Welcome to the Era of Immutable Infrastructure

on Dec 19, 2017

With the recent “container revolution,” a seemingly new idea became popular: immutable infrastructure. In fact, it wasn’t particularly new, nor did it specifically require containers. However, it was through containers that it became more practical, understandable, and got the attention of many in the industry.

So, what is immutable infrastructure? I’ll attempt to define it as the practice of making infrastructure changes only in production by replacing components instead of modifying them. More specifically, it means once we deploy a component, we don’t modify (mutate) it. This doesn’t mean the component (once deployed) is without any change in state; otherwise, it wouldn’t be a very functional software component. But, it does mean that as the operator we don’t introduce any change outside of the program’s original API/design.

Take for example this not too uncommon scenario. Say our application uses a configuration file that we want to change. In the dynamic infrastructure world, we might have used some scripting or a configuration management tool to make this change. It would make a network call to the server in question (or more likely many of them), and execute some code to modify the file. It might also have some way of knowing about the dependencies of that file that might need to be altered as a result of this change (say a program needing a restart). These relationships could become complex over time, which is why many CM tools came up with a resource dependency model that helps to manage them.

The trade-offs between the two approaches are pretty simple. Dynamic infrastructure is a lot more efficient with resources such as network and disk IO. Because of this efficiency, it’s traditionally faster than immutable because it doesn’t require pushing as many bits or storing as many versions of a component. Back to our example of changing a file. You could traditionally change a single file much faster than you could replace the entire server. Immutable infrastructure, on the other hand, offers stronger guarantees about the outcome. Immutable components can be prebuilt before deploy, and build once and then reused, unlike dynamic infrastructure which has logic that needs to be evaluated in each instance. This leaves opportunity for surprises about the outcome, as some of your environment might be in a different state that you expect, causing errors in your deployment. It’s also possible that you simply make a mistake in your configuration management code, but you aren’t able to sufficiently replicate production locally to test that outcome and catch the mistake. After all, these configuration management languages themselves are complex.

In an article from ACM Queue, an Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) magazine, engineers at Google articulated this challenge well:

“The result is the kind of inscrutable ‘configuration is code’ that people were trying to avoid by eliminating hard-coded parameters in the application’s source code. It doesn’t reduce operational complexity or make the configurations easier to debug or change; it just moves the computations from a real programming language to a domain-specific one, which typically has weaker development tools (e.g., debuggers, unit test frameworks, etc).”

Trade-offs of efficiency have long been central to computer engineering. However, the economics (both technological and financial) of these decisions change over time. In the early days of programming, for instance, developers were taught to use short variable names to save a few bytes of precious memory at the expense of readability. Dynamic linking libraries were developed to solve the space limitation of early hard disk drives so that programs could share common C libraries instead of each requiring their own copies. Both these things changed in the last decade due to changes in the power of computer systems where now a developer’s time is far more expensive than the bytes we save from shortening our variables. New languages like Golang and Rust have even brought back the statically compiled binary because it’s not worth the headache of dealing with platform compatibility because of the wrong DLL.

Infrastructure management is at a similar crossroad. Not only has the public cloud and virtualization made replacing a server (virtual machine) orders of magnitude faster, but tools like Docker have created easy to use tooling to work with pre-built server runtimes and efficient resource usage with layer caching and compression. These features have made immutable infrastructure practical because they are so lightweight and frictionless. Kuberentes arrived on the scene not long after Docker and took the torch further towards this goal, creating an API of “cloud native” primitives that assume and encourage an immutable philosophy. For instance, the ReplicaSet assumes that at any time in the lifecycle of our application we can (and might need to) redeploy our application. And, to balance this out, Pod Disruption Budgets tell Kubernetes how the application will tolerate being redeployed.

This confluence of advancement has brought us to the era of immutable infrastructure. And it’s only going to increase as more companies participate. Today’s tools have made it easier than ever to embrace these patterns. So, what are you waiting for?

About the Author

William Jimenez is a curious solutions architect at Rancher Labs in Cupertino, CA, who enjoys solving problems with computers, software, and just about any complex system he can get his hands on. He enjoys helping others make sense of difficult problems. In his free time, he likes to tinker with amateur radio, cycle on the open road, and spend time with his family (so they don’t think he forgot about them).

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