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Infrastructure as Code: Helping Businesses Scale Their IT

August 31, 2021

Infrastructure as Code

The more a business relies on information technology (IT), the more important it is to have a good infrastructure. 

This can cover anything from email and file servers that support daily office functions to key business outputs such as websites, databases, and private cloud servers. If you break a critical business system down into its essential parts, it will ultimately rely on IT. This is precisely why it’s so important for this space to contain stable and scalable systems.

To enable your business to operate more efficiently and offer the best possible customer experience, you need a technology infrastructure that follows three basic principles: agility, scalability, and resilience.

A robust IT infrastructure allows more time to be spent on daily activities rather than maintaining hardware and software. It also focuses on building resilience and recoverability to help businesses mitigate risks and support business continuity during a disaster.

Good infrastructure is built using sound procedures, solid planning and, most importantly, automation. This is where infrastructure as code (IaC) comes in. It empowers organizations to automate their infrastructure tasks with code without losing precious time on manual processes.

Infrastructure as code is widely used in various IT sectors and organizations. It helps businesses manage computer data centers, whether on-premise or on the cloud, as software applications. This approach has been used for some time now, as cloud computing and server virtualization have become ubiquitous.

IaC is responsible for deploying an entire server environment on a single machine or across multiple machines in an expedited and repeatable way while maintaining zero downtime. When appropriately used, IaC can help ensure that your application's performance and availability requirements are met on time and within budget.

A good example of utilizing IaC would be automating routine NetOps tasks using network automation software.

IaC utilizes APIs and internal libraries to implement several functions related to creating and deploying infrastructure components. It provides a way to replace actual hardware setup with flexible, repeatable programming, and businesses gain from cost savings and system support.

36%

of businesses plan to improve IT operations and systems performance.

Source: Spiceworks Ziff Davis

Why do businesses need infrastructure as code?

Manual intervention was the only way to manage traditional business infrastructures. The server had to be installed on the rack, the operating system (OS) had to be installed by the IT team, and the network connected and configured manually. For most businesses in the past, this was not a problem as the infrastructure hardly ever changed.

Businesses today work in a dynamic environment, and change is a constant reality. Technologies such as virtualization and cloud, coupled with the rise of DevOps and agile practices, have greatly influenced the current infrastructure and the user experience for business services. 

Modern infrastructure requirements do not allow the use of traditional network management methods. In the old centralized infrastructure, changes can take days, weeks, or even longer. Organizations can no longer wait hours or days to deploy servers or fix network issues. The downtime can make a business lose hefty sums in minutes.

To rapidly respond to change, you need automation. Automation requires repeatable processes that are defined and stored in code. Businesses are adopting infrastructure as code to solve this problem. Infrastructure as code provides a repeatable and predictable way to build, provision, and change a company's infrastructure. IaC helps businesses address issues in their application infrastructure by speeding up the changes that a business needs to adapt to its changing environment.

It's not just about abstractions or coding; it's about shifting the paradigm of coding and automating complex tasks into coding itself. 

Many businesses don’t use infrastructure as code, which results in manual interventions leading to business disruptions. In contrast, successful companies develop a repeatable process to serve their application and use tools like Chef, Puppet, or Ansible to automate it into code that scales without human involvement.

What issues does IaC solve?

Infrastructure as code promises to manage the complexity and rapid pace of IT change. It’s a management approach that promotes automated, repeatable, and trackable deployments of all configurations in your environment. 

Treating your infrastructure like any other application enables a self-service model for development teams, testers, and anyone who needs to deploy workloads and applications to production. Infrastructure automation takes care of any low-level tasks required to support these applications, such as creating the servers or network services you need, setting up users and permissions, and keeping everything maintained as the software moves through its life cycle.

IaC solves three major challenges associated with the traditional infrastructure:

The increased cost of installation

It's costly to build up each IT ecosystem manually. To set up the devices and software, businesses will need professional engineers, and there’s a more significant management overhead since engineers require supervisors.

IaC tools provide a centrally controlled system that automatically sets an environment with ease. Businesses pay for the resources they use and can scale up and down their resources at any time.

An increased installation time

IT teams must first set up the servers before they can manually set up the entire infrastructure. The devices and network are also manually configured to the desired parameters. Only then can the IT staff begin to fulfill other application requirements.

This procedure is time-consuming and prone to errors. Many open source IaC tools automate the entire process and cut setup time to minutes.

Inconsistencies in the environment

Inconsistencies are unavoidable when multiple people manually deploy configurations in the environment. It becomes difficult to track and replicate the same surroundings over time.

These discrepancies result in significant variations across the development, testing, and production environments and deployment difficulties. IaC provides continuity by provisioning and configuring environments without any potential for human mistakes.

What IaC means for DevOps and NetOps

Industry after industry is becoming more advanced as it adopts new technology. We've seen this in just about every facet of life, from music and transportation to medicine and fashion. As time moves forward, fresh pieces of technology are developed and used in products that make people's lives better or easier. 

This includes computing, where DevOps and NetOps are two areas that dominate the industry. They are two different sides of the same coin that work to improve a business, but they involve different departments with different goals and needs.

DevOps combines software development and IT operations, while NetOps is the combination of network operations and systems administration. For DevOps, the main focus is on collaboration between developers and IT operations for a faster software deployment process, while for NetOps, the goal is to automate the network for intelligent and agile infrastructure.

A business's infrastructure includes computing, storage, virtualization, networking, security, and more. In the past, we had virtual dedicated servers, then cloud services. But now, there’s containerization, a new kind of solution to deploy and manage applications. These new systems have transformed both DevOps and NetOps.

In a hardware-centric environment, infrastructure changes require extensive manipulation of server, storage, and networking components. This process impedes digital transformation. Today's digital world needs highly tailored data environments that can be quickly changed, expanded, and decommissioned.

The infrastructure as code approach gives businesses the freedom to simplify infrastructure management for human operators while also extending full orchestration and automation capabilities to intelligent, autonomous applications and services, allowing them to create their own virtualized data environments at will.

Infrastructure as code is an approach to fully automate the deployment and configuration of dynamic infrastructure systems without the need for human input. These automated processes significantly improve the speed and flexibility with which companies can deploy their workloads. IaC is a crucial component in implementing DevOps practices and continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD).

The concept of codifying the configuration of your systems in a repeatable manner is nothing new. However, what has changed over the years is the methodology used to do so. IaC provides endless possibilities for service and network engineers. It allows them to test their designs, automate their workflows, and even help with orchestration. 

IaC will affect both DevOps and NetOps. While this may seem esoteric or not that important to the average operations professional, IaC is not only here to stay, but it will ultimately redefine the entire way we think of and deliver computing resources. IaC provides endless opportunities for network and service engineers that do not have a development background but are solely responsible for creating and maintaining scalable, agile infrastructure that hosts their company's applications, servers, and successful business programs for the end-user.

Infrastructure as code is a game-changer for NetOps and DevOps, especially for network operators. It allows them to test their designs, automate their workflows, and even manage orchestration.

How does infrastructure as code work?

At its core, infrastructure as code is all about automation: automating manual infrastructure to improve and simplify the maintenance of the infrastructure so that it can be more easily maintained and kept in the desired state. IT teams store the infrastructure definitions in code (templates, scripts, or programs).

It uses software tools to automate administrative tasks through a fully defined software deployment process managed via a version control system. This means that whatever infrastructure you have (virtual machines, containers, etc.) can be described in code, and this code can then execute to make changes to the infrastructure.

Typically, teams implement infrastructure as code as follows:

  • Developers create and write infrastructure specifications in a domain-specific programming language.
  • The generated files are sent to an API, master server, or code repository.
  • An IaC tool performs all of the required activities to build and configure the required computing resources.

Mutable infrastructure vs. immutable infrastructure

Before we dive into the different strategies for implementing IaC, IT teams need to make a critical choice about automating infrastructure using IaC. When automating infrastructure using IaC and adopting an IaC technology, businesses need to first decide whether to create a mutable infrastructure or an immutable infrastructure.

Mutable vs. immutable infrastructure

Mutable infrastructure

The term mutable refers to the capacity to alter or mutate into something new.

A mutable infrastructure is an infrastructure that has been provisioned and may subsequently be changed or upgraded to meet business needs. A mutable infrastructure allows software development teams to create on-the-fly server changes and respond to any emerging security problem.

However, when it comes to IaC, changeable infrastructure undermines one of its primary benefits: preserving configuration integrity across versions, deployments, and environments. As a consequence, version tracking becomes problematic.

Immutable infrastructure

The term immutable refers to the state of being permanent.

It's the opposite of mutable, which indicates that businesses can't change the infrastructure once deployed. Immutable infrastructure brings together and arranges components and resources to form a complete service or application. If IT teams need to alter the infrastructure, they don't have to upgrade the present infrastructure. Instead, they can replace it with a new one, that is, deploy a new infrastructure version.

This minimizes configuration drift and maintains consistency across several environments. Teams can simply manage and track multiple infrastructure versions and roll back to a prior version, if necessary, with immutable infrastructure. Reissuing immutable services and components sets are more efficient and effective than patching and reconfiguring individual infrastructure components.

As a result, immutable infrastructure is more viable and practical, bolstering all of the benefits of IaC implementation. Cloud and microservices systems have embraced immutable infrastructure, which is incredibly scalable and contains many more interconnected components and services.

Infrastructure as code methods 

After deciding what type of infrastructure to build, it's also critical for IT teams to determine the approach to building infrastructure automation with the help of an IaC solution. There are traditionally two approaches to IaC: declarative and imperative.

Declarative approach

A declarative approach defines the desired, intended condition of the infrastructure, but it doesn't go into detail about how to get there. For example, you wish to create a virtual machine (VM),  install and configure the related software, resolve system and program interdependencies, and handle software versioning. All you have to do now is define the intended state of the final infrastructure you'll be setting up and provisioning, with the IaC taking care of the rest. 

The sole disadvantage of this technique is that it necessitates a trained, professional administrator with experience in setting up and maintaining such infrastructure. Declarative programming languages such as SQL are used for creating templates in the declarative style of infrastructure as code.

Imperative approach

An imperative approach defines the precise commands required that enable the business infrastructure to reach its intended state. It makes use of automation scripts to set up and provide the necessary infrastructure. This method complements your existing configuration scripts, making it easy for your present IT teams to grasp the process and implement IaC.

The main problem here is that this may get pretty complex, and teams may need to handle more work with this technique in instances where scaling is required. Object-oriented programming languages such as C++ and Java are frequently used for imperative programming approaches.

Companies can configure IaC using a template in both approaches, with the user specifying the resources required for each server in the infrastructure.

Types of infrastructure as code tools

Infrastructure as code tools are a game-changer for infrastructure management. These tools help you create and manage the resources of your IT stack through code and templates. While this sounds complicated, these tools make provisioning new servers, storage, images, racks, and networking easier.

IaC tools use push or pull techniques to enforce the template's configuration. A centralized server transmits the desired configuration to a specified device or devices in the push approach. The pull technique is initiated by request to a centralized server from a device or devices in the infrastructure.

By default, the tools are set up for push or pull code deployment, but they may be configured for specific cases to perform the opposite. If an upgrade causes unforeseen difficulties, these tools should be able to roll back modifications to the code.

There are four main types of IaC tools that businesses can choose from.

1. Scripting tools

The most straightforward way to conduct IaC is to write scripts. Developers use scripting tools to create ad-hoc scripts that are ideal for carrying out basic, quick, or one-time activities. However, for more complicated installations, it's preferable to utilize a more specialized option.

2. Configuration management tools

Configuration management tools define server-level configurations to manage applications. These tools practice configuration as code (CaC) which requires users to manage configuration resources with source code.

Configuration management includes the following:

  • Managing the installation and removal of applications and dependencies
  • Configuring OS settings
  • User access and permissions configuration
  • Regulating changes in the app configuration files
  • Disk formatting and mounting
  • Setup and configuration of security compliance tools and settings (for example, setting up firewall policies for network configuration).
  • Creating scheduled jobs for repetitive tasks

Examples of configuration management tools are Chef, Puppet, and Ansible.

3. Infrastructure orchestration tools

Infrastructure orchestration tools focus on infrastructure provisioning. These tools hook into the APIs of cloud providers and physical hardware to create infrastructure or individual components.

Organizations can use these tools to define the following:

  • Instances of virtual machines (and their properties such as type, image, and location)
  • Configuration of the load balancer (routing, SSL)
  • Firewall policies
  • Network orchestration (internal and external IP addresses, VLAN, DNS records)
  • Service accounts and IAM (identity and access management)
  • Dashboards for monitoring and alerts

Examples of infrastructure orchestration tools are Terraform, AWS CloudFormation, and OpenStack.

4. Container orchestration tools

Container orchestration tools create templates or images that include all the libraries and components needed to execute an application. These help businesses deploy multiple containers for implementation within applications.

Containers are software packages that include all of the components required to execute in any environment. Containers virtualize the operating system in this way, allowing them to operate anywhere, from a private data center to the public cloud or even on a developer's system.

All dependencies and deployment concerns can be stated in code and operate on a generic platform supported by different cloud providers. Containerized workloads are simple to distribute and have far lower overhead than operating a full-size server. Examples of container orchestration tools are Docker, rkt, Vagrant, and Packer.

When choosing a tool, companies should think about where they want to deploy it. For example, AWS CloudFormation is designed to deploy and manage infrastructure on AWS and integrate with other AWS services. On the other hand, Chef works with on-premises servers as well as a variety of cloud provider infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) solutions.

Challenges of infrastructure as code

Infrastructure as code is the new hotness in DevOps. With the growth of DevOps, organizations are looking for more efficient ways to provision and manage their environments, where IaC is making its way to the main stage. 

The concept of being able to treat your infrastructure like code is promising in a way that it can help make your environment easier to deploy, manage, and update. But with any new technology or practice, there are always new challenges that one should be aware of.

Steep learning curve

Businesses will have difficulty executing an infrastructure as code architecture if their developers cannot comprehend IaC scripts. Whether these scripts use HashiCorp Configuration Language (HCL), ordinary Python, or Ruby, the issue isn't so much the language as the unique logic and rules they'll need to know.

If even a tiny portion of your engineering team is unfamiliar with the declarative approach or any other core IaC concepts, you'll almost certainly find bottlenecks throughout the system. Onboarding and scalability will be difficult if your system demands everyone to learn these scripts to deploy their code.

Configuration drift

Configuration drift occurs when someone makes configuration changes to the production environment without documenting it or assuring perfect parity between the staging and production environments. Once an architecture has been built using an IaC approach, IT teams should only maintain it via an automated, aligned, and compliant process.

Manual or external updates (even if only security patches) can cause configuration drift, leading to non-compliance or even service failure over time.

Feature lag

Infrastructure as code tools that are vendor agnostic typically lag behind feature releases. This is because vendors must keep their providers up to date to support all of the new cloud capabilities introduced at an increasing rate. As a result, businesses may be unable to use a new cloud function at times.

Benefits of infrastructure as code

Historically, provisioning infrastructure has been a time-consuming and expensive manual procedure. Infrastructure management has shifted from physical hardware in data centers to virtualization, containers, and cloud computing.

The number of infrastructure components has increased due to cloud computing. More apps are being delivered to production regularly, and infrastructure must be quickly spun up, scaled, and taken down. It becomes impossible to manage the magnitude of today's infrastructure without an IaC approach in place.

The concept essentially codifies everything about your infrastructure – from the hardware, the operating system, middleware applications, and software solutions.

Scalability

Infrastructure as code provides reliable environments in a timely and scalable manner. IT teams can eliminate manual environment configuration and guarantee consistency by expressing the desired state of their environments in code. IaC-based infrastructure deployments are repeatable and avoid runtime problems caused by configuration drift or missing dependencies. 

IaC precisely standardizes infrastructure configuration, reducing the likelihood of any mistakes or deviations.

Reduction in shadow IT

IT systems and software that are implemented and maintained without the knowledge or consent of IT leadership or stakeholders are referred to as shadow IT. The failure of IT departments to give adequate and fast solutions to operational areas, particularly around IT infrastructure and system upgrades, is the source of most shadow IT within businesses. 

Shadow IT offers major security threats as well as the possibility of unanticipated expenses for the company. Using IaC aided deployment to enable a quick reaction to new IT requirements ensures greater security and compliance with organizational IT standards, as well as aiding budgeting and cost allocation.

Reduction in cost

IaC enables quicker infrastructure configuration and seeks to provide visibility to let other teams operate more quickly and effectively throughout the organization. It frees up costly resources to focus on higher-value tasks.

Nothing endures but change

Infrastructure as code is a crucial component of the DevOps revolution. If you consider cloud computing the first step toward resolving many of the issues caused by manual IT administration, then IaC is the next logical step.

It realizes the full potential of cloud computing and frees developers and other professionals from tedious, error-prone processes. Consequently, it reduces expenses and increases efficiency across the software development lifecycle.

Are you looking to apply infrastructure as code to your network? Learn how network automation can streamline and improve the efficiency of network operations.

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Mechanization best serves mediocrity

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Network automation software
Mechanization best serves mediocrity

Discover the best network automation software for managing large networks with little to no manual involvement.

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