Infrastructure as code

Infrastructure as Code(IaC)

By Hunter Maxwell | -28 min read

Infrastructure as Code or Programmable Infrastructure is the procedure for maintaining, organizing, and deploying various components of a software development pipeline as code, instead of manually configuring individual systems. The fundamental idea of IaC is to view physical systems as if they were software and set up new systems with desired environmental parameters simply by running a script. In this way, environmental parity is maintained across the entire canon of deployment, and version control can be simplified.

Need for Infrastructure as Code

The need for IaC emerged while addressing a major pain point in the software development process. Before IaC, all software production followed the “Waterfall Model”, as detailed below.

 

Imagine you are a developer and you just wrote some code for a project. Your code would then make its way to the Quality Assurance team for testing. The problem is, the QA team may not be immediately equipped with the target testing environment. So, QA would then have to contact the ops engineer to kit them out and set everything up before any real testing can begin. This is already a laborious and time-consuming process.

 

Then, if QA finds any bugs in your code, they would contact you to fix them. By this time, you would have probably moved on to a new project with a distinctly different target environment. So, when you get back to error-correcting, you might not be set up to use the exact config that you had in the first place. 

 

This back and forth process meant that a lot of environmental irregularities crept into the deployment process, resulting in post-release crashes. For large-scale companies with a lot of engineering manpower, this may not be such a big problem but it’s an absolute nightmare for small companies. 

 

Startups and small enterprises with limited people on the engineering side would be stuck in an infinite loop of trying to release proper bug-free software. This would also hinder their ability to move on to new projects. Ultimately, this would hurt their revenue and their reputation as a brand.

Concept of Idempotence in Infrastructure as Code

Idempotence in IaC is a property that dictates that the deployment protocols always set up an environment independent of its present state. No assumptions are made about existing software. This is achieved by either auto-configuring an existing machine or completely scrapping everything about how the system was previously configured. 

 

In other words, Idempotence ensures that all systems function uniformly.

 

How do you deploy Infrastructure as Code?

The most fundamental thing to keep in mind when deploying IaC code is to make frequent use of declarative definition files. A definition file essentially contains instructions about  “what” an environment needs and not the “how”. In different terms, it means that we explicitly make sure all systems use the same configuration and version of some component but we do not include specific instructions as to “how” to install them for all machines.

 

This abstract approach to configuration ensures a degree of flexibility in the code. It leaves room in the middle for infrastructure providers to use optimized deployment techniques wherever possible. This also helps reduce the technical overhead of maintaining imperative code, something that can add up over time.

 

As such, there are no hard and fast syntactical rules for declarative IaC. Different platforms need different frameworks for IaC with support for numerous file formats like JSON, YAML, and XML. Thus, the choice usually comes down to the specific needs of the target platform.

 

Benefits of Infrastructure as Code

Most of the benefits of IaC help small and medium-sized companies more than large corporations. Previously, software used to be only a thing for the established names out there. Nowadays, groups of independent developers with minimal resources have started to create apps and form startups around them. Over the last decade, as the industry has grown increasingly mobile, a new generation of applications has taken over the market- most of them coming out of startups rather than large companies.

 

These apps require frequent updates as user demand for niche features increases. Using the waterfall model, weekly or daily updates would be impossible. A decade ago, products such as MS Office used to be updated bi-annually, but IaC has made version control and timely deployment much easier.

 

So, what are the biggest benefits of IaC? Let’s have a look.

Increased Speed and Efficiency 

IaC allows companies to set up entire infrastructure architectures in a very short amount of time. This includes databases, cloud servers, storage equipment, network infrastructure, and much more. Companies can get everything- the development, testing, and staging environments- up and running in no time.

 

Additionally, since security protocols are baked into IaC code, it allows developers to move rapidly, without having to think about explicitly securing every node. It also allows for parallelization of the workflow as different testing environments can be staged simultaneously.

 

Reduced Risk and Cost Efficiency 

IaC allows for cheap disaster recovery. Reducing production environments to just code frees up money for companies to provide for new production environments without having to think about failover machines.

 

Additionally, thanks to automation, engineers have to spend much less time performing repetitive manual work and can spend more time in high-value endeavors. IaC code can also be written to perform the task of spinning down idle resources, which massively reduces computing costs if a small-scale business is renting server time from a cloud service.

 

Straightforward Compliance and Improved Customer Experience

IaC requires little to no help in maintaining the production line from humans. Systems are programmed to automatically account for version changes and generate standardized log files. This allows for swift auditing and error resolution.

 

As production and version control become relatively error-free, more attention can be given to infrastructure services and managing code. New features can be rolled out to applications much more smoothly. Most importantly, customer satisfaction increases as instances of downtime reduce drastically.