check"
      delegate_to: "{{ icinga_server }}" # do this on the monitoring server
      become: true # do this as root
        action: command
        command: SCHEDULE_FORCED_SVC_CHECK;{{ inventory_hostname }};{{ icinga_check }};{{ ansible_date_time.epoch }}
      changed_when: 0 # never trigger changed flag

The above task was the last in the main tasklist that does the actual password change. After the above list of tasks has been executed for each host in the hostlist, the new tasklist below is run once.

The only thing we need to do here, is git-push the password-store we’ve been adding our new passwords to.

- name: git push password-store
  hosts: localhost
  gather_facts: no
  become: false

    - name: git push password-store
      command: pass git push

The playbook is used with an -e argument to say which hostlist/hosts should be updated. Multiple hostlists can be supplied separated by colon. Some examples:

# Change password on all hosts in the "acme" hostgroup
$ ansible-playbook root-password-change.yml -e hostlist=acme
# Change password on all hosts in the "acme" and "ancme" hostgroups
$ ansible-playbook root-password-change.yml -e hostlist=acme:ancme
# Change password on someserver.example.com
$ ansible-playbook root-password-change.yml -e hostlist=someserver.example.com


The playbook makes it easy to keep root passwords fresh even on projects with a lot of hosts, since you can just start it and let it do its work while you do other tasks. Optimally we’d want to remove the “serial: 1” and change passwords on all the hosts in parallel, but “pass insert” sometimes failed when we did that.

The full playboook can be downloaded here.