What you need to know about infrastructure as code – and why now

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The new generation of infrastructure management technologies promises to transform the way we manage IT infrastructure. But many organisations today aren’t seeing any dramatic differences, and some are finding that these tools only make life messier. As we’ll see, infrastructure as code is an approach that provides principles, practices, and patterns for using these technologies effectively.

Why infrastructure as code?

Virtualisation, cloud, containers, server automation, and software-defined networking should simplify IT operations work. It should take less time and effort to provision, configure, update, and maintain services. Problems should be quickly detected and resolved, and systems should all be consistently configured and up to date. IT staff should spend less time on routine drudgery, having time to rapidly make changes and improvements to help their organizations meet the ever-changing needs of the modern world.

But even with the latest and best new tools and platforms, IT operations teams still find that they can’t keep up with their daily workload. They don’t have the time to fix longstanding problems with their systems, much less revamp them to make the best use of new tools. In fact, cloud and automation often makes things worse. The ease of provisioning new infrastructure leads to an ever-growing portfolio of systems, and it takes an ever-increasing amount of time just to keep everything from collapsing.

Adopting cloud and automation tools immediately lowers barriers for making changes to infrastructure. But managing changes in a way that improves consistency and reliability doesn’t come out of the box with the software. It takes people to think through how they will use the tools and put in place the systems, processes, and habits to use them effectively.

Some IT organisations respond to this challenge by applying the same types of processes, structures, and governance that they used to manage infrastructure and software before cloud and automation became commonplace. But the principles that applied in a time when it took days or weeks to provision a new server struggle to cope now that it takes minutes or seconds.

Legacy change management processes are commonly ignored, bypassed, or overruled by people who need to get things done. Organizations that are more successful in enforcing these processes are increasingly seeing themselves outrun by more technically nimble competitors.

Legacy change management approaches struggle to cope with the pace of change offered by cloud and automation. But there is still a need to cope with the ever-growing, continuously changing landscape of systems created by cloud and automation tools. This is where infrastructure as code comes in.

What is infrastructure as code?

Infrastructure as code is an approach to infrastructure automation based on practices from software development. It emphasizes consistent, repeatable routines for provisioning and changing systems and their configuration. Changes are made to definitions and then rolled out to systems through unattended processes that include thorough validation.

The premise is that modern tooling can treat infrastructure as if it were software and data. This allows people to apply software development tools such as version control systems (VCS), automated testing libraries, and deployment orchestration to manage infrastructure. It also opens the door to exploit development practices such as test-driven development (TDD), continuous integration (CI), and continuous delivery (CD).

Infrastructure as code has been proven in the most demanding environments. For companies like Amazon, Netflix, Google, Facebook, and Etsy, IT systems are not just business critical; they are the business. There is no tolerance for downtime. Amazon’s systems handle hundreds of millions of dollars in transactions every day. So it’s no surprise that organizations like these are pioneering new practices for large scale, highly reliable IT infrastructure.

This book aims to explain how to take advantage of the cloud-era, infrastructure-as-code approaches to IT infrastructure management. This chapter explores the pitfalls that organisations often fall into when adopting the new generation of infrastructure technology. It describes the core principles and key practices of infrastructure as code that are used to avoid these pitfalls.

Goals of infrastructure as code

The types of outcomes that many teams and organisations look to achieve through infrastructure as code include:

  • IT infrastructure supports and enables change, rather than being an obstacle or a constraint.
  • Changes to the system are routine, without drama or stress for users or IT staff.
  • IT staff spends their time on valuable things that engage their abilities, not on routine, repetitive tasks.
  • Users are able to define, provision, and manage the resources they need, without needing IT staff to do it for them.
  • Teams are able to easily and quickly recover from failures, rather than assuming failure can be completely prevented.
  • Improvements are made continuously, rather than done through expensive and risky “big bang” projects.
  • Solutions to problems are proven through implementing, testing, and measuring them, rather than by discussing them in meetings and documents.

Extract taken from Infrastructure as Code (O'Reilly Publishing) by Kief Morris.

Read more: Kief Morris: On DevOps, containers, and empowering end to end services

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