There is no question that businesses today are required to move faster, be more agile, and apply technical solutions to problems much more quickly than ever before. But, unfortunately, traditional manual processes can no longer keep up with modern demands on IT operations teams.

The world of public cloud infrastructure has been a paradigm shift in how businesses approach infrastructure. Public cloud environments enable organizations to move quickly and in an agile way. The reason for this is automation, and particularly, infrastructure as code (IaC).

Hashicorp Terraform is an extremely popular (IaC) option that many companies use today to interact with on-premises and cloud infrastructure, including Microsoft Azure. A new Infrastructure as Code option is a new project driven by Microsoft called Bicep. Let’s take a look at both Terraform and Bicep. How are they similar, and what are the differences? Which option should you choose for your IaC platform?

What is Infrastructure as Code?

Before comparing Terraform and Bicep, we need to understand the concept of Infrastructure as Code (IaC). What is it exactly, and why is it so important for modern infrastructure deployments? Infrastructure as Code is relatively intuitive in regards to the meaning of the term. You are describing your infrastructure in code blocks.

The true birth of Infrastructure as Code was driven by the move to public cloud infrastructure. In public cloud environments such as Amazon AWS, Google GCP, and Microsoft Azure, you can’t physically get your hands on the infrastructure. However, public cloud providers do provide “console-based” interfaces that allow manually spinning up VMs, networks, and other necessary resources.

The true power of provisioning resources in the public cloud comes from interacting with the infrastructure programmatically. Public cloud environments such as Microsoft Azure expose REST APIs that allow performing actions programmatically instead of using the GUI console.

With this capability, organizations can describe their infrastructure in code, perform the actions, create resources, and configure them in an automated fashion. One of the powerful concepts of Infrastructure as Code is the declarative nature of the code. It means you can declare what you want the infrastructure to “look” like, and the code makes that happen.

The sheer number of resources and configurations maintained by organizations deploying modern applications can be staggering with modern cloud computing. As a result, infrastructure may need to be provisioned, scaled up or down, or even destroyed. Without an IaC tool in place, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the scale, agility, and consistency needed across all infrastructure landscapes.

What are the benefits?

The benefits of IaC include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Increased speed of application deployment
  • Fewer human-error mistakes
  • Improved consistency of infrastructure
  • Helps to reduce or eliminate configuration drift
  • Reduces the cost of development and cloud infrastructure

Declarative vs. Imperative

As mentioned above, IaC enables DevOps professionals to write declarative configurations for infrastructure. This concept is powerful since the code defines the “end result” of what you want the infrastructure to resemble when finished.

Declarative code defines the desired state, including the resources and properties the resources should have. A declarative IaC language will do this for you. Declarative IaC also keeps up with the current state of your resources, which is important.

It helps to ensure the state of the infrastructure is known at any given time and can be used to determine any differences in the infrastructure compared to what the code describes.

An imperative approach to IaC requires specific commands to be executed in the correct order to achieve the desired state configuration. While declarative tools automatically determine how changes need to be applied, an imperative tool requires you to figure out how those changes should be applied.

Infrastructure as Code and modern CI/CD pipelines

Another benefit of the shift to Infrastructure as Code is the ability now to bring the infrastructure into continuous integration and continuous development (CI/CD) pipelines. It is an agile form of development that allows changes and updates to trigger new releases of applications automatically.

Modern development processes involve checking code to code repository platforms such as Github, Bitbucket, Gitlab, etc. These platforms provide an effective way to version the code. They also contain CI/CD pipeline functionality.

DevOps engineers can check in Infrastructure as Code to their code repository, the same as application code. Then an update to the IaC code can trigger builds of the CI/CD pipeline as needed. It helps build an application using the CI/CD process and includes the infrastructure as part of the application, making it all-inclusive.

DevOps engineers have to decide what IaC language they want to use to capture the declarative Infrastructure as Code to represent their environment.

What is Hashicorp Terraform?

One of the most popular Infrastructure as Code languages today is Hashicorp Terraform. Thousands of organizations and DevOps professionals use Terraform to capture their infrastructure in code form effectively. So, what is Terraform? It is an open-source Infrastructure as Code tool that allows managing on-premises and hundreds of cloud services using declarative code.

It allows infrastructure to be expressed as code. Terraform uses Hashicorp Configuration Language (HCL) to write declarative configuration files. HCL is a very simple, human-readable

Terraform concepts and terms

There are several concepts and terms to be aware of when working with Terraform. Note the following:

Resources – Resources are one of the most important components of the Terraform language. A resource is an entity that describes an infrastructure object. However, objects can include virtual networks, DNS records, compute instances, and anything that can be described by Terraform.

Providers – These are the “plugins” Terraform uses to interact with different types of infrastructure, from on-premises technologies to cloud environments. In your Terraform configuration, you declare the providers required. When you initialize Terraform, it then pulls down the needed providers for the specific code you are using.

Data sources – The data sources construct is information defined outside of Terraform and are defined by another Terraform configuration or modified by functions

Modules – Modules contain multiple resources that are related and commonly used together. A module is a collection of .tf or tf.json files kept in the same directory.

State – The Terraform state information stores the map of your real-world resources. It stores bindings between objects in a remote system and resource instances declared in your configuration. Terraform checks the state data to make decisions on what resources need added or changed.

Terraform workflow

Terraform uses a specific workflow that involves the steps of write, plan, and apply. Note the following high-level look at the Terraform workflow.

Terraform workflow

Let’s look at each of these steps in the Terraform workflow and see how they relate to writing IaC.

  • write – In the HCL, you describe the resources you want to create, change, or configure using blocks, arguments, and expressions. Below is an example of Terraform code blocks interacting with Amazon AWS.

Example of Terraform code

  • plan – You can think of the Terraform plan parameter as a “what if” statement of sorts. With Terraform plan, you can check the configuration plan for configuration matches and verify the expectation of what you think the code should do before provisioning or changing your infrastructure. Entering the “terraform plan” command displays the changes that will be made in the environment.

Terraform plan

  • apply – Running the Terraform apply command applies the changes to your environment. It puts in place the resources or required changes described in the configuration language.

Other Terraform commands

While the “terraform plan” and “terraform apply” commands are two of the most common Terraform commands used when working with infrastructure deployment and configuration, other useful and necessary commands are used with Terraform. What are some of these?

  • terraform init – Using the “terraform init” command automatically pulls down the terraform provider needed to work with the specific type of infrastructure or public cloud environment you are working with. Using Terraform with Amazon AWS will pull down the relevant AWS modules to work with your infrastructure.
  • terraform refresh – The refresh command is used to reconcile real-world infrastructure with the Terraform code
  • terraform destroy – The destroy parameter allows DevOps engineers to destroy resources defined in the terraform plan

What is Bicep?

Microsoft’s Bicep is a newcomer on the block as a declarative Infrastructure as Code language. However, it is gaining momentum, especially in the Microsoft Azure environment, as currently, it is written for Azure environments only. Bicep is fundamentally a transpiler. What is a transpiler?

A transpiler is a source-to-source compiler. In other words, a transpiler takes the source code written in one language and converts it to another language at the same level of abstraction. What does Bicep transpile? Bicep takes Azure Resource Manager templates and covers them into the Bicep domain-specific language, using declarative syntax to deploy Azure resources.

The official Bicep Github page describes Bicep more as a revision of ARM templates:

Bicep is more of a revision to the existing ARM template language rather than an entirely new language. While most of the syntax has been changed, the core functionality of ARM templates and the runtime remains the same. You have the same template functions, same resource declarations, etc.

With Bicep there is not state data to maintain

One of the characteristics of Azure Bicep, compared to Terraform and other IaC tools, is Bicep does not require you to keep up with state data. So, there is no state file as there is with Terraform. Instead, the state used for Bicep code is automatically stored inside Azure.

Bicep interacts with Azure Resource Manager

Azure Resource Manager (ARM) is the deployment and management service for Azure. ARM allows the creating, updating, and deletion of resources within your Microsoft Azure account. Any request sent to Azure using the Azure tools, SDKs, or APIs traverses the Azure Resource Manager. It then authenticates the request and authorizes the action, and sends it to the requested service.

Azure Resource Manager provides API interface to all Azure services
Azure Resource Manager provides API interface to all Azure services

What are ARM templates?

ARM templates are written in JSON and provide a declarative syntax, allowing you to state what you intend to deploy without programming the sequence of commands and events needed to deploy the infrastructure. Like Terraform, ARM templates also fulfill the need to automate deployments using Infrastructure as Code.

ARM templates offer the following:

  • Declarative syntax
  • Consistency
  • Orchestration
  • Modular files
  • New Azure resources are automatically available
  • Built-in validation
  • Tracked deployments

Why use Bicep over ARM templates?

You may be wondering if ARM templates allow you to provision Infrastructure as Code in a declarative way, why not just use these natively? The reason is simple: it is easier. Bicep offers the same capabilities as ARM templates but in a much more human-readable form. JSON code is not the most friendly code to write or use for the masses. The Bicep language, like Terraform, is very intuitive and understandable, even for non-programmers.

Bicep assumes all the advantages of ARM templates

Since Bicep is transpiling ARM templates, it makes sense it assumes all the same advantages and capabilities of the ARM templates themselves. In fact, each Bicep file is automatically converted to an ARM template during deployment. This being said, Bicep, like ARM templates, can work with the newest Azure technologies and services as soon as they are available.

Will Bicep remain an Azure-only IaC platform?

According to the Azure Bicep Github page, it appears, for now, that is the case:

Bicep is a DSL focused on deploying end-to-end solutions in Azure. In practice, that usually means working with some non-Azure APIs (i.e. creating Kubernetes deployments or users in a database), so we expect to provide some extensibility points. That being said, currently only Azure resources exposed through the ARM API can be created with Bicep.

Bicep code compared to ARM template code

What does Bicep code look like compared to ARM template code? Note the following code snippets for an ARM template compared to Bicep, which outputs the value from a resource property. You can see the clear advantage of the Bicep syntax.

ARM template:

Bicep:

Bicep vs. Terraform

When we compare Bicep vs. Terraform, what are the features of each?

Feature Bicep Terraform Description
Can it be used across multiple platforms? No Yes Terraform hax support for over 1000 providers, meaning you can work across a multitude of cloud providers and infrastructure environments
Is there state data that must be maintained? No Yes Bicep automatically stores state data inside Azure. Terraform stores state locally by default or in a shared cloud location when working as a team
Support in modern IDE such as VS Code? Yes Yes Modern IDEs like Visual Studio Code have strong support for both Terraform and Bicep. There are currently more plugins in VS Code available for Terraform since it has been around longer
Native Azure services integration Yes No Bicep, being a Microsoft creation specifically for Azure, has the advantage here. However, Terraform has strong Azure support as well. Most likely, you will be able to use either tool successfully for DevOps tasks in Azure
Microsoft support Yes No Bicep is a Microsoft product and is fully supported. Terraform is a third-party tool that Hashicorp supports
Modularized construct Yes Yes Bicep and Terraform both have the concept of modules
CI/CD pipeline support? Yes Yes Both Bicep and Terraform can be used for CI/CD pipeline processes
Strong community support? Yes Yes Bicep lags behind here since it is the newcomer. However, the Bicep howto’s and posts are starting to pop up across the Internet. Terraform has very strong support across the community. Most likely, you can find a code snippet that does what you need it to using Terraform.
Declarative IaC language? Yes Yes Both provide declarative configuration languages
Easy to learn? Yes Yes Both are comparable in the ease of learning the languages and understanding them
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Wrapping Up

The modern Infrastructure as Code (IaC) approach to provisioning, configuring, and changing infrastructure allows organizations to control their infrastructure in a much more robust way. In addition, as businesses move to a DevOps style approach and transition to continuous integration and development (CI/CD) processes, Infrastructure as Code allows making the infrastructure a part of the development pipeline.

Terraform is a powerful IaC tool that many organizations are using today. It provides a robust feature set and support for 1000+ providers. In addition, it works across all the major cloud providers and on-premises technologies such as VMware vSphere. If you want a tool that is flexible across many public clouds and infrastructure environments, Terraform is a great choice.

IN the realm of Microsoft Azure, Bicep is gaining momentum as a great choice for those who have been working with ARM templates already. Bicep is the evolution of the ARM template language and transpiles ARM JSON into Bicep domain-specific language. Therefore, transitioning to Bicep may make sense for organizations heavily invested in Microsoft Azure and ARM templates.

Terraform is the better choice for the all-around tool since it is not just Azure-specific but provides IaC across a multitude of platforms.

 

 

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