Vince Veselosky

Author of Awesome Fantasy

Web Developers: Infrastructure is part of your Application!

July 09, 2011

One of the most difficult realities for web developers to face is that their application code, elegant and beautiful as it may (or may not) be, does not run in the ivory tower of Code Perfection. It runs on a real machine (or several) in a real data center, competing for resources to serve real clients, and tripping over all-too-real limitations of the environment.

Operations people, those shadowy, pager-carrying folks that developers call "sysadmins", know that there is so much more to delivering a web application to its clients than simply deploying code. Web applications are not delivered the way packaged software was in the 90's, on a shrink-wrapped CD-ROM like a book. Web applications are not products at all, they are services, and services don't get to say "bring your own computer." Services must be delivered complete, with an entire stack of running programs and systems underneath them.

A web application, whether Java, Ruby, Python, PHP, or LOLcode, is incomplete until it is paired with a stack of servers and services on which to run it. Which language runtime must be installed? Which version of which web server(s)? How should the database server be tuned? How much RAM allocated to memcached? When should the logs be rotated? Developers often do not even think about these questions. When they do, the answers are usually provided as a narrative requirements list which some dedicated systems engineers must translate into a working system somehow.

Systems automation has now reached the point where this infrastructure can be delivered as code right along with the application code. Every web application should be delivered with Puppet configurations or Chef cookbooks to bring up a precisely tuned deployment stack designed for the application. Cloud-based infrastructure means you can even deliver the (virtual) hardware itself with the application. A good web application should come with a "deploytoec2" script for instant production deployment.

Of course, there are other opinions. You may choose to outsource your operations work to a platform-as-service like Heroku or App Engine. If you want to live in a code-only world where infrastructure never crosses your mind, write your code to target deployment environments like these, and get used to the constraints they impose.

In my opinion, every web development team needs a systems engineer embedded as part of the team, developing and codifying the infrastructure alongside the application code. A web application delivered without infrastructure automation is incomplete.