Infrastructure as Code or IaC has not only created a fundamental shift in software engineering, but also changed the way Ops teams look at the provisioning and maintenance of infrastructure. Though IaC has been widely accepted as the industry standard over the past few years, many still don't understand its definition, advantages, and limitations completely.
This blog attempts to clear the confusion by walking you through the origins of IaC, giving you an overview of its benefits, limitations, and future.
Evolution from Physical Purchase to the Cloud
There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when people had to physically purchase their servers and machines. This new server would take weeks to arrive, with the configuration of an operating system taking a few more days. After installation, the operating system would only be available for developers to use a few days later.
With the world advancing towards distributed applications, there was no way this traditional system would work. While the advent of cloud computing and the ability to effortlessly develop new Virtual Machine (VM) instances did provide great benefits for businesses, it also got organizations looking at a constantly increasing portfolio of servers.
This went on to increase the infrastructure footprint of engineering organizations. It also allowed large machines to replace smaller instances. The question faced by organizations was about how this setup could be optimized to make it robust without being prone to human error.
The Birth of Infrastructure as Code
Infrastructure as Code approaches infrastructure automation deriving from software development practices. It uses consistent, repeatable procedures for provisioning and changing systems and their configurations.
While system administrators have been using infrastructure automation to manage their infrastructure right from the 1990s, IaC didn't really take full shape until the end of the 2000s.
Virtualization and cloud, most notably Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) accelerated the need for automation. The necessity to keep a constantly growing number of servers up to date in order to avoid Configuration Drift gave birth to a range of new tools, including IaC.
Evolution of IaC
CFEngine, Puppet, Chef, SaltStack and Ansible established a new category of IT infrastructure automation tool that nimble organizations quickly took advantage of. These organizations, whose IT was built mainly around Agile and Lean mindsets, evolved IaC practices for better automated infrastructure management.
IaC also started replacing the traditional manual provisioning of infrastructure through admin consoles or Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs). So, instead of manually clicking buttons and going through various displays to deploy infrastructure, administrators started adopting a codified approach.
IaC, with its constant evolution, has brought about a lot of key benefits over the years:
Advantages of IaC
Due to their constant striving for improvement, IaC tools have kept innovating their infrastructure automation tools to generate greater customer value. Here are some key benefits that teams using IaC can experience:
Speed and lower costs: IaC allows for faster execution when the infrastructure is configured. It also aims to provide greater visibility to help other teams across the enterprise work quickly and effectively. This gives their resources more time to work on value-added activities.
Scalability and standardization: It provides stable environments rapidly and at scale. This lets you avoid the manual configuration of environments to ensure higher consistency. IaC's infrastructure deployments are repeatable. They can prevent run-time issues caused by configuration drift or missing dependencies. IaC standardizes the infrastructure setup and also reduces the possibility of errors.
Security and documentation: When all computing, storage, and networking services are provisioned with code, they also get quickly deployed the same way. This ensures that IT infrastructure automation security standards are consistently enforced across companies. IaC allows every change to the server configuration to be easily documented, tracked, and logged through version-controlled code.
Disaster recovery: Recovery of digital assets has become extremely important in the age of frequent cyberattacks, with IaC efficiently tracking your infrastructure and redeploying it in its previously healthy state when there's been a disruption or disaster.
Disadvantages of IaC
While introducing IaC as an approach for automated infrastructure management can give you a crucial competitive edge, it also has certain limitations. Here are a few key disadvantages:
Conventions and logic: Your developers need to understand IaC scripts fully. Irrespective of whether they are written in HashiCorp Configuration Language (HCL) or plain Python or Ruby, they need to be confident in applying the logic and conventions. Even if a small part of the engineering team is unfamiliar with the declarative approach or other core IaC concepts, it could become a bottleneck. If everybody in the team needs to understand these scripts but doesn't, onboarding and rapid scaling can be challenging.
Traceability and maintenance: While IaC gives you a great way to track changes to infrastructure and monitoring of the infrastructure drift, maintaining your IaC setup becomes a challenge once it crosses a certain scale. When IaC is used throughout the organization by multiple teams, the traceability and versioning of these configurations become complex.
Role-Based Access Control (RBAC): Access Management can also become a challenge. Setting up roles and permissions across different parts of your organization that have recent access to scripts can be quite demanding.
Feature lag: IaC tooling that is vendor-agnostic, such as Terraform, often lags behind vendor feature releases. This could be due to tool vendors having to update providers to fully cover the latest cloud features. It will be tough to leverage a new cloud feature unless you extend functionalities, wait for your vendor to provide coverage, or introduce new dependencies.
What does the future hold for the constantly evolving infrastructure automation market?
The IaC market has been in a state of constant evolution with new solutions to emerging challenges being experimented with.
While a couple of years ago, the debate was between using CloudFormation and Terraform for IaC, with CloudFormation being the first choice, the choice a year ago was between CloudFormation and Terraform, with Terraform being the first choice.
It has become clear that engineers will prefer a multi-vendor, open-source and open-approach IaC framework with a vast third-party ecosystem like Terraform.
This means that more organizations will move more towards code than GUI, using several layers of code through IaC. The future will be more about managing code in order to improve the efficiency of developers while at the same time creating strong policies for your organization.
When it comes to infrastructure management, one of the main benefits of IaC will be the ability to create and reuse parts of the defined infrastructure. For instance, Terraform can use different modules to encapsulate logically connected components into a single entity and customize them using the same input variables that you have defined. When you use these modules to define your infrastructure at a high level, it becomes far easier to separate the development, staging, and production environments just by passing different values to the same modules. This minimizes code duplication, maximizes conciseness and lets you automate extensive workflows through reusable IaC.
At InspiriSYS, we have moved beyond the traditional DevOps framework to a far more holistic approach through IaC, allowing your business to make seamless and rapid changes to the existing infrastructure. We have nearly three decades of expertise in providing advanced solutions which can automate every stage of your IT infrastructure, end-to-end. Our popular IT infrastructure automation solutions will let you kickstart your business journey successfully. Get in touch with us for the best-in-class IaC solutions.