Introducing InGraph

Farzad Senart

Farzad Senart

Co-Chief Frog Officer at lifa.dev

Lionel and I are pleased to announce the open-source release of our abstraction on top of AWS CloudFormation: InGraph!

And before leaping to any conclusions, we solemnly promise it is not yet another template generator. Put simply, InGraph is:

CloudFormation like it is 2020. A familiar syntax, editor support, modularity and composability, and way more while rigorously following the semantic of CloudFormation.

If you’re a CloudFormation aficionado, you’ll feel immediately comfortable and sense a free upgrade. At first sight, InGraph is an updated syntax that still tastes CloudFormation but also deeply integrates with the tooling you’re used to (e.g., auto-completion, typing, packaging, etc.).

If you’re new to the world of Infrastructure as Code on AWS, you’ll find a companion who will teach you the ins and outs of CloudFormation while assisting you in your journey. InGraph is CloudFormation stripped of its quirks and dirtiness. It is similar in all aspects to modern programming languages but also makes a point of not disconnecting from CloudFormation.

Sounds like a fit? Continue reading!

The Challenge of Infrastructure Management

If you haven’t yet watch Ben Kehoe's talk at Serverlessconf New York City ’19, stop here, do so and come back only after. It’s a foundational talk that makes a strong statement about what should be the right abstraction on top of AWS CloudFormation. By the way, it is also the backbone of InGraph.

Using the AWS CloudFormation language is painful. To be convinced, we only need to look at the various attempts made both by AWS itself and the broader open-source community to overcome the difficulties and frustration. In fact, the pain is so deep that all the alternatives ended up, invariably, disconnecting from it or ignoring it altogether. We all do agree with the problem. However, let’s take a closer look at the path chosen toward the solution.

There is, at least, a cognitive bias accentuated by the fact that, as software engineers, we have power. We can resolve problems with more and more elaborated concepts and tools. So why stick with something that annoys us? Let’s say that this question is too philosophical for this post.

Moreover, and Ben’s talk brings this up, there is also a misconception, firmly anchored in the collective sub-consciousness, that CloudFormation is the assembly language of the cloud. And this very statement is enough to comfort us in need of high-level constructs that have nothing to do with the low-level CloudFormation language. After all, this is precisely what we’ve been used to do with the assembly languages of processors.

The AWS CloudFormation language is not the assembly language of the cloud.

To better understand these misunderstandings, let’s define what exactly is AWS CloudFormation. It is an infrastructure graph management service of a two-prong nature. On the one hand, it is a language that allows, via the YAML syntax, to describe an infrastructure graph. On the other, it is a deployment engine that interprets the description, extracts the infrastructure graph, and then creates and executes a plan to materialize that graph.

CloudFormation

It turns out that the actual assembly language is not the description but the deployment plan. And we, as CloudFormation users, don’t have access to it. What does that mean is we cannot simply disconnect from or ignore the CloudFormation language. We have to play the game of the interpreter. Because, in case of any problems, our understanding of the CloudFormation language is our only way to salvation.

Learning the AWS CloudFormation language is a necessity.

Finally, the desire to get rid of the CloudFormation language is also incentivized by the legitimate willingness to manipulate infrastructure graphs at a higher level (e.g., packaging up related resources, reusing patterns, etc.). And general-purpose programming languages and frameworks inside them seem perfect candidates. However, they come at the expense of the comparability of the desired and the actual graph.

Comparing Graphs

Indeed, as these abstractions occur outside the AWS CloudFormation language, they not only disconnect you from the input of the interpreter (i.e., the desired graph) but from its output as well (i.e., the actual graph of deployed resources on the cloud environment). This points out a fundamental problem as our capacity to effectively manage infrastructures is closely related to our ability to compare these two graphs meaningfully and understand how the same or different they are.

External Abstraction

Toward Better Infrastructure Management

As outlined earlier, infrastructure management on AWS is not a new challenge. Tools like AWS Serverless Application Model (SAM), AWS Cloud Development Kit (CDK), and AWS Serverless Application Repository (SAR), to name but a few, are already helping many organizations. When we undertook to create a new abstraction on top of AWS CloudFormation, we had two main goals:

  1. Have a familiar language that scrupulously respects the semantic of AWS CloudFormation.

  2. Have a high-level abstraction that unfolds from AWS CloudFormation low-level constructs (e.g., resources, stacks, parameters, outputs, etc.).

Meet InGraph!

InGraph

InGraph is an open-source and declarative, infrastructure graph DSL for AWS CloudFormation.

InGraph appears as a subset of Python and, therefore, seamlessly integrates with its existing ecosystem of tooling. For instance, you're given autocompletion, type checking, and live support from within your editor, out-of-the-box. You can also use the Python Package Index (PyPI) along with pip to share and consume available infrastructure patterns.

Autocompletion

Error Reporting

Unlike other tools that run inside general-purpose languages, InGraph operates at the language level. It doesn't execute the code you write to produce a CloudFormation template. The syntax already encodes all the information. This also enables the ability to compare the InGraph description with its YAML counterpart. You're no more disconnected from the AWS CloudFormation language. You actually evolve in the same language but with an updated syntax.

Example

InGraph steps away from the YAML syntax to supersede its limitations but preserves the benefits of its declarative programming model. Also, under the hood, InGraph comes with a custom interpretation engine that rigorously enforces the semantic of the AWS CloudFormation language.

InGraph uses declarations to describe what is the infrastructure graph instead of instructions to convey how to build it.

Naturally, mutations have no place in a declarative world. So, while InGraph allows you to use variables, it also prevents you from mutating anything. Within InGraph, everything is immutable.

InGraph highlights the typing system of AWS CloudFormation by providing five primary types: booleans, numbers, strings, lists, and maps. The engine carefully verifies that you don't overstep the frame imposed by the AWS CloudFormation language. For instance, you are not allowed to perform numeric operations or to access an item inside a list with an index that is not known statically. In contrast, where semantic correctness is not at stake, InGraph frees you from low-level details that parasitize your intent (e.g., param.replace(":", "-") is translated to !Join [":", !Split ["-", !Ref param]]).

Last but not least, InGraph unifies the concepts of CloudFormation resources and CloudFormation stacks into a new domain-specific resource. This new kind of resource can carry parameters and outputs, and be used in place of or along with any other native CloudFormation resource. It is the very expression of a multiscale graph in which nodes are resources or collection of resources. It also constitutes the primary unit of composability and share and offers an unprecedented way to capitalize on knowledge within companies and across the community.

InGraph unifies the resources and stacks of AWS CloudFormation into nodes of a multiscale graph.

InGraph

Getting Started

InGraph is available now on GitHub. You can try it out using Visual Studio Code Remote Containers. Detailed information about the underlying reasoning, setup, and usage are also available in our documentation.

Contributing

InGraph is currently in MVP status. Lionel and I are proud of what we've built and excited to share it with the community. We hope you find it as useful as we do. InGraph only has a small portion of features we intend to build, and we are actively seeking feedback. If you have any ideas, suggestions, or issues, feel free to reach us on Twitter or GitHub.

We can't finish this post without a big thanks to Ben Kehoe. His theories served as the foundations of InGraph, his guidance and support made it possible.