Simply put, infrastructure as code (IaC) is the managing and provisioning of infrastructure through code instead of using a manual process to configure devices or systems. It's a practical way to manage your operational environment, calling for you to construct your infrastructure just as you do for all enterprise applications—using code. When implemented and nurtured properly, IaC can do wonders for your organization. This post attempts to explore everything you need to know about infrastructure as code. If you're planning to implement IaC, it will help you make informed decisions.
Manual Infrastructure Provisioning—the Yesteryears
Over the years, IT infrastructure provisioning has been done manually. The people responsible for the process have to rack and stack the servers physically. As if that weren't enough, they then have to manually configure the hardware to the desired settings and requirements of the operating system and the hosted application. Only after deploying it to the hardware can your application finally be launched. Setting up and configuring your IT infrastructure manually isn't going to do the trick anymore. Why, you ask? Well, here are a few reasons.
It Costs You an Arm and a Leg
Manual provisioning consumes a big chunk of human capital. It demands a string of engineers—network engineers, storage engineers, and the like—as it's an extensive process. The more the people involved, the higher the costs.
You'll Have Diminished Agility
Manual provisioning is dependent on a multitude of services/processes. So, it poses the threat of lack of sufficient agility. This translates to not being able to deliver services at your customers' expected speed. It can adversely impact your relationship with them.
There Will Be Hardware Troubles
Fetching the required hardware can take up a lot of time. You'll have to wait for the hardware manufacturer's production and delivery schedules, which could be weeks. It might take even longer if you need customized hardware. Besides, some component or another could go missing or malfunction. Additionally, you risk succumbing to the cons of the "human factor" involved in the process. It always brings in relative inconsistency, unreliability, and deviations from expected standards.
What Is Infrastructure as Code?
It's beyond doubt that cloud computing has had a major impact on how institutions build, maintain, and scale technological and business-related products and services. And the ability to bring about the provision of servers, databases, and other infrastructure-related products has increased productivity levels. However, human error cannot be eliminated, especially as long as manual processes are still around. One can also expect human errors and defects to be present when you launch cloud infrastructure by using the web app plugin buttons. The only way that these issues can be resolved is if we can bring about a level of automation into the entire infrastructure. And that's exactly where IaC comes into the picture. It automatically launches cloud foundations quickly, without any human errors. That alone has propelled IaC to the top of the technological options that businesses and corporations consider for their operations.
What Infrastructure as Code Is Not
Some people assume that IaC is a replacement for networking principles. That's a misconception, and business leaders often tend to mix up these concepts. One can successfully develop an organization's infrastructure using both networking principles and IaC. But it's extremely important to have a clear-cut understanding of network routing, how the network traffic is routed, network architecture, and the process to configure a network. These are the basic foundations of networking, and they play a closely connected role with IaC. For example, migration to the cloud is what makes IaC possible in networking. Hence, it's must-have knowledge for the networking team. But conflating networking principles and IaC isn't the only point of confusion here. There's also a general assumption that IaC turns operations into development and, in the process, makes the former redundant. However, that's not the case. Operations is a vital part of any organization. The role of networking a couple of years ago was to manually configure the network with the infrastructure as well as writing configuration scripts. Some people view IaC as just a way to bring the DevOps approach to your current configuration management. But that's not the actual case. IaC calls for automating even your configuration scripts. It also means using a scalable system that's configured through code.
Infrastructure as Code Principles
In the years since companies have implemented IaC, a few have been able to master the art of doing it without much trouble. In other words, only a few companies have succeeded in finding the right tactical strategy to fit the concepts of IaC into their structure. So, it's obvious that there are a few wrong ways to implement IaC, and the end result of those ways is disaster. Many change-management experts usually try to fit IaC into their legacy and last generation tools. To overcome these problems, you'd have to follow certain principles. So let's now discuss the nucleus of IaC.
Principle 1: Easy Reproducibility of the Systems
IaC should allow you to painlessly recreate any given chunk of an infrastructure. You should be able to rebuild without putting too much effort into it. It removes the ambiguity that could come in the form of risk or doubtfulness. And IaC instills confidence when it comes to provisioning new services and environments.
Principle 2: High Level of Flexibility
There's a need to ensure that your infrastructure has the answers to all the questions that your software asks. These questions could be about a variety of things, ranging between the desired storage, the compatibility with connected networks, and the configuration. IaC should present itself as flexible blocks that can be assembled instantly if and when the requirements arise.
Principle 3: Dynamic Design
While it's always a good bet that some component or another will need a change in the form of an upgrade, it's not always easy to make such changes to the existing system. We can't predict how, over time, the requirement of a system can change. That's why one of the core principles of IaC is that the design is always changing. So you should design your infrastructure and software to be as lucid as possible.
Infrastructure as Code Challenges
As you'd expect, there are a few stumbling blocks that you'd have to overcome before you go ahead with implementing IaC. Here are a few of those.
Shift in Configurations
Even if you consistently configure your servers at frequent intervals, you'll find that drifts in configuration can happen over time. A variety of things can cause this. Once you adhere to an IaC workflow to create something, you should also ensure that no foreign interference happens to it. When you want to modify something, it should be in compliance with your pre-established maintenance workflow. And if you make non-uniform changes to a similar group of systems, then some of them will be essentially different from the others, which could potentially result in a shift in configurations.
Although the subsequent creation of machines would be through automation, the development of the initial parent code will be done manually. More often than not, wherever there's human work involved, there's always a possibility of minor errors creeping in inadvertently. This can happen despite your regular QA checks. These minor issues could prove to be crucial since, if you look at the big picture, such errors might also be in multiple machines created by means of automation. So you'll have to double-check your IaC-generating code because it's better to be safe than sorry. This calls for stricter, more rigorous testing processes and a well-defined, concrete auditing process, which can add to your overheads.
Demand for New Skills
You need a high level of technical expertise to work with IaC tools. From a management perspective, this means investing in your current employees. In some cases, it might mean hiring new ones. Some even to resort to outsourcing services during the initial phases. Doing this will give your staff an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the tools. So you're going to have to invest in your resources—people—if you plan to implement IaC.
Infrastructure as Code Best Practices
You ought to follow certain best practices to reap the maximum benefits of implementing IaC.
Code Code Code
A rule of thumb is that, wherever possible, you should deploy code to describe your infrastructure. Often, it'd be possible to codify your traditional and cloud infrastructure. For instance, your physical/virtual server management can be codified by Terraform, CloudFormation, YAML, and Python scripts. You can utilize Puppet/Chef modules for network management, Dockerfile for container management, and so forth. And you can establish these configuration files as your single source of truth when it comes to your infrastructure specifications.
Such configuration files will be version controlled. Since they're coded, it becomes possible for you to track, manage, and restore the changes made, should the need arise. It'll also assist in diagnosing the problems. There are many source code management tools available that you can make use of for your versioning and change tracking.
Restrict Your Documentation
Your IaC code will serve as documentation in itself. So, instead of humans manually executing based on the guidelines in documents, deploying code is more clear-cut and consistent. Additionally, you won't have to do manual upgrades every time. If needed, for your more junior employees, you can promote better understanding by generating additional documentation through this code.
Microservices is an architectural style in which the engineers develop and maintain applications as many small deployable units. Similarly, by harnessing IaC, you can divide your you infrastructure into multiple modular components and then combine them through automation. This approach brings in many advantages, such as a restricted number of changes to the configuration, better control over accessibility, and more efficient dependency management. Modularity is therefore a must, as it seamlessly brings together the entire infrastructure.
Infrastructure as Code Benefits
Here's why the implementation of IaC deserves a red carpet rollout:
It Goes Hand in Hand With DevOps
IaC will be crucial if you're thinking about implementing DevOps in your organization. It can be the trump card that you need to enable the DevOps best practices and to get the most out of DevOps. The principles of IaC and DevOps intertwine when it comes to collaboration and automation. Also, the DevOps toolchain often encompasses infrastructure automation tools. When infrastructure is coded, it paves the way for the platform to achieve superior quality control through better testing, reduced recovery times, and more predictable—as well as more effective—deployments. Some other benefits that can be reaped from the process include cost reduction in terms of experimentation and innovation, time savings by facilitating redeployment instead of repairing your existing servers, and minimized mean time to resolution (MTTR).
You Can Manage Your Infrastructure Just Like Application Code
You'll save your infrastructure's file definition in a version control system. This brings in various benefits. For one thing, there will be a single source of truth. You'll also easily find the location of files, and you'll have the ability to roll back your changes with ease, identifying and clearing any redundant files. Additionally, it minimizes resource dependency; IaC enables logging, documenting, and tracking of the changes made to your server configuration. So, even in the event that a concerned person is unavailable, you can easily track and manage issues you face in setting up a new configuration. That's because you can always pinpoint what changes were made, see who made it, and infer what can be done.
You Have Consistent Configurations
While it's a given that things in production and development environments differ from one another, IaC enables you to maintain a bigger version of the infrastructure for production and a smaller one for development. When you implement IaC, you're also ensuring efficient configuration management. As it standardizes the infrastructure setup, you'll see misconfigurations in the application significantly reduced. Consequently, this will minimize the chances of the potential incompatibility issues with your infrastructure.
It Gives Developers a Reason to Smile
With IaC, programmers can develop in their own sandbox environments. Also, testers can get a copy of production that they can work on. So IaC is a win-win for both of them. Additionally, it provides the developers with an opportunity to try and apply well-established practices from development to ops. From the management perspective, you can enjoy enhanced developer productivity with IaC, too. It enables the multi-stage deployment of cloud architectures, thereby increasing the efficiency of your SDLC. Furthermore, you can adopt continuous integration and continuous deployment techniques, which bring in benefits such as faster fault isolation, reduced release cycles, and quicker software builds.
IaC Tools and What They Offer
There are two types of tools: configuration management tools and configuration orchestration tools. They're both part of the bigger cloud known as IaC tools. Engineers use these tools to automate the deployment of other servers. Configuration management tools aid in the process of configuring the software and the systems in the infrastructure. The most widely used tools across organizations are Azure, AWS Cloud Formation, Chef, and Puppet. These tools do a complete analysis of the problems being faced by the organization and the issues troubling the infrastructure. And then, they try and bring it into the proper state. During the analysis, the tools show a visualization of what the infrastructure is supposed to look like, and they build a model of that desired end state. This is also done seamlessly, without major complications and with minimal manual interactions.
Companies that bring IaC to the forefront of their operations can deliver results consistently. You can completely avoid manual configurations and setups, and the legacy tools would be able to give way for new generation tools and technologies. Without IaC, infrastructure teams across organizations have to maintain the settings of individual development environments. With IaC, you save a lot of time through human resources and operational costs. Besides enabling improvement in the way the code goes to production, IaC also makes the entire process more reliable, secure, fast, and agile. When used efficiently, it can engage the entire organization and provide a better and more efficient workflow. Hence, IaC can provide just the right x-factor. And it can serve as the differentiator you need to stay ahead in the competition.
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