Our Resistance to Change has Sent Us the Long Way Round to Where We’re Going

Eight years after Mark Mayo wrote about how cloud computing would change our profession pretty much everything still applies and people are still trying to adapt to the changes he highlighted. The post is primarily about the changes that individual systems administrators would be facing, but it also describes how the way we work would need to adapt.

The problem is that on the operations and systems side of web development our overall reaction to this was slow and I think we confused what the actual goal should be with something that’s was only temporary.

Configuration Management is the configure; make; make install of infrastructure.

The big change that happened during that time was the public cloud became a reality and we were able to programmatically interact with the infrastructure. That change opened up the possibility of adopting software development best practices. The reaction to this was better configuration management with tools like Puppet and Chef.

Five years after (2013) Mark’s post people started working on containers again along with a new read-only OS. Just as the public cloud was important by bringing an API to interact and manage an environment, Docker and CoreOS provided the opportunity for the early adopters to start thinking about delivering artifacts instead of updating existing things with config management. Immutable infrastructure finally became practical. Years ago we gave up on manually building software and started deploying packages. Configure; make; make install was replaced with rpm, apt-get, or yum.

We stopped deploying a process that would be repeated either manually or scripted and replaced it with the results. That’s what we’ve been missing. We set our sights lower and settled on just more manual work. We would never pull down a diff and do a make install. We would just update to the latest package. Puppet, Chef, Ansible and Salt have held us back.

Wasn’t a benefit of infrastructure as code the idea that we could move the environment into a CI/CD pipeline as a first class citizen?

The build pipelines that has existed in software development is now really a thing for infrastructure. Testing and a way (Packer and Docker ) to create artifacts has been available for a while, but now we have tools ( Terraform, Mesos, and Kubernetes ) to manage and orchestrate how those things are used.

You better learn to code, because we only need so many people to write documentation.

There are only two things that we all really work on. Communication and dealing with change. The communication can be writing text or writing code. Sometimes the change is planned and sometimes it’s unplanned. But at the end of the day these two things are really the only things we do. We communicate, perform and react to changes.

If you cannot write code then you can’t communicate, perform and react as effectively as you could. I think it’s safe to say this is why Mark highlighted those three points eight years ago.

  1. We have to accept and plan for a future where getting access to bare metal will be a luxury. Clients won’t want to pay for it, and frankly we won’t have the patience or time to deal with waiting more than 5 minutes for any infrastructure soon anyways.
  2. We need to learn to program better, with richer languages.
  3. Perhaps the biggest challenge we’re going to have is one we share with developers: How to deal with a world where everything is distributed, latency is wildly variable, where we have to scale for throughput more than anything else. I believe we’re only just starting to see the need for “scale” on the web and in systems work.

– Mark Mayo, Cloud computing is a sea change - How sysadmins can prepare