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Infrastructure as code in 2021

unosd profile image Stefano d'Antonio Updated on ・12 min read

There are numerous advantages to using IaC, here are few examples:

  • Automation Scripted deployments reduce surface for human error and are faster to execute
  • Reproducibility Being able to recreate the same environment every time or multiple identical environment based on the same templates
  • Security Permission to production environments can be granted only to deployment service accounts, reducing risks
  • Costs Being able to destroy and recreate environments quickly can enable fast de-provisioning of expensive resources when they are not used

What are the options?

This article is Azure-centric, but most of what will be discussed will also apply to AWS, GCP and other clouds and targets. Cloud-specific systems such as ARM templates/Bicep may be comparable with AWS CloudFormation, GCP Cloud Deployment Manager and to K8s YAML for on-premises targets.

The code examples below all deploy exactly the same resources

Full working examples on GitHub here


ARM templates

Azure-native way of scripting resources; the language used is JSON.

I have worked extensively with ARM templates, but I still get an headache when I open one for the first time.

JSON is human readable, but not intuitive.

It requires a great deal of boilerplate and, JSON being JSON, naturally requires an abundance of curly braces, double quotes and other symbols that represent a substantial distraction from the actual meaningful content and hence easily lead to cognitive overload. Many people I spoke to dislike it for this precise reason.

The nesting doesn't help and it handles modules poorly.

Enough being negative, what's great about it? It's Azure's mother-tongue. It supports all Azure resources as soon as they are available.

In addition, if you use the Azure Resource Explorer, you will find exactly what has been deployed in your subscription and that will be in JSON and compatible with your ARM templates;

If you create something in the portal, you can easily export its current configuration as an ARM template.

This is a template that creates a resource group and a storage account:

{
  "$schema": "https://schema.management.azure.com/schemas/2015-01-01/deploymentTemplate.json#",
  "contentVersion": "1.0.0.0",
  "parameters": {
    "rgName": {
      "type": "string",
      "defaultValue": "rg-arm"
    },
    "rgLocation": {
      "type": "string",
      "defaultValue": "West Europe"
    }
  },
  "variables": {},
  "resources": [
    {
      "type": "Microsoft.Resources/resourceGroups",
      "apiVersion": "2018-05-01",
      "location": "[parameters('rgLocation')]",
      "name": "[parameters('rgName')]",
      "properties": {}
    },
    {
      "type": "Microsoft.Resources/deployments",
      "apiVersion": "2017-05-10",
      "name": "storageDeployment",
      "resourceGroup": "[parameters('rgName')]",
      "dependsOn": [
        "[resourceId('Microsoft.Resources/resourceGroups/', parameters('rgName'))]"
      ],
      "properties": {
        "mode": "Incremental",
        "template": {
          "$schema": "https://schema.management.azure.com/schemas/2015-01-01/deploymentTemplate.json#",
          "contentVersion": "1.0.0.0",
          "parameters": {},
          "variables": {},
          "resources": [
            {
              "type": "Microsoft.Storage/storageAccounts",
              "apiVersion": "2017-10-01",
              "name": "[concat('sa', uniquestring(subscription().id))]",
              "location": "West Europe",
              "kind": "StorageV2",
              "sku": {
                "name": "Standard_LRS"
              },
              "properties": {
                "supportsHttpsTrafficOnly": true
              }
            }
          ],
          "outputs": {}
        }
      }
    }
  ],
  "outputs": {}
}
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Pros

  • Native deployment history tracking
  • Always up to date with new resources
  • Supported by Microsoft

Cons

  • Unfriendly language
  • Hard to manage modules
  • Complexity increases exponentially for large environments

Bicep

OK, now take ARM templates, remove all the downsides and here you have Bicep.

A Bicep template is pretty much the same as an ARM template, in fact it transpiles to ARM JSON to use the same underlying deployment system, but Bicep addresses the two main cons of ARM:

The first massive advantage over ARM is the language; it's a bespoke DSL, easy to write and understand.

Modularisation is also easier than ARM as it allows to reference other templates in the same container (also same directory locally).

Being the same as ARM means also that is Azure-only, which, currently, is the main drawback.

Same resources from the ARM template above, but in Bicep this time:

targetScope = 'subscription'

resource rg 'Microsoft.Resources/resourceGroups@2020-01-01' = {
  name: 'rg-bicep'
  location: 'West Europe'
  scope: subscription()
}

module stgModule './storageAccount.bicep' = {
  name: 'storageDeploy'
  scope: rg
  params: {
    location: rg.location
  }
}
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param location string

resource stg 'Microsoft.Storage/storageAccounts@2019-06-01' = {
  name: 'sa${uniqueString(resourceGroup().id)}'
  location: location
  kind: 'StorageV2'
  properties: {
    supportsHttpsTrafficOnly: true
  }  
  sku: {
    name: 'Standard_LRS'
  }
}
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Even without syntax highlighting from the blog engine, this immediately looks awesome, way more readable and succinct. In my opinion a great option if you are Azure-only and want to avoid the burden of state management. You will miss out on clean-up of resources that Pulumi and Terraform achieve with an external state, but it is worth evaluating.

Pros

  • Same pros as ARM
  • Expressive (concise) language
  • Good modularisation support

Cons

  • Azure-only
  • No resources clean-up

Terraform

Terraform is the (first, I believe) exceptional attempt at a multi-cloud, human-readable, infrastructure as code tool; a successful attempt; it is quickly becoming the industry standard for cloud deployments.

The HashiCorp tool uses an external state storage, this registers all the resources deployed and enables destruction of the resources removed from the templates and clean up of an entire environment on demand.

Uses a custom DSL called HCL, quite friendly and understandable by anyone at a glance without prior training.

One major downside is that is a limited language; it covers the basic conditionals, loops, variables (poorly, in my opinion).

It's a beautiful solution for simple deployments, but it gets pretty frustrating when attempting to be more clever with the logic.

Same resources as above in the example here, in Terraform this time. I am using Azure blob as a state storage, but it has several options including the local file system.

One big downside is that often you find yourself in a situation where a new resource or a new feature of a resource comes up in Azure (and I presume the same for other providers), but you have to wait for the Terraform team to implement it to leverage it in idiomatic Terraform; you can always deploy ARM templates from within Terraform, but it is ugly and you miss a richer diff experience.

Modules support in Terraform is also great and it allows you to reference modules directly from external Git repositories.

terraform {
  backend "azurerm" {
    resource_group_name  = "rg-iac-demo"
    storage_account_name = "saiacdemo"
    container_name       = "terraform"
    key                  = "demo.tfstate"
  }
}

variable "subscription_id" {
  type      = string
  sensitive = true
}

variable "client_id" {
  type      = string
  sensitive = true
}

variable "client_secret" {
  type      = string
  sensitive = true
}

variable "tenant_id" {
  type      = string
  sensitive = true
}

provider "azurerm" {
  features {}

  subscription_id = var.subscription_id
  client_id       = var.client_id
  client_secret   = var.client_secret
  tenant_id       = var.tenant_id
}

resource "random_id" "storage_account" {
  byte_length = 8
}

resource "azurerm_resource_group" "example" {
  name     = "rg-terraform"
  location = "West Europe"
}

resource "azurerm_storage_account" "example" {
  name                      = "sa${lower(random_id.storage_account.hex)}"
  resource_group_name       = azurerm_resource_group.example.name
  location                  = azurerm_resource_group.example.location
  account_tier              = "Standard"
  account_replication_type  = "LRS"
  enable_https_traffic_only = true
}
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Pros

  • Unofficial industry standard as of 2021 (endorsed by several organisations)
  • Language and CLI are incredibly easy to understand and to use

Cons

  • HCL has its limits and simple logic can turn into complex templates (and can be frustrating to code)
  • Storage of the state is in plain text, including secrets; responsibility for securing it lies with the user
  • Tooling and code completion is not always great and misses "compile"-time checks
  • Being an open-source tool, is supported by the community only unless you pay for Terraform Enterprise
  • Resources support is delayed, sometimes quite heavily; bugs can stay unfixed for years

Pulumi

Dulcis in fundo... my favourite IaC tool as of today.

The people at Pulumi had a great intuition:

Using general purpose programming languages to define infrastructure.

It was such a good idea that a few months later, Terraform published a preview of its CDK to write Terraform in TypeScript (and I believe they now also support other languages).

With all the pressure for a DevOps culture, this fits really well as it enables developers to use a familiar language to also define infrastructure (it also allows interop between apps and infra code)

It supports .NET languages (C#/F#/VB.NET/...), Go, TypeScript, Python.

The ability to use the Azure management SDKs is not new, we could always do that in those languages, but Pulumi manages all the resources and dependencies for us.

You can specify the resources to create in a declarative way; you just build a list of stuff to create and Pulumi works out dependencies, changes and everything else for you.

It also features an encryption capability for secrets in the state; you can use external providers to encrypt the content moving the responsibility of securing the state more towards the tool.

The only downside may be that, for system administrators, picking up a programming language may have a steeper learning curve than learning HCL or Bicep and you are more likely to find ops talents on the job market that know Terraform rather than C#.

The support story is similar to Terraform. Pulumi offers a paid plan for storage, but the actual tool is open-source and community-supported.

One feature that Terraform has, but it's missing in Pulumi is the ability to plan the changes to an output file and then apply that file later; this eliminates the risk of race conditions if you plan and deploy independently and I find it really useful in CD pipelines (I've already created a GitHub issue to request the feature).

There is no roadmap for it at the moment, but if they will support PowerShell as a language in the future, that may remove the need for sysadmins to learn a new language and I believe it could ramp up its adoption.

using Pulumi;
using Pulumi.AzureNative.Resources;
using Pulumi.AzureNative.Storage;
using Pulumi.AzureNative.Storage.Inputs;

class MyStack : Stack
{
    public MyStack()
    {
        var resourceGroup = new ResourceGroup("rg-pulumi");

        new StorageAccount("sa", new StorageAccountArgs
        {
            ResourceGroupName = resourceGroup.Name,
            Sku = new SkuArgs
            {
                Name = SkuName.Standard_LRS
            },
            Kind = Kind.StorageV2,
            EnableHttpsTrafficOnly = true
        });
    }
}
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Pros

  • The AzureNative provider is always up-to-date with new Azure resources and features
  • If you are a developer, you do not need to learn a new language
  • It gives you the full power of a real programming language, whatever you can do in C# (or Python etc...) you can do in a Pulumi project
  • Great CLI, quiet in the output by default

Cons

  • Niche, less likely to find experts and documentation is poor
  • More hostile to pick up for sysadmins than Terraform
  • No output to the planning phase

Pulumi.FSharp.Extensions

I wanted to take Pulumi a step further; I love the technology, but I still do not like the verbosity of C# and, using Pulumi in F# was ugly, it is not made for this and you end up with code that looks like this to mimic property initialisation in C#:

let infra () =
    let resourceGroup = ResourceGroup("rg-pulumi")

    StorageAccount("sa", StorageAccountArgs(
        ResourceGroupName = resourceGroup.Name,
        Sku = SkuArgs(
            Name = SkuName.Standard_LRS
        ),
        Kind = Kind.StorageV2,
        EnableHttpsTrafficOnly = true
    ));
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So I decided to write an extension to use Pulumi, but make it look even better and simpler than Terraform in F# using computational expressions:

let rg =
    resourceGroup {
        name                   "rg-pulumi"
    }

let sa =
    storageAccount {
        name                   "sa"
        resourceGroup          rg.Name
        accountReplicationType SkuName.Standard_LRS
        accountTier            Kind.StorageV2
        enableHttpsTrafficOnly true
    }
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Link to the GitHub repo here.

Bird's eye view and lines of code

Purely looking at the core of the template, probably Pulumi in C# is the shorter one, but, being fair, you also have an external Pulumi.yaml file with project and state configuration (which is included in my Terraform example) and language-specific files such as project files (csproj), solution etc... Terraform and Bicep are also quite short. The ARM template is the most verbose as anticipated.


Other options

PSArm

A new option that recently came up (announced a few days before this blog post) is: PSArm

I have not had a chance to play with it and I will update this article later, but PSArm seems to answer the prayers of many sysadmins fed up with learning new languages;

It is a way of writing ARM templates using idiomatic PowerShell which is a familiar language to ops.

It sounds quite appealing to those who want to reuse existing skills to embrace IaC and PowerShell is almost as flexible as a programming language which may help overcome some limitations of Terraform.

Farmer

Honourable mention goes to Farmer which lets you write nice-looking F# that generates ARM templates; I have not played with it much, but I will try to see if there is any advantage in using it over Pulumi (and Pulumi.FSharp.Extensions if you want it to look pretty). Bear in mind that, generating ARM it means that it works only on Azure.

Azure CLI (Bash/PS) and PowerShell (Az module)

In my opinion, a less honourable mention. Many infrastructure engineers adopted this method because they did not know any better (early in the days when ARM/Terraform/etc were not so popular or did not exist at all), I personally see no benefits in using this approach nowadays as it moves a massive burden towards the engineer:

You have to worry about dependencies
You have to worry about error handling
You have to make sure it is idempotent (and cmdlets not always are)
...

I would not recommend this option or the ARM templates route as of today, I believe that there is no compelling reason to write IaC in this way. Please let me know in the comments if you have a good use case and I will happily update the article including it.

Comparison table

Comparison table

This is a comparison table where I evaluate features for each tool.

Features comparison

Declarative

Alt Text

That is the difference between getting into a shop and asking for a "chocolate cake with cream filling and 30 candles" and telling the baker: OK, now shake the eggs, mix with sugar, add milk etc...

Writing declarative code means telling the system what you want, not how to do it. You lose (unnecessary) control in favour of a feature-rich simplicity. That results also in less verbosity.

Most of the options are declarative, you can define resources in whichever order you prefer and the tools will work out dependencies and parallelisation for you. They will also manage retries, error handling and so on without having to explicitly code for it.

The only options that are imperative are Azure CLI and PowerShell (or directly using the REST API/SDK) to create the resources. I would not recommend this to anyone. It is worth upskilling (if you are a sysadmin) to understand Pulumi or Terraform and avoid PowerShell (or potentially try PSArm or wait for Pulumi to support PowerShell)


Idempotency

Alt Text

All the options can be idempotent; idempotency means that you can rerun the same deployment as many times as you like and, as long as the resources are unchanged, it will do nothing;

if a resource drifted away from the configuration or does not exist, it will be picked up.

Azure CLI and PowerShell are in yellow as you can still achieve this, but you have to code against it in certain cases; many cmdlets and AzCLI commands will be idempotent, but there is no guarantee.

Fallback mechanism

Alt Text

Both Terraform and Pulumi can include ARM templates in their code;

if a resource is not supported yet, you can temporarily use an ARM template and then update it later when the provider gets updated. Pulumi is unlikely to be out of date as it auto-generates from the Azure REST API; the folks there just need to kick off another build and in a matter of minutes a new Pulumi library is ready with the new Azure resources supported.

ARM/Bicep are updated immediately, AzCLI/PS almost immediately. I have never seen a resource available only in the REST API and not in all those.

Modularisation

Alt Text

ARM has an awful way of modularising templates, Bicep improves that significantly.

Terraform works nicely with modules and also supports modules directly from a Git repository and Pulumi is as good as the language you pick (which is very good for all the languages); you can use NuGet packages in .NET, npm packages with TypeScript, I presume pip with Python and I am sure that also applies to Go with its own package system.

Legacy deployments

Alt Text

ARM is not that flexible, but it won't matter at all as most of the time it will not need to use any legacy code; I consider ARM itself the "legacy".

Bicep has an automated tool to convert from ARM.

From Terraform you can invoke commands locally (including PowerShell/Bash scripts)

Pulumi, again, can do whatever TS/C#/Python/Go can do; which is pretty much everything your computer can do, including invoking Terraform, REST APIs, buy a pizza on every deployment using your favourite pizza place APIs, feed your cat in your smart home or play a fanfare when a resource is created...

Also worth noting that Pulumi has tf2pulumi, a tool that converts your Terraform to Pulumi in your chosen flavour of language, worth also noting that I got an exception the first time I tried using it; I will insist before judging it too harshly, but it did not seem mature enough at the time I tried it.

Supportability

Alt Text

ARM/Bicep are supported by Microsoft, not much else to say there, it is a massive plus.

Terraform and Pulumi by the community, but you can get a paid support plans if you use their storage; although, it may still mean that you are covered for the storage, but if the tooling has a bug you may have to wait in line like any other mere mortal.

AzCLI/PS you get the obvious support for the tools, but, if your custom code goes wrong, you're on your own and it will be mostly your custom code that will fail as there is so much more to write to achieve what the tools above achieve naturally.

Error handling/Plan/Clean up

Alt Text

This is all managed for your by all the tools, except CLI/PS where you have to look after this yourself; write conditional code and specify retries and what to do if it all goes bad.

I will soon publish a repository on GitHub with working examples in each language

This is a live article, I will try and keep it up to date with the new development and to complete the missing bits, if you want to suggest a change, please submit a pull request to this repository.
Cover image: "A visual representation of the DevOps workflow" by Kharnagy (edited) is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, .

Discussion (4)

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skovvart profile image
Nicolai Skovvart • Edited

Caveat: Everything below is with an Azure only perspective:

I think the best option is honestly the az cli which is judged fairly hardly here.
Unlike az powershell, most (all?) operations are idempodent, it's the most succinct and easiest to read of all the options and it includes the ability to deploy raw ARM as an escape hatch when necessary (and in my experience, it's always necessary at some point...).
Together with powershell for programmability, there's not very much missing beyond what-if and destruction features (partially mitigated by the increased readability and sensible use of resource groups that can be deleted...)

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unosd profile image
Stefano d'Antonio Author • Edited

Thank you for the feedback. Ultimately it is down to your requirements, Azure CLI may be the best option in your case, but you also mentioned the weak points: it is not cloud-agnostic, does not support plan (what/if) and clean up of resources (and tracking of changes when a parameter is not specified), which can be critical features for some projects. Also it is imperative and it requires more code (that can get ugly in Bash) if you want to parallelize and handle dependencies or errors. To your point I agree that is quite succinct, but I would not recommend it in most of the cases.

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julienbreux profile image
Julien Breux

This big article covers all the IaC tools!
Big thanks!

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unosd profile image
Stefano d'Antonio Author

Thank you for the feedback; I'm glad it was helpful.

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