Infrastructure as Code – What is, What is not, Principles

Traditionally, organizations have always employed manual techniques to set up IT infrastructure. This has been going on for a very long time. It wasn’t until a few years ago that automation was brought in to make things more easy, efficient, and precise. Before that, the tasks involving the racking and stacking of servers were performed by humans.

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Not only thins, but even the hardware was also configured manually in line with the requirements and specifications of the application that has to be hosted and the OS that is being used for this purpose. The job was complete with the deployment of the application on the hardware. It is not until this step that the application could be launched.

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The processes for setting up infrastructure were often long and complicated

There were a lot of things that had to be properly managed for everything to go as per plan and scheduled time. There were challenges that needed to be overcome to ensure that nothing was left to chance but was properly taken care of. The first thing was to find the required hardware. And you can’t do anything when the manufacturer doesn’t have the stocks right now. It very often took months to procure the right hardware. Products that were tailored to certain specifications took more time to come out of the manufacturer’s production facility. 

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Hiring the right people to perform different jobs was also very important and at the same time, quite tedious. You required network engineers for the physical setup of the infrastructure. This was just one of the jobs in the overall setting up and maintenance of the hardware. All of this contributed significantly to the overhead and management costs. This wasn’t it. 

You need space to build data centers to store this hardware. Data centers require maintenance. So, there were expenses in the form of HVAC, electricity, maintenance, and security amongst others. It usually took a lot of time to scale an application and make it smoothly deal with high traffic. 

Companies faced many challenges while setting up the processes

Remember, the process of setting of hardware continues to be a time-consuming process. In the past, not many applications could perform at their optimal best, due to the time the hardware that was used to run them, took to start functioning. This didn’t bode well for a lot of companies as they weren’t able to serve their customers the way they wanted and were not able to launch products and services within the timeframe they had imagined. 

There were times when these companies had to provision the use of more servers just to deal with traffic spikes that resulted from slow setting up for hardware. This meant a lot of these servers didn’t have too much to do for most of the time. But, the cost of maintaining those servers that weren’t used to their full capacities didn’t come down just because they weren’t fully used. 

Now, as we mentioned earlier, the hardware was being deployed manually, so the chances of the setups being inconsistent were quite high. This often led to discrepancies that did not work well for application. 

Introduction of Cloud Computing 

Cloud computing has been able to deal with most of the problems mentioned above if not all of them. There is no need now to rack and stack hardware. The costs associated with manually setting up hardware no longer exist. Also today there are many cloud computing applications in real world which helps in solving the problems. Databases, servers and other infrastructure could be easily spun now.

No problem whatsoever when it comes to the availability and scalability of your application.  However, one issue still remains. The issue of maintaining configuration consistency associated with manually setting up infrastructure for cloud computing is still there. This is where Infrastructure as Code (IaC) comes into the picture. 

What is Infrastructure as Code?

Infrastructure as Code or IaC is short is the use of a descriptive model to manage different aspects of cloud infrastructure, including networks, connection topology, virtual machines, and others. The version of the descriptive model mentioned above is the same as the one used in the source code by DevOps teams.

The IaC models work on the DevOps principle, which states that the same source code can be used to generate the same binary – Whenever it is applied, IaC creates the same environment. IaC is considered an important DevOps technique. It is combined with continuous delivery to achieve the desired outcome. 

IaC does away with the requirement of having to use one-off scripts or make changes in configuration to make modifications in the infrastructure. It instead manages the operations infrastructure through the same structures and rules that are used for the development of code.

The objective is to not make system engineers, admins, and other operators to configure a new machine right from the development of the code. IaS enables written code to bring out necessary changes in the state of the new machine. When that code is run, the machine should move towards its desired state without requiring human intervention. 

IaC allows DevOps teams to start testing applications at a very early stage in the development phase. These teams use this model to establish these environments for testing on a reliable and on-demand basis. IaC is also used to do away with several deployment issues as well. On the basis of how IaC works, the cloud often establishes and takes down environments. You can know more about the DevOps architecture tutorial here which can clear more about this topic.

What IaC isn’t?

There are people who take IaC as an alternative to networking principles, which is a very big misconception. These concepts can appear similar to only those who haven’t taken time out to properly understand them. Once you thoroughly go through these concepts, you won’t have any trouble in making out there are clear-cut differences that exist between them.

While you can use both these concepts to build your infrastructure, you still need to know how network routing, network architecture, network traffic, and network configuration work. These are networking fundamentals that also play a critical role in IaC. The confusion doesn’t end with the conflating principles of both these concepts.

A lot of people also think that IaC makes operations redundant by turning it into development. Well, this is far from the truth. Operations always have an important part to play in every organization. 

Networking, a few years ago, involved writing configuration scripts and configuring infrastructure and network manually. A lot of people still think that IaC is nothing but using the DevOps methodology to this configuration management, which isn’t true. IaC automates even the configuration scripts. It promotes the use of a system that can be configured using code and that can be scaled. 

Mutable and immutable infrastructure

One of the biggest decisions that you have to make when using IaC to automate infrastructure is to choose whether you want to provision mutable or immutable infrastructure. Let us see how these two are different.

Mutable infrastructure can be updated or changed after being provisioned. It provides the flexibility that is required for ad hoc customizations to deal with several issues, including an immediate security issue or one that is related to considering application or development requirements.

This infrastructure comes with a disadvantage – it doesn’t allow consistency between versions or deployment. Version tracking is also quite difficult with mutable infrastructure. 

This is one of the reasons that most people use IaC to provision immutable infrastructure. Once provisioned, it can never be updated or changed. The only way to modify immutable infrastructure is to replace it. Immutable infrastructure is more practical and viable than its counterpart.

It enables IaC to take a logical path, allowing it to offer all the benefits that it is capable of offering. It does away with configuration drift and makes test and deployment environments more consistent. Even maintaining and tracking versions aren’t too difficult with immutable infrastructure. 

Principles of IaC

Not many companies know the art of properly using IaC to their benefit. To put it in other words, there are only a few companies that have the tactical know-how of fitting it into their existing structure.

So, there are wrong ways of implementing it as well. Trying to get IaC working along with your last generation and legacy tools is one of the many wrong ways. There are certain principles that can help you deal with these issues.

1. Easy system reproducibility: IaC can be used to reproduce any part of infrastructure without putting too much effort and using a lot of your time. IaC does away with the uncertainty that comes with the process. Provisioning new environments and services is something that can be done with a lot more confidence with IaC.

2. Greater flexibility: You will be in trouble if your infrastructure doesn’t offer you solutions for the issues your application brings up. These issues could be associated with a lot of different things, including network compatibility, configuration, and storage. IaC can offer flexible solutions for issues related to these things. 

3. Dynamic design: IaC follows a principle that says that emphasises a design that can be changed. It’s not quite easy to tell the changes that a system can undergo over a period of time. Whether it is an upgrade or modification, having an infrastructure that can be changed whenever required is always better than an infrastructure that is too rigid in this regard.

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DevOps teams using IaC are capable of quickly provisioning environments that are stable in nature. There is no need to manually configure environments, and this brings in more consistency to the process. Missing dependencies or configuration drift are runtime problems that don’t exist when you deploy infrastructure using this model.

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