Building Infrastructure as Code: a Walk in the Park?

Posted by Pascal Joly December 8, 2016
Building Infrastructure as Code: a Walk in the Park?

The Power of Infrastructure as Code

Infrastructure as code can certainly be considered a key component of the IT revolution in the last 10 years (read "cloud") and more recently the DevOps movement.  It has been widely used in by the developer community to programmatically deploy workload infrastructure in the cloud.  Indeed the power of describing your infrastructure as a definition text file in a format understood by an underlying engine is very compelling. This brings all the power of familiar code versioning reviewing and editing to the infrastructure modeling and deployment, ease of automation and the promise of elegant and simple handling of previously complex IT problems such as elasticity.

Here's an Ansible playbook, that a 1st grader could read and understand (or should):

Ansible Playbook

The idea of using a simple human like language to describe what is essentially a list of related component is nothing new. However the rise of the DevOps movement that puts developers in control of the application infrastructure has clearly contributed to a flurry of alternatives that can be quite intimidating to the newbies. Hence the rise of the "SRE", the next-gen Ops guru who is a mix between developer and operations (and humanoid).

A Maze of Options

Continuous Configuration management and Automation tools (also called "CCA" - one more 3 letter acronym to remember) come in a variety of shapes and forms. In no particular order, one can use Puppet manifests, Chef recipies, Ansible playbooks,  Saltstack, CFEngine, Amazon CloudFormation, Hashicorp Terraform, Openstack Heat, Mesosphere DCOS, Docker Compose, Google Kubernetes and many more. CCAs can be mostly split between two categories: runtime configuration vs. immutable infrastructure.

In his excellent TheNewStack article, Kevin Fishner describes the differences between these two approaches.

The key difference between immutable infrastructure and configuration management paradigms is at what point configuration occurs.

Essentially, Puppet style tools apply the configuration (build) after the VM is deployed (at run time) and container style approaches apply the configuration (build) ahead of deployment, contained in the image itself. There is much debate in the devOps circles about comparing the merits of each method, and it's certainly no small feat to decide which CCA framework (or frameworks) is best for your organization or project.

Facing the Real World

stressOnce you get past the hurdle of deciding on a specific framework and understanding its taxonomy, the next step is to adjust it to make it work in your unique environment. That's when frustrations can happen since some frameworks are not as opinionated as others or bugs may linger around. For instance, the usage of the tool will be loosely defined, leaving you with a lot of work ahead to make it work in your "real" world scenario that contains elements other than the typical simple server provided in the example. Let's say that your framework of choice works best with Linux servers and you have to deploy Windows or even worse you have to deploy something that is unique to your company. As the complexity of your application increases,  the corresponding implementation as code increases exponentially, especially if you have to deal with networking, or worse persistent data storage. That's when things start getting really "interesting".

Contending with State

Assuming you are successful in that last step, you still have to keep up with the state of the infrastructure once deployed. State? That stuff is usually delegated to some external operational framework, team or process. In the case of large enterprises DevOps initiatives are typically introduced in smaller groups, often from a bottom up driven approach of tool selection, starting with a single developer preference for such and such open source framework. As organizations mature and propagate these best practices across other teams, they will start deploying and deleting infrastructure components dynamically with high frequency of change. Very soon after, the overall system will evolve to a combination of a large number of  loosely controlled blueprint definitions and their corresponding state of deployment. Overtime this will grow into an unsustainable jigsaw with occurrence of bugs and instability that will be virtually impossible to troubleshoot.

Managing the Mess

One of the approaches that companies such as Quali have taken to bring some order to this undesirable outcome is adding a management and control layer that significantly improves the productivity of organizations facing these challenges. The idea is to delegate the consumption of CCA and infrastructure to a higher entity that provides a SaaS based central point of access and a catalog of all the application blueprints and their active states. Another benefit is that you are no longer stuck with one framework that down the road may not fully meet the needs of your entire organization. For instance if it does not support a specific type of infrastructure or worse becomes obsolete. By the way, the same story goes for being locked to a specific public cloud provider. The management and control layer approach also provides you a way to handle network automation and data storage in a more simplified way. Finally, using a management layer allows tying your deployed infrastructure assets to actual usage and consumption, which is key to keeping control of cost and capacity.

The Bottom Line

There is no denying the agility that CCA tools bring to the table (with an interesting twist when it all moves serverless). That said, it is still going to take quite a bit of time and manpower to configure and scale these solutions in a traditional application portfolio that will contain a mix of legacy and greenfield architecture. You'll have to contend with domain experts in each tool and the never ending competition for a scarce and expensive pool of talent. While this is to be expected of any technology, this is certainly not a core competency for most enterprise companies (unless you are Google, Netflix or Facebook). A better approach for more traditional enterprises that want to pursue this kind of application modernization is to rely on a higher level management and control layer to do the heavy lifting for them.

Learn how Quali addresses these challenges and enables application modernization.

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