The Power of Automation: How Infrastructure as Code Has Made Manual Infrastructure Management a Thing of the Past

Susan Asher & Ken Willard | Friday, October 28, 2022

The Power of Automation: How Infrastructure as Code Has Made Manual Infrastructure Management a Thing of the Past

This blog provides answers to the following questions:

  1. What is IaC?
  2. What are the different approaches to automate infrastructure?
  3. What do companies need to do to automate their infrastructure?

Provisioning, configuring, managing and reconfiguring infrastructure has long been a time-consuming, difficult process for systems administrators. Although systems administrators have tried to simplify configuration by creating scripts, often there are two or three system administrators that store them locally rather than in a library, so they each end up creating different versions of the same script to do the same job. And scripts are limited in their capabilities. They may be able to help you customize an operating system after it's been installed, but it's unlikely that a single script could create a virtual machine, install the operating system, and then implement the customization. Scripts only give you the ability to do part of what you want to do. However, configuration tools like Ansible and Puppet give you the ability to do everything from start to finish to automate your infrastructure. The tools might invoke that script as part of the process but can do so much more like provisioning a virtual machine consistently the same way every time. Repeatedly, executing any process manually runs the risk of introducing inconsistency. Even when this process is done correctly, people still must individually reconfigure individual servers when they go offline due to an error or accident. But with automation, no one ever has to configure or reconfigure servers individually as that is taken care of automatically once you connect the server to a configuration tool. Although you could create such a tool yourself, it would likely require hundreds of hours of your time.

Automated hardware and service configuration is also referred to as Infrastructure as Code (IaC), a configuration management process that uses code and code development practices to automate configuring infrastructure. Servers, load balancers, databases, firewalls, storage, services, and permissions can be applied to development, testing and production environments. Founded on DevOps practices, IaC automates processes for both system administrators and DevOps. IaC allows you to build, change, and manage your infrastructure in a safe, consistent, and repeatable way by defining resource configurations that you can version, reuse, and share. Without IaC, teams must maintain deployed environment settings individually, which is costly from a time perspective. And over time, each of those environments becomes a unique configuration, referred to as drift, which can't be reproduced consistently, causing inconsistencies among environments and problems with deployment and security.

The big-picture impact of infrastructure automation via IaC

Below is a list of the strategic business value that infrastructure automation presents:

  • Helps to stop inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the creation and documentation of your architecture
  • Provides an accurate picture of your infrastructure at any given moment
  • Enables and enhances version control    
  • Reduces reliance on undocumented or poorly shared tribal knowledge that may be held by just a few people in your organization
  • Minimizes the risk of human error
  • Reduces technology costs, driving savings on expenses such as server compute and storage space ion
  • Reduces the time needed to manage technology infrastructure, freeing up staff to focus on higher-value tasks

Who benefits from IaC?

  • Software Developers
  • Technical Managers and Leads
  • System and Cloud Administrators
  • Network Engineers

While it seems like all companies should put IaC in place, many of them don’t because it requires an initial time investment. But if you take your time and plan accordingly, once it’s part of your system, in minutes, IaC forever thereafter generates repeatable and identical environments for any one device—or group of devices—providing you with the same environment every time it deploys, preventing configuration errors. While the code to automate infrastructure must be written initially, once you have that code, you can use it across the enterprise and categorize devices into groups so you can automate them all at once.

How IaC Works

To set up IaC, system administrators must develop and keep blueprints, or configuration files, to define the parameters and settings for the desired end state of their infrastructure. Although it’s possible to use IaC with a graphical user interface (GUI), it’s difficult to quickly manage resources this way, especially when the GUI is running in a web browser. The GUI also makes it difficult to roll back an operation to an earlier version as it usually involves a lot of pointing and clicking to undo changes that were made. Most organizations prefer to use YAML or JSON-based tools like Ansible or Terraform along with a version control system like Git, all of which are designed to help you manage infrastructure resources using code. These tools provide the fastest way for you to build and maintain environments and configure your infrastructure. These tools typically contain various modules with their own built-in code. Users can add their own code to the prefabricated settings and can build their own modules from scratch for special custom use cases.  Each time the configuration tool connects with your infrastructure, the tool can automatically check for configuration drift. This helps ensure your infrastructure satisfies industry best practices, your organization’s standards, and the latest prescribed version of your configuration code.

In addition to helping you configure your infrastructure, these configuration tools can work in conjunction with your monitoring tools to detect when an application’s traffic is nearing its peak and, as needed, automatically spinning up another server containing another iteration of the app to handle the traffic. Companies may have hundreds of applications, and each one typically is on its own server with its own specific infrastructure requirements based on the network, function, traffic, and security concerns. Configuring this infrastructure manually can be quite difficult especially with the complexities of today’s applications.  But you can use a configuration tool with built-in code to lay out the instructions for each of your servers or groups of servers to automate any one server or group of servers all at once. When you connect the tool to the server, you just choose the proper setting for each server, and it automatically becomes configured.

The configuration tool also can be used for Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) to build integrated development processes for the software development lifecycle. In a matter of minutes, you can create and remove environments for testing and deploying software.

Benefits of a Configuration Tool

  • When a configuration tool is used in combination with a monitoring tool, the latter automatically detect when a server can’t handle any more traffic and sends a request to the load balancer to spin up another instance of a new server with the application, or applications, that reside on it.  
  • A configuration tool, whether it’s one provided by your cloud provider or one like Ansible or Terraform, offers configuration models that allow you to configure the desired end state of your infrastructure. If your tools’ default models don’t work for you, you can add your own code to them or write your own from scratch. While you must create various types of playbooks to fit your infrastructure, once you’ve done that, setting up machines becomes very fast. And when you discover a problem with a change you’ve made, the tools gives you a way to compare two different deployments to figure out if something went wrong. If you discover an error, you can easily roll back to the earlier configuration version and then deploy a different change.
  • And, when you need to make infrastructure changes to improve security or compute resources, you just update the code in the tool and publish those changes to a server or group of servers.
  • The tool also helps your DevOps team use IaC with its Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) pipelines.  
  • Some configuration tools include a discovery process to capture and document your environment.

IaC and CI/CD

As well as benefiting system administrators, IaC helps developers to use the correct infrastructure as they migrate applications from development to staging to production. The CI/CD pipeline is a software development practice in which team members, typically at least daily, integrate their work. When this process is automated, once the team integrates their work for the day, the code is automatically tested, and if it works, it can automatically be deployed. If it doesn’t work, the team gets notice of the error and can fix the error before deploying the code. These environments in which developers build, test and deploy code can all be created and removed in one fell swoop with IaC.

Cloud-native software developers often want their own separate sandbox environment, so they can do the preliminary tasks to develop and test code. Your IaC tools allow you to automatically provision new infrastructure for each developer. When the developer team integrates their code into the pipeline, the IaC tool detects the code and automatically creates a new virtual test environment. If the test works fine, the code is automatically sent down the pipeline to be deployed. You can destroy the environments every time you’re finished with them to save money in a public cloud since cloud providers are all pay as you go.

Misconfigurations are generally due to human error. Automating the configuration process helps companies avoid errors, as well as security and compliance issues. However, manually configuring all your infrastructure takes a long time, which can be avoided by automation. By taking a measured approach to defining infrastructure configurations and working with a few skilled engineers who have experience in IaC, companies can speed the process.

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