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Timecampus

Infrastructure Engineering - The first principles

tvvignesh profile image t.v.vignesh ・11 min read

This blog is a part of a series on Kubernetes and its ecosystem where we will dive deep into the infrastructure one piece at a time

There are 4 main steps typically to solving any problem out there in the world.

  • Understanding or identifying the problem
  • Researching or thinking of possible ways to solve the problem
  • Working on the actual solution
  • Publish or release your solution to your target audience for feedback

And iterate on this entire cycle continuously. And this is typically the workflow we tend to follow for any problem irrespective of the domain.

Now, if you notice this in context with Infrastructure, OPS and Software Engineering, the infrastructure itself has been taking a huge toll on the process creating a lot of friction in the workflow while it is supposed to be just a facilitator to solve the main problem at hand (unless the problem you are trying to solve is related to the infrastructure itself).

But things are taking a positive direction today with the advent of various standards, platforms and tools today with Kubernetes, Docker, Terraform and various other tools leading the way sharing a path to a positive future.

While I am in my journey towards building Timecampus, I was researching for a standard to adopt something along the lines of the Twelve Factor App for SAAS apps, Agile Manifesto for Agile development, Principled GraphQL for Data Graph architectures with GraphQL and so on but for the infrastructure and to my surprise noticed that there was none that I could find.

So, before I start off addressing the problems Kubernetes and its ecosystem solves (or can potentially solve in the future) for infrastructure in this series, I feel that it is very important to lay down the first principles around which we should visualize infrastructure and that is what we are going to discuss in this blog post.

NOTE: These principles are from my own experience and also the knowledge I have gathered going through many case studies over time. So, feel free to interpret this in your own way or dismiss any of this if it is not a fit for your use case.

Standards, Abstractions and Encapsulation

In reality, infrastructure is composed of various components each fulfilling a specific responsibility as part of the complete stack with responsibilities ranging from networking, compute, storage and more over time with a lot of peripherals now available to use. While it is definitely healthy to have a freedom of choice and competition, it is very important to note that this should not be presented as a challenge, but be seen as an empowering force for the users.

And this can only happen only if there are sensible standards and abstractions around all of these disparate components thus abstracting all the complexity away from the end users but at the same time, allowing them to modify it wherever needed.

Infrastructure should be seen as nothing but a "Black Box" which is decomposable into multiple different black boxes as needed with each black box fulfilling a separate responsibility.

Automate Everything

As discussed before, infrastructure should act as an enabler and not a bottleneck with your valuable time better spent on working on the actual problem rather than the infrastructure itself. Keeping this in mind, every operation with the infrastructure should be automated to the best extent possible.

And this can be anything which is part of the process including healing, recovery, failover, deployments, migrations, upgrades, log shipping and more. If you find yourself doing something repeatedly, then consider automating since it can save countless hours of time in the future and can also prevent possible human errors in doing things manually.

Extendibility

While it is important to abstract and encapsulate the various infrastructure components, it should also be extendible by anyone as needed via something like APIs which allows users to build on top of these components as specific to their use case.

This is important cause not every use case in the world can be natively addressed and adding them all to the core would most often seem nonsensical. Keeping this in mind, a plugin driven approach is often empowering to the entire ecosystem in general.

Environmental Consistency

While infrastructure can typically vary between different environments be it development, staging or production, across multiple different deployments be it on-premise, private and public clouds or even different cloud or on-premise providers, the experience of the user should be consistent across all these different environments abstracting the various differences between them typically as adapters.

So, while users interact with the same APIs in the same way consistently across different environments, the way the APIs are handled across different environments should live as adapters or sandboxes thus acting as a compatibility layer on top of the possibly different Infrastructure APIs.

Packaging and Release

Environmental consistency also requires a consistent way in which you would typically package and release your application or the infrastructure itself. A consistent packaging and release mechanism would create no surprises when working across different environments and also help to reproduce any inconsistencies or failure events which may occur in a different environment without any issues. This also helps to properly version control various releases over time and allow users to gradually update or upgrade portions of the infrastructure as they see fit after appropriate review of the changes without forcing something onto them.

This mandates the need for all components in the infrastructure to maintain its own versioned packaging and release mechanism allowing a consistent and clear upgrade path for every component.

Modularity, Single Responsibility & Incremental Scalability

Every piece of the infrastructure as discussed before should be a black box by itself and thereby modular with its own set of APIs each fulfilling a single responsibility which are then orchestrated together to fulfill the complete use case. This not only reduces the possibility of errors creeping in with each module handling its own release cycle, but it also allows for things like incremental adoption and scalability from small to large projects just using the modules which they really need to satisfy their use case.

This also allows for scalability at the module level depending on your use case.

Administration

While Infrastructure works underneath as loosely coupled modules, they should be easy to administer for end users wherever needed. It is ideally visualized as a honeycomb with each cell working on fulfilling its own responsibility.

Users must be able to easily monitor and administer any of these components as needed optionally abstracting the complexity of what happens underneath offering a way to respond quickly in the advent of issues which can typically crop up in any part of the infrastructure and also allow for use cases like cost optimization where infrastructure can be effectively utilized where possible and security where the path of communication between all components is better visible for the administrator to enable them to secure it properly as needed.

Declarative and Self-Documenting Infrastructure as Code

As we discussed above infrastructure is made of a lot of components and one thing that is common over time is "change". We should try to architect for change and this is where Infrastructure as code really helps us to well document and orchestrate all the different states of the infrastructure over time declaratively, version control them and do it all in such a way that there is also a path to roll back to a previous state where needed.

This also paves way for collaboration, reviews, automation and testing where the changes between 2 different states can be well tested in different environments and then consistently rolled out to multiple environments as needed.

Sensible Management of State

The problem is not in the state, but in managing it properly. Avoiding state is often difficult especially given the dynamic nature of applications today.

Maintaining state improperly can cause a lot of issues in scaling your applications and the infrastructure that goes with it. So, rather than spreading the state everywhere, it is often sensible to manage the state properly and in isolation so that the rest of the application can work and scale independently of the stateful services while the stateful services can follow their own path to scalability decoupling both worlds from each other.

Faster Inner Dev Loop and Agility

While you may maintain a complex infrastructure and a rollout process for your use case, the same complexity should not be exposed during the development phase. Rather the development experience should be such a way that the infrastructure completely fades behind the scenes, and the developers just focus on getting quick feedback for all the changes they make.

This can involve a lot of techniques like using sync instead of rebuilds, allowing hybrid development allowing developers to just host a portion of the infrastructure they work on locally leaving the rest in the target environment, custom network proxying, better IDE integration and more all done to speed up the inner dev loop and agility of development.

No single point of failure

For an infrastructure to be reliable, there should typically be no single point of failure, otherwise called highly available systems. This calls for decentralization of responsibilities and also to have things like redundancies and failovers where needed. But it is also important to consider that a 99.99% uptime might not be the call for every use case and hence different use cases call for different levels of redundancies and failover mechanisms making this decision completely dependent on the use case.

Having said that, it is always better to design simple systems at start and incrementally scalable systems over time as the need arises. So, building highly scalable systems are a journey and not the destination by itself since more decentralization creates more complexity.

Support for Seamless Collaboration

Products are often built with the effort of multiple members of a team and the same goes for infrastructure and the applications running on it as well.

Keeping this in mind, it is important to support seamless ways to collaborate while working on the infrastructure facilitating parallel changes from multiple people, allowing the ability to research and experiment with any part of the infrastructure in an isolated context or sandbox without affecting the others and also the ability to share or package portions of infrastructure as needed facilitating seamless collaboration between different members and this should be done so keeping security in mind allowing only authorized personnel to make changes as needed but do so in a way without creating friction amongst users.

Zero Trust Security

As experts rightly say, security shouldn't be an afterthought but should start as the core principles when building or working with the infrastructure. It is often naïve to say that "This cannot be compromised" since we all know what happens. Rather the thinking should be along the lines of "If this gets compromised, this is what will happen and this is how I will respond" and this is where Zero Trust Security really plays a major role where you never trust anything or anyone at anytime (while in real life you should).

This gives a first look on all the ways your infrastructure can be compromised and helps you take preventative measures and be ready for anything before the bad stuff actually does happen. This can involve anything from reviewing the access policies, reviewing the network paths, encrypting data or other PII, separating data into multiple tenants, scanning the images, reviewing the underlying infrastructure for security concerns, separating the boundary of attacks or anything similar which can either prevent or reduce the impact of the attack.

Infrastructure should be dumb

While this might sound crazy, the true fact is that the more dumb the infrastructure is the way better it is for stability and maintainability. As we mentioned above, every module should have a single responsibility and this should be in such a way that there is always a cause to a change in the infrastructure.

For instance, if your infrastructure has to auto scale, it is often better to do it without introducing too much complexity to the infrastructure or its controllers itself. Rather, try to dumb it down as much as possible and use some sensible criteria either from experience or from the historical data to take decisions on the scale either manually or automatically depending on how often such changes are needed. Asking your infrastructure to do too much for you will just raise the complexity. Or if you are indeed looking to create a smart infrastructure system, try to spread the complexity rather than keeping it locked into a single component.

Discoverability

As we discussed, there are various components to an infrastructure. Considering this, it is very important to have discoverability in mind when designing these systems since they might often need to work together to complete a specific task which can happen only if they are discoverable as and when needed.

While the mechanism of discoverability itself boils down to your use case, the one thing to keep in mind is that it is better to distribute discoverability since we don't want a single point of failure and also the fact that it should be easy to understand the various calls and the network traffic well without introducing too much complexity even as the number of components and services increase over time.

Eventual consistency

Distributed systems and infrastructure are always eventually consistent considering the various factors like network latencies, bandwidth, throughput, I/O speeds and so on. So, rather than avoiding this fact, designing a system to support eventual consistency is always better since it will help you to better handle failures or data lags whenever it occurs.

While there are mechanisms like distributed transactions in place to handle this problem, even such solutions are nothing but eventual consistencies with abstractions on top. Keeping this in mind, infrastructure and applications are better designed for such scenarios rather than expecting everything to be consistent every time.

Testability

Testability becomes a really important part especially when you want a high degree of stability and automation in place with the constant influx of change you might have in the future. Every part of the infrastructure should be testable in isolation and also as a group to bring about a greater degree of confidence the users would have on the underlying infrastructure.

This can be anything from testing the various integration points between the infrastructure to testing the logic within giving a complete picture of what went or can go wrong.

Sensible defaults

While we discuss all of these principles, effort must also be made to provide sensible defaults wherever possible allowing the users to incrementally adopt, change or scale as needed. Sensible defaults includes making every piece of infrastructure secure by default, allow basic functionalities like monitoring, logging, backups, failover, etc. without having to manually configure it to work.

This can prevent a lot of issues which just happen due to the lack of knowledge users might have while working on a part of infrastructure, dumb it down for new comers and also help users to start any project as quickly as possible without going through too much of configuration to start working on something.

Seamless upgrades, updates, maintenance and failovers

While cloud providers do offer an SLA for the deployments when paid, this should not be a feature but rather the default. Upgrades, updates, failovers and maintenance should happen seamlessly without affecting the workloads running on the infrastructure. And even in case of failures, there should be a way to still serve sensible traffic to customers as and when needed avoiding possible downtime.

All this can happen only if a possible failure is detected as early as possible and effort is made to switch over to healthy traffic and deployment wherever available. To the same effect, proper health checks should be in place to identify and handle failures if any in any part of the infrastructure and even handle upgrades seamlessly as they occur.

Fail Quickly and Respond Sensibly

It is not practically possible to have a 100% uptime for every portion of your infrastructure. Rather, the components should fail quickly whenever there are issues and respond sensibly whenever possible. It is often better to let failures to happen rather than suppressing them which might create a catastrophe at a future point of time.

And these according to me are the most important principles to keep in mind especially when working with scalable infrastructure.

Do let us know if we have missed out on something important here since I would like to treat this as a living document updating it as the need arises based on feedback from the community.

Hope this has shed some light into the various things to keep in mind while working with infrastructure. But as complex as these may sound (and they are indeed complex), there are a lot of tools in the community today and a huge ecosystem which can help us do all of these (at least for the most part).

As I was writing this blog post, I got a small idea of making the first principles across all the domains available for everyone at one place.
With that aim in mind, I would like to announce the launch of a new site to do just that https://thefirstprinciples.dev

From the next blog in this series, we will start exploring how the various tools in the ecosystem fit right in to address these various principles and solve the difficult challenges lying ahead in front of us.

Any questions? Looking for help? Feel free to reach out to me @techahoy. And if this helped, do share this across with your friends, do hang around and follow us for more like this every week. See you all soon.

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