Ansible and Python 3

Ansible is pursuing a strategy of having one code base that runs on both Python-2 and Python-3 because we want Ansible to be able to manage a wide variety of machines. Contributors to Ansible should be aware of the tips in this document so that they can write code that will run on the same versions of Python as the rest of Ansible.

Ansible can be divided into three overlapping pieces for the purposes of porting:

  1. Controller-side code. This is the code which runs on the machine where you invoke /usr/bin/ansible
  2. Modules. This is the code which Ansible transmits over the wire and invokes on the managed machine.
  3. module_utils code. This is code whose primary purpose is to be used by the modules to perform tasks. However, some controller-side code might use generic functions from here.

Much of the knowledge of porting code will be usable on all three of these pieces but there are some special considerations for some of it as well. Information that is generally applicable to all three places is located in the controller-side section.

Minimum Version of Python-3.x and Python-2.x

In both controller side and module code, we support Python-3.5 or greater and Python-2.6 or greater. Python-3.5 was chosen as a minimum because it is the earliest Python-3 version adopted as the default Python by a Long Term Support (LTS) Linux distribution (in this case, Ubuntu-16.04). Previous LTS Linux distributions shipped with a Python-2 version which users can rely upon instead of the Python-3 version.

For Python-2, the default is for modules to run on at least Python-2.6. This allows users with older distributions that are stuck on Python-2.6 to manage their machines. Modules are allowed to drop support for Python-2.6 when one of their dependent libraries requires a higher version of Python. This is not an invitation to add unnecessary dependent libraries in order to force your module to be usable only with a newer version of Python; instead it is an acknowledgment that some libraries (for instance, boto3 and docker-py) will only function with a newer version of Python.


Python-2.4 Module-side Support:

Support for Python-2.4 and Python-2.5 was dropped in Ansible-2.4. RHEL-5 (and its rebuilds like CentOS-5) were supported until April of 2017. Ansible-2.3 was released in April of 2017 and was the last Ansible release to support Python-2.4 on the module-side.

Porting Controller Code to Python 3

Most of the general tips for porting code to be used on both Python-2 and Python-3 applies to porting controller code. The best place to start learning to port code is Lennart Regebro’s book: Porting to Python 3.

The book describes several strategies for porting to Python 3. The one we’re using is to support Python-2 and Python-3 from a single code base

Controller String Strategy


One of the most essential things to decide upon for porting code to Python-3 is what string model to use. Strings can be an array of bytes (like in C) or they can be an array of text. Text is what we think of as letters, digits, numbers, other printable symbols, and a small number of unprintable “symbols” (control codes).

In Python-2, the two types for these (str for bytes and unicode for text) are often used interchangeably. When dealing only with ASCII characters, the strings can be combined, compared, and converted from one type to another automatically. When non-ASCII characters are introduced, Python starts throwing exceptions due to not knowing what encoding the non-ASCII characters should be in.

Python-3 changes this behavior by making the separation between bytes (bytes) and text (str) more strict. Python will throw an exception when trying to combine and compare the two types. The programmer has to explicitly convert from one type to the other to mix values from each.

This change makes it immediately apparent to the programmer when code is mixing the types inappropriately, rather than working until one of their users causes an exception by entering non-ASCII input. However, it forces the programmer to proactively define a strategy for working with strings in their program so that they don’t mix text and byte strings unintentionally.

Unicode Sandwich

In controller-side code we use a strategy known as the Unicode Sandwich (named after Python-2’s unicode text type). For Unicode Sandwich we know that at the border of our code and the outside world (for example, file and network IO, environment variables, and some library calls) we are going to receive bytes. We need to transform these bytes into text and use that throughout the internal portions of our code. When we have to send those strings back out to the outside world we first convert the text back into bytes. To visualize this, imagine a ‘sandwich’ consisting of a top and bottom layer of bytes, a layer of conversion between, and all text type in the center.

Common Borders

This is a partial list of places where we have to convert to and from bytes. It’s not exhaustive but gives you an idea of where to watch for problems.

Reading and writing to files

In Python-2, reading from files yields bytes. In Python-3, it can yield text. To make code that’s portable to both we don’t make use of Python-3’s ability to yield text but instead do the conversion explicitly ourselves. For example:

from ansible.module_utils._text import to_text

with open('filename-with-utf8-data.txt', 'rb') as my_file:
    b_data =
        data = to_text(b_data, errors='surrogate_or_strict')
    except UnicodeError:
        # Handle the exception gracefully -- usually by displaying a good
        # user-centric error message that can be traced back to this piece
        # of code.


Much of Ansible assumes that all encoded text is UTF-8. At some point, if there is demand for other encodings we may change that, but for now it is safe to assume that bytes are UTF-8.

Writing to files is the opposite process:

from ansible.module_utils._text import to_bytes

with open('filename.txt', 'wb') as my_file:

Note that we don’t have to catch UnicodeError here because we’re transforming to UTF-8 and all text strings in Python can be transformed back to UTF-8.

Filesystem Interaction

Dealing with filenames often involves dropping back to bytes because on UNIX-like systems filenames are bytes. On Python-2, if we pass a text string to these functions, the text string will be converted to a byte string inside of the function and a traceback will occur if non-ASCII characters are present. In Python-3, a traceback will only occur if the text string can’t be decoded in the current locale, but it’s still good to be explicit and have code which works on both versions:

import os.path

from ansible.module_utils._text import to_bytes

filename = u'/var/tmp/くらとみ.txt'
f = open(to_bytes(filename), 'wb')
mtime = os.path.getmtime(to_bytes(filename))
b_filename = os.path.expandvars(to_bytes(filename))
if os.path.exists(to_bytes(filename)):

When you are only manipulating a filename as a string without talking to the filesystem (or a C library which talks to the filesystem) you can often get away without converting to bytes:

import os.path

os.path.join(u'/var/tmp/café', u'くらとみ')

On the other hand, if the code needs to manipulate the filename and also talk to the filesystem, it can be more convenient to transform to bytes right away and manipulate in bytes.


Make sure all variables passed to a function are the same type. If you’re working with something like os.path.join() which takes multiple strings and uses them in combination, you need to make sure that all the types are the same (either all bytes or all text). Mixing bytes and text will cause tracebacks.

Interacting with Other Programs

Interacting with other programs goes through the operating system and C libraries and operates on things that the UNIX kernel defines. These interfaces are all byte-oriented so the Python interface is byte oriented as well. On both Python-2 and Python-3, byte strings should be given to Python’s subprocess library and byte strings should be expected back from it.

One of the main places in Ansible’s controller code that we interact with other programs is the connection plugins’ exec_command methods. These methods transform any text strings they receive in the command (and arguments to the command) to execute into bytes and return stdout and stderr as byte strings Higher level functions (like action plugins’ _low_level_execute_command) transform the output into text strings.

Tips, tricks, and idioms to adopt

Forwards Compatibility Boilerplate

Use the following boilerplate code at the top of all controller-side modules to make certain constructs act the same way on Python-2 and Python-3:

# Make coding more python3-ish
from __future__ import (absolute_import, division, print_function)
__metaclass__ = type

__metaclass__ = type makes all classes defined in the file into new-style classes without explicitly inheriting from object.

The __future__ imports do the following:

 Makes imports look in sys.path for the modules being imported, skipping the directory in which the module doing the importing lives. If the code wants to use the directory in which the module doing the importing, there’s a new dot notation to do so.
division:Makes division of integers always return a float. If you need to find the quotient use x // y instead of x / y.
print_function:Changes print() from a keyword into a function.

Prefix byte strings with “b_”

Since mixing text and bytes types leads to tracebacks we want to be clear about what variables hold text and what variables hold bytes. We do this by prefixing any variable holding bytes with b_. For instance:

filename = u'/var/tmp/café.txt'
b_filename = to_bytes(filename)
with open(b_filename) as f:
    data =

We do not prefix the text strings instead because we only operate on byte strings at the borders, so there are fewer variables that need bytes than text.

Bundled six

The third-party python-six library exists to help projects create code that runs on both Python-2 and Python-3. Ansible includes a version of the library in module_utils so that other modules can use it without requiring that it is installed on the remote system. To make use of it, import it like this:

from ansible.module_utils import six


Ansible can also use a system copy of six

Ansible will use a system copy of six if the system copy is a later version than the one Ansible bundles.


In order for code to function on Python-2.6+ and Python-3, use the new exception-catching syntax which uses the as keyword:

    a = 2/0
except ValueError as e:
    module.fail_json(msg="Tried to divide by zero: %s" % e)

Do not use the following syntax as it will fail on every version of Python-3:

    a = 2/0
except ValueError, e:
    module.fail_json(msg="Tried to divide by zero: %s" % e)

Octal numbers

In Python-2.x, octal literals could be specified as 0755. In Python-3, octals must be specified as 0o755.

String formatting

str.format() compatibility

Starting in Python-2.6, strings gained a method called format() to put strings together. However, one commonly used feature of format() wasn’t added until Python-2.7, so you need to remember not to use it in Ansible code:

# Does not work in Python-2.6!
new_string = "Dear {}, Welcome to {}".format(username, location)

# Use this instead
new_string = "Dear {0}, Welcome to {1}".format(username, location)

Both of the format strings above map positional arguments of the format() method into the string. However, the first version doesn’t work in Python-2.6. Always remember to put numbers into the placeholders so the code is compatible with Python-2.6.

See also

Python documentation on format strings

Use percent format with byte strings

In Python-3.x, byte strings do not have a format() method. However, it does have support for the older, percent-formatting.

b_command_line = b'ansible-playbook --become-user %s -K %s' % (user, playbook_file)


Percent formatting added in Python-3.5

Percent formatting of byte strings was added back into Python3 in 3.5. This isn’t a problem for us because Python-3.5 is our minimum version. However, if you happen to be testing Ansible code with Python-3.4 or earlier, you will find that the byte string formatting here won’t work. Upgrade to Python-3.5 to test.

See also

Python documentation on percent formatting

Porting Modules to Python 3

Ansible modules are slightly harder to port than normal code from other projects. A lot of mocking has to go into unit testing an Ansible module so it’s harder to test that your porting has fixed everything or to to make sure that later commits haven’t regressed the Python-3 support.

Module String Strategy

There are a large number of modules in Ansible. Most of those are maintained by the Ansible community at large, not by a centralized team. To make life easier on them, it was decided not to break backwards compatibility by mandating that all strings inside of modules are text and converting between text and bytes at the borders; instead, we’re using a native string strategy for now.

Native strings refer to the type that Python uses when you specify a bare string literal:

"This is a native string"

In Python-2, these are byte strings. In Python-3 these are text strings. The module_utils shipped with Ansible attempts to accept native strings as input to its functions and emit native strings as their output. Modules should be coded to expect bytes on Python-2 and text on Python-3.

Tips, tricks, and idioms to adopt

Python-2.4 Compatible Exception Syntax

Until Ansible-2.4, modules needed to be compatible with Python-2.4 as well. Python-2.4 did not understand the new exception-catching syntax so we had to write a compatibility function that could work with both Python-2 and Python-3. You may still see this used in some modules:

from ansible.module_utils.pycompat24 import get_exception

    a = 2/0
except ValueError:
    e = get_exception()
    module.fail_json(msg="Tried to divide by zero: %s" % e)

Unless a change is going to be backported to Ansible-2.3, you should not have to use this in new code.

Python 2.4 octal workaround

Before Ansible-2.4, modules had to be compatible with Python-2.4. Python-2.4 did not understand the new syntax for octal literals so we used the following workaround to specify octal values:

# Can't use 0755 on Python-3 and can't use 0o755 on Python-2.4
EXECUTABLE_PERMS = int('0755', 8)

Unless a change is going to be backported to Ansible-2.3, you should not have to use this in new code.

Porting module_utils code to Python 3

module_utils code is largely like module code. However, some pieces of it are used by the controller as well. Because of this, it needs to be usable with the controller’s assumptions. This is most notable in the string strategy.

Module_utils String Strategy

Module_utils must use the Native String Strategy. Functions in module_utils receive either text strings or byte strings and may emit either the same type as they were given or the native string for the Python version they are run on depending on which makes the most sense for that function. Functions which return strings must document whether they return text, byte, or native strings. Module-utils functions are therefore often very defensive in nature, converting from potential text or bytes at the beginning of a function and converting to the native string type at the end.