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Infrastructure Debt

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You might have come across the term “technical debt”, used to describe the small mistakes that are made in your code base as the application grows and requirements change. You end up with a big tangled mess if you are not very careful about how you make those changes. If you’ve ever worked on an application where you were afraid to make changes for fear of breaking something, then you have run into technical debt.

It’s very easy to build up technical debt: you put a quick hack in because you feel like you are under pressure to get a task accomplished. It takes courage to push back and say “no, damnit, I need time to fix this particular problem correctly!”. I understand, and it’s okay. We can hug it out if it will make you feel better.

Technical debt can be dealt with via ruthless refactoring and wrapping your application in tests that poke and prod at the edge cases that your application deals with. But there is another type of debt you end up dealing with. One that is even more difficult to deal with and change. I call it infrastructure debt.

Infrastructure debt is debt that you build up because you have not been paying attention to the process of creating the environments your application will exist in and have not been paying attention to the process of how your code gets from development into production. In my opinion, infrastructure debt is much more difficult to “pay off” than technical debt. Why? It is often very difficult for people to understand that it even exists.

Before I go any further, if you are not using a version control system to keep track of changes to your code, then please stop reading and go and install one. Having versions of your files with extensions like .1 and .old is the worst kind of infrastructure debt that you could possibly have. It’s the 2nd decade of the 21st century. Version control is an almost 40-years-old, well-understood concept. Nothing I suggest will work if you insist on acting like version control is of no use to you. Passing around diff patches is not version control, my friends. It’s denial. Don’t tell me just because people used to do it in the past that it’s okay now given all the available options. People used to think that the earth was flat once too.

Let’s start with an easy infrastructure debt to pay off: inconsistency in development environments. These days it is pretty easy for someone to create a development environment for their language of choice along with associated components like databases. The problem? That it’s pretty easy for someone to create the development environment of their choice.

You end up with your developers all having environments that are slightly different due to choice of source for packages or preferences on versions of components. I have PHP 5.3.8 via a custom Homebrew recipe while one of my co-workers has the stock version of PHP that comes with OS-X Snow Leopard. He has a version of MySQL that is two versions ahead of mine. See how easy it is to get out of sync?

You have two options. The first one is the draconian one, where you force everyone to use the same operating system and the same tools to minimize the chances of conflicts between development environments. Given how that leads to developer unhappiness, I prefer a more sane approach: use tools like VMWare or VirtualBox to let your developers do their work on identical virtual machines while giving them the freedom to use the development and debugging tools of their own choosing.

Also, by using a virtual machine you can encourage developers to push the envelope and test destructive things like library upgrades or database changes. Messed it up? Just fire up a new virtual machine and try again. When you combine it with good version control practices you should be able to recover from your mistakes even faster.

Just make sure to take the time to create virtual machines that are as close to an exact match as your production systems as you can. Honestly, the only difference between your development environment and your production environment should be the data your application is manipulating. It’s not really that hard to even create a cluster of virtual machines on your own computer to simulate an architecture that has application servers, a database server and a memcached server.

It also helps you to get new developers up to speed quickly. “Oh, working on Project Alpha? I’ll email you the link on the wiki where you can download the virtual machine for that project.”

Check out Vagrant for a great option for developers wishing to do their work in a virtual machine.

So, having injected some structure into your development environment there is really one last frontier where infrastructure debt builds up like the credit card bills of a shopaholic: deployment processes.

I really think there is one rule: if you cannot do your deployments with one command then you are DOING IT WRONG. If you can type the commands you are doing into a shell then you can script them so you don’t have to type them in again. If you can script deployment, then you can automate deployment. If you can automate deployment then you now have a consistent and repeatable process that will behave the same way every single time you deploy.

At Moontoast we have automated deployment in place. When we merge code into our staging and production branches, a version control hook triggers our deployment tool. It checks out our code into it’s proper location on the production server. It runs database migrations that need to be done. It starts and restarts various services that are used by the application. In short, it does everything that I see far too many of my colleagues doing manually. Stop that. Clean up your infrastructure debt by making the process of deploying your code a non-event.

If you want to automate your deployment process, examine tools like Capistrano or Phing or you could even use a tool like Jenkins and use it’s concept of Builds to automate the process of taking your latest code changes into production.

Note that I said the PROCESS, because technical debt might mean that your application is fragile enough (doesn’t have enough tests and/or test coverage) that the changes you made might cause it to behave improperly or even crash the system altogether. Not a good feeling, so by investing the time into automating your deployment process you can eliminate at least one headache.

I think the main point I am trying to get across with respect to infrastructure debt is that you really need to examine your processes beyond just coding. If you find yourself constantly fighting the “works on my computer” battle, you likely have serious infrastructure debt. If you find yourself constantly referring to a checklist whenever you do a deployment, you likely have serious infrastructure debt.

Whenever I bring this topic up, I hear many of the same excuses that I hear when I advocate a commitment to writing tests and automating the execution of those tests. What is it that people have against this sort of thing?

I have found that people terribly underestimate the amount of manual work they do to accomplish a task. For many, it is a fear of losing control that leads them to conclude that automated deployment cannot be trusted, or that developers shouldn’t have the freedom to pick the tools that they use to build their applications.

Technical debt is real, make no mistake. But so is infrastructure debt. Just like the cost of finding bugs in production is more than finding them in development, the cost of fixing infrastructure debt gets more and more expensive. Just think of the large number of problems solved by eliminating inconsistencies between development environments. Add to that the ability to eliminate user error during manual deployments of your application. Why would you not want to have this?

The decision to start paying down your infrastructure debt is not an easy one, because it will often require many changes to be made by many people. Most programmers are creatures of habit and dislike change, even when it is obviously better. Don’t be scared of change, be scared of the debt growing in your code base and in your infrastructure. It won’t go away and there is no government bailout on the way to fix it.

As always, I welcome your thoughts via email, Twitter and comments on this blog. What sort of infrastructure problems have you come across and how did you fix them?

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