Copying large numbers of files around - you would have thought this would be easy using Ansible. Most of what we do with Ansible is copying files and editing them. It turns out to be rather difficult to get right.

Copy module

The copy module seems like the correct thing to use at first glance. It copies files from the build host to remote locations. So I can clone the repository of files to deploy and send them off to where they need to go? Brilliant! There is a note at the bottom

The copy module recursively copy facility does not scale to lots (>hundreds) of files.

I counted my files. There were fewer than 100, so great! But after an hour waiting for them to deploy I decided I needed another approach. The solution seems to be the synchronize module, which is referenced in the See Also section of the copy module’s documentation.


Again, at first glance the synchronize module looks perfect. It uses rsync, everyone’s favourite tool to copy files across the network. The problem is that this module is different to every other ansible module. Ansible normally creates its own connection to the remote host and uses that to transfer python modules which talk across that connection. But synchronise uses rsync to do the communication. This is not an implementation detail, it means syncronize doesn’t work in the way we have come to expect an Ansible module to work. I found the following:

  • Become doesn’t work. You have to manually change the permissions afterwards.
  • Because of this files are reported as changed when in fact they are not.
  • Password connections don’t work. I am not sure if this was a bug, but everything else in Ansible works when you specify a username and password, but not rsync. It hangs presumably waiting for a password prompt somewhere.

The synopsis says:

This module is not intended to provide access to the full power of rsync, but does make the most common invocations easier to implement. You still may need to call rsync directly via command or shell depending on your use case.

So what to do? Here is the solution I used:


As suggested above, in some cases it is worth using rsync. I have set up a process that:

  • Set up an SSH key locally (If running from the gitlab runner, otherwise I assume the user has ssh keys already set up and use that).
  • Set up the ssh keys in the authorized keys file for the relevant (remote) users to allow passwordless connection
  • Run rsync using the appropriate key file.
  • Remove the ssh keys from the authorized keys file.

Rsync is called as follows:

  - name: Deploy files to websites
    command: # noqa 303 I want to use rsync!
      - "rsync"
      - "-crlp"
      - "--rsh=ssh -i {{ sshkey }}"
      - "--out-format=<<CHANGED>>%n%L"
      - "{{ from }}"
      - "{{ user }}@{{ inventory_hostname }}:{{ to }}"
    delegate_to: localhost
    register: syncunix
    changed_when: "'<<CHANGED>>' in syncunix.stdout"

The noqa stops ansible-lint suggesting you use the synchronize module. I am using the ansible command module to run rsync. It just takes the list under argv, and runs the command. The rsync manual page gives more information about rsync, and there is more documentation on the rsync website. Here is a brief description of the parameters I use:

  • c Uses a checksum to compare files. The default uses the modification time, which is likely to be different because I am deploying files checked out of source control.
  • r Recursive copy. Required to copy directories with files in.
  • l Copy symbolic links.
  • rsh=ssh -i {{ sshkey }} Rsync uses ssh to connect. We can pass parameters to ssh with this option. When I run the process from gitlab runner, I want to use a different location for the ssh key. This option sets that location to an Ansible variable.
  • --out-format=<<CHANGED>>%n%L The main point of this is to ensure the string <<CHANGED>> appears if there is a change to any of the files.
  • {{ from }} This is a variable containing the location of the files to copy.
  • "{{ user }}@{{ inventory_hostname }}:{{ to }}" Builds up the remote location where the files will be copied to from variables. Since rsync will connect as the user in the variable, it needs to have the ssh key set up.
  • delegate_to: localhost The rsync needs to be run from the controller host, and copy files to the remote host.
  • register: The output needs to be saved so that it can be referred to in changed_when.
  • changed_when works with the out-format and register to look in the output to see if any lines have changed_when.


It is a shame that copying files around is such a pain in Ansible. Presumably this is a difficult problem, or the developers would already have solved it. It would be nice to have some rsync like behaviour which uses Ansible modules so that the behaviour is consistent with the rest of Ansible. In the mean time, it seems easier to use rsync natively, and with a little effort and know how it is possible to get it to fit into the Ansible way of doing things.