Talk Summary – BSides Liverpool 2021 “Automating OS Hardening with a little help from my friends, CIS Benchmark and Ansible”

Format: Theatre Style room. ~30 attendees.

Slides: Available to view (Firefox/Chrome recommended – press “S” to see the required speaker notes)

Video: There was a stream recorded on the day, however, due to the technical issues detailed below, I uploaded a better, pre-recorded version, after the event.

Slot: Room 1, 14:30-15:00

Notes: Wow, this probably had the worst technical issues of any of my talks so far.

In the morning before the talk, I checked my talk, and realised the speaker notes were still the long-form version I’d written for the recording… so I jumped into the editor and started putting the bullet-points in. I checked the output, and the formatting had all changed! Oh no, what had I done? Well, actually, a recent update to the presenter plugin I use for WordPress had moved the location of all the theme CSS files… fortunately, I’d had this happen to me before, so I knew what to look for – but for 10 minutes, I thought editing the speaker notes had properly caused me issues! Thank goodness for SSH!!

In the actual venue, in the morning, I was told that they’d moved the room allocations for everything in Slot 1, because they needed to run to pre-recorded videos for speakers who couldn’t attend in there. No worries! I said! We get to the afternoon, and they let me know that I’m in Room 1, as they’d finished screening the videos… The adjustments to the schedule is probably the one (small) issue I have had with BSides Liverpool – but having been involved with OggCamp, I know how hard this piece is!

I head to Room 1 and set up, but it’s the first time I tried to deliver a talk using my new laptop, which doesn’t have any external video ports, so a few weeks ago, I bought an USB HDMI interface… tested it at home, and thought all was “good”. The screen they were using for Room 1 didn’t recognise the interface I was using! Oh no!! So I borrowed a laptop from one of the crew, but it didn’t have bluetooth, so I couldn’t use the “clicker” for moving my slides on, and then we’re just about to go live, and the crew tell me that the camera to use to record my talking head, is not rendering any video, and “can I use the webcam on the laptop”.. Hmmm Of course, I say yes, but it means that I need to have the Windows Camera app on screen the whole time.

Anyway, talk starts up, and part way through the presentation, I don’t notice, but the WiFi drops out, so when I get to the pre-recorded demo of running Ansible…. NOPE. Bah, OK, so I continue on, and the final images (a QR code for the project I’m plugging, and my social media avatar) are missing. Oh well. Also, part way through, I realised that the screen resolution where the slides are being rendered are basically showing up dreadfully, because the text size is so very small on the screen, and the people at the back of the room really can’t see the content!

Had some fab questions from the audience, talking about things I’ve not really thought about (and really made me interested in how to do things with Windows and Ansible).

And then, just as I wrap up, I noticed that when I’d clicked on to show the demo, it had hidden the webcam. Ah, oh well. Fortunately, as I mentioned, I’d pre-recorded my talk, the only thing I’ve “lost” is the questions, but as I wasn’t really sure on many of the answers I provided, I’m not desperately sad about it.

Fundamentally, all of the technical issues really stemmed from the fact my laptop wasn’t capable of rendering on the screen. If I’d solved that in advance, the rest of the issues could have been resolved when I wasn’t stressing about getting my presentation to work on an unfamiliar machine.

I’m very grateful to BSides Liverpool for giving me the opportunity to deliver my presentation, and the rest of the event (I’ll post about that later) was fab!

"The Guitar Template" by "Neil Williamson" on Flickr

Testing (and failing inline) for data types in Ansible

I tend to write long and overly complicated set_fact statements in Ansible, ALL THE DAMN TIME. I write stuff like this:

rulebase: |
    {% for var in vars | dict2items %}
      {% if var.key | regex_search(regex_rulebase_match) | type_debug != "NoneType"
        and (
          var.value | type_debug == "dict" 
          or var.value | type_debug == "AnsibleMapping"
        ) %}
        {% for item in var.value | dict2items %}
          {% if item.key | regex_search(regex_rulebase_match) | type_debug != "NoneType"
            and (
              item.value | type_debug == "dict" 
              or item.value | type_debug == "AnsibleMapping"
            ) %}
            "{{ var.key | regex_replace(regex_rulebase_match, '\2') }}{{ item.key | regex_replace(regex_rulebase_match, '\2') }}": {
              {# This block is used for rulegroup level options #}
              {% for key in ['log_from_start', 'log', 'status', 'nat', 'natpool', 'schedule', 'ips_enable', 'ssl_ssh_profile', 'ips_sensor'] %}
                {% if var.value[key] is defined and rule.value[key] is not defined %}
                  {% if var.value[key] | type_debug in ['string', 'AnsibleUnicode'] %}
                    "{{ key }}": "{{ var.value[key] }}",
                  {% else %}
                    "{{ key }}": {{ var.value[key] }},
                  {% endif %}
                {% endif %}
              {% endfor %}
              {% for rule in item.value | dict2items %}
                {% if rule.key in ['sources', 'destinations', 'services', 'src_internet_service', 'dst_internet_service'] and rule.value | type_debug not in ['list', 'AnsibleSequence'] %}
                  "{{ rule.key }}": ["{{ rule.value }}"],
                {% elif rule.value | type_debug in ['string', 'AnsibleUnicode'] %}
                  "{{ rule.key }}": "{{ rule.value }}",
                {% else %}
                  "{{ rule.key }}": {{ rule.value }},
                {% endif %}
              {% endfor %}
          {% endif %}
        {% endfor %}
      {% endif %}
    {% endfor %}

Now, if you’re writing set_fact or vars like this a lot, what you tend to end up with is the dreaded dict2items requires a dictionary, got instead. which basically means “Hah! You wrote a giant blob of what you thought was JSON, but didn’t render right, so we cast it to a string for you!”

The way I usually write my playbooks, I’ll do something with this set_fact at line, let’s say, 10, and then use it at line, let’s say, 500… So, I don’t know what the bloomin’ thing looks like then!

So, how to get around that? Well, you could do a type check. In fact, I wrote a bloomin’ big blog post explaining just how to do that!

However, that gets unwieldy really quickly, and what I actually wanted to do was to throw the breaks on as soon as I’d created an invalid data type. So, to do that, I created a collection of functions which helped me with my current project, and they look a bit like this one, called “is_a_string.yml“:

- name: Type Check - is_a_string
    quiet: yes
    - vars[this_key] is not boolean
    - vars[this_key] is not number
    - vars[this_key] | int | string != vars[this_key] | string
    - vars[this_key] | float | string != vars[this_key] | string
    - vars[this_key] is string
    - vars[this_key] is not mapping
    - vars[this_key] is iterable
    success_msg: "{{ this_key }} is a string"
    fail_msg: |-
      {{ this_key }} should be a string, and is instead
      {%- if vars[this_key] is not defined %} undefined
      {%- else %} {{ vars[this_key] is boolean | ternary(
        'a boolean',
        (vars[this_key] | int | string == vars[this_key] | string) | ternary(
          'an integer',
          (vars[this_key] | float | string == vars[this_key] | string) | ternary(
            'a float',
            vars[this_key] is string | ternary(
              'a string',
              vars[this_key] is mapping | ternary(
                'a dict',
                vars[this_key] is iterable | ternary(
                  'a list',
                  'unknown (' ~ vars[this_key] | type_debug ~ ')'
      )}}{% endif %} - {{ vars[this_key] | default('unset') }}

To trigger this, I do the following:

- hosts: localhost
  gather_facts: false
    SomeString: abc123
    SomeDict: {'somekey': 'somevalue'}
    SomeList: ['somevalue']
    SomeInteger: 12
    SomeFloat: 12.0
    SomeBoolean: false
  - name: Type Check - SomeString
      this_key: SomeString
    include_tasks: tasks/type_check/is_a_string.yml
  - name: Type Check - SomeDict
      this_key: SomeDict
    include_tasks: tasks/type_check/is_a_dict.yml
  - name: Type Check - SomeList
      this_key: SomeList
    include_tasks: tasks/type_check/is_a_list.yml
  - name: Type Check - SomeInteger
      this_key: SomeInteger
    include_tasks: tasks/type_check/is_an_integer.yml
  - name: Type Check - SomeFloat
      this_key: SomeFloat
    include_tasks: tasks/type_check/is_a_float.yml
  - name: Type Check - SomeBoolean
      this_key: SomeBoolean
    include_tasks: tasks/type_check/is_a_boolean.yml

I hope this helps you, bold traveller with complex jinja2 templating requirements!

(Oh, and if you get “template error while templating string: no test named 'boolean'“, you’re probably running Ansible which you installed using apt from Ubuntu Universe, version 2.9.6+dfsg-1 [or, at least I was!] – to fix this, use pip to install a more recent version – preferably using virtualenv first!)

Featured image is “The Guitar Template” by “Neil Williamson” on Flickr and is released under a CC-BY-SA license.

Opening to my video: Screencast 003 - Gitlab

Screencast 003: Gitlab

I’ve done a new mentoring style video, talking about how to use a self-hosted version of Gitlab for basic group projects and individual projects.

Screencast 003: Gitlab

Also available on and LBRY.

Late edit 2020-03-25: To build the Gitlab environment I created, take a look at this git repository, which uses Terraform, some cloud init scripts and an ansible playbook. In particular, look at the following files:

If you just want to build the Gitlab environment, then it’s worth removing or renaming (to anything that isn’t .tf – I use .tf_unload) the files,,

Opening to my video: Screencast 002 - A quick walk through Git

Screencast 002: A quick walk through Git (a mentoring style video)

I have done a follow-up Mentoring style video to support my last one. This video shows how to fix some of the issues in Git I came across in my last mentoring video!

Screencast 002: A quick walk through Git

I took some advice from a colleague who noticed that I skipped past a couple of issues with my Git setup, so I re-did them :) I hope this makes sense, and at 35 minutes, is a bit more understandable than the last 1h15 video!

Also on LBRY and

Opening to my video: Screencast 001 - Ansible and Inspec using Vagrant

Screencast 001: Ansible and Inspec with Vagrant and Git (a mentoring style video)

If you’ve ever wondered how I use Ansible and Inspec, or wondered why some of my Vagrant files look like they do, well, I want to start recording some “mentor” style videos… You know how, if you were sitting next to someone who’s a mentor to you, and you watch how they build a solution.

The first one was released last night!

Screencast 001:Ansible and Inspec using Vagrant

I recently saw a video by Chris Hartjes on how he creates his TDD (Test driven development) based PHP projects, and I really wanted to emulate that style, but talking about the things I use.

This was my second attempt at recording a mentoring style video yesterday, the first was shown to the Admin Admin Podcast listeners group on Telegram, and then sacrificed to the demo gods (there were lots of issues in that first video) never to be seen again.

From a tooling perspective, I’m using a remote virtual machine running Ubuntu Mate 18.04 over RDP (to improve performance) with xrdp and Remmina, OBS is running locally to record the content, and I’m using Visual Studio Code, git, Vagrant and Virtualbox, as well as Ansible and Inspec.

Late edit 2020-02-29: Like videos like this, hate YouTube? It’s also on

Late edit 2020-03-01: Popey told me about when I announced this on the Admin Admin Podcast telegram channel, and so I’ve also copied the video to there:

Creative Commons made it easy to start

“It’s always hard to talk about a project you’ve started. The inspiration for projects can come from a hundred different places and none of those are the key to why the project happened. is no different, but this post is here to talk about why (henceforth referred to as “CCHits”) came about and why Creative Commons plays so much of a part in how it all got started.”

To read more – see my guest blog entry on the Creative Commons UK Blog.