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How to Finally Modernize a DevOps Toolchain: Infrastructure as Code

by Olivia Glenn-Han, on Apr 7, 2016 8:00:00 AM

Whether you've happily jumped on the bandwagon or not, DevOps is becoming the new standard. Not because it’s some disruptive revolution, but because it’s an evolution that responds to the challenges of modern software development.

In this article, I'll cover Infrastructure as Code, and how to adopt it following our incremental
approach. We developed this approach to offer a sensible route for organizations to evolve towards DevOps.

The Incremental Approach

Our incremental strategy is a six-step, cyclical approach that not only minimizes the risk and costs of adopting Infrastructure as Code but will build the necessary in-house skillet and momentum for larger and faster cycles. Each of our steps build upon the last, both in terms of investment and preparation, as will each overall cycle.

The hours are realistic for many enterprises, but will vary widely depending on the culture and politics of your organization. Meetings tend to consume the most hours, and these estimates assume you have a small implementation team (1-3 people) interacting with your key server personnel (2-4 people).

So follow along and discover a well thought out approach to implement the latest DevOps addition; Infrastructure as Code.


Decision making time

You always have to start somewhere, so lets get this incremental train rolling.

Step One: Select a suitable server role

4-8 hours

Look for any teams or groups expressing interest in tackling Infrastructure as Code, and ideally pick a role that impacts their applications. It’s likely the path of least resistance among your personnel and will maximize the likelihood of buy-in, cohesion, willingness to experiment, and ultimately, change.

The initial server role shouldn’t be technically overwhelming from a configuration standpoint, while at the same time it shouldn’t be considered low priority (otherwise, the value of Infrastructure As Code won’t be visible), nor should it be the flagship server (too much perceived change at once). And most importantly, both your development and operations teams responsible for the server role should buy-in and understand the importance of DevOps.

Server Roles: Defined

Server roles help define common configuration between servers. They model the real-world overlap of servers and provide the visualization necessary to easily understand your infrastructure. Server roles facilitate the flexibility needed to address the complexities that modern infrastructure automation poses.

For example, you may have an iis-server role that ensures IIS is configured in a particular way, as well as hdar-api-host that ensures a particular web application is configured properly. Both roles can be applied to the same server so that hdar-api-host is configured on an IIS server.

Like applications, a single server role will span multiple servers across multiple environments (integration, QA, production), and are used in conjunction with the testing process.

Step Two: consider short & mid-term configuration requirements

6-16 hours

You can generally accomplish step two in a single meeting, as the types of server configuration should already be well-known by the key development and operations personnel within your enterprise.

Although there’s certainly no DevOps in a Box (we've wished for it too), the closest thing to a solution is a software product/tool, a process built around the platform, and a plan to implement both the software and process. Your objective in this stage is to find solutions that would not just work for the selected server role but that might, at least theoretically, work for other servers and servers roles in your organization. For instance, if your enterprise has a mix of Windows and Linux servers, then using only a Linux solution should be a nonstarter.

Server Configuration: Defined

Generally speaking, configuration describes the packages, settings, files, or anything thing else that is on a server. For example, an Application Pool that’s configured in IIS (along with any of the three dozen settings) would be considered configuration.

Though the enterprise’s servers are configured differently, there will be a lot of overlap in their configuration process. By the same token, just because two servers have similar IIS configuration doesn't mean their process is the same. In fact, the process could be vastly different: for instance, a marketing website generally needs a lot less testing and scrutiny than stock trading API middleware.

It may seem like a lot to take in, but to reiterate, your goal is to find something that “might, at least theoretically, work.” Now is not the time to craft a 20-page requirements document with a spreadsheet detailing each and every possible technical and process specification. There’s simply no way of actually knowing each and every server’s configuration without spending significant time with each and every group to learn their technical requirements, so this initial organizational consideration must be done at a very high, almost “gut” level.


Practice Makes Perfect

Testing, testing, testing, and more testing. Let's get this show on the road!

Step three can largely be performed by your implementation team, although brief interactions with development and operations teams may be needed to confirm technical requirements.

Step three: assess tools

3-24 hours

Tools are a critical piece of a DevOps solution and, by this stage, you should have a short list of them that seem to be suitable for both the selected server and your enterprise at a whole. Now's the time to dig in a little deeper to see which will be worth a more time-intensive proof of concept.

If you were shopping for cars, this would be the equivalent of a test drive around the block. If that's too bumpy of a drive or you just really hate driving manual transmission, then it's simply not worth taking the car home for the entire weekend.

Some tool vendors offer a self-guided tutorial that you can use after a download, while others will have salespeople give a live web demonstration. Both types of assessments should take about the same time (1-2 hours), and both should accomplish the same goal: not necessarily finding which tool will be "the one," but finding which tools will definitely not.

When doing a self-guided tutorial, make sure not to conflate the assessment with the next stage, the proof of concept. The assessment should be focused on finding an overall solution, not the server selected in the first stage.

To make this step easier, here's a comprehensive list of the top Infrastructure as Code Tools as of 2016.

Step Four: Proof of Concept

16-40 hours

If the assessment was a test drive around the block, then the proof of concept is loading up the car with your family and pets and taking a road trip. At this stage, it's not just about finding the right tool but discovering and defining the processes you'll use around the tool.

Because this will interact with the various servers that are in this role (and it's important to demonstrate actual value to production or to demonstrate it as closely as possible), there will be slight risk involved. The tools will need to be installed, firewall ports may need to be opened, permissions and service accounts may need to be created, and so on. However, this slight risk comes with a fair reward: it'll give a feel for what is actually required to start automating your infrastructure and IT server configuration.

To mitigate some of this risk, the proof of concept may be split into two phases: pre-production and production. Only upon completion of the first phase would the proof of concept be allowed to continue to the second.

An organizational change is as much one of hearts and minds as it is the tooling and processes. This stage will also give you a feel as to the resistance and hesitation to change as well as any perceptual leaps that need to be made.

Thus, it's equally important to involve and interact with the actual people who configure the infrastructure: testers, business analysts, network engineers, developers, etc. Just as the risk to automation can be mitigated with a multi-phase proof of concept, so can overcoming the resistance to change: only upon completion of one phase of the proof of concept would the solution be introduced to another person or team.


Making Automation a Reality

It's time to take everything you've learned and bring your DevOps Toolchain into the modern era.

Step five: Pilot

4-6 weeks

The line between the proof of concept and the pilot can be blurry, but the phase generally shifts once the selected server's infrastructure is actually automated and out in the real world.

The pilot phase can be thought of as the "new normal" for this particular server. Everything has checked out, and the benefits weren't outweighed by tremendous costs. Thus, by all accounts, it makes perfect sense to continue using your newly minted DevOps process.

At this point, the new process is official: it's time to license the tools appropriately and train your staff appropriately on their new tasks and responsibilities. The only non-routine activity is to continually monitor and validate that the new solution is being well-received by all involved—and of course to share your stories of success with other groups within the enterprise.

Step six: iterate

1-2 years

In just a few months, the results of the pilot will be very real, measurable, and notable: the ease of configuration change, time saved, fewer headaches, etc. will all be reportable and transparent to other groups. Not just that: your business will start to see how much easier it is to automate changes faster.

From here, it's back to the first stage: select another server. With all the experiences and lessons you've learned implementing the process, each stage of the next iteration will be significantly easier, both technically and culturally. At some point, perhaps even after the first iteration, it'll seem almost trivial to transition several servers to Infrastructure as Code in parallel.


Although this incremental process may take years, the results will be nothing short of transformative: your organization will have gained the knowledge and experience to not just implement DevOps, but also to change and improve organizational processes. This experience will become invaluable when moving onto new servers, especially when these new servers don't even come close to fitting in the same mold as the other servers.

Remember, there is no end point of DevOps. It will continue to evolve as will how your organization addresses it. For now, just take what you have learned and apply it to other servers with an open, experimental mentality.

Topics:Infrastructure as CodeDevOps ToolchainDevOps Tools

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