Infrastructure as Code Demystified: IaC Benefits, Challenges & Best Practices

Posted by: Rastko Vasiljevic September 12, 2020

Category: Topic: DevOps

Over the last 10 years or so, the process of managing servers transitioned from being a full-time job of curating systems and ensuring smooth workflows and stable functions, to almost full-bore automation of managing critical infrastructures in the cloud-based environment. 

According to the “Accelerate State of DevOps 2019” report, 8 out of 10 respondents state that their primary application/service is hosted in a cloud-based platform, while 50% of them report they use public cloud. Organizations across industries, particularly the highest performers in the game, continue to invest in their DevOps approach and expertise, with 20% of all elite performers now deploying DevOps systems

The shift hasn’t happened overnight. Still, there are numerous businesses that feel like they’ve missed the boat and are now scared of moving onto a cloud-based infrastructure via a cloud enablement process and deem the deployment of the DevOps approach to app development automation too tall of an order for them. 

We are here to try and break this misconception and help CEOs and system administrators better understand these new approaches wherein the workflow automation and running multiple servers in order to accomplish critical business goals isn’t a perk enjoyed only by the lucky few.

In order to do that, we need to delve deeper into the core of it all, that is – Infrastructure as Code. But before we tackle main IaC benefits, best practices, and how it fits the whole cloud enablement landscape, we suggest to quickly address why the Infrastructure as Code system came to be in the first place. 

IaC Predecessor System & The Problems With This Approach 

Before the IaC model and cloud-based architectures, infrastructures were managed traditionally. For example, private data centres were typically run via virtual machines, which means that the server/resource provisioning process was slow and included the following procedure: 

  1. You have to raise an IT ticket for an infrastructure segment 
  2. A member of your IT team needs to process the ticket and send it for a revision process by a review team
  3. Once all aspects have been reviewed, the infrastructure segment is provisioned by the operation team 
  4. (The process for deleting or decommissioning of said infrastructure segment requires all the above-mentioned steps as well)

The problems with these legacy systems included: 

All these pitfalls combined account for extremely low agility of a business using traditional infrastructures.  

Enter, Infrastructure as Code

What Is Infrastructure as Code Exactly?

Infrastructure as Code (or IaC) is an automated type of infrastructure management. The model approaches networks, virtual machines, load balancers, and connection topology in a descriptive manner via versioning (similar to DevOps tackling source code). Much like the same source code is able to generate the same binary, the same principle is used by the IaC model as it generates the same environment every time it is applied. 

Basically, Infrastructure as Code is a model that codifies everything

The approach involves engineers defining the computer systems their code needs to run. Most typically, they utilize a framework (Chef, Ansible, or Puppet for example) to define their infrastructure. 

One of the most common use cases for IaC libraries is managing web applications. Modern apps are complex entities that often require:

With legacy systems, administrators need to perform provisioning and manage all the interlocking systems and processes manually, which requires time, resources and specific skills. The Infrastructure as Code approach reduces all the time-consuming tasks to mere minutes through automation. The engineers are to define the building blocks for their project, while the IaC framework then does all the heavy lifting in order to create and shape the infrastructure the right way. 

This is most typically done through:

The most common IaC tools available for Infrastructure as Code include Terraform, AWS CloudFormation, Azure Resource Manager, Google Cloud Deployment Manager, JUJU, Otter, and Puppet. Terraform is perhaps the most widely used one. It is utilized and adopted by some of the biggest cloud players on the market (Microsoft Azure, AWS, and GCP). 

Here’s a simple diagram displaying the IaC flow with Terraform as the infrastructure creation language: 

How Does IaC Work?

Most typically, the Infrastructure as Code procedure involves the following 3 steps:

  1. The devs define and write the infrastructure specs in a language that is domain-specific
  2. The files that are created are then sent either to a management API, master server, or a code repository
  3. The platform then takes all the necessary actions to create and configure the computing resources

Each library will create the optimal Infrastructure as Code environment according to the library’s needs and specs. There are two structure types environments can operate in: 

Declarative structure defines which libraries are to be installed and which systems will exist, while imperative structures define the way the environment will be configured accordingly.

Note: the difference between the two is covered in more detail later in the article. 

What Exact Issues Does the IaC Concept Solve?

Environment Drift in the Release Pipeline

Teams that do not deploy IaC have the task of properly maintaining the settings of individual deployment environments. The problem occurs when the resources start to increase over time as each environment becomes a so-called snowflake – a one-of-a-kind configuration that cannot be reproduced automatically – and it becomes increasingly difficult to do it manually. This leads to the inconsistencies among environments and, eventually, to deployment-related issues.

This issue led to the birth of IaC. 

Lack of Idempotence 

Idempotence ensures that a deployment command is placing the target environment into the same configuration at all times, without the environment’s starting state being the factor. This property can be achieved in two ways: 

Slow Provisioning

IaC benefits a company’s IT architecture and workflow as it uses automation to substantially increase the provisioning speed of the infrastructure’s development, testing, and production. As the main approach to Infrastructure as Code is to codify and document every aspect and piece of your systems, it enables the provisioning automation of legacy infrastructures, which would otherwise involve a plethora of time-consuming processes. 

Lack of Workflow Automation & Room for Innovation

One of the biggest IaC benefits over legacy systems is the all-encompassing workflow automation. Deploying this approach in any shape and form will dramatically reduce the time, effort, and specialized skills a team needs for quick and successful provisioning and scaling of their infrastructure. This way companies can fully leverage the power of cloud-based infrastructures and use the given opportunities to spend less time on manual processes and maintenance. With IaC, they can almost utterly devote their time, skills and talent to developing mission-critical solutions and therefore increase product innovation. This is simply not possible with traditional environments. 

Lack of Reusability

Legacy infrastructures lacked the ability to reuse the codified elements (forms, scripts) in multiple environments as, in order to do so, one would need to create a new one every time. The IaC system mitigates this issue as it allows you to spin up the same resource multiple times and reuse the existing scripts when necessary. 

Tangible IaC Benefits

Faster Time to Market/Production

The level of automation through the IaC deployment allows for a dramatic increase in workflow streamlining and the speed of the infrastructure provisioning process during the stages of development, testing, and production. It also shortens the time needed for scaling and/or taking down production infrastructure when necessary. Thanks to its codifying and documenting of all the components, the IaC benefits the companies with faster and automated provisioning of traditional infrastructures, the process that would otherwise involve many time-consuming procedures. 

Improved Consistency

This is one of the IaC benefits that is derived from the aforementioned ‘configuration drift’ issue that tends to cause mismatched development, test, and/or deployment environments due to ad-hoc configuration changes and updates. These issues can further jeopardize the deployment process and lead to security-based risks during app and service development, which can be especially vulnerable to the projects that are required to meet strict regulatory compliance standards. IaC benefits businesses as it obviates drift by provisioning the same environment every time, enabling improved infrastructure consistency at all times.

Overall Faster and More Efficient Development via Infrastructure as Code and DevOps

Development automation via Infrastructure as Code and DevOps approach enables a more simple provisioning process, resulting in more consistent and much more accelerated phases of the software delivery lifecycle. 

Infrastructure as Code and DevOps allow the dev team to provision sandboxes much faster within the Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) environments. Quality Assurance is able to provision full-fidelity test environments more quickly, while the operations are capable of provisioning the environment for security and user-acceptance testing faster. Once the code testing is done successfully, the application can be deployed in a single step, much like the production infrastructure the app runs on. 

Churn Mitigation 

Infrastructure as Code and DevOps make sure that provisioning-based intelligence and information doesn’t leave the company. With businesses that do not deploy IaC, all the provisioning-related procedures are most typically performed by skilled in-house engineers, which isn’t exactly a bullet-proof model as it can lead to various difficulties in terms of reconstructing the architecture should the key IT staff members leave the organization.  

Reduced Costs & Improved ROI

Perhaps the most enticing of IaC benefits is the combo of reduced costs and increased Return on Investment. Not only does the utilization of IaC reduce the amount of effort, time, and specialized skills necessary for successful infra provisioning and scaling, it also allows you to leverage all the cost-reduction potential that a highly scalable consumption-based cost structure can provide. 

Improved Security

If implemented right, the IaC-based infrastructure can improve the overall security of your computing architecture and the data stored within it. It takes care of misconfigured IaC files throughout the development process, while it also transforms the run-time security issues into build-time governance, but does so only if it is:

Increased Workflow Transparency & Structural Arrangement

Companies that successfully implement Infrastructure as Code and DevOps approach can enjoy one of the most underrated IaC benefits that is – workflow transparency. Instead of everything being thrown around in a diffuse manner across the Graphical User Interface, the structural arrangement of your workloads are much more organized and transparent, allowing for a more streamlined workflow and increased consistency. 

IaC Best Practices According to SuperAdmins

Although the concepts of Infrastructure as Code and DevOps have been around for quite some time now, there are still very few companies that have managed to implement these models successfully and with little to no hassle. If you want to come up with the right IaC strategy for your unique infrastructure, planning and finding the optimal tactics is key, for only then will your company be capable of leveraging all the benefits and reap all the rewards this model offers. 

Here are some of the IaC best practices that our company deems essential.  

Code Your Way Through to the Single Source of Truth 

One of the most commonly used rules of thumb involves deploying code to describe your infrastructure wherever and whenever possible. Most of the time, codifying both traditional and cloud infrastructures is plausible and recommended. Codifying physical/virtual server management is possible via Terraform, YAML, Python, and CloudFormation; network management is most commonly performed through Puppet/Chef modules, while container management is usually done via Docker. When it comes to infrastructure specifications, we recommend establishing these configuration files as your “single source of truth.” 

Immutable VS Mutable Infrastructure

Among the crucial decisions a company needs to make during the process of infrastructure automation is to figure out whether to establish immutable or mutable infrastructure.

Mutable IaC-based infrastructure is susceptible to modification and updates after its original provisioning, therefore providing dev teams with the much-needed flexibility in terms of ad-hoc server customizations. It allows you to more closely fit app or development requirements and more easily respond to potential security issues. However, mutable infrastructure can hinder your ability to keep your deployments and/or versions consistent, as well as make your infrastructure version tracking efforts more convoluted.

This is mostly why the majority of IaC models are implemented in an immutable infrastructure manner, meaning the infrastructure isn’t susceptible to modification after original provisioning. When this infrastructure type requires modification, it is simply replaced with new infrastructure that can be easily spun up in the cloud, especially if deployed via the IaC model. 

Infrastructure as Code

Although this may at first sound counter-intuitive, immutable infrastructures are more practical than mutable ones, as they:

Version Control (to Major Tom) 

Any experienced Infrastructure as Code or DevOps engineer will tell you that “version control everything” is just as important as “codify everything.” Since your configuration files are coded, they are to be version controlled as you can easily track, manage, and restore any potential changes. Version Control is also extremely helpful in diagnosing the issues. There are numerous version control, change tracking, and source code management tools available on the market here’s a helpful article that can help you with that

Documentation Restriction

Since IaC establishes code that can serve as documentation, be sure to deploy the code for high levels of consistency and clarity, rather than manually executing it. This will reduce the potential for human error to a minimum and mitigate the need for manual upgrades. 

Modularity & Microservices to the Rescue

Microservices are definitely among the most under-used IaC benefits. The dev team has the ability to use this architectural style to develop, manage, and maintain applications in the form of numerous deployable units. IaC also enables engineers to compartmentalize the infrastructure into multiple modular components, and then use automation to combine them in the most suitable way. 

Some of the advantages this approach brings include 

In other words, when deployed correctly, modularity acts as a glue that seamlessly holds your entire infrastructure together.

Declarative VS Imperative Approach

Although it depends on the industry and the organization itself, most businesses opt for the declarative approach, but let’s see how they differ: 

The Declarative Approach – also known as functional, involves specifying how you want the final state of the infrastructure you are provisioning to be set up, and the IaC software does all the heavy lifting – spins up VMs/containers, installs/configures software, takes care of system/software interdependencies, manages versioning, etc. For this approach, it is necessary to have an experienced and skilled admin who will be capable of setting up and managing the entire procedure. 

The Imperative Approach – also known as procedural, involves preparing automation scripts that tackle your infrastructure provisioning one specific step at a time. This solution requires more management in terms of scaling, but it is typically an easier approach as it allows administrators to better understand existing configuration scripts and therefore leverage their full potential. 

Infrastructure as Code Challenges

The IaC benefits are numerous, but this model does have certain challenges that need to be addressed so you can properly tackle them prior to the implementation process.

Configuration Drift

Regardless of how consistently or frequently you configure your servers, drifts in configuration may occur in the long run. This is why you should make sure there is no outside interference after you’ve established your IaC workflow. Every time you need to modify your infrastructure, you must ensure it is done according to your pre-established maintenance workflow. Should you still end up making some non-uniform changes to a similar system group, some of them will inevitably be different from the others, potentially resulting in a shift in configurations.

Potential Duplication of Errors

Though the IaC implementation process and machine creation rely heavily on automation, there are still certain segments of the entire process that need to be done manually. Writing the parent code is one of those processes, and – naturally – there’s always potential for error when there’s human work involved. Even within an environment where QA checks are regular and consistent. 

These errors (however minor in nature) could occur in multiple machines as a side-effect of automation. To make sure you are always on the safe side, we highly recommend double-checking the code that generates your IaC architecture. This can be done through strict and extremely consistent testing and thorough auditing processes. However, these additional efforts often lead to increased overheads. 

Need for New Skills and/or Staff

Since the Infrastructure as Code and DevOps models require high levels of technical expertise, certain management teams may face challenges involving the constant investing in staff and their skills. This goes for both your current employees and potential newcomers, which may prove too costly for some. This is why many organizations opt for outsourcing IaC services, especially during the initial stages of the implementation. This option is the go-to solution for them as it provides them with the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the procedure, tools, and best practice strategies. This leads to the optimization of their automation process in terms of both costs and the overall quality of their IT architecture. 

Final TakeAway

Infrastructure as Code is slowly but surely becoming the norm for organizations that seek automation and faster delivery. Developing applications at a faster rate is only possible through a streamlined workflow and an improved development environment. 

However, coming up with optimal IaC solutions for your unique IT architecture isn’t something that should be approached lightly, with insufficient resources, or the lack of guidance. But once you’ve set up your IaC environment the right way, your development process will immediately start yielding results. 

The SuperAdmins team has helped numerous companies audit their infrastructure and devise an effective IaC implementation strategy so they can leverage all the benefits that have been hidden in the code for so long. 

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