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What Is Infrastructure Automation & How Does It Work?

infrastructure automation

The rise of cloud providers has made it easier to provision, configure, and orchestrate infrastructure because you can access it without having to buy the underlying hardware components. Infrastructure is offered as a service, so provisioning and configuring it manually makes it hard to replicate to achieve highly available configurations or prepare disaster recovery mechanisms. This can waste time, increase the potential for error, and slow time to market for companies that manage their infrastructure manually.

Infrastructure automation is the answer.

What we will cover:

  1. What is infrastructure automation?
  2. Why is IT infrastructure automation important?
  3. How does infrastructure automation work?
  4. Infrastructure automation benefits
  5. Infrastructure automation challenges
  6. Infrastructure automation tools
  7. Automating infrastructure with Spacelift

What does infrastructure automation mean?

Infrastructure automation is the alternative to manually provisioning, configuring, and orchestrating your infrastructure in both cloud and on-premises environments. Automating these tasks reduces the manual interactions engineers have with IT systems, making the process repeatable, less error-prone, highly available, and capable of easily building disaster-recovery mechanisms.

Which infrastructure processes can be automated?

All of these infrastructure elements can be automated:

  • Infrastructure as Code (IaC) — Infrastructure as code ensures your infrastructure components are defined as code, making them easily repeatable and minimizing errors.
  • Configuration Management (CM) — With configuration management, you can declare your virtual machine configuration as code, ensuring all VMs in a group have the same packages installed and configured.
  • Container Orchestration — If you are using a microservices architecture that leverages containers, you need a mechanism to orchestrate those containers and ensure they are working as designed.
  • Continuous integration (CI) — Continuous integration helps ensure your infrastructure is reliable and respects your organization’s standards. These processes usually include linting, formatting, security vulnerability scanning, policy verification, building images, etc.
  • Continuous deployment (CD) — Continuous deployment is the step that usually happens after the CI step finishes successfully and is in charge of making the actual deployment of infrastructure
  • Monitoring and logging — Continuous monitoring and logging ensures your infrastructure is running smoothly, minimizes downtime, and helps solve issues more easily when they occur.
  • Security — Security is key to ensuring your infrastructure’s resilience, implementing least-privileged access, and role-based access control.

Why is IT infrastructure automation important?

IT infrastructure automation is key for all companies, regardless of their size. Some may argue that you should introduce infrastructure automation only when it becomes hard to do it manually. However, this could add several months of work and will add little or no value to the service they are offering.

Infrastructure automation must be the practice from day one, as it ensures you establish the necessary guidelines, guardrails, integrations, and deployment mechanisms to help you through your scaling process. 

As companies scale, infrastructure also scales, and managing it manually will only make engineers’ jobs harder because they will need to: 

  • Carefully import their resources into the selected IaC tool – the more resources they have to import, the harder the overall process will be, and the potential for error will be greater.
  • Prepare the configuration management scripts that configure their VM instances – this will be time-consuming, especially since manually installing and configuring packages manually involve many steps, and it is hard to ensure that all steps are translated correctly into code.
  • Create CI/CD pipelines that may involve different steps, depending on the environment.
  • Automate the security mechanisms.

Moving from a manual process to automation creates a technical debt that must be addressed and could have been avoided entirely if everything had been developed iteratively.

How does infrastructure automation work?

Infrastructure is automated in various ways, and it is usually done in several steps. 

Step 1: Infrastructure provisioning

The primary consideration is taking care of your infrastructure provisioning. This can be done through CLI automations, scripting through different SDKs, or IaC frameworks — which is the recommended way because it helps with the lifecycle management of your infrastructure resources.

Step 2: Configuration management

Next, as your infrastructure resources grow and if you are using virtual machines in your infrastructure, you need to be able to install and configure software on them. This can be done through scripting or configuration management software, which ensures that the process is reliable and repeatable.

If your infrastructure doesn’t use any virtual machines for your workloads, this step can be omitted, and it is safe to presume that you are using containers to manage your microservices. Containers are most useful when they are paired with a container orchestration platform, and sometimes, if you don’t use a managed service from your cloud provider for that, you could still take advantage of configuration management to configure the underlying virtual machines.

Step 3: Continuous integration

Now that you have some basics in place (IaC and configuration management or container orchestration), you need to ensure that your infrastructure components match the guardrails set at the organization level and that the code is consistent. This is where continuous integration comes into play. Linting, formatting, vulnerability scanning, and policies help you ensure that all the guardrails are in place for your infrastructure.

Step 4: Continuous deployment

You need a way to deploy your infrastructure — enter continuous deployment. Infrastructure changes can be hard to grasp, so usually, before deployment, there is a planning phase that transforms the code into a human-readable output of what will change. Then, after the plan is successfully reviewed by the engineering team, the code changes should be merged and deployed. 

Step 5: Continuous monitoring

After your infrastructure is deployed, you need to ensure that your services are always up and running and there are no performance-related issues. You can feed different metrics to specialized monitoring tools and easily perform continuous monitoring of your infrastructure.

Infrastructure automation benefits

Infrastructure automation can be beneficial in several ways, including:

  • Reliability
  • Repeatability
  • Cost-effectiveness
  • Scaling

One of the greatest benefits of infrastructure automation is its reliability. Declaring everything as code, from the provisioning to the continuous monitoring point of view, makes your automation reliable, and taking advantage of different environments before reaching production enhances this reliability.

Another benefit of infrastructure automation is its repeatability. Provisioning and configuring 100 virtual machines manually takes a long time and is error-prone. With IaC and configuration management, you have to get it right the first time and then use loops to do it easily, as many times as you need.

Infrastructure automation can also be cost-effective. In the above scenario, provisioning and configuring 100 virtual machines manually takes an engineer a lot of billable time to get it right. Using automation reduces the time required significantly, and costs are lower too. In addition, automation eliminates the cost of assessing and solving errors.

Scaling is difficult without automation. Even with automation, issues can arise, but these can be solved by an infrastructure management platform, which in turn, takes care of your infrastructure automation.

Infrastructure automation challenges

Infrastructure automation can also introduce some challenges and pitfalls, the most common being:

  • Choosing the right tools
  • Lack of skills
  • Cultural shift
  • Budgeting

Some of the many tools that have emerged in the infrastructure automation landscape are multipurpose, although they may specialize in a specific area. However, using the wrong tool for a job can create issues that are not immediately obvious, and migrating from a tool that specializes in configuration management but can also do IaC to an IaC-specific tool can be time-consuming and error-prone.

Another challenge relates to available skills. Nowadays, DevOps/Platform/Site Reliability Engineers are expected to be experts in all the various stages of the infrastructure lifecycle. This is simply not possible because these tools are continuously growing, new features are being introduced, and new technologies are emerging. Job descriptions are too general and not specific enough to target the right people, so hiring mismatches can occur.

Infrastructure automation also requires a culture change that can sometimes be hard to implement, especially if the engineers involved don’t have the right mindset. This cultural shift depends on communication and collaboration. If you do something the same way for a couple of years, you may be reluctant to change your ways, even if you understand the benefits. Engineers should be the pioneers of change and remain informed about the trends and new technologies to help the organization accelerate safely.

Budgets are also an issue. Adopting infrastructure automation will initially involve costs in subscribing to new tools, and training for employees, and it can have an impact on deliverables. It will take time for your organization to realize the financial benefits of this shift.

Infrastructure automation tools

There are several tools and services available that can help you automate your infrastructure.

Infrastructure as Code Terraform is an IaC tool that supports a wide range of cloud providers and different tools. It uses a configuration language called HCL, which makes it easy to describe the end state of your infrastructure resources.
OpenTofu is an open-source fork of Terraform that was launched after Terraform changed its license from MPL2.0 to BSL.
Pulumi lets you describe your infrastructure using programming languages such as JavaScript, TypeScript, Python, Go, .Net, and Java. You can also describe your infrastructure using yaml.
Configuration Management Ansible is a push-based configuration management tool that leverages YAML to install and configure software on your virtual machines.
Chef is a pull-based configuration management tool, that leverages Ruby to install and configure software on your virtual machines.
CI/CD GitHub Actions is a CI/CD platform you can use directly from your GitHub account.
GitLab CI/CD is a CI/CD platform you can use directly from your GitLab repositories.
Container Orchestration Kubernetes is a container orchestration platform that helps with the lifecycle of your container workflows.
Monitoring DataDog is a monitoring tool that can help you get insights into your applications and infrastructure.

Read more: 21 Most Useful DevOps Automation Tools

Automating infrastructure with Spacelift

Infrastructure automation tools in IaC, CM, and container orchestration are powerful on their own, but to leverage them you need a CI/CD platform. While CI/CD platforms can be leveraged to implement powerful workflows for your infrastructure, these workflows can become hard to scale, and they are hard to maintain and configure beyond a certain point.

This is where an infrastructure management platform such as Spacelift comes in. Spacelift supports Terraform, OpenTofu, Terragrunt, Pulumi, CloudFormation, Ansible, and Kubernetes and offers you the ability to see a plan of what will change after you run your infrastructure automation either via Spacelift’s UI or directly through your VCS provider.

With Spacelift, you not only elevate the workflows for your infrastructure automation tools, but you can easily implement guardrails using policies. You can control: 

  • What kind of resources engineers can create, what parameters they have, and even define policies for third-party tools using plan policies
  • How many approvals you need for a run and what tasks can run using approval policies
  • Where to send notifications and integrate with monitoring tools using notification policies
  • What happens when a PR is open or the code is merged using push policies

In addition, you can build a multi-infrastructure automation workflow by leveraging stack dependencies and their ability to share outputs:

If your developers need to deploy infrastructure in a familiar environment, Spacelift offers self-service infrastructure via:

  • Kubernetes Operator — define CRDs that deploy Spacelift resources
  • Blueprints — define a YAML file that configures all the aspects related to your workflow. Developers will just need to fill in a form to provision their infrastructure.

Other features that take infrastructure management to the next level include contexts (ability to share environment variables, files, and lifecycle hooks within your configurations), private module and provider registry for Terraform, private workers, and a resource view that shows all the resources that have been deployed with your Spacelift account.

Key points

Infrastructure automation is key to the success of your business. Avoiding manual infrastructure management completely reduces technical debt and ensures reliability and repeatability.

However, automating your infrastructure is not enough to ensure your guardrails are properly enforced, and your workflows are working end to end. That’s where Spacelift’s infrastructure management platform comes into play.

If you want to take your infrastructure automation to the next level, create a Spacelift account today or book a demo with one of our engineers.

Automation and Collaboration Tool for Infrastructure as Code

Spacelift is an Infrastructure as Code automation tool that allows you to audit, secure, and continuously deliver your infrastructure. It helps overcome common state management issues and adds several must-have features for infrastructure management like complex multi-IaC workflows.

Learn more

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