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How DevOps came to know Ansible

I was sitting on Ansible’s IP bridge this morning, waiting for a call to start, when I realized that wow, Ursula K. LeGuin died, yesterday. How’s that for deep?

When my counterparty arrived, I paid condolences. “It is actually kind of a sober day in the community,” he said. “Every time we go to an event, someone talks about LeGuin. She’s sort of in our DNA.”

Who’s Ursula LeGuin? And why is her passing, yesterday, at the age of eighty-eight, a moment for reflection; not just at Ansible but across the broader DevOps community?

Ursula K. LeGuin was a great American novelist, storyteller and prose-stylist, who mostly wrote about imagined worlds. Starting in the mid-60s with books like A Wizard of Earthsea (followed by its sequels), she helped re-invent high fantasy as a literature of personality and culture; also the genre to characters of color, and paving the way for entire genres of teen- and young-adult fantasy fiction, including the Harry Potter franchise. 

So why Ansible? Because Ursula LeGuin invented ‘the ansible’.

In her very first novel, Rocannon’s World, published in 1966, LeGuin needed to invent a way for a star-faring society to communicate across interstellar distances in close-to-realtime. LeGuin’s ansible -- a contraction of the word “answerable” -- was her McGuffin. The ansibles of Rocannon’s World were based in a relativity physics that required one endpoint device to be at the bottom of a planetary mass-well, while the other end could roam, and they transmitted handwriting only. But LeGuin kept developing the idea, using the term in subsequent books, and building out the imaginary feature-set in parallel with that of contemporary digital and multimedia telephony: voice, image, data. It became a sort of one-word proxy for things LeGuin cared deeply about, like enabling contact, connection, community, across vast gulfs of separation.

The word ansible, and the concept, were quickly taken up by other sci-fi authors, and became the basis for concepts like quantum entanglement (i.e., Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance”) which have now actually been achieved in practice. But the wellspring was the original, LeGuinian idea of a central orchestrator talking over infinite distances to a distributed fabric of endpoints.

And it was that idea that presumably attracted Michael DeHaan and colleagues, who started the Ansible project, and made them think it would make a good name for a highly-distributed, deeply-simple, elegant (and of course, fast) system for provisioning, configuration, and deployment. A system that Opsview uses to automate the monitoring of nodes as they’re deployed on-premises or in the cloud. Learn more about our automation story

The term ansible is in the Oxford English Dictionary, now. It’s written into the DNA of companies and movements like DevOps. And it stands a pretty good chance of ending up being what superluminal communications technology is called, when it really works. One small part of a brilliant writer’s legacy.

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