Git as a source of truth for network automation

Vincent Bernat

The first step when automating a network is to build the source of truth. A source of truth is a repository of data that provides the intended state: the list of devices, the IP addresses, the network protocols settings, the time servers, etc. A popular choice is NetBox. Its documentation highlights its usage as a source of truth:

NetBox intends to represent the desired state of a network versus its operational state. As such, automated import of live network state is strongly discouraged. All data created in NetBox should first be vetted by a human to ensure its integrity. NetBox can then be used to populate monitoring and provisioning systems with a high degree of confidence.

When introducing Jerikan, a common feedback we got was: “you should use NetBox for this.” Indeed, Jerikan’s source of truth is a bunch of YAML files versioned with Git.

Why Git?#

If we look at how things are done with servers and services, in a datacenter or in the cloud, we are likely to find users of Terraform, a tool turning declarative configuration files into infrastructure. Declarative configuration management tools like Salt, Puppet,1 or Ansible take care of server configuration. NixOS is an alternative: it combines package management and configuration management with a functional language to build virtual machines and containers. When using a Kubernetes cluster, people use Kustomize or Helm, two other declarative configuration management tools. Tapped together, these tools implement the infrastructure as code paradigm.

Infrastructure as code is an approach to infrastructure automation based on practices from software development. It emphasizes consistent, repeatable routines for provisioning and changing systems and their configuration. You make changes to code, then use automation to test and apply those changes to your systems.

― Kief Morris, Infrastructure as Code, O’Reilly.

A version control system is a central tool for infrastructure as code. The usual candidate is Git with a source code management system like GitLab or GitHub. You get:

Traceability and visibility
Git keeps a log of all changes: what, who, why, and when. With a bit of discipline, each change is explained and self-contained. It becomes part of the infrastructure documentation. When the support team complains about a degraded experience for some customers over the last two months or so, you quickly discover this may be related to a change to an incoming policy in New York.
Rolling back
If a change is defective, it can be reverted quickly, safely, and without much effort, even if other changes happened in the meantime. The policy change at the origin of the problem spanned over three routers. Reverting this specific change and deploying the configuration let you solve the situation until you find a better fix.
Branching, reviewing, merging
When working on a new feature or refactoring some part of the infrastructure, a team member creates a branch and works on their change without interfering with the work of other members. Once the branch is ready, a pull request is created and the change is ready to be reviewed by the other team members before merging. You discover the issue was related to diverting traffic through an IX where one ISP was connected without enough capacity. You propose and discuss a fix that includes a change of the schema and the templates used to declare policies to be able to handle this case.
Continuous integration
For each change, automated tests are triggered. They can detect problems and give more details on the effect of a change. Branches can be deployed to a test infrastructure where regression tests are executed. The results can be synthesized as a comment in the pull request to help the review. You check your proposed change does not modify the other existing policies.

Why not NetBox?#

NetBox does not share these features. It is a database with a REST and a GraphQL API. Traceability is limited: changes are not grouped into a transaction and they are not documented. You cannot fork the database. Usually, there is one staging database to test modifications before applying them to the production database. It does not scale well and reviews are difficult. Applying the same change to the production database can be hazardous. Rolling back a change is non-trivial.

Update (2021-11)

Nautobot, a fork of NetBox, will soon address this point by using Dolt, an SQL database engine allowing you to clone, branch, and merge, like a Git repository. Dolt is compatible with MySQL clients. See “Nautobots, Roll Back!” for a preview of this feature.

Moreover, NetBox is not usually the single source of truth. It contains your hardware inventory, the IP addresses, and some topology information. However, this is not the place you put authorized SSH keys, syslog servers, or the BGP configuration. If you also use Ansible, this information ends in its inventory. The source of truth is therefore fragmented between several tools with different workflows. Since NetBox 2.7, you can append additional data with configuration contexts. This mitigates this point. The data is arranged hierarchically but the hierarchy cannot be customized.2 Nautobot can manage configuration contexts in a Git repository, while still allowing to use of the API to fetch them. You get some additional perks, thanks to Git, but the remaining data is still in a database with a different lifecycle.

Lastly, the schema used by NetBox may not fit your needs and you cannot tweak it. For example, you may have a rule to compute the IPv6 address from the IPv4 address for dual-stack interfaces. Such a relationship cannot be easily expressed and enforced in NetBox. When changing the IPv4 address, you may forget the IPv6 address. The source of truth should only contain the IPv4 address but you also want the IPv6 address in NetBox because this is your IPAM and you need it to update your DNS entries.

Why not Git?#

There are some limitations when putting your source of truth in Git:

  1. If you want to expose a web interface to allow an external team to request a change, it is more difficult to do it with Git than with a database. Out-of-the-box, NetBox provides a nice web interface and a permission system. You can also write your own web interface and interact with NetBox through its API.
  2. YAML files are more difficult to query in different ways. For example, looking for a free IP address is complex if they are scattered in multiple places.

In my opinion, in most cases, you are better off putting the source of truth in Git instead of NetBox. You get a lot of perks by doing that and you can still use NetBox as a read-only view, usable by other tools. We do that with an Ansible module. In the remaining cases, Git could still fit the bill. Read-only access control can be done through submodules. Pull requests can restrict write access: a bot can check the changes only modify allowed files before auto-merging. This still requires some Git knowledge, but many teams are now comfortable using Git, thanks to its ubiquity.


  1. Wikimedia manages its infrastructure with Puppet. They publish everything on GitHub. Creative Commons uses Salt. They also publish everything on GitHub. Thanks to them for doing that! I wish I could provide more real-life examples. ↩︎

  2. Being able to customize the hierarchy is key to avoiding repetition in the data. For example, if switches are paired together, some data should be attached to them as a group and not duplicated on each of them. Tags can be used to partially work around this issue but you lose the hierarchical aspect. ↩︎