The Pros and Cons of IaC: What You Need to Know
Infrastructure as Code (IaC) has revolutionized the world of DevOps and software development, heralding an era where generating infrastructure is as straightforward as writing a script.
However, like with most early innovations, it’s not without its shades of gray. While IaC has addressed many traditional challenges — offering automation, consistency and scalability — it also has its own set of complexities.
This article dives deep into the world of IaC, exploring the transformative benefits it ushered in while also shedding light on the new hurdles that professionals grapple with in the age of code-defined infrastructure.
What Is Infrastructure as Code?
At its core, IaC revolves around the idea of treating infrastructure setup and configuration as code. This means that instead of manually configuring servers, databases and other infrastructural components, professionals can use files containing the code that define the desired state that they are trying to achieve.
Infrastructure configurations are written in code files, which can be versioned, tested and maintained in source control repositories. The advantages of this approach are numerous: It ensures repeatability, allowing teams to deploy the same infrastructure consistently across different environments, be it development, staging or production.
Moreover, since these configurations are stored as code, they can be reviewed, audited, and collaborated upon, just like any other software project.
Another significant aspect of IaC is its ability to work with Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) pipelines. This integration facilitates automated infrastructure and application deployments, ensuring that the resources built are always in sync with the application they support.
Tools like Terraform play a pivotal role in this space, allowing developers and operations teams to define, deploy and manage infrastructure seamlessly.
In essence, IaC paves the way for a more agile, efficient and error-free infrastructure management process, aligning closely with the DevOps philosophy of automation and collaboration.
The Beginning of Digital Infrastructure
The evolution of Infrastructure as Code has been deeply intertwined with the rise of cloud native developments and the tools that have shaped this landscape. Before the dominance of tools like HashiCorp’s Terraform, IaC was primarily realized through bash scripting and cloud-specific tools.
Early players in this space, such as Puppet, Red Hat Ansible and Chef, were instrumental in defining the initial trajectory of IaC. These tools were primarily about configuring servers, and they adapted well to the early days of the cloud, where the focus was primarily on configuring virtual machines.
From Procedural to Declarative IaC in the Cloud Era
The transition to cloud native development saw a shift in the style of IaC. The early tools mentioned already were more procedural in nature, detailing the steps to achieve the desired state. This made the code harder to read and understand.
With the mainstream adoption of the cloud, there was a move toward a more declarative style of IaC, exemplified by tools like Terraform and AWS Cloud formation. In this declarative approach, the focus was on specifying the desired end state without detailing the steps to achieve it. This made the code more readable, as it primarily contained configuration settings.
The Challenges of Infrastructure as Code
The Developer’s Burden
Traditionally, developers focused on writing and optimizing code. With the advent of IaC, they are now expected to understand and manage infrastructure configuration, adding another layer to their responsibilities.
While there are tools that can make it easier, the onus still falls on the developer to ensure that everything is set up correctly. This shift blurs the lines between traditional roles, whereas once there were clear demarcations between developers and operations teams, the rise of DevOps and IaC has seen these roles converge.
Developers now find themselves juggling both application development and infrastructure management, naturally leading to cognitive overload.
The Development Life Cycle Challenge
The development life cycle for IaC is notably slower and more cumbersome than traditional software development.
When deploying IaC code, there’s a significant waiting period involved as infrastructure is provisioned. This can be especially tedious when errors arise. For instance, if a developer is spinning up a Kubernetes cluster and encounters an error forcing a rollback, additional time needs to be spent waiting for the already-provisioned infrastructure to be destroyed, only to have to spend more time identifying the issue and attempting another deployment.
The Quest for Fast Feedback
The pace of deployment within IaC directly conflicts with a crucial aspect of software development, which is the need to receive immediate feedback on successes and failures. That feedback loop is currently missing in IaC.
While there are tools that attempt to simulate infrastructure deployment locally, like LocalStack, they often don’t cater to complex scenarios or multiple cloud providers. This means developers spend more time waiting to see if their configuration and deployments succeed rather than getting the feedback they need, leading to inefficiencies in the development process.
The Silver Lining: Benefits of Infrastructure as Code
IaC certainly has its challenges, but it’s important not to overlook the myriad of benefits it brings to the table. The evolution of IaC has fundamentally transformed how infrastructure is viewed, managed and deployed, offering a slew of advantages that far outweigh its drawbacks.
Consistency and Reproducibility
One of the most significant benefits of IaC is the ability to maintain consistent environments. By defining infrastructure in code, organizations can ensure that every deployment, from development to production, is consistent and relatively free from human-induced errors. This reproducibility means that teams can recreate the exact same environment every time, eliminating the age-old “it works on my machine” problem.
Version Control and Collaboration
Just as software code is versioned and tracked, IaC allows infrastructure changes to be versioned using tools like Git. This means that teams can track changes over time, roll back to previous configurations if needed and collaborate more effectively. Many team members can work on infrastructure changes simultaneously, review each other’s changes and merge them seamlessly, fostering a collaborative environment.
Scalability and Efficiency
With IaC, scaling infrastructure becomes a breeze. Whether it’s spinning up a new server or deploying an entire Kubernetes cluster, IaC tools can automate these processes, making them faster and more efficient. This automation means that as an application’s user base grows, the infrastructure can scale to meet the demand without manual intervention.
By automating infrastructure deployment and management, organizations can achieve significant cost savings. Manual processes are time-consuming and prone to errors, leading to wasted resources and unnecessary expenses. IaC, on the other hand, helps to optimize resource utilization, meaning organizations only pay for what they use.
Additionally, by reducing the need for manual intervention, teams can focus on more value-adding tasks, further enhancing productivity and cost optimization.
IaC Best Practices: Beyond the Code
Best practices for IaC aren’t strictly about the implementation — they should focus more on the configuration used for deploying the infrastructure. Ultimately, our chosen tool will execute our commands, suggesting that a well-educated engineer familiar with current strategies might be more valuable than the tool in use. Let’s explore what some of these best practices look like
Focus on the Endgame: Secure Network Topology
One of the foundational best practices when deploying infrastructure in the cloud is to ensure a secure network topology.
For example, it’s vital for network security to make sure that sensitive resources aren’t placed in public subnets with direct internet access. This means that components like databases should always be placed in private subnets unless there’s a compelling reason not to.
The primary goal of IaC should always be to not only produce repeatable infrastructure but to also prioritize the security of what’s built.
The Perils of Hard Coding in IaC
Hard-coding values directly into the code you write can be a risky endeavor, compromising both security and flexibility. When specific values, especially sensitive ones like passwords and keys, are hard-coded, they become exposed to anyone who has access to the code, increasing the risk of potential breaches.
Furthermore, hard-coded values can stifle adaptability; infrastructure needs can evolve, and having static values embedded in the code creates a significantly more complex process when new versions are created. Not only does this slow down the process, but it also increases the likelihood of errors.
Utilizing external configuration files, environment variables or secrets management tools allows for a more dynamic, secure and maintainable IaC approach, ensuring that infrastructure can be easily adapted to changing needs without compromising security.
Versioning in IaC is akin to having a time machine for your infrastructure setup. As teams evolve and infrastructure grows in complexity, the ability to track changes, roll back to previous configurations or simply understand the history of infrastructure decisions becomes invaluable. Versioning ensures that every change made to the infrastructure is documented and timestamped, allowing teams to pinpoint when a change was made and by whom.
This not only enhances accountability but also aids in troubleshooting, as teams can quickly identify and revert potentially problematic changes. Furthermore, versioning fosters collaboration among team members.
In a dynamic environment where multiple engineers might be making changes to the infrastructure, versioning ensures that these changes don’t overwrite or conflict with each other. It provides a clear pathway for merging updates and resolving discrepancies.
Infrastructure as Code stands as a testament to the evolution of DevOps and software development, marking a transformative shift in how we approach and manage infrastructure. Its promise of automation, consistency and scalability has been a game-changer, but it is essential to recognize the nuances and challenges it introduces.
While IaC has simplified many traditional infrastructure tasks, it also demands a new set of skills and considerations from developers. The journey through the history of IaC, from its early days of procedural configurations to the declarative cloud native era, underscores the rapid pace of change and the need for adaptability.
The challenges, though real, are surmountable. With the right practices in place, such as focusing on topological security and leveraging versioning tools, teams can navigate these complexities effectively.
As with any technology, the key lies in understanding its strengths and limitations and in leveraging best practices to harness its full potential. As we continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible with IaC, it’s crucial to stay informed and adaptable and always prioritize secure and efficient infrastructure deployment.