What Is Infrastructure As Code? Everything you need to know

| Author , tagged in Technical Articles, DevOps, data, reliability, managed services, technology
Cloudticity, L.L.C.

A major development in software development and IT operations has been the growth of the “DevOps” culture. This methodology seeks to combine the disciplines of development and operations. The result: shortened development cycles and a high level of software quality.

One of the processes that’s associated with DevOps culture is “Infrastructure as Code” or IaC. So what exactly is this concept? What processes does it dictate, and what are some of the advantages? In this article, we’ll explore what makes this an imperative approach to software development and IT.

Why Was Infrastructure As Code Developed?

Before the development of the IaC methodology, the configuration of servers was a completely manual process. This means that many IT professionals would be required to set up servers physically. A long configuration and testing process would follow, and then applications could be deployed.

This resulted in several problems. One is the requirement of a large and expensive pool of IT talent to do the work and manage the projects. As the size and number of servers scale, so does the cost. Companies building data centers faced massive costs in configuration.

Another issue is the problem of inconsistency when it comes to configuration. As the team size scales, so does the likelihood of conflicts between configuration instructions. The larger the team gets, the more difficult it is to ensure everyone is on the same page. Even minor discrepancies have huge impacts on availability. 

This is where Infrastructure as Code comes into play. By making the configuration instructions part of a singular code file, it can be easily automated, distributed, and changed.

It nearly eliminates the chance of human error stemming from large numbers of people trying to perform the same task simultaneously. With IaC, the collaboration results in one set of instructions, rather than a copy of a copy.

IaC: Definition of Infrastructure As Code

Infrastructure as Code is very simply a methodology of DevOps where provisioning takes place using machine-readable definition files.

The driving force behind Infrastructure as Code is called continuous delivery. This means that operations and developer teams (DevOps) work together with the same consistent set of practices. They use the same toolkit to deliver applications and then be able to scale the infrastructure both rapidly and reliably.

It uses a descriptive model for versioning and deploys infrastructure in the form of virtual machines, networks, and load balancers in the same way each time. There are three steps that form the basic model for how Infrastructure As Code works.

  • Developers utilize domain-specific language to write out the desired configuration state in the form of a file.
  • The configuration file is transferred to a server, code repository or API.
  • The file is executed, and the system determines how to configure itself according to the instructions.

There are four classes of IaC:

  • Scripts. This is a direct approach to executing tasks.
  • Configuration management tools: focused on server installation and configuration.
  • Provisioning tools: lead to the creation of infrastructure.
  • Templating tools: generate pre-loaded templates with the required libraries for running an application.

Let’s now take a look at some of the unique approaches that are part of Infrastructure as Code.

Two IaC Approaches: Declarative vs. Imperative

To make full use of Infrastructure As Code, using declarative definition files is essential. This describes the configuration of production environments without saying exactly how to get there. It’s also known as the functional approach. The focus is on “What is the desired system state” rather than “How should the desired system state be achieved” 

One benefit of the declarative approach is that the amount of flexibility for developers is increased. They can use whatever optimized techniques work well in the particular situation they’re designing. In fact, there isn’t a standard syntax for declarative IaC. People usually use YAML, JSON, and XML as file formats, however.

The Imperative or procedural approach can take advantage of scripts you already have. Automation scripts provision infrastructure on a step-by-step basis. It is harder to scale, but it’s easier for many IT operations teams to understand.

The Two Methods of Infrastructure as Code: Push and Pull

IaC is a highly flexible way of defining infrastructure. Depending on what developers desire, the configuration files can either be pushed to the servers; or pulled from a central server. Each of these has its own distinct advantages. 

For the Push method of IaC, one benefit is version control. Because the newest declarative configuration files are pushed to the servers, they supersede any earlier instructions. With the Pull method, the advantage is that the same scripts can be used on multiple servers.

The pull method tends to be a bit more popular because tracking changes can be easier. It’s also better for automation in multiple environments.

Another step in the deployment process, provisioning can also take advantage of either a push or pull approach. For example, utilizing the pull technique, a provisioning server is set up. The target host will call the provisioning server to get the artifacts and applications needed for installation.

With the push approach to provisioning, the approach is slightly different. The provisioning server will push its set of artifacts and applications onto a virtual machine on the target host computer.

Benefits of IaC

When it comes to DevOps practices, it’s now clearly evident that the IaC approach is the best one for infrastructure configuration. This is due to the ability to:

  • Store infrastructure components in a central repository like GitHub or Azure Repose, leading to increased collaboration and versioning.
  • Be scaled rapidly and accurately
  • Increase overall productivity.

The benefits of Infrastructure as Code don’t end there. Here are a few more of the reasons that DevOps teams are moving away from manual processes, and towards infrastructure automation through IaC.

Immutable Infrastructure

The infrastructure provisioning of IaC can’t be changed once it's deployed. While this may sound like a disadvantage, it’s actually the opposite. This nearly eliminates all forms of drift. Tracking versions is incredibly easy, and enables users to roll back changes as necessary.

Avoiding Configuration Drift

Configuration drift, also known as environment drift, is crucial to infrastructure management. This occurs because configuration management is extremely difficult in multi-environment situations. Each environment might start with the same configurations. 

Over time, however, as operations teams make changes in one, they might not make changes to the other. This results in drift. The more complex the target environment, the more difficult it becomes to be aware of these small differences, which can have a major impact.

The key in using Infrastructure as Code is automating these configuration efforts. Deployment issues can be entirely avoided when the configuration processes are automated. The utilization of formats like JSON is also highly desirable due to their quality and amount of available support.

The use of extensive automation, which is a pillar of Infrastructure as Code, is one of the huge benefits of this methodology. It avoids the use of manual configuration, which is where most instances of drift occur.

Idempotence

Another benefit of Infrastructure as Code is the concept of idempotence, which is the ability of an operation to always lead to the same result. This results in deployment on the target environment consistently regardless of starting state. 

Speed of Setup

Configuring servers using IaC is as simple as running a script. The difference in speed between using Infrastructure as Code and manual configuration processes is dramatic. This increase in speed means the software development and deployment lifecycle is shortened by an impressive amount.

Heightened Efficiency

There are several points along the software development cycle that can see improved efficiency using IaC. First, during the creation phase, “sandbox” environments can be quickly launched, allowing for easy testing of new features.

Then, the quality assurance utilizes the same IaC methods to perform thorough tests. Finally, the deployment couldn’t be easier with just a single step of pushing the configuration file to the servers.

Cost Savings

We’ve already discussed the need for a massive team to manually configure even a small amount of servers or cloud platforms. A reduction in team size leads to lower costs. You can also free up some of the talent to perform tasks that are more beneficial to the organization.

Increases in Accountability

Since version control is easy and obvious with an IaC approach, it makes knowing who was responsible for changes, and exactly what changes were made a fairly easy task. Additionally, rolling back versions becomes a simple task.

Can Infrastructure As Code be Deployed on Microsoft Azure or AWS Services?

One of the most frequently asked questions about Infrastructure as Code is whether or not it can be deployed in multiple cloud environments from popular vendors such as Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform, or Amazon Web Services (AWS). Here’s how IaC can work on all of these major cloud platforms:

Azure

The great news is that support for IaC is native to Azure. It utilizes the Azure Resource Manager model. Whether you are using Terraform, Ansible, Chef, or Pulumi, you can manage any automated cloud infrastructure.

AWS

Amazon Web Services provides its own AWS CloudFormation tool that allows for continuous integration and delivery through IaC. All the other features, like S3 buckets, AWS SQS, and ElastiCache, make deployment of Infrastructure as Code on AWS a breeze.

Google Cloud Platform

GCP comes with integrated Infrastructure as Code tools. You can build automated environments and processes using native and third-party tools like some of the ones listed below. One of the best things about using IaC on GCP is that it’s relatively simple to deploy and update. It also lends itself to high levels of scalability.

IaC Tools

There are dozens of different tools that work with Infrastructure as Code that help support modern application development. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular IaC tools that development teams are using to manage infrastructure on multiple cloud platforms. delve deeper into the world of IaC tooling.

Azure Resource Manager

As stated above, this is native to Azure, so it can support all services that run in that cloud computing environment. Simplicity is one of the hallmarks of ARM. It allows infrastructure code to be deployed and managed in one easy-to-view group, rather than a patchwork of individual resources.

The use of native Role Based Access Control (RBAC) is at the core of being able to utilize declarative templates. Most IT Pros view this as preferable to the use of scripts.

Terraform Cloud

Terraform was created by HashiCorp. It has a high level of compatibility with different cloud providers such as Google Cloud, AWS, and Azure. It allows for the use of duplicate configurations across multiple environments. This greatly cuts down on the chance for error, and is a big time saver as well.

While Terraform doesn't have configuration management capability, it can work with configuration management tools. 

AWS CloudFormation

Modeling and provisioning through a common language is where CloudFormation really shines. When the resources are provisioned using a repeatable process, it eliminates the need for manually prepared scripts or actions.

This cuts down on human error and allows for easy building and rebuilding of applications and infrastructure.

CFEngine

When IT Infrastructure calls for automated deployment, CFEngine is a great choice. Its autonomous agents can easily monitor nodes, no matter the number, to ensure they are in the desired state. It has both open-source and commercial versions. 

Chef Effortless Infrastructure Suite

This Infrastructure as Code tool specializes in finding any issue in the pre-production environment. It works well in situations where compliance visibility is a high priority.

As an open source Infrastructure as Code tool, it works on whatever platform your DevOps team is using, whether it’s Windows, AWS, Linux, Azure, or Google Cloud Platform.

Not surprisingly, Chef uses “recipes” and “cookbooks” as its deployment and configuration templates. While it is a great tool, it does come at a cost. First, it requires a dedicated environment, so there’s some complexity in installation.

It also requires the use of the Ruby programming language, so the IT team will have to be proficient in its use.

Rex

This is an open-source tool with data center automation simplification as its primary aim. It’s relatively easy for IT professionals to learn, as it uses the Perl language.

Vagrant

The ability to work on multiple platforms on a developer’s preferred choice of editor is a huge plus with Vagrant. All of the development information is included in a declarative configuration file, which is a huge plus.

SaltStack

Based on the easy-to-learn language Python, this open-source tool is a great choice for resource provisioning in certain circumstances. It supports both declarative and procedural definitions, making it flexible for different environmental setups. It utilizes remote SSH connections, and the use of an agent to support operations.

Google Cloud Deployment Manager

This tool utilizes simple, easy-to-use templates to deploy infrastructure.  It takes a declarative approach, which takes advantage of the system design, allowing it to achieve the desired state.

Ansible

Sponsored by Red Hat, this open-source project helps to automate provisioning. It creates playbooks through declarative automation. These playbooks are written in the YAML configuration language, and specify the desired state. The provisioning is then accomplished automatically.

Bicep

Another Azure native tool, Bicep uses Domain Specific Language to provide for declarative deployment of resources. One of the huge benefits of Bicep is the reduction of the syntax required, making coding much easier.

Pulumi

Language versatility is what sets Pulumi apart. It supports:

  • TypeScript
  • JavaScript
  • Python
  • Go
  • C#

This puts your developers in control as they can write templates in the languages that they know best. They can then utilize testing tools native to whatever language they select. This cuts down on any chance of human error.

The other benefit of Pulumi is the ability to convert templates made using other tools like ARM or Terraform into the Pulumi format.

JUJU

This deployment tool allows for the bundling of scripts, which can be deployed to servers much quicker than an individual approach. It works with both public and private clouds. Monitoring is also made quite easy through their secure dashboard.

Puppet

When the ability to scale to deploy large infrastructure is necessary, Puppet can be a great choice as an Infrastructure as Code tool. It also has great support and reporting capabilities. It utilizes Puppet Domain Specific Language. Like Chef, it requires its own infrastructure, so there is a bit more difficulty in installation.

Otter

This DevOps tool makes continuous monitoring of servers to detect any drift is Otter’s specialty. It can then take remediation actions that will correct drift. It also allows for setting multiple types of permissions which helps to maintain compliance where security is essential.

SpectralOps

While this tool can be used in both IaC and non-IaC environments, it’s primarily aimed at tightening security. It uses what it calls a “secret scanner” to detect leaks that can lead to data breaches.

Infrastructure as Code is Rapidly Becoming an IT Best Practice

The movement towards DevOps thinking has been one of the most revolutionary steps in the evolution of IT. With it, concepts like Infrastructure as Code lead to lower costs, higher reliability, and availability.

With the huge amount of native and third-party tools available, moving towards an IaC approach is something that nearly every organization should consider.

Infrastructure as Code for Healthcare Companies

For healthcare organizations and business associates, IaC practices are helping IT departments be more innovative, improve security, and accelerate time to market. If you want to learn more about how Cloudticity can help you implement IaC learn about our DevSecOps Automation Services. Download the solution brief to learn more. Or schedule a free consultation to learn about IaC for Healthcare.

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