Infrastructure as Code DevOps principle: meaning, benefits, use cases

Do you notice monthly, semi-monthly or even weekly and daily app updates of your favorite messengers, Facebook or Instagram? No, we are used to it and accept it for a fact. But merely 7- 8 years ago Microsoft Office was updated only once or twice a year, and many enterprise products like Oracle DB still receive only one or two new versions a year. How so?

Legacy software development process used to be pretty straightforward, following the Waterfall model. The developer wrote the code and issued a ticket for a QA engineer to test it. If the needed testing environment was already available, the QA specialist could start working immediately. Otherwise, he had to forward the request to an Ops engineer, who would have to provision and configure the testing server.

Meanwhile, the developer was working on another piece of code, and QA was doing some other tasks. When the testing environment was ready, the QA engineer could begin testing the new code, and if some bugs were found — he had to “throw the code back over the wall” for the developer to fix it. Once the developer thought the bugs were fixed, he had to submit the code for testing and the cycle started again. Once the bugs were fixed indeed, the code passed to the Ops engineers for preparing the release into production, and there the real nightmare started, as the development and testing environments were quite often different from the conditions in production systems, which had lead to multiple post-release crashes and downtime, which was damaging the brands and revenue of the companies.

This resulted in uneven and unpredictable pace of software development, where delivering even minor bug fixes took weeks, and major features were released only once or twice a year. This nightmare of enterprise code development is described in reviews of Oracle DB development and Salesforce development. Most of the IT industry companies have moved away from this vicious circle already, which is the reason for daily in-app updates we enjoy today. Infrastructure as Code and DevOps transformation made it possible, and today we explore this topic at length, to help you understand the meaning of IaC, its benefits for business and its use cases.

What is DevOps in general?

DevOps is the modern methodology of software delivery and infrastructure management, based on the culture of collaboration and communication. It is aimed at granular and steady improvement of all aspects of software delivery life cycle (SDLC), while ensuring uninterrupted product availability and predictable development of new features.

DevOps software delivery is quite different to the system described above. It is a practical implementation of Agile principles of quick iterative planning, working in short sprints and delivering quality code on time. Instead of “throwing the code over the wall”, DevOps teams work under a motto of “you made it, you run it”. Prior to writing a code, a developer consults with a DevOps engineer to discuss the future app architecture, with scalability, security and performance in production in mind. Then the developer writes a codebase of automated unit tests, reducing the time needed to test the future code greatly. The QA is then left with the task of high-level testing, and the DevOps engineer begins providing the infrastructure and workflows required to enable the process of software development. As a result, the code development becomes much simpler, more straightforward, quick and predictable.

DevOps methodology is based on one huge and very important difference — DevOps engineers don’t configure single bare metal or virtual servers on-prem or in dedicated data centers. This solves the decades-old challenge, where you must have an idle slave server running just in case your master server fails or can’t handle the load (and you actually need a third server to act as a load balancer for these two). Thus said, Waterfall software delivery model involved multiple challenges and time expenditure on physical server installation and configuration.

Instead, DevOps engineers operate public or private cloud infrastructures, where the hardware resources are combined into a common pool and can be quickly provisioned or freed up on request. This ensures simple scalability and cost-efficiency of cloud operations, as there are never insufficient or excessive resources used. You pay as you go (PAYG), and pay only for the resources actually consumed, as if the instance is not needed, it is shut down, minimizing your bills.

DevOps principles: Infrastructure as Code, Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery

This is possible due to three major DevOps principles: IaC, CI, and CD.

  1. Infrastructure as Code is the practice of describing all software runtime environment and networking settings and parameters in simple textual format, that can be stored in your Version Control System (VCS) and versioned on request. These text files are called manifests and are used by DevOps tools like Terraform and Kubernetes to automatically provision and configure build servers, testing, staging and production environments.
    Most importantly, all these operations are traceable through the VCS, which ensures the removal of decades-old “works fine on my computer” problem, where the code that worked in testing does not work in production. IaC ensures continuity, as all the environments are provisioned and configured automatically, with no room for human error, which greatly speeds up and simplifies the software development and infrastructure operations.
  2. Continuous Integration is another huge difference from the Waterfall model. Instead of working on new features in separate Git branches and merging them before release, all the developers always work on the same project trunk and integrate their code into it immediately after passing the tests. This way, every new successfully tested code commit becomes essentially a new product version and is ready for release.
    This allows the technology giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft update their products and offers nearly instantly, sometimes hundreds times a day. But this technology is not exclusive to the industry leaders, and any company can use the tools like Gitlab CI, CircleCI, Jenkins, Ansible or AWS Pipeline — if they have the required expertise at hand. CI shortens the time-to-market dramatically, sometimes speeding it up by more than 80%, as compared to Waterfall development. CI is based on IaC, as only due to rapid provisioning and configuration of the required environments the developers are able to produce and test code quickly and integrate it in the main project trunk successfully, without ever jeopardizing the product performance or delivery roadmaps.
  3. Continuous Delivery is the form of workflow implementation, where the output of the previous stage of software development life cycle becomes the input of the next stage automatically, based on scripts and tooling features. Thus said, when the developers commit a new batch of code, this action automatically spans a new build instance, where a new app version begins to pass the unit and integration tests. If the tests are successful, the new code version moves to the staging server, where the QA engineer performs the high-level testing — regression, functional, user acceptance and other methods.
    If the staging server tests are successful, the new product version is deployed to production systems using the practice of rolling updates or in-app updates, without ever interrupting the product availability, so the end-user experience is strictly positive. This is done using CircleCI, Jenkins, Ansible, AWS Pipeline, Google App Engine or any other cloud-specific or open-source tools fitting the requirements of your project. CD is based on IaC and CI, as these tools and approaches allow configuring so-called “CI/CD pipelines”, namely the fully-automated processes of rapidly deploying and configuring all the environments required to move the code from the commit to release to production.

IaC and CI/CD pipelines are not specific to software development only. Automation of routine cloud infrastructure management tasks is essential in decreasing the workload of DevOps engineers and is very instrumental in the process of constantly improving all aspects of your IT operations — which is the goal of DevOps culture as a whole.

IaC benefits for your business

There are multiple benefits to conducting operations based on IaC principle.

  1. Immutable infrastructure. As all the environments are provisioned using automated manifests and CI/CD pipelines, there is no room for human error, This ensures system uniformity throughout the whole delivery process and removes the risk of configuration drift — a situation where different servers develop different configurations and software versions due to manual updates performed at various occasions over time.
  2. Deployment speed. DevOps tools working with virtualized infrastructure provide immense increase in environment provisioning and configuration speed. We are not talking about 30% here, we are talking about shortening the server delivery time from hours to seconds…
  3. Change management. Due to versioning the manifests and using identical environments throughout the whole software development process, it is easy to configure exactly the needed environment. This is crucial in speeding up bug fixing, which helps ensure quality and security of the resulting code.
  4. High scalability. When using Terraform and Kubernetes manifests and working with virtualized cloud resources, additional app instances can be provisioned with ease and in literally no time. They can also be freed up as soon as they are not needed, ensuring unparalleled cost-efficiency.
  5. Shorter feedback loops. Due to being able to deploy infrastructure rapidly, your developers will be able to develop new features more quickly in response to customer feedback. And when a customer feedback turns into a new feature in a couple of weeks, not a year — customer satisfaction skyrockets through the roof!

Here is what Sam Guckenheimer from Microsoft Azure DevOps team has to say on IaC benefits:

Teams that implement IaC deliver faster, more predictable and at scale. They can represent the desired states of their environments in code, while avoiding configuration drift and incorrect dependencies. IaC approach ensures repeatable deployments and DevOps teams receive a unified set of tools to help them deploy quicker, error-proof and at large scale.

Use cases of IaC in real life projects

There are three major cases where IaC approach can be applied: software development, infrastructure management and cloud monitoring.

  • We described the usefulness of IaC approach for software development life cycle above. When the environments are uniform across the whole cycle, the chances of bugs arising are much lower, as well as the time required for deployment and configuration of all the required environments. Build, testing, staging and production environment deployments will be repeatable, predictable and error-free.
  • Cloud infrastructure management using IaC means that all actions that can be automated will be automated. In this case, multiple scenarios emerge, where provisioning and configuring the system components with Terraform and Kubernetes helps save time, money and effort. All kinds of tasks, from database backups to new feature releases can be done faster and better.
  • Finally, cloud monitoring, logging and alerting tools also need to run in some environments and deliver new system components. Solutions like ELK stack, FluentD, SumoLogic, Datadog, Prometheus + Grafana — all of these can be quickly provisioned and configured for your project using IaC best practices.

Final thoughts on Infrastructure as Code DevOps principle

IaC is an essential part of DevOps transformation, helping the software development and infrastructure management teams work in cohesive alliance to provide predictable, repeatable and reliable software delivery services. IF your company still has not implemented this approach — the time has come to update your IT operations!

The best way to obtain IaC expertise is not hiring it in-house or risking a vendor lock-in from cloud platform support engineers. The best way to implement IaC in your company is by hiring a dedicated team of experienced DevOps engineers from a reputable Managed Services Provider, like IT Svit. These professionals will help rebuild your infrastructure and workflows to get the most out of it and deliver DevOps transformation for your business. This way your IT operations team will be able to use the latest DevOps tools and greatly improve your competitive edge.

IT Svit is ready to assist your business with DevOps adoption and IaC implementation. This way you will be able to reap all the benefits mentioned above. Contact us and begin using Infrastructure as Code today!

DevOps & Big Data lover