08/14/23

Pulumi: An alternative take on Infrastructure as Code

A look at key features, strengths, and weaknesses

6 Min Read

Infrastructure as Code (IaC) has changed the way developers and operators manage and provision their cloud resources, creating a more automated, consistent, and safer process. Within the IaC domain, Pulumi presents an intriguing prospect. Unlike traditional IaC tools, Pulumi employs conventional programming languages to define and administer infrastructure.

Now let's take a closer look at Pulumi's distinguishish features, and discuss its advantages and potential drawbacks.

An Introduction to Pulumi

Pulumi is an open-source platform that empowers developers and DevOps professionals to manage infrastructure employing popular programming languages such as JavaScript, TypeScript, Python, and Go. It equips users to establish, deploy, and supervise infrastructure across various cloud platforms, including AWS, Azure, Google Cloud, and Kubernetes.

Pulumi’s Key Features

Language Choice

One of the hallmarks of Pulumi is its support for multiple general-purpose programming languages. This flexibility allows developers to leverage their existing skills and avoid learning a new, domain-specific language.

Cross-Platform Support

Pulumi supports a comprehensive array of platforms, from popular public clouds to Kubernetes. This wide-ranging support makes it a flexible choice for diverse infrastructure requirements.

Real-Time Feedback

Pulumi previews changes before deployment. This real-time feedback aids in avoiding potential issues and empowers more informed decisions.

Reusable Components

Pulumi promotes code reusability through its Pulumi Packages. Developers can define infrastructure building blocks and share them across teams, promoting better consistency and reducing duplicated efforts.

Strengths

Integration and Ease of Use

The use of popular programming languages reduces the learning curve and integrates IaC more closely with the typical development workflow. Developers can leverage the same language for application code and infrastructure, bringing more cohesion to the development process.

Strong Type Checking

Pulumi harnesses the type checking features of the programming languages it supports, which helps prevent errors during deployment. This strong type checking provides a level of security that DSL-based IaC tools can't match.

Secrets Management

Pulumi has robust built-in support for handling sensitive data, making it easier to work with secure resources. It handles encryption and decryption automatically, providing a seamless way to work with secrets.

Drawbacks

Imperative vs Declarative Models

Pulumi, with its use of imperative languages, can lead to complex configurations, especially in large-scale projects. Those used to declarative models like Terraform's HCL might find Pulumi's model less intuitive, leading to more error-prone code.

Managed Service Dependency

Pulumi requires a managed service for state management. While this provides scalability, it also introduces an increased dependency and potential latency issues. For instance, Pulumi's reliance on the Pulumi Service for state management might be a point of concern for teams that need to operate in closed-off network environments.

Inconsistent Abstraction Levels

One challenge with Pulumi is managing abstraction levels across different cloud providers. For instance, provisioning a Kubernetes cluster varies significantly between cloud platforms, leading to inconsistency in the level of abstraction. Developers must understand the underlying cloud provider nuances to work efficiently with Pulumi.

Deviation from Standard IaC Practice

While using general-purpose programming languages provides flexibility, it also means Pulumi deviates from the declarative standard set by tools like Terraform. This deviation could create challenges for teams migrating from Terraform or other similar tools.

Comparisons with Terraform

When compared with Terraform, one of the most popular IaC tools, Pulumi shows some distinctive differences.

Code Language

The most apparent difference is the use of general-purpose programming languages in Pulumi compared to Terraform's declarative Hash

iCorp Configuration Language (HCL). While HCL offers simplicity and readability, Pulumi's approach provides the power and flexibility of conventional programming languages, promoting better error-checking and modularity.

State Management

Terraform's state is stored in a local file by default, but it can be configured to use remote state storage. On the other hand, Pulumi uses the Pulumi Service for state management by default, which might not be ideal in certain cases.

Reusability

Terraform encourages reusability via modules, whereas Pulumi uses packages. Both approaches provide reusability but in slightly different ways. Terraform's module-based approach offers straightforward reusability, while Pulumi's packages offer more granularity and flexibility.

Handling Complexity

With larger, more complex configurations, Terraform can become unwieldy and hard to manage. On the other hand, Pulumi's use of programming languages can make handling complex setups more straightforward due to the inherent capabilities of these languages.

Considering Encore as an Alternative

While Pulumi stands out in the IaC arena with its unique approach, there are alternatives worth considering, one of which is Encore.

Encore is a backend development platform that simplifies cloud application development. It focuses on enhancing the developer experience by abstracting away a lot of the boilerplate and intricacies associated with cloud development.

How does Encore compare?

  • Simplicity Over Control: While Pulumi offers vast control and flexibility, Encore prioritizes simplicity. This means faster setup and fewer configurations for developers.

  • Cost Optimization: When it comes to cost optimization, both Terraform and Pulumi face the same fundamental challenge: they require manual configuration for each environment. This necessity means non-production environments might be over-provisioned, leading to unnecessary costs. It's here where tools like Encore present an attractive alternative. By leveraging Encore’s declarative Infrastructure SDK, developers define the application’s required infrastructure directly in the application code. Encore then automates the provisioning of resources across all environments, from local, to preview and cloud, and enables using different underlying infrastructure depending on the environment. This means you can use cost-efficient serverless technologies that scale to zero for preview and test environments, while production uses more robust and scalable infrastructure. All without having to do manual configuration or changing a single line of code.

  • Built-in Distributed Tracing: Encore applications are automatically instrumented with distributed tracing, removing the need for manual instrumentation or third-party tools.

  • Automated API Docs: Encore auto-generates API documentation based on your code, ensuring up-to-date documentation without extra effort.

  • Preview Environments: Every pull request in Encore can have its temporary preview environment, streamlining testing and review processes.

  • Cloud Agnostic: With Encore, your applications can be deployed to any major cloud provider, avoiding vendor lock-in.

  • Integrated Developer Workflow: Encore integrates the entire developer workflow, from defining database schemas, sending HTTP requests, to publishing and subscribing to events, all within the same environment.

While Pulumi gives you the granular control that many enterprises might need, Encore can be the right choice for teams focusing more on application development and looking for an efficient way to handle backend development without deep diving into infrastructure details.

Conclusion

Pulumi brings a novel perspective to the IaC landscape, combining the power of conventional programming languages with the convenience of Infrastructure as Code. While it presents a set of compelling advantages, potential adopters should carefully consider its limitations. As with any technology decision, understanding the nuances of the tool and how it aligns with specific project requirements is paramount.

Ready to escape the hamster wheel?

Encore is the Backend Development Platform that automates infrastructure to give you a simpler workflow — from developing locally to scaling on AWS/GCP.