Can Yellowstone teach us about IT infrastructure management?

It seems almost too fitting that, at a time when the popularity of gritty television like Yellowstone and 1883 is climbing, that I write to encourage you to stop taking on new pets and to start running a cattle ranch.

Pet versus Cattle – The IT Version

The “pet versus cattle” analogy is often used to describe different methodologies for IT management. You treat a pet by giving it a name like Zeus or Apollo. You give it a nice home home. You nurse it back to health when it’s sick. Cattle, on the other hand, get an ear tag with a number and are sent to roam the field until they are needed.

Carrying this analogy into IT, I have seen my shared of pet servers. We build them up, nurse them back to health after a virus, upgrade them when needed, and do all the things a good pet owner would do. And when these go down, people notice. “Cattle” servers, on the other hand, are quickly provisioned and just as quickly replaced, often without any maintenance or downtime.

Infrastructure as Code

In its most basic definition, infrastructure as code is the idea that an infrastructure’s definition can be defined in some file (preferably source controlled). Using various tools, we can take this definition and create the necessary infrastructure components automatically.

Why do we care if we can provision infrastructure from code? Treating our servers as cattle requires a much better management structure than “have Joe stand this up for us.” Sure, Joe is more than capable of creating and configuring all of the necessary components, but if we want to do it again, it requires more of Joe’s time.

With the ability to define an infrastructure one time and deploy it many times, we gain the capacity to worry more about what is running on the infrastructure than the infrastructure itself.

Putting ideas to action

Changing my mindset from “pet” to “cattle” with virtual machines on my home servers has been tremendously valuable for me. As I mentioned in my post about, you become much more risk tolerant when you know a new VM is 20 unattended minutes away.

I have started to encourage our infrastructure team to accept nothing less than infrastructure as code for new projects. In order to lead by example, I have been working through creating Azure resources for one of our new projects using Terraform.

Terraform: Star Trek or Nerd Tech?

You may be asking: “Aren’t they both nerd tech?” And, well, you are correct. But when you have a group of people who grow up on science fiction and are responsible for keeping computers running, well, things get mixed up.

Terraform the Hashicorp product is one of a number of tools which allow infrastructure engineers to automatically provision environments to host their products using various providers. I have been using its Azure Resource Manager provider, although there are more than a few available.

While I cannot share the project code, here is what I was able to accomplish with Terraform:

  • Create and configure an Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS) instance
  • Create and configure an Azure SQL Server with multiple databases
  • Attach these instances to an existing virtual network subnet
  • Create and configure an Azure Key Vault
  • Create and configure a public IP address from an existing prefix.

Through more than a few rounds of destroy and recreate, the project is in a state where it is ready to be deployed in multiple environments.

Run a ranch

So, perhaps, Yellowstone can teach us about IT Infrastructure management. A cold and calculated approach to infrastructure will lead to a homogenous environment that is easy to manage, scale, and replace.

For what it’s worth, 1883 is simply a live-action version of Oregon Trail…