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September 5, 2018

From Middleware to Containers: Infrastructure is Finally Cool

Enterprise Service Mesh
 

As someone fresh out of school just starting my software engineering career, I want to solve interesting problems. Who doesn’t? A computer science degree gave me the opportunity see a spectrum of different engineering opportunities, which led me to decide that working on infrastructure would be the most impactful area, and with the rise of cloud native technologies, actually a compelling space to work in. There is a difference between developing new functionality and developing to solve existing problems. More often than not, the solutions that address existing challenges in an industry are the ones the are used the most and last the longest. This is what excites me about working on infrastructure, the ability to build something that millions of people will rely on to run their applications. On the surface it doesn’t appear to be the most exciting work, but you can be sure that your time and effort is being put to good use.

You want to see your contributions make an impact somehow, whether that’s writing webapps, iPhone applications, business tools, etc. – the things that people actually use day-to-day. Infrastructure may not be as visible or as tangible as these kinds of technologies, but it’s gratifying to know that it’s the underlying piece that makes it all work. As much as I want to be able to say that I contribute to something that all of my non-tech friends can easily understand (like the front-end of Netflix), I think it’s even more interesting to make them think about the things that happen behind the scenes. We all expect our favorite apps, websites, etc. to be able to respond quickly to our requests no matter how many people are using them at the same time, but on the backend this is not something that is easy to handle and properly test for. What about security? We also expect that when we are trusting software with our information that it isn’t being easily intercepted or leaked along the way. Scalability and security are just two of many kinds of problems that software infrastructure incorporates, and in the end we are relying on them to actually make the front-end software usable. The advantage these days is that infrastructure software has become an incredibly interesting space to be in. Tools like Docker, Kubernetes and Istio are fascinating technologies with vibrant communities around them.

One of the cool, heavily used Kubernetes-related projects that I’m a fan of is Envoy. I can’t help but think about how some version of Envoy is being used every time I order a Lyft to make sure I actually get a ride. Infrastructure doesn’t seem as intriguing at first because as important it is, it’s running in the background and easily forgotten. Everyone needs it, but in the end, who wants to build it? The answer to that question is definitely changing as the infrastructure landscape evolves. Kubernetes, the OS of the cloud, has become a project that everyone wants a hand in. You don’t hear about people itching to make contributions to the Linux kernel, but you hear about Kubernetes and containers everywhere.

Coming up with solutions to solve the problems that we’re running into today has become more attractive to junior developers especially. We’re watching as more and more people are using technology every day, and like I mentioned before, we want our contributions to be impactful. How are we going to handle all of this traffic in a smooth and scalable way? Enter: distributed systems. Microservices are critical to constructing applications that can handle huge transaction volumes at scale. Enterprise applications run by companies like Lyft, Twitter and Google would fall apart with even normal rates of traffic without their distributed architectures. Working on these infrastructural pieces is challenging, and provides the impact that we, junior developers, are looking for.

Another thing that makes this work enticing to junior developers is that it involves an open source community. The way that the tech community has decided to solve some of these bigger, infrastructure-related problems has largely been through open source, which is both intimidating and inviting to those who are new to the tech industry. There is an open group of people talking about the technology and a community willing to help, but at the same time it’s daunting to contribute to these bigger open source projects when you’re just starting out. I will say, however, that the benefits of being able to leverage so many technologies and the community support make it a lot of fun to be a part of.

To recap, here are some of my favorite things about working on infrastructure:

  • We can solve some really hard problems with good infrastructure!
  • If it’s done right, you can build something that can be easily customized to solve problems of various sizes and for all kinds of use cases.
  • All of the cool things and services we consume daily rely on it. Talk about actually seeing your hard work being put to good use!
  • Whether you’re doing proprietary work or not, you are being introduced to open source and the community that comes with it.

I’ll admit, developing infrastructure, despite all of the interesting bits, is still not the most glamorous work. It’s the underlying technology that most people take for granted in their everyday use of technology, and is often less shiny than a beautifully designed UI and other components that sit on top of it. But once you dig in, it’s exciting to see what an impact you can make with it and cloud-native technologies and communities make it a fun space to work in. What I will say though is that it’s a great way to start out your career in tech, and it’s a fun, challenging, and very rewarding place to be.

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