The Cloud and the DevOps Revolution

In this article by Nathaniel Felsen, the author of the book Effective DevOps with AWS, we will be covering the following topics:

  • Thinking in terms of cloud and not infrastructure
  • Deploying in AWS

(For more resources related to this topic, see here.)

The tech industry is constantly changing. Internet only came out a quarter of a century ago but has already transformed the way we live. Every day, over a billion people visit Facebook, every hour 18,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube, every second Google process 40,000 search queries. Being able to handle such a staggering scale isn't easy. Through the use of the Amazon Web Services (AWS), you will be able to build out the key components needed to succeed at minimum cost and effort.

Thinking in terms of cloud and not infrastructure

The day I discovered that noise can damage hard drives.

December 2011, sometime between Christmas and new year's eve. I started to receive dozens of alerts from our monitoring system. Apparently we had just lost connectivity to our European datacenter in Luxembourg. I rushed into network operating center (NOC) hopping that it's only a small glitch in our monitoring system, maybe just a joke after all, with so much redundancy how can everything go offline? Unfortunately, when I got into the room, the big monitoring monitors were all red, not a good sign. This was just the beginning of a very long nightmare. An electrician working in our datacenter mistakenly triggered the fire alarm, within seconds the fire suppression system set off and released its aragonite on top of our server racks. Unfortunately, this kind of fire suppression system makes so much noise when it releases its gas that sound wave instantly killed hundreds and hundreds of hard drives effectively shutting down our only European facility. It took months for us to be back on our feet.

Where is the cloud when you need it!

As Charles Philips said it the best: "Friends don't let friends build a datacenter."

Deploying your own hardware versus in the cloud

It wasn't long ago that tech companies small and large had to have a proper technical operations organization able to build out infrastructures.

The process went a little bit like this:

  1. Fly to the location you want to put your infrastructure in, go tour the the different datacenters and their facilities. Look at the floor considerations, power considerations, HVAC, fire prevention systems, physical security, and so on.
  2. Shop for an internet provider, ultimately even so you are talking about servers and a lot more bandwidth, the process is the same, you want to get internet connectivity for your servers.
  3. Once that's done, it's time to get your hardware. Make the right decisions because you are probably going to spend a big portion of your company money on buying servers, switches, routers, firewall, storage, UPS (for when you have a power outage), kvm, network cables, the dear to every system administrator heart, labeler and a bunch of spare parts, hard drives, raid controllers, memory, power cable, you name it.
  4. At that point, once the hardware is bought and shipped to the datacenter location, you can rack everything, wire all the servers, power everything.Your network team can kick in and start establishing connectivity to the new datacenter using various links, configuring the edge routers, switches, top of the racks switches, kvm, firewalls (sometime), your storage team is next and is going to provide the much needed NAS or SAN, next come your sysops team who will image the servers, sometime upgrade the bios and configure hardware raid and finally put an OS on those servers.

Not only this is a full-time job for a big team, it also takes lots of time and money to even get there.

Getting new servers up and running with AWS will take us minutes.In fact, more than just providing a server within minutes, we will soon see how to deploy and run a service in minutes and just when you need it.

Cost Analysis

From a cost stand point, deploying in a cloud infrastructure such as AWSusually end up being a to a lot cheaper than buying your own hardware. If you want to deploy your own hardware, you have to pay upfront for all the hardware (servers, network equipment) and sometime license software as well. In a cloud environment you pay as you go. You can add and remove servers in no time. Also, if you take advantage of the PaaS and SaaS applications you also usually end up saving even more money by lowering your operating costs as you don't need as much staff to administrate your database, storage, and so on. Most cloud providers,AWS included, also offer tired pricing and volume discount. As your service gets bigger and bigger, you end up paying less for each unit of storage, bandwidth, and so on.

Just on time infrastructure

As we just saw, when deploying in the cloud,you pay as you go. Most cloud companies use that to their advantage to scale up and down their infrastructure as the traffic to their sites changes.

This ability to add and remove new servers and services in no time and on demand is one of the main differentiator of an effective cloud infrastructure.

Here is a diagram from a presentation from 2015 that shows the annual traffic going to https://www.amazon.com/(the online store):

Effective DevOps with AWS

© 2016, Amazon Web Services, Inc. or its affiliates. All rights reserved.

As you can see, with the holidays, the end of the year is a busy time for https://www.amazon.com/, their traffic triple. If they were hosting their service in an "old fashion" way, they would have only 24% of their infrastructure used in average every year but thanks to being able to scale dynamically they are able to only provision what they really need.

Effective DevOps with AWS

© 2016, Amazon Web Services, Inc. or its affiliates. All rights reserved.

Here at medium, we also see on a very regular basis the benefits from having fast auto scaling capabilities. Very often, stories will become viral and the amount of traffic going on medium can drastically change. On January 21st 2015, to our surprise, the White House posted the transcript of the State of the Union minutes before President Obama started his speech:

https://medium.com/@WhiteHouse/

As you can see in the following graph, thanks to being in the cloud and having auto scaling capabilities, our platform was able to absorb the 5xinstant spike of traffic that the announcement made by doubling the amount of servers our front service uses. Later as the traffic started to naturally drain, we automatically removed some hosts from our fleet.

Effective DevOps with AWS

The different layer of building a cloud

The cloud computing is often broken up into 3 different type of service:

  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS): It is the fundamental block on top of which everything cloud is built upon. It is usually a computing resource in a virtualized environment. It offers a combination of processing power, memory, storage, and network. The most common IaaS entities you will find are virtual machines (VM), network equipment like load balancers or virtual Ethernet interface and storage like block devices.This layer is very close to the hardware and give you the full flexibility that you would get deploying your software outside of a cloud. If you have any datacentre physical knowledge, this will mostly also apply to that layer.
  • Platform as a Service (PaaS):It is where things start to get really interesting with the cloud. When building an application, you will likely need a certain number of common components such as a data store, a queue, and so on. The PaaS layer provides a number of ready to use applications to help you build your own services without worrying about administrating and operating those 3rd party services such as a database server.
  • Sofware as a Service (SaaS):It is the icing on the cake. Similarly, to the PaaS layer you get access to managed services but this time those services are complete solution dedicated to certain purpose such as management or monitoring tools.

When building an application, relying on those services make a big difference when compared to more traditional environment outside of a cloud.

Another key element to succeed when deploying or migrating to a new infrastructure is to adopt a DevOps mind-set.

Deploying in AWS

AWS is on the forefront of the cloud providers. Launched in 2006 with SQS and EC2, Amazon quickly became the biggest IaaS provider.

They have the biggest infrastructure, the biggest ecosystem and constantly add new feature and release new services. In 2015 they passed the cap of 1 million active customers. Over the last few years, they managed to change people's mind set about cloud and now deploying new services to the cloud is the new normal.

Using the AWS managed tools and services is a drastic way to improve your productivity and keep your team lean.

Amazon is continually listening to its customer's feedback and looking at the market trends therefore, as the DevOps movement started to get established, Amazon released a number of new services tailored toward implementing some of the DevOps best practices.We will also see how those services synergize with the DevOps culture.

How to best take advantage of the AWS ecosystem

When you talk to applications architects, there are usually two train of train of thought. The first one is to stay as platform agnostic as possible. The idea behind that is that if you aren't happy with AWS anymore, you can easily switch cloud provider or even build your own private cloud.

The 2nd train of thought is the complete opposite; the idea is that you are going to stick to AWS no matter what. It feels a bit extreme to think it that way but the reward is worth the risk and more and more companies agree with that. That's also where I stand. When you build a product now a day, the scarcity is always time and people. If you can outsource what is not your core business to a company that provides similar service or technology, support expertise and that you can just pay for it on SaaS model, then do so.

If, like me you agree that using managed services is the way to go then being a cloud architect is like playing with Lego. With Lego, you have lots of pieces of different shapes, sizes, and colors and you assemble them to build your own MOC.

Amazon services are like those Lego pieces. If you can picture your final product, then you can explore the different services and start combining them to build the supporting stack needed to quickly and efficiently build your product. Of course, in this case, the "If" is a big if and unlike Lego, understanding what each piece can do is a lot less visual and colorful than Lego pieces.

How AWS synergize with the DevOps culture

Having a DevOps culture is about rethinking how engineering teams work together by breaking out those developers and operations silos and bringing a new set of new tools to implement some best practices.

AWS helps in many different accomplish that:

For some developers, the world of operations can be scary and confusing but if you want better cooperation between engineers, it is important to expose every aspect of running a service to the entire engineering organization. As an operations engineer, you can't have a gate keeper mentality toward developers, instead it's better to make them comfortable accessing production and working on the different component of the platform. A good way to get started with that in the AWS console.

Effective DevOps with AWS

While a bit overwarming, it is still a much better experience for people not familiar with this world to navigate that web interface than referring to constantly out of date documentations, using SSH and random plays to discover the topology and configuration of the service.

Of course, as your expertise grows, as your application becomes and more complex and the need to operate it faster increase, the web interface starts to showing some weakness. To go around that issue, AWS provides a very DevOPS friendly alternative: an API. Accessible through a command-line tool and a number of SDK (which include Java, Javascript, Python, .net, php, ruby go, and c++) the SDKs let you administrate and use the managed services.

Finally, AWS offers a number of DevOps tools.

AWS has a source control service similar to GitHub called CodeCommit.

For automation, in addition to allowing to control everything via SDKs, AWSprovides the ability to create template of your infrastructure via CloudFormationbut also a configuration management system called OpsWork. It also knows how to scale up and down fleets of servers using Auto Scaling Groups.

For the continuous delivery AWS provide a service called CodePipeline and for continuous deployment a service called CodeCommit.

With regards to measuring everything, we will rely on CloudWatch and later ElasticSearch / Kibanato visualize metrics and logs.

Finally, we will see how to use Docker via ECS which will let us create containers to improve the server density (we will be able to reduce the VM consumption as we will be able to collocate services together in 1 VM while still keeping fairly good isolation), improve the developer environment as we will now be able to run something closer to the production environment and improve testing time as starting containers is a lot faster than starting virtual machines.

Summary

Throughout this article, we learned that When it comes to cloud services, AWS is leading the effort having more services than any other cloud provider. All those services are usable via API and SDK which is good for automation and in addition, AWS has tools and services for each key characteristic of the DevOps culture. 

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