Containers: Making Infrastructure as Code Easier

on Jan 31, 2017

Containers and Infrastructure as CodeWhat do Docker containers have to do with Infrastructure as Code (IaC)?

In a word, everything.

Let me explain. When you compare monolithic applications to microservices, there are a number of trade-offs. On the one hand, moving from a monolithic model to a microservices model allows the processing to be separated into distinct units of work. This lets developers focus on a single function at a time, and facilitates testing and scalability. On the other hand, by dividing everything out into separate services, you have to manage the infrastructure for each service instead of just managing the infrastructure around a single deployable unit. Infrastructure as Code was born as a solution to this challenge.

Container technology has been around for some time, and it has been implemented in various forms and withvarying degrees of success, starting with chroot in the early 1980s and taking the form of products such as Virtuozzo and Sysjail since then. It wasn’t until Docker burst onto the scene in 2013 that all the pieces came together for a revolution affecting how applications can be developed, tested and deployed in a containerized model. Together with the practice of Infrastructure as Code, Docker containers represent one of the most profoundly disruptive and innovative changes to the process of how we develop and release software today.

What is Infrastructure as Code?

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Before we delve into Infrastructure as Code and how it relates to containers, let’s first look at exactly what we mean when we talk about IaC. IaC refers to the practice of scripting the provisioning of hardware and operating system requirements concurrently with the development of the application itself. Typically, these scripts are managed in a similar manner to the software code base, including version control and automated testing.

When properly implemented, the need for an administrator to log into a new machine and configure it manually is replaced by scripts which describe the ideal state of the new machine, and execute the necessary steps in order to configure the machine to realize that state.

Key Benefits Realized in Infrastructure as Code

IaC seeks to relieve the most common pain points with system configuration, especially the fact that configuring a new environment can take a significant amount of time. Each environment needs to be configured individually, and when something goes wrong, it can often require starting the process all over again. IaC eliminates these pain points, and offers the following additional benefits to developers and operational staff:

  1. Relatively easy reuse of common scripts.
  2. Automation of the entire provisioning process, including being able to provision hardware as part of a continuous delivery process.
  3. Version control, allowing newer configurations to be tested and rolled back as necessary.
  4. Peer review and hardening of scripts. Rather than manual configuration from documentation or memory, scripts can be reviewed, updated and continually improved.
  5. Documentation is automatic, in that it is essentially the scripts themselves.
  6. Processes are able to be tested.

Taking Infrastructure as Code to a Better Place with Containers

As developers, I think we’re all familiar with some variant of, “I don’t know mate, it works on my machine!” At best, it’s mildly amusing to utter, and at worst it represents one of the key frustrations we deal with on a daily basis. Not only does the Docker revolution effectively eliminate this concern, it also brings IaC into the development process as a core component.

To better illustrate this, let’s consider a Dockerized web application with a simple UI. The application would have a Dockerfile similar to the one shown below, specifying the configuration of the container which will contain the application.

FROM ubuntu:12.04

# Install dependencies
RUN apt-get update -y && apt-get install -y git curl apache2 php5 libapache2-mod-php5 php5-mcrypt php5-mysql

# Install app
RUN rm -rf /var/www/*
ADD src /var/www

# Configure apache
RUN a2enmod rewrite
RUN chown -R www-data:www-data /var/www
ENV APACHE_LOG_DIR /var/log/apache2


CMD ["/usr/sbin/apache2", "-D", "FOREGROUND"]

If you’re familiar with Docker, this is a fairly typical and simple Dockerfile, and you should already know what it does. If you’re not familiar with the Dockerfile, understand that this file will be used to create a Docker image, which is essentially a template that will be used to create a container. When the Docker container is created, the image will be used to build the container, and a self-contained application will be created. It will be available for use on whatever machine it is instantiated on, from developer workstation to high-availability cloud cluster.

Let’s look at a couple of key elements of the file, and explore what they accomplish in the process.

FROM ubuntu:12.04

This line pulls in an Ubuntu Docker image from Docker Hub to use as the base for your new container. Docker Hub is the primary online repository of Docker images. If you visit Docker Hub and search for this image, you’ll be taken to the repository for Ubuntu. The image is an official image, which means that it is one of a library of images managed by a dedicated team sponsored by Docker. The beauty of using this image is that when something goes wrong with your underlying technology, there is a good chance that someone has already developed the fix and implemented it, and all you would need to do is update your Dockerfile to reference the new version, rebuild your image, and test and deploy your containers again.

The remaining lines in the Dockerfile install various packages on the base image using apt-get. Add the source of your application to the /var/www directory, configure Apache, and then set the exposed port for the container to port 80.

Finally, the CMD command is run when the container is brought up, and this will initiate the Apache server and open it for http requests.

That’s Infrastructure as Code in its simplest form. That’s all there is to it.

At this point, assuming you have Docker installed and running on your workstation, you could execute the following command from the directory in which the Dockerfile resides.

$ docker build -t my_demo_application:v0.1

Docker will build your image for you, naming it my_demo_application and tagging it with v0.1, which is essentially a version number. With the image created, you could now take that image and create a container from it with the following command.

$ docker run -d my_demo_application:v0.1

And just like that, you’ll have your application running on your local machine, or on whatever hardware you choose to run it.

Taking Infrastructure as Code to a Better Place with Docker Containers and Rancher

A single file, checked in with your source code that specifies an environment, configuration, and access for your application. In its purest form, that is Docker and Infrastructure as Code. With that basic building block in place, you can use docker-compose to define composite applications with multiple services, each containing an individualized Dockerfile, or an imported image for a Docker repository. For further reading on this topic, and tips on implementation, check out Rancher’s documentation on infrastructure services and environment templates. You can also read up on Rancher Compose, which lets you define applications for multiple hosts.


Mike Mackrory is a Global citizen who has settled down in the Pacific Northwest – for now. By day he works as a Senior Engineer on a Quality Engineering team and by night he writes, consults on several web based projects and runs a marginally successful eBay sticker business. When he’s not tapping on the keys, he can be found hiking, fishing and exploring both the urban and the rural landscape with his kids.

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