Managing cloud resources and their configurations across functional environments can be difficult. Terraform — an open-source, Infrastructure-as-Code (IaC) solution — can help, especially when combined with Development Operations (DevOps) automation.
In this post, I’ll cover some of the main questions our clients have about Terraform and how it can work with DevOps to simplify cloud migration automation and cloud infrastructure management. Together, they provide a solution that works without one-off scripts or manual configuration changes in any cloud environment, from Azure to Amazon Web Services (AWS) and beyond.
What Is IaC, and Why Does It Matter?
Organizations are beginning to use Infrastructure-as-Code (IaC) to deploy infrastructure resources because of its vast customization capabilities. Using IaC as the primary deployment method allows you to configure, provision, and manage operational environments like any other application or code release. When paired with DevOps, IaC creates consistent environments for supporting your cloud infrastructure resources.
Once you have consistent environments, you can place automation at every corner of your infrastructure lifecycle. Version control, continuous integration, monitoring, testing and more become possible when you successfully integrate IaC and DevOps. Critical infrastructure that supports production applications and systems become source controlled, and you can test and validate changes to infrastructure within lower environments first. Gone are the old management ways of one-off resource changes and inconsistent infrastructure configurations across environments.
However, you need a strong DevOps culture within your organization for IaC to succeed because it puts the common policies and procedures in place that allow IaC to work. Before going further, let’s take a closer look at what DevOps is and how it ensures consistency.
What Is DevOps?
If you are confused about what DevOps is, you are not alone. Googling the definition of DevOps will retrieve various answers, all of which will be at least partly accurate, depending on your needs at the time. So rather than giving a blanket definition of DevOps, I will instead illustrate what DevOps looks like in practice.
Imagine your organization has a development team dedicated to pushing code changes to a critical application. Their whole responsibility is ensuring your team creates and manages the code and that it’s efficient and operational. Once the team creates a new feature or patch, they need to test the change to see if it will run smoothly in production.
To do this, they package up their work and notify a separate operations team to implement the change and test it in a lower environment. If the changes and testing work, great! Your two teams have successfully validated a new feature or patch.
However, what if the changes and testing don’t work? Because the teams are separate, a wall exists between them, and trust, code management and deployment can fall through the cracks. The two teams will blame each other, which results in little resolution.
DevOps is the solution to this separation of teams, processes and ownership. It combines the development team and the operations team. The DevOps team works together, and all team members are part of the different processes. This integration provides many benefits, such as innovation acceleration, greater collaboration, enhanced security, and improved reliability, which can lead to drastically increased speed of development and deployment of products.
Why Should I Use Terraform IaC?
Managing cloud infrastructure resources using IaC paired with DevOps begins with deciding which IaC toolset to use. Each has its pros and cons, but Terraform is a great middle-ground resource for organizations that want or need a consistent configuration method for managing multiple providers (Azure, AWS, Google, and so on). Terraform is a user-friendly, readable tool that enforces consistency across providers without users having to learn the specific templated languages and nuances of different cloud providers.
Below are a few additional examples of the benefits Terraform can provide benefits to your organization:
- Lower training costs for organizations who are using, or planning on using, multiple cloud providers.
- Easier file management. You can easily and efficiently pick up Terraform configuration and place these in different deployment methods.
- Secure backend management. Terraform tfstate files (files that map real-world resources to your configurations — see below) can be stored in different locations with limited access to ensure the security of backend management.
- Self-management of Terraform code repositories to avoid becoming locked-in with particular vendors.
- Increased consistency across infrastructure environments that leads to lower overhead, increased management, and more cost predictability.
- Faster deployments to market when you pair Terraform with DevOps practices.
Of course, like any tech solution, Terraform requires some setup. You must compile the files you need for infrastructure management and enter them into the system. Most of these will be tfstate files (see below). Importing your existing resources for management within Terraform can also be time-consuming.
However, the time invested will likely be worthwhile. Terraform’s syntax and structure are consistent regardless of your provider, and the libraries associated with the various providers are extensive and user-friendly. This syntax structure allows you to integrate IaC for all your infrastructure environments seamlessly, and it can help you span multiple cloud providers with a limited learning curve.
To sum up: Terraform is an IaC tool with its own syntax structure that does not rely on specific environments (e.g., Azure Resource Manager (ARM), AWS CloudFormation or Google templates) for automation. It delivers virtually limitless agility for your cloud infrastructure.
Terraform at a High-Level (The Fundamentals)
Terraform contains two types of structures. The first is the repository (or repo), a hierarchical arrangement of files that contain the declarative Terraform code. The second is its branching for code management within the repository. The repo will hold all the terraform files and will contain any number of branches for IaC Management.
Common Terraform elements include:
- Modules – Self-contained packages of Terraform configurations that are managed as a group. Modules are reusable Terraform resource libraries and can be called upon to create/manage resources.
- Main.tf files – Core Terraform configuration files that instruct the resources that will be deployed and managed.
- *.tfvars files – Parameter variable files that allow for greater reusability of code
- variables.tf files– Input variable files that declare parameters to terraform configuration. This type of file provides alteration for the parameters in the terraform configuration file without altering the actual configuration file or hard coding information that can be varying. *.tfvars files can specify values listed in the variables.tf file.
- output.tf files – resources created within the main.tf file that can be output into a separate file to be referenced by other resources managed within other main.tf files
- *.tfstate files – Terraform uses state files to map real-world resources to your configuration, keep track of metadata, and improve performance for large infrastructures. You can store state files locally or in a remote storage location, such as an Azure Storage Account. However, you should store the *.tfstate files in a correlating storage container to prevent accidental deletion while improving team collaboration for managing terraform resources.
Now that you have defined the Terraform structures, how do you automate the contents of those files? To answer that, we must investigate platforms that support implementing and integrating continuous delivery pipelines or workflows.
DevOps Platforms at a High Level (The Fundamentals)
Configuring Terraform IaC files and preparing them for deployment is half the battle. The other half is setting up the automation of those files using pipelines or workflows. Luckily, the DevOps space provides multiple pipeline and workflow automation platforms that can help this process. Platforms such as Jenkins, Azure DevOps, GitHub Actions, CloudFormation and more can be your solution to Source Control Management (a tool to keep track of code with a complete history of changes). Having Source Control Management is critical to aiding your organization’s growth in an ever-evolving DevOps world.
These DevOps platforms not only allow for automation of deployments using continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) processes, but they also assist in enabling organizations to leverage a central repository location to store critical IaC files. Each DevOps platform has different characteristics and qualities when it comes to managing a DevOps environment, and each can support dozens of different teams and files within an organization.
If your organization is thinking of adopting IaC for your cloud infrastructure deployments, start planning and working through how you will organize your projects, repository structure, branches, branching strategy and teams to maximize efficiency when implementing IaC.
Conclusion: How Do I Get Started?
Implementing IaC and DevOps practices will not solve every problem your IT team has, and it could even add unnecessary complexity to your ever-growing IT environment. So, how do you know if you should leverage IaC and DevOps? Before making any decisions, do your due diligence on the different goals your organization wants to obtain and determine if those goals justify the time required to implement IaC and DevOps.
If, as an organization, you are ready to get started, then now is the time to plan! If implemented successfully, IaC and DevOps can help your organization work towards a world with no more one-off configuration differences in environments. Instead, you can start living in a world where consistency is mandatory.
Getting started with an IaC and DevOps implementation to automate deployments of your infrastructure environments should always begin with concrete planning and testing to validate how you will use the different tools in your company. A cloud-agnostic tool such as Terraform allows you to experiment with what works best for your organization and provides the freedom to pick and choose how to can make automation work best for you.