The number of components that IT staff now have to deal with can be overwhelming. In recent years, developers have been at the forefront of a movement away from monolithic client-server and web-based infrastructures, and toward a situation in which the average organization is working with a huge number of platform-independent executables.
This approach has many benefits, not least ensuring compatibility across the range of infrastructure we are now required to develop, but simplicity is not one of them. In fact, with development teams now producing modular systems by default, a problematic gap is opening between them and the operational teams who manage and deploy software.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem, but a promising development of recent years has been the idea of Infrastructure-as-Code (IaC) pipelines, and specifically those based on cloud platforms. In this article, we’ll look at how these systems work, and how you can begin to implement one.
First, we need to make a note on terminology. In this article, we’ll be talking about systems that use cloud-native tools, automation, and already popular open source DevOps tools to provide agile, collaborative development and management systems for software.
As we’ve already noted in our overview of IaC, these systems generally focus on providing cloud resources as editable code, so both contracted and on-prem clouds can be managed by staff across your organization and adapted to the needs of many different teams.
DevOps pipelines are a similar idea, and are also sometimes called CI/CD (Continuous Integration and Delivery) pipelines. This approach focuses on using automated open source-based tools that provide agile, collaborative development and management systems for software. These tools also are in place to take novel code, and compile it into executable, usable software. This is generally the approach that developers pursue when looking to automate their environments, but it can sometimes omit functionality that is useful (or critical) for operational staff.
GitOps, a newer term, is a more pragmatic approach to achieving an automated code management and compilation pipeline. In this approach, teams use the tools provided through Git to manage their code base. This approach, a little more primitive than the two above, is generally used by smaller teams, startups, and those using Kubernetes clusters as their primary development ontology.
Though the range of approaches described by these terms is very broad, they all aim at approximately the same end – the integration of development and operational teams.
In fact, all of these approaches share certain fundamental features, and this is why they can all be implemented via cheap, widely available (and widely understood) cloud platforms. Looked at from the broadest perspective, all of these approaches aim to provide the following:
When described in this way, the aim of IaC pipelines seems as ambitious as it is simple. The aim of IaC tools like Terraform is to provide organizations with nothing less than a single environment that can be used from the earliest stages of feasibility testing right through to public release.
This is why Alibaba cloud now supports open source-based developer tools, and why IaC has been seen as something of a panacea for the difficulties faced by developers today.
At this point, you’re probably looking for specifics. In other words, how are these systems actually deployed? Surely a system that is able to give both development and operational staff complete control over build and test cycles, release schedules, and even resource allocation would be fiendishly complex, right?
Well, yes and no. In reality, most organizations will base the development of this kind of system on their existing tools, and more specifically their cloud platform. There are many good reasons for taking the same approach.
One, perhaps most obviously, is that most of these platforms now offer unlimited cloud storage, at least on the billing plan that most software development firms will be using. Not only does this cut down on infrastructure costs, but it can also give you a lot more room for experimentation when it comes to building your pipeline.
Another reason why cloud platforms are so well suited to pipeline development is that most major cloud providers now offer pretty sophisticated DevOps-based IaC tools that aim to make cloud platforms as adaptable and agile as on-premises IaC installs. AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud now all offer integrated suites of tools that can handle everything from resource deployment to release cycles directly from the cloud.
In addition, using your existing cloud platform to build an IaC pipeline allows you to leverage the expertise and development work put into these platforms by your supplier. In recent years, this work has given cloud services a number of additional advantages when used as development environments.
Most cloud services now allow the real-time allocation of (virtual) resources as code, realizing the promise of IaC. These services also run as serverless services, and so require neither specific hardware or complex installation. This is known as virtualization, or the process of creating virtual representations of applications or servers that are typically bound to hardware.
As Toronto-based software developer Gary Stevens of Hosting Canada says, virtualization “facilitates cooperation between computer servers, as cloud drives are the perfect medium for immediate data exchange. The fact that it provides a platform where access is granted to multiple users means this service is a perfect tool for in-house and remote work locations.”
Furthermore, advanced cloud services also give you access to integral automation features and third-party automation tools. This makes these systems enviably extendable, and allows you to connect your pipeline to external vendors’ systems.
Looked at as a whole, most of the popular cloud services on the market today will provide organizations with a complete set of tools for automating every stage of the software development lifecycle.
The way in which you use these tools will, of course, depend on the requirements of your organization, and what level of control you need to provide to your various teams. There are plenty of examples around to guide you through this process, including this detailed walk-through, which provides plenty of detail on using AWS in this way.
Just make sure that you don’t see technical development as the end-goal of your teams. Ultimately, your goal should be to produce great products, which requires the right technical tools, close collaboration between your DevOps team members, and plenty of creative thinking.
By developing an IaC pipeline, and by basing this on your existing cloud infrastructure, you can provide your teams with a number of key advantages, and not least the ability to scale development and organizational capacity as your organization grows.
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