Business leaders: The benefits of Infrastructure as Code (IaC)
Infrastructure as Code is growing in importance for modern IT and business environments. Here's the benefits and limitations of adopting it at your organization.
Oct 31, 2023 • 14 Minute Read
- IT Ops
- Software Development
- Engineering Leadership
- Developer Experience
- Software Delivery Process
In today's fast-paced digital landscape, Infrastructure as Code has emerged as a game-changer. It offers a paradigm shift in how organizations manage, configure, and deploy their IT infrastructures — no matter where they are located.
If you’re considering adopting IaC at your organization, it’s important to know all the benefits, as well as the potential hurdles and limitations. At the end of this article, you should have a clear idea of all of these, so you can best embrace and leverage this technology.
What is Infrastructure as Code?
Like the name suggests, Infrastructure as Code (IaC) enables you to describe what you want your IT infrastructure to look like using code, then deploy or alter it. You store this code in a version control system, so it can be tested regularly and rolled out in a consistent manner.
For your engineers and administrators, it’s an easy learning curve — since it’s based on code, all the lessons learned from years of software development can be brought and applied to using IaC.
What are the business benefits of IaC?
There are a wide range of business benefits to using IaC over manual configuration, so let’s break them down one by one.
1. Reducing the ‘key person risk’ with your IT systems
Do you have one person who holds the keys to the kingdom for your whole IT infrastructure? Do you sweat bullets when this person goes on leave, or panic at the idea of them leaving the company for other pastures?
If the answer is yes, then you’ve got what’s called a “Brent” — a term popularized by The Phoenix Project. A Brent is that indispensable IT employee brimming with institutional knowledge, always called upon to resolve production issues.
Having a Brent is bad. Why? Having only one employee with critical expertise creates a bottleneck, and also creates anxiety should they suddenly leave the company. If they do, it inevitably leads to a rushed "documentation and handover" effort that inevitably fails to capture the full scope of their knowledge.
Brents present a business risk — but thankfully, it’s one IaC can help mitigate.
By implementing IaC, your entire platform is documented in code, and supported by automated processes for maintaining and deploying environments. The knowledge of these systems is no longer only in one key staff member’s head, so even if they depart, business operations remain largely unaffected.
2. Reducing IT dependencies
Sick of waiting around for weeks or months for a new server to be provisioned or a service to be rolled out? If you’re not using IaC, setting up or modifying infrastructure is a slow, painful process, normally one where you’re at the mercy of the IT team’s busy schedule.
When your organization is using IaC, your IT team can make blueprints available for other teams and individuals to use without direct IT intervention. It’s like a marketplace where people can self-service a new server or database instance, without waiting in line for IT to process their request.
Because these templates are standardized, even though non-IT staff are provisioning infrastructure, it’s done in a way that meets the technical and security requirements of the organization. You’ll still need an IT team to build and manage these IaC templates, but it frees them to focus their time on higher value tasks instead of responding to these infrastructure requests.
3. Achieving greater speed and agility
Leading organizations need to be able to adapt quickly to evolving customer demands, emerging technologies, and unforeseen disruptions. In the public sector, this agility can mean the difference between compliance and non-compliance. For commercial organizations, it separates you from your competitors. In both cases, a lack of speed can lead to reputational damage.
If you’re managing your environments using IaC, you can roll out changes in a way that other organizations doing things manually simply can’t match:
You can create experimental environments without fear of impacting a system or platform other team members are relying on.
You can quickly set up and tear down environments, allowing for cost-effective testing of new applications and features.
Once infrastructure is coded and tested, it can be deployed or scaled almost instantly, minimizing time from concept to execution.
If a new regulatory requirement emerges, organizations with IaC can swiftly adapt their infrastructure to maintain compliance.
4. Cost savings and budgeting
Your operational costs can skyrocket quickly with manual infrastructure management. However, if you’ve got a well-implemented and managed IaC solution in place, this can help save money by reducing the need for manual interventions (and by extension, your labor costs) as well as ensuring you’re using your resources efficiently.
For example, IaC can automate the provisioning and de-provisioning of your short-lived infrastructures, such as the kind you use for testing in Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) pipelines. You use them when needed and discard post-use, ensuring you pay only for your active infrastructure.
When budgeting comes into play, IaC provides a level of predictability. By integrating cost-estimation tools directly into your CI/CD pipelines, you get a real-time snapshot of potential expenses right at the pull request stage, before any code changes are finalized.
It’s worth noting while these short-lived environments boost efficiency, they can also introduce some budget unpredictability. My advice? Opt for the most budget-friendly infrastructure SKU that still meets your testing needs, avoiding unnecessary splurges on performance.
5. Enhancing security and compliance
It's difficult to scroll through social media or news without encountering news of the latest data breach or cybersecurity incident. To avoid becoming a headline, it's crucial to integrate security and compliance into your infrastructure from the outset. Infrastructure as Code excels at this.
By crafting security-aware IaC templates, you can set a baseline that ensures your infrastructure conforms to necessary security policies and configurations. This allows for consistent application of security measures like firewall rules, access controls, and encryption settings across all environments, from development to production.
If your company has a Center of Excellence (CoE) or similar entity, they can take responsibility for making sure the templates align with organizational security policies, which are then consumed by other teams.
As your IaC processes evolve, they offer the ability to enforce and audit compliance effectively, even in complex environments. By integrating IaC with CI/CD pipelines, you can run automated compliance tests whenever changes are made. If a change violates compliance rules, the pipeline fails, giving immediate feedback to the author.
6. Enhanced collaboration and teamwork
IaC isn’t just a technology shift, it’s also a cultural one. Implementing IaC naturally fosters cross-departmental collaboration, allowing development, operations, security, and other teams to work together towards shared goals.
A key to IaC success is integrating a version control system like Git. This allows team members to collaborate on infrastructure code in real-time, reviewing each other’s changes and merging their contributions to a central code base. It promotes the exchange of ideas and a collective sense of ownership, which ultimately leads to agile and efficient operations.
7. Continuous Improvement and feedback loops
Having templates to uniformly roll out your infrastructure is just one part of IaC. The broader aim is to help your organization improve processes, accelerate development, reduce errors, and implement “shift left” (the concept of getting code feedback as early as possible in the development process).
I’ve referred to CI/CD pipelines already in this article, and IaC integrates seamlessly with these principles. Changes in IaC can be automatically integrated, tested, and deployed, reducing error risks and catching issues early on. By the time these changes reach critical environments like QA or production, they are thoroughly vetted.
Testing is essential in the IaC CI/CD process, encompassing functional, security, and performance evaluations. These tests are automatically triggered upon code commits, offering immediate feedback. If a test fails, the CI/CD pipeline halts the deployment and alerts the relevant teams, facilitating quick issue resolution and ensuring only reliable and secure environments are deployed.
8. Future-proofing and scalability
IaC isn’t just for today, it’s inherently future-focused. Sure, it offers a lot of immediate benefits, but it also sets the stage for long-term adaptability and growth. It allows you to respond to evolving organizational needs without the pain of manual infrastructure management.
Using CI/CD processes, IaC facilitates quick and validated changes to your infrastructure. This can be particularly useful during high-demand periods, like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, when scaling is crucial. IaC in conjunction with public cloud auto scaling rules can automatically adjust the infrastructure to manage increased load, reverting back when demand drops to minimize your costs.
That said, putting these automations in place isn’t always trivial. It requires a deep understanding of your specific infrastructure, the complexities of the surrounding environment, and how your application operates, including where the bottlenecks are and which components need scaling.
What are the limitations of IaC?
So far I’ve talked a lot about the many benefits of IaC, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t also share the barriers your organization might face with adoption, and where you should temper your expectations.
1. Your culture and operations will need to change
This isn’t exactly a limitation, but a consideration that deserves to be at the top. Adopting IaC is not just a tech-driven decision; it also requires a cultural and organizational shift, particularly for companies rooted in traditional infrastructure management.
Unlike older models, where IT teams operated in silos with minimal collaboration, IaC thrives and depends on cross-functional teamwork. It compels developers, operations teams, and other stakeholders to collaborate on infrastructure tasks.
For IaC to succeed, this old siloed mindset needs to be challenged and replaced with a more integrated approach — one where teams work together to define, automate, and manage infrastructure as code.
2. There is a learning curve with IaC tooling
IaC is great, but adopting it comes with a real learning curve, especially for teams and organizations built around traditional infrastructure management.
Personally, when I had my first glimpse into IaC, I instinctively retreated back to the Azure portal. There, I knew how things were deployed and configured — it was familiar and safe. But I realized IaC is just another way to define and deploy infrastructure, and the benefits are too big to ignore. Just like any new technology, it can be intimidating at first, but let’s be honest: for tech professionals, constant learning and adapting is part of the job.
IaC introduces layers of abstraction meant to simplify your configurations, but at the start this can be challenging for teams to understand. Understanding how code translates into infrastructure components takes time, and there’s no shortcut. Sure, spinning up a storage account in Azure might take you two minutes in the portal, and it could feasibly take you an hour the first time you do it with IaC. But, in the long term, mastering IaC brings agility, accuracy, and scalability to infrastructure management.
Lastly, embracing IaC requires investment in training and upskilling. Teams need to acquire proficiency in the tools and languages associated with IaC, such as Terraform, CloudFormation, Bicep, Pulumi or Ansible. This requires both time and financial resources for training. Senior management need to be aware this isn’t an overnight change, and employees are going to need support to train and upskill if the organization wants to embrace IaC.
3. There is a risk of automation errors
The strength of IaC to automate your tasks also creates a risk — a small error, such as an oversight in the code, can cascade into big issues for your infrastructure.
For example, imagine a scenario where an engineer inadvertently misconfigured a critical component of the infrastructure code, such as security group rules or database settings. When this code is executed during provisioning or updates, it can quickly propagate, potentially causing downtime, security issues, or data loss across your infrastructure. Unlike traditional methods, where manual processes allow time for human intervention to catch errors, IaC operates rapidly and at scale, reducing the window for error detection.
Obviously, this is a risk you’d want to mitigate! To do that, you need to prioritize automated testing and validation within your IaC pipelines. Additionally, implementing mandatory code review processes from the outset is essential. The "we'll do it later" approach often leads to ineffective, after-the-fact solutions, so embedding these risk mitigation strategies into your culture from day one is vital.
4. It requires upfront costs
So far, IaC sounds great, right? But if you haven’t already, I bet by now as a leader you’re thinking “How much will it cost me?” I won’t lie – there’s a significant initial investment required to get to the mature IaC-driven infrastructure described in this article. It’s very much the old situation of needing an initial capital investment to achieve longer-term savings.
There’s good news, though: you don’t need to buy all the tools, training, and pay for migration on day one. Yes, some of the concepts and processes and concepts described in this article are important to have from the start, but others can be built on and matured over time.
For your organization to transition to an IaC-driven infrastructure, you normally need to invest in specific tools and technologies. This means acquiring or subscribing to IaC platforms, automation frameworks, and cloud management tools that align with your chosen IaC approach. Some core IaC tools are free, like Terraform or Azure Bicep, but you’ll often need to also use other solutions that come with a cost such as Terraform Cloud, GitHub Actions, or Azure DevOps. Additionally, you’ll typically want other paid third-party tools to assist with testing, automation, and management.
We’ve touched on training and upskilling demanding time and resources, and that needs to be spoken about here again from a cost perspective. IaC isn’t something you can buy from a provider and drop on your teams (that’s a guaranteed fail). Learning new IaC languages, tools, and practices requires an investment in training programs and resources. Teams must acquire proficiency in writing and managing infrastructure code. After the tooling has been selected, you’ll need to ensure employees have an appropriate professional development plan, with access to training material and time allocated in their schedule to learn and experiment.
Unless you’re setting up a greenfields environment with a new application, you likely have existing infrastructure deployed which you want to bring under management of IaC. Tooling is getting better at importing current infrastructure into IaC, but there’s still a process involved to translate the resources into code, and ensure the configuration is correct. The migration process must be carefully planned and executed to minimize disruptions to ongoing operations.
While these initial costs may appear substantial, it's essential to view them as an investment in long-term efficiency, scalability, and cost savings. Organizations that successfully navigate the initial adoption phase can reap the rewards of IaC's automation, agility, and reliability in the years to come.
Infrastructure as Code represents not just a technological advancement, but a cultural and organizational shift, empowering businesses to deploy and manage IT infrastructure platforms in faster and more efficient ways compared to traditional infrastructure management.
The advantages are compelling: increased stability during staff changes, streamlined operations, the agility to respond to market shifts, cost savings, enhanced security, improved collaboration, and scalability for the future. While adopting IaC comes with its own set of challenges — such as cultural adjustments, learning curves, risks associated with automation, and initial financial outlay — these hurdles are outweighed by the long-term benefits of efficiency, reliability, and cost-effectiveness.
Learning resources for Infrastructure as Code
Want to start your IaC journey? Pluralsight offers a range of courses you can use to bring either yourself or members of your tech teams up to speed. You can sign up for a 10-day free trial with no commitments. Here are some worth starting with: