regpg - why not Ansible Vault?

This is a lightly-edited copy of a message I sent to my colleagues on 3rd April 2017 to announce regpg and explain why it exists. When this was written, Jon Warbrick and Ben Harris were using ansible-gpg which they had written to encrypt ansible-vault passphrases using gpg.

I've done some more investigation and fiddling around, and I have made a thing which I am a bit more happy with than ansible-vault.

It's currently called regpg, which isn't a very good name. I might rename it revaulting but that's a bit long and silly.

It's very much inspired by ansible-gpg and also by StackExchange's BlackBox.

The basic regpg subcommands and the gpg invocations come from ansible-gpg, but instead of managing a single Ansible Vault password file, you can use regpg to manage lots of secret files.

BlackBox does a similar job, but it gets involved with VCS integration, which isn't really a problem I need solving. (The BlackBox README lists several other similar tools which do things like transparent decryption for git diff etc. which does not seem safe to me.)

BlackBox keeps explicit lists of gpg recipients and encrypted files. I copied the way ansible-gpg gets the recipients from pubring.gpg, and I use find | xargs grep to locate encrypted files.

Why not ansible-vault

The main thing ansible-vault offers is easy decryption of secrets when running a playbook, but this can be done with a small gpg_d filter plugin to wrap gpg --decrypt.


Ansible Vault decryption is mostly transparent, so when you are reading a playbook it isn't immediately clear which things ought to be encrypted.

If something isn't encrypted when it should be, there is no error to tell you about the mistake.

The gpg_d plugin does not have these problems.

There isn't a standard ansible-vault subcommand to find secrets, but you can do so with a recursive grep for ANSIBLE_VAULT.


Text editors have lots of features for storing backup files and cut/paste history, which you really don't want when managing secrets. (It isn't wise to use ansible-vault if your $EDITOR is emacsclient!)

The alternative promoted by ansible-vault is to encrypt/decrypt files in place on disk (swapping the same file between cleartext and ciphertext), which makes it easy to accidentally commit a cleartext secret. The lack of 'expected ciphertext, found cleartext' errors in this situation does not help you to find out when you have made this mistake.


Working out where variables come from in Ansible can be tricky. Encrypting variable files makes this much harder. There is an unpleasant official workaround based on duplicating the vault's structure in cleartext variables.

[I haven't found a use for encrypted variables (as opposed to encrypted files), so this isn't a practical moan.]


To rekey everything you need to script up something based on a recursive grep for ANSIBLE_VAULT - there isn't a standard tool to do it. It's extra tricky with script-provided passphrases - rekey support doesn't seem to be part of the common ansible-vault + gpg-agent recipes.

Rekeying gpg files is comparatively easy.


One of the more knotty problems I have been sitting on is automated DNSSEC key rollovers. The difficulty is how to manage backups of the private keys so that they can be recovered when the master server is rebuilt. At the moment they are wired in to my fairly inconvenient old setup for deploying encrypted secrets with Ansible.

By using gpg for secret storage, the key rollover process can encrypt replacement DNSKEYs using only the public keyring - without being given access to any other secrets.

The key rollover robot can even commit and push the change reasonably safely, by using gitolite VREF access controls to restrict changes made by the robot to a few particular paths within the repository.

At the moment this idea is very speculative.

Part of regpg
Written by Tony Finch
at Cambridge University Information Services.