(Estimated reading time: 10 minutes)

Infrastructure as Code (IaC) – An Introduction

Are you looking for a software solution that manages networks, virtual machines, load balancers, and connection topology? Does your operations team is looking for a cloud solution for software-defined infrastructure?

In IT practices as we use DevOps to utilize the source code, infrastructure as code (IaC) is used to automate the provisioning of infrastructure. It enables your organization to develop, deploy, and scale cloud applications with greater speed, less risk, and reduced cost.

The concept is similar to programming scripts. However, scripts are primarily used to automate a series of static steps that are repeated numerous times across multiple servers. 

This post discusses the concept of Infrastructure as code, its use, and the scope of IaC in the future

What is Infrastructure as Code?

Infrastructure as a code is a higher-level or descriptive language to code more versatile and adaptive provisioning and deployment processes. For example, for IT management and configuration, you can install a MySQL server, verify that MySQL is running properly, create a user account and password, set up a new database and remove unneeded databases.

Infrastructure as Code (IaC)
More clearly, infrastructure as code is defined as:

  • Allows infrastructure to be easily integrated into version control mechanisms to create trackable and auditable infrastructure changes.
  • Provides the ability to introduce extensive automation for infrastructure management. All these things lead to IaC being integrated into CI/CD pipelines as an integral part of the SDLC.
  • Eliminates the need for manual infrastructure provisioning and management. Thus, it allows users to easily manage the inevitable config drift of underlying infrastructure and configurations and keep all the environments within the defined configuration.

What is the need for IaC?

Once upon a time, when a business wanted to run the software, its only option was to order some physical equipment and internet access from a network provider. These data centers had to request the networking companies weeks or months in advance, and then manually provision them on-site. This required a physical location with cooling systems and countless hours to perform installations and maintenance operations.

But then, public data centers came along that could manage the servers of other businesses. Some big giants started server services by maintaining public data centers. That justified the need for a setup like IaC.

With this setup, you will :

  • No need for dedicated and costly server rooms.
  • Will potentially lower lead time for common servers and networking items.
  • Physical management of servers/equipment handled by the data center provider.
  • Freeing up valuable resources.

Once the cloud setup became accessible with the help of APIs, the trend of handling provisioning and management of resources with the help of scripts and automated tools became prevalent. So now, once the physical equipment is installed in a cloud or virtual setup, and rest all the processes are automated, including the provisioning of all virtual hardware resources.

With IaC, the provisioning and configuration of resources are described in scripts, which are read by tools that communicate with the public cloud API to make sure reality matches the desired state.

What Problem Does IaC Solve?

The IaC as of date addresses the following issues:

  • The cost and hassles of maintaining individual physical resources are drastically reduced.
  • Speed, scalability, and configuration issues are maintained by the service providers.
  • Monitoring for detecting viruses and threats and fixing privacy issues are easily handled as the infrastructure is equipped with advanced software scripts.
  • While we maintain individual setup, there is inconsistency, and unavoidable discrepancies thus transferring data and applications becomes difficult.

Benefits of Infrastructure as Code

Virtualization and cloud-native development eliminate the problem of physical hardware management, enabling virtual servers or containers on demand.

But some developers like to still code by themselves. But as offers, a cutting edge enables versioned infrastructure with numerous benefits.

  • Faster time to production/market:

IaC provides faster operations as the infrastructure is already maintained. To access it, you need to run pre-executed scripts. The only process you need to maintain is faster ticketing to speed up the operation.

  • Eliminates Time-Consuming, Routine Work

Mismatch of the hardware and software is always a critical issue when it comes to the deployment of applications. This raises the risk of vulnerabilities and security threats. IaC prevents drift by provisioning the same environment every time.

  • Friendly and efficient development:

It is noticed that the SDLC time is reduced with the implementation of IaC. Sandboxes and integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD) environments have provided a way to run standard and tested software. The testing environment saves time and thus helps in completing the software cycles in a faster and more effective way.

  • Protection against churn:

IaC maximizes efficiency and dependency on infrastructure. If one employee leaves the organization, it will hardly affect efficiency. This independence helps the employees to work freely without taking the tension of maintaining the server setups. Also, it reduces the work of IT administrators.

Cloud Computing: as a Solution to IaC

Cloud solutions are a well-accepted platform for most of the development work. The concept of maintaining containers and adapting to virtual coding styles is much easier than implementing and executing the individual code. Cloud solutions have moved ahead by providing IaC solutions. All you need to do is to balance the pros and cons according to your context when selecting one of the IaC styles. Some of the things you should consider are:

  • Choose The Correct Tools
  • Use Version Control
  • Avoid Manual Infrastructure Changes
  • Test Your Infrastructure-as-Code Templates
  • Be Cautious With Sensitive Variables and Parameters
  • Write Precise Code Rather Than Documentation
  • Write Modular Configuration Files

What are the key challenges for IaC?

It is a fact that  IaC adds a lot of value to the IT environment but there are a few challenges that can not be overlooked. Remember to account for your unique IT situations that might make the following more or less relevant (like organization size, state, and your technology adoption lifecycle). To utilize the IaC environment to its full capacity, you need to avoid the following challenges:

  • Minimize Coding language dependency:

Some of the popular languages used in IaC are JSON, HashiCorp Configuration Languages (HCL), YAML, Ruby, etc. The shortage of these skill sets can hamper your IaC usage potential. Also, is your strategy to move away from development and make things serverless? Think of the strategic direction in which you are heading before you jump into IaC.

  • Security assessment processes:

When you are about to make a shift to a new environment, you have to do manual security checking of the existing security setup. In most cases, you need to match up with the high-end security setup used in IaC. There is a need to take extra steps to ensure you’re establishing guardrails for complete governance.

  • IaC monitoring and synchronization:

Additional tools are required to monitor the smooth working and track the provisioning with the additional setup. This might increase the initial cost but in the long run, it is going to be beneficial if you deploy proper syncing methods using appropriate licensed tools

What are the types of Infrastructure as Code?

 As we require to run different types of applications with and various types of software configurations, we have the options to select among the types of infrastructure as code services:

# Depending on the Tools Used:

  • Declarative Infrastructure as Code

A declarative approach requires only the end requirement of the user. The setup itself suggests the specific tools or platforms meet the requirement. The declarative approach is preferred in most infrastructure management use cases as it offers a greater degree of flexibility when managing infrastructure. Some of the tools used are Terraform, Pulumi, CloudFormation, ART, and Puppet.

  • Imperative Infrastructure as Code

An imperative approach allows the developers to define the steps to deploy changes. The system does not deviate from the specified steps. Chef is considered an imperative tool. Uniquely, Ansible is mostly declarative with support for imperative commands.

# As per the infrastructure setup:

  • Mutable infrastructure

Mutable infrastructure is the infrastructure that can be modified or updated after it is originally provisioned. Mutable infrastructure gives development teams the flexibility to make ad hoc server customizations. It allows addressing running issues like security threats. But this type fails to utilize the key feature of IaC which is the ability to maintain consistency between deployments or within versions. It makes version monitoring tough.

  • Immutable infrastructure

Immutable infrastructure remains stable once originally provisioned. If immutable infrastructure needs to be changed, it has to be replaced with new infrastructure. Because new infrastructure can be spun up quickly on the cloud, especially with  IaC, this setup is more useful and feasible. The consistency is easily maintained between the test and deployment stages. It solves version monitoring issues as and when required.

How Does IaC Work effectively?

Choosing the types of IaC will serve as the basic requirement. At this point, it is to note that IaC is independent of languages but choosing the best suitable requirement will allow you to receive the best practices. Some of the IaC deployment strategies are :

  • Make code your single source of truth.
  • Version control all of your configuration files.
  • Use little documentation for your infrastructure specifications.
  • Test and Monitor Your Configurations.

How does IaC differ from infrastructure as a service (IaaS)?

Importantly, the IaC concept is not a derivative of infrastructure as a service (IaaS).

Infrastructure as a Service is one of the core cloud services that allows the virtualization of resources. such as servers, networking infrastructure, storage, etc

Infrastructure as Code is a tool that can be used to provision and manage infrastructure. It is not limited to only cloud-based resources. You apply IaC to a wide variety of environments, including on-premises.

Infrastructure as Code tools & platforms

While many open-source IaC tools are available, some of the most commonly adopted tools are:

Terraform by HashiCorp is the leading IaC tool to manage cloud-based infrastructure across various platforms from AWS, Azure, GCP to Oracle Cloud, Alibaba Cloud, and even platforms like Kubernetes and Heroku.

As a platform-agnostic tool, Terraform is used to facilitate infrastructure provisioning and management use cases across different platforms. It ensures the desired state across the configurations.

Ansible is an open-source configuration management tool with IaC capabilities. It is not specifically designed for IaC but supports both cloud and on-prem environments. It can act through SSH or WinRM as an agentless tool. Ansible excels at configuration management and infrastructure provisioning. However, it has limited management capabilities.

Pulumi is one of the latest tools to provide a developer-first IaC experience. Pulumi offers the freedom to use any supported programming language as the developer requires. This tool supports Python, TypeScript, JavaScript, Go, C#, and F#, and the state is managed through the Pulumi service by default.

Chef and Puppet are two powerful configuration management tools. Both aim to provide configuration management and automation capabilities with some infrastructure management capabilities across the development pipeline. Chef is developed to deploy DevOps practices with greater collaboration tools. Puppet evolved by targeting sheer process automation. Today, Puppet has automated built-in watchers to identify configuration drift.

CFEngine is another tool that solely focuses on configuration management. Even though there is no capability to manage the underlying infrastructure, CDEngine can accommodate even the most complex configuration requirements, covering everything from security hardening to compliance.

CloudFormation is the AWS proprietary platform-specific IaC tool to manage AWS infrastructure. CloudFormation has deep integration with all AWS services and can facilitate any AWS configuration as a first-party solution.

Microsoft Azure uses JSON-based Azure Resource Templates to facilitate IaC practices within the Azure platform. These resource templates ensure consistency of the infrastructure and can be used for any type of resource configuration.

In addition to the above, there are specialized tools aimed at specific infrastructure and configuration management tasks such as:

The future is to adopt quick, trackable infrastructure changes

Infrastructure as a Code offers one of the advanced techniques to deploy modern applications. You can leverage quick and trackable infrastructure changes that directly integrate into CI/CD platforms. Infrastructure as Code is crucial for both:

  • Facilitating scalable infrastructure management
  • Efficiently managing the config drift in all environments

Getting started with Infrastructure as Code may seem daunting with many different tools and platforms targeted at different use cases. However, with the planned strategy, you can cross this hurdle by building a  powerful infrastructure management mechanism.