Introduction to Infrastructure Patterns

What is this for?

This catalogue describes potentially useful approaches for designing infrastructure which is defined as code, and managed like software. Each pattern in the catalogue describes a recurring and useful solution, giving the context in which it may be useful, and some advice on implementation. The catalogue also includes antipatterns, which are approaches and strategies which seem useful, or which are in popular use, but which have drawbacks that make them less useful.

These solutions are written as design patterns, each of which should be relevant to any cloud or virtualization platform, and to any toolchain which defines infrastructure as code. The examples tend to use Terraform code and AWS infrastructure, because these are widely understood. But the concepts and techniques should be usable with others.

The goal of naming and documenting these patterns is to have a vocabulary that we can use in teams, and in the industry, to talk about how to do things. Different people may have different opinions about the best way to solve a certain problem in a particular situation, but at least we should have a common frame of reference for a conversation.

This catalogue is a work in progress. There are many topics I’d like to cover here, which will need additional patterns and sections. And I am continuously getting feedback and new ideas which drive me to revisit things I’ve already written.

The key parts of an infrastructure as code system

The patterns in this catalogue are based on a particular way of seeing the parts of an infrastructure, as shown in figure 1:

The key parts of an infrastructure declared as code
Figure 1: The key parts of an infrastructure declared as code.

Dynamic Infrastructure Platform

The Infrastructure Platform is the foundation of the system. It provides a pool of resources including compute, networking, and storage, and makes those resources available to be provisioned to run services. Most platforms also provide higher level services composed of multiple resources. For example Databases as a Service (DBaaS) combine storage, compute, and networking.

Infrastructure as Code requires the infrastructure platform to be both programmatic and dynamic. That is, it should be possible to allocate resources from the platform using an API (programmatic), and on demand (dynamic).

An infrastructure platform is a pool of resources that can be dynamically provisioned using an API
Figure 2: An infrastructure platform is a pool of resources that can be dynamically provisioned using an API.

The most common platforms for infrastructure as code are IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) clouds, such as AWS, Azure, GCP, OpenStack, or vCloud. However, virtualization platforms such as VMWare can also be managed as code. It’s even possible to include physical hardware in a dynamic infrastructure platform, by using automated provisioning systems, for example with ILO, PXE, and Foreman.

Core stack patterns

Infrastructure stacks

An Infrastructure Stack is a collection of infrastructure resources which are provisioned as a unit from an infrastructure platform. A stack may include compute resources such as servers, containers, or serverless code; networking structures like subnets and load balancers; and/or storage such as disk volumes and block storage.

An Infrastructure Stack is a collection of infrastructure resources which are provisioned as a unit from an infrastructure platform
Figure 3: An Infrastructure Stack is a collection of infrastructure resources which are provisioned as a unit from an infrastructure platform.

With infrastructure as code, a stack is defined in source code. A stack project contains the source code for a single stack, although it may be used to provision multiple instances. A stack management tool is used to read the source code, and then interact with the API of the infrastructure platform to adjust the infrastructure to match what is declared in the source code.

Examples of stack management tools include Hashicorp Terraform, AWS CloudFormation, Azure Resource Manager Templates, Google Cloud Deployment Manager Templates and OpenStack Heat. Some toolchains designed to configure servers also have capabilities to manage stacks, for example Ansible Cloud Modules, Chef Provisioning, Puppet modules, and Salt Cloud.

Infrastructure stacks are a core concept in the patterns described in this catalogue.

Still to come

This catalogue is a work in progress. Topics that I plan to add over time include:

  • Server configuration. How to provision and configure servers, including the use of images and server roles. Push vs. pull, bake vs. fry.
  • Testing. How to implement automated testing for infrastructure stacks and server configuration elements.
  • Pipelines for infrastructure. Patterns for designing and implementing CD pipelines for delivering changes to infrastructure.
  • Splitting and integrating stacks. More patterns and antipatterns for chopping stuff up across stacks. Techniques for integrating infrastructure elements across stacks.
  • Stack lifecycles and data persistence.
  • Applications and infrastructure. Patterns for integrating infrastructure and application deployment. Code organization (should application and infrastructure code live in the same repository?)