How to setup an Amazon ECS cluster with Terraform


ECS is Amazon’s Elastic Container Service. That’s greek for how you get docker containers running in the cloud. It’s sort of like Kubernetes without all the bells and whistles.

It takes a bit of getting used to, but This terraform how to, should get you moving. You need an EC2 host to run your containers on, you need a task that defines your container image & resources, and lastly a service which tells ECS which cluster to run on and registers with ALB if you have one.

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For each of these sections, create files:,,,, What I would recommend is create the first file, then do:

$ terraform init
$ terraform plan
$ terraform apply

Then move on to and do the terraform apply. One by one, next task, then service then finally alb. This way if you encounter errors, you can troubleshoot minimally, rather than digging through five files for the culprit.

This howto also requires a vpc. Terraform has a very good community vpc which will get you going in no time.

I recommend deploying in the public subnets for your first run, to avoid complexity of jump box, and private IPs for ecs instance etc.

Good luck!

May the terraform force be with you!

First setup roles

Roles are a really brilliant part of the aws stack. Inside of IAM or identity access and management, you can create roles. These are collections of privileges. I’m allowed to use this S3 bucket, but not others. I can use EC2, but not Athena. And so forth. There are some special policies already created just for ECS and you’ll need roles to use them.

These roles will be applied at the instance level, so your ecs host doesn’t have to pass credentials around. Clean. Secure. Smart!

resource "aws_iam_role" "ecs-instance-role" {
name = "ecs-instance-role"
path = "/"
assume_role_policy = "${data.aws_iam_policy_document.ecs-instance-policy.json}"

data "aws_iam_policy_document" "ecs-instance-policy" {
statement {
actions = ["sts:AssumeRole"]

principals {
type = "Service"
identifiers = [""]

resource "aws_iam_role_policy_attachment" "ecs-instance-role-attachment" {
role = "${}"
policy_arn = "arn:aws:iam::aws:policy/service-role/AmazonEC2ContainerServiceforEC2Role"

resource "aws_iam_instance_profile" "ecs-instance-profile" {
name = "ecs-instance-profile"
path = "/"
role = "${}"
provisioner "local-exec" {
command = "sleep 60"

resource "aws_iam_role" "ecs-service-role" {
name = "ecs-service-role"
path = "/"
assume_role_policy = "${data.aws_iam_policy_document.ecs-service-policy.json}"

resource "aws_iam_role_policy_attachment" "ecs-service-role-attachment" {
role = "${}"
policy_arn = "arn:aws:iam::aws:policy/service-role/AmazonEC2ContainerServiceRole"

data "aws_iam_policy_document" "ecs-service-policy" {
statement {
actions = ["sts:AssumeRole"]

principals {
type = "Service"
identifiers = [""]

Related: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

Setup your ecs host instance

Next you need EC2 instances on which to run your docker containers. Turns out AWS has already built AMIs just for this purpose. They call them ECS Optimized Images. There is one unique AMI id for each region. So be sure you’re using the right one for your setup.

The other thing that your instance needs to do is echo the cluster name to /etc/ecs/ecs.config. You can see us doing that in the user_data script section.

Lastly we’re configuring our instance inside of an auto-scaling group. That’s so we can easily add more instances dynamically to scale up or down as necessary.

# the ECS optimized AMI's change by region. You can lookup the AMI here:
# us-east-1 ami-aff65ad2
# us-east-2 ami-64300001
# us-west-1 ami-69677709
# us-west-2 ami-40ddb938

# need to add security group config
# so that we can ssh into an ecs host from bastion box

resource "aws_launch_configuration" "ecs-launch-configuration" {
name = "ecs-launch-configuration"
image_id = "ami-aff65ad2"
instance_type = "t2.medium"
iam_instance_profile = "${}"

root_block_device {
volume_type = "standard"
volume_size = 100
delete_on_termination = true

lifecycle {
create_before_destroy = true

associate_public_ip_address = "false"
key_name = "testone"

# register the cluster name with ecs-agent which will in turn coord
# with the AWS api about the cluster
user_data = <> /etc/ecs/ecs.config

# need an ASG so we can easily add more ecs host nodes as necessary
resource "aws_autoscaling_group" "ecs-autoscaling-group" {
name = "ecs-autoscaling-group"
max_size = "2"
min_size = "1"
desired_capacity = "1"

# vpc_zone_identifier = ["subnet-41395d29"]
vpc_zone_identifier = ["${}"]
launch_configuration = "${}"
health_check_type = "ELB"

tag {
key = "Name"
value = "ECS-myecscluster"
propagate_at_launch = true

resource "aws_ecs_cluster" "test-ecs-cluster" {
name = "myecscluster"

Related: Is there a serious skills shortage in the devops space?

Setup your task definition

The third thing you need is a task. This one will spinup a generic nginx container. It’s a nice way to demonstrate things. For your real world usage, you’ll replace the image line with a docker image that you’ve pushed to ECR. I’ll leave that as an exercise. Once you have the cluster working, you should get the hang of things.

Note the portmappings, memory and CPU. All things you might expect to see in a docker-compose.yml file. So these tasks should look somewhat familiar.

data "aws_ecs_task_definition" "test" {
task_definition = "${}"
depends_on = ["aws_ecs_task_definition.test"]

resource "aws_ecs_task_definition" "test" {
family = "test-family"

container_definitions = <

Related: Is AWS too complex for small dev teams?

Setup your service definition

The fourth thing you need to do is setup a service. The task above is a manifest, describing your containers needs. It is now registered, but nothing is running.

When you apply the service your container will startup. What I like to do is, ssh into the ecs host box. Get comfortable. Then issue $ watch "docker ps". This will repeatedly run "docker ps" every two seconds. Once you have that running, do your terraform apply for this service piece.

As you watch, you'll see ECS start your container, and it will suddenly appear in your watch terminal. It will first show "starting". Once it is started, it should say "healthy".

resource "aws_ecs_service" "test-ecs-service" {
name = "test-vz-service"
cluster = "${}"
task_definition = "${}:${max("${aws_ecs_task_definition.test.revision}", "${data.aws_ecs_task_definition.test.revision}")}"
desired_count = 1
iam_role = "${}"

load_balancer {
target_group_arn = "${}"
container_name = "nginx"
container_port = "80"

depends_on = [
# "aws_iam_role_policy.ecs-service",

Related: Does AWS have a dirty secret?

Setup your application load balancer

The above will all work by itself. However for a real-world use case, you'll want to have an ALB. This one has only a simple HTTP port 80 listener. These are much simpler than setting up 443 for SSL, so baby steps first.

Once you have the ALB going, new containers will register with the target group, to let the alb know about them. In "docker ps" you'll notice they are running on a lot of high numbered ports. These are the hostPorts which are dynamically assigned. The container ports are all 80.

resource "aws_alb_target_group" "test" {
name = "my-alb-group"
port = 80
protocol = "HTTP"
vpc_id = "${}"

resource "aws_alb" "main" {
name = "my-alb-ecs"
subnets = ["${}"]
security_groups = ["${}"]

resource "aws_alb_listener" "front_end" {
load_balancer_arn = "${}"
port = "80"
protocol = "HTTP"

default_action {
target_group_arn = "${}"
type = "forward"

You will also want to add a domain name, so that as your infra changes, and if you rebuild your ALB, the name of your application doesn't vary. Route53 will adjust as terraform changes are applied. Pretty cool.

resource "aws_route53_record" "myapp" {
zone_id = "${aws_route53_zone.primary.zone_id}"
name = ""
type = "CNAME"
ttl = "60"
records = ["${aws_alb.main.dns_name}"]

depends_on = ["aws_alb.main"]

Related: How to deploy on EC2 with vagrant

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How I resolved some tough docker problems on Amazon ECS


ECS is Amazon’s elastic container service. If you have a dockerized app, this is one way to get it deployed in the cloud. It is basically an Amazon bootleg Kubernetes clone. And not nearly as feature rich! πŸ™‚

Join 38,000 others and follow Sean Hull on twitter @hullsean.

That said, ECS does work, and it will allow you to get your application going on Amazon. Soon enough EKS (Amazon’s Kubernetes service) will be production, and we’ll all happily switch.

Meantime, if you’re struggling with the weird errors, and when it is silently failing, I have some help here for you. Hopefully these various error cases are ones you’ve run into, and this helps you solve them.

Why is my container in a stopped state?

Containers can fail for a lot of different reasons. The litany of causes I found were:

o port mismatches
o missing links in the task definition
o shortage of resources (see #2 below)

When ecs repeatedly fails, it leaves around stopped containers. These eat up system resources, without much visible feedback. “df -k” or “df -m” doesn’t show you volumes filled up. *BUT* there are logical volumes which can fill.

Do this to see the status:

[[email protected] ~]# lvdisplay
--- Logical volume ---
LV Name docker-pool
VG Name docker
LV UUID aSSS-fEEE-d333-V999-e999-a000-t11111
LV Write Access read/write
LV Creation host, time ip-10-111-40-30, 2018-04-21 18:16:19 +0000
LV Pool metadata docker-pool_tmeta
LV Pool data docker-pool_tdata
LV Status available
# open 3
LV Size 21.73 GiB
Allocated pool data 18.81%
Allocated metadata 6.10%
Current LE 5562
Segments 1
Allocation inherit
Read ahead sectors auto
- currently set to 256
Block device 253:2

[[email protected] ~]#

Related: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

Why am I getting this error “Couldn’t run containers – reason=RESOURCE:PORTS”?

I was seeing errors like this. Your first thought might be that I have multiple containers on the same port. But no I didn’t have a port conflict.

What was happening was containers were failing, but in inconsistent ways. So docker had old copies still sitting around.

On the ecs host, use “docker ps -a” to list *ALL* containers. Then use “docker system prune” to cleanup old resources.

INFO[0000] Using ECS task definition TaskDefinition="docker:5"
INFO[0000] Couldn't run containers reason="RESOURCE:PORTS"
INFO[0000] Couldn't run containers reason="RESOURCE:PORTS"
INFO[0000] Starting container... container=750f3d42-a0ce-454b-ac38-f42791462b76/sean-redis
INFO[0000] Starting container... container=750f3d42-a0ce-454b-ac38-f42791462b76/sean-main
INFO[0000] Starting container... container=750f3d42-a0ce-454b-ac38-f42791462b76/sean-postgres
INFO[0000] Describe ECS container status container=750f3d42-a0ce-454b-ac38-f42791462b76/sean-postgres desiredStatus=RUNNING lastStatus=PENDING taskDefinition="docker:5"
INFO[0000] Describe ECS container status container=750f3d42-a0ce-454b-ac38-f42791462b76/sean-redis desiredStatus=RUNNING lastStatus=PENDING taskDefinition="docker:5"
INFO[0000] Describe ECS container status container=750f3d42-a0ce-454b-ac38-f42791462b76/sean-main desiredStatus=RUNNING lastStatus=PENDING taskDefinition="docker:5"

INFO[0007] Stopped container... container=750f3d42-a0ce-454b-ac38-f42791462b76/sean-postgres desiredStatus=STOPPED lastStatus=STOPPED taskDefinition="docker:5"
INFO[0007] Stopped container... container=750f3d42-a0ce-454b-ac38-f42791462b76/sean-redis desiredStatus=STOPPED lastStatus=STOPPED taskDefinition="docker:5"
INFO[0007] Stopped container... container=750f3d42-a0ce-454b-ac38-f42791462b76/sean-main desiredStatus=STOPPED lastStatus=STOPPED taskDefinition="docker:5"

Related: What’s the luckiest thing that’s happened in your career?

3. My container gets killed before fully started

When a service is run, ECS wants to have *all* of the containers running together. Just like when you use docker-compose. If one container fails, ecs-agent may decide to kill the entire service, and restart. So you may see weird things happening in “docker logs” for one container, simply because another failed. What to do?

First look at your task definition, and set “essential = false”. That way if one fails, the other will still run. So you can eliminate the working container as a cause.

Next thing is remember some containers may startup almost instantly, like nginx for example. Because it is a very small footprint, it can start in a second or two. So if *it* depends on another container that is slow, nginx will fail. That’s because in the strange world of docker discovery, that other container doesn’t even exist yet. While nginx references it, it says hey, I don’t see the upstream server you are pointing to.

Solution? Be sure you have a “links” section in your task definition. This tells ecs-agent, that one container depends on another (think of the depends_on flag in docker-compose).

Related: Curve ball interview questions and answers

4. Understanding container ordering

As you are building your ecs manifest aka task definition, you want to run through your docker-compose file carefully. Review the links, essential flags and depends_on settings. Then be sure to mirror those in your ECS task.

When in doubt, reduce the scope of your problem. That is define *only one* container, then start the service. Once that container works, add a second. When you get that working as well, add a third or other container.

This approach allows you to eliminate interconnecting dependencies, and related problems.

Related: Are generalists better at scaling the web?

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How is automation impacting the dba role?


I was at a dinner party recently, and talking with some colleagues. I had worked with them years back on Oracle systems.

One colleague Maria said she really enjoyed my newsletter.

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She went on to say how much has changed in the last decade. We talked about how the database administrator, as a career role, wasn’t really being hired for much these days. Things had changed. Evolved a lot.

How do you keep up with all the new technology, she asked?

I went on to talk about Amazon RDS, EC2, lambda & serverless as really exciting stuff. And lets not forget terraform (I wrote a howto on terraform), ansible, jenkins and all the other deployment automation technologies.

We talked about Redshift too. It seems to be everywhere these days and starting to supplant hadoop as the warehouse of choice for analytics.

It was a great conversation, and afterward I decided to summarize my thoughts. Here’s how I think automation and the cloud are impacting the dba role.

My career pivots

Over the years I’ve poured all those computer science algorithms, coding & hardware skills into a lot of areas. Tools & popular language change. Frameworks change. But solid deductive reasoning remains priceless.

o C++ Developer

Fresh out of college I was doing Object Oriented Programming on the Macintosh with Codewarrior & powerplant. C++ development is no joke, and daily coding builds strength in a lot of areas. Turns out he application was a database application, so I was already getting my feet wet with databases.

o Jack of all trades developer & Unix admin

One type of job role that I highly recommend early on is as a generalist. At a small startup with less than ten employees, you become the primary technology solutions architect. So any projects that come along you get your hands dirty with. I was able to land one of these roles. I got to work on Windows one day, Mac programming another & Unix administration & Oracle yet another day.

o Oracle DBA

The third pivot was to work primarily on Oracle. I attended Oracle conferences & my peers were Oracle admins. Interestingly, many of the Oracle “experts” came from more of a business background, not computer science. So to have a more technical foundation really made you stand out.

For the startups I worked with, I was a performance guru, scalability expert. Managers may know they have Oracle in the mix, but ultimately the end goal is to speed up the website & make the business run. The technical nuts & bolts of Oracle DBA were almost incidental.

o MySQL & Postgres

As Linux matured, so did a lot of other open source projects. In particular the two big Open Source databases, MySQL & Postgres became viable.

Suddenly startups were willing to put their businesses on these technologies. They could avoid huge fees in Oracle licenses. Still there were not a lot of career database experts around, so this proved a good niche to focus on.

o RDS & Redshift on Amazon Cloud

Fast forward a few more years and it’s my fifth career pivot. Amazon Web Services bursts on the scene. Every startup is deploying their applications in the cloud. And they’re using Amazon RDS their managed database service to do it. That meant the traditional DBA role was less crucial. Sure the business still needed data expertise, but usually not as a dedicated role.

Time to shift gears and pour all of that Linux & server building experience into cloud deployments & migrating to the cloud.

o Devops, data, scalability & performance

Now of course the big sysadmin type role is usually called an SRE or Devops role. SRE being site reliability engineer. New name but many of the same responsibilities.

Now though infrastructure as code becomes front & center. Tools like CloudFormation & Terraform, plus Ansible, Chef & Jenkins are all quite mature, and being used everywhere.

Checkout your infrastructure code from git, and run terraform apply. And minutes later you have rebuilt your entire stack from bare metal to fully functioning & autoscaling application. Cool!

Related: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

How I’ve steered DBA skills

There’s no doubt that data expertise & management skills are still huge. But the career role of database administrator has evolved quite a bit.

Related: 5 surprising features of Amazon Lambda serverless computing

Pros of automation & managing databases

For DBAs who are looking at the cloud from the old way of doing things, there’s a lot to love about it.

Automation brings repeatability to work & jobs. This is great. It raises the bar & makes us more professional, reducing manual processes & mistakes.

Infrastructure as code is self documenting. It means we have a better idea of day-to-day processes, and can more easily handoff to new folks as we change roles or companies.

Related: Why generalists are better at scaling the web

Cons of automation & databases

However these days cloud, automation & microservices have brought a lot of madness too! Don’t believe me check out this piece on microservice madness.

With microservices you have more databases across the enterprise, on more platforms. How do you restore all at the same time? How do you do point-in-time recovery? What if your managed service goes down?

Migration scripts have become popular to make DDL changes in the database. Going forward (adding columns or tables) is great. But should we be letting our deployment automation roll *BACK* DDL changes? Remember that deletes data right? πŸ™‚

What about database drop & rebuild? Or throwing databases in a docker container? No bueno. But we’re seeing this more and more. New performance problems are cropping up because of that.

What about when your database upgrades automatically? Remember when you use a managed service, it is build for 1000 users, not one. So if your use case is different you may struggle.

In my experience upgrading RDS was a nightmare. Database as a service upgrades lack visibility. You don’t have OS or SSH access so you can’t keep track of things. You just simply wait.

No longer do we have “zero downtime”. With amazon RDS you have guarenteed downtime upgrades. No seriously.

As the field of databases fragments, we are wearing many more hats. If you like this challenge & enjoy being a generalist, you may feel at home here. But it is a long way from one platform one skill set career path.

Also fragmented db platforms means more complex recovery. I can’t stress this enough. It would become practically impossible to restore all microservices, all their underlying databases & all systems to one single point in time, if you need to.

Related: Is upgrading Amazon RDS like a sh*t storm that will not end?

DBAs, it’s time to step up and pivot

As the DBA role evolves, it also brings great opportunity. For those with solid database & data skills are sorely in need at startups and many fortune 500 organizations.

What I’m seeing is that organizations have lost much of the discipline they had as separate dba or operations departments. Schemaless databases have proliferated, and performance has suffered.

All these are more complex now, but strong DBA, performance & troubleshooting skills are needed now more than ever.

Related: The art of resistance in tech consulting

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How can I get started with lambda and nodejs in 5 minutes?


I know these learn-to-do-x in 5 minutes type articles are a dime a dozen. But it’s true, we’re short on time, and we just wanna jump in. So let’s go!

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Rather than go the old route of doing everything manually, and struggling, we’re going to give ourselves a skeleton to start with.

Enter, serverless framework. What’s it do? It’s a command line tool written in nodejs, which allows you to create a lambda project from a template.

From there you edit a yml file to tell serverless what to build & how. Then you put your code inside of the handler.js file. Sounds simple right?

1. Create

If you haven’t already done it, install nodejs. There are lots of docs on the interwebs. For mac users, “brew install node” does the trick!

Next install the serverless package.

$ npm install serverless

Great! If you got dependency errors, get digging. Those moments of troubleshooting & patience teach you a lot. πŸ™‚

Ok, now let’s kick the tires. We’ll create our new project.

$ serverless create --template aws-nodejs --path myEndpoint
$ cd myEndpoint

Related: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

2. Edit serverless.yml

service: myEndpoint

frameworkVersion: ">=1.1.0 <2.0.0"

  name: aws
  runtime: nodejs4.3

    handler: handler.endpoint
      - http:
          path: ping
          method: get

Ok, what are we looking at here? Framework is the version of the serverless framework. Provider is aws, because serverless is attempting to build cross-platform support. You may also use azure, openwhisk, google cloud functions etc. Runtime is your language.

Under functions, our main one is currentTime. handler tells serverless framework what code to matchup with your function name. And finally events tell serverless about the API endpoint to configure.

There's a lot of magic going on under the hood. The serverless framework us using CloudFormation to build things in the background for you. CloudFormation is like Latin, it is a foundational construct to the entire AWS world. You can formalize any object, from servers to sqs queues, dynamodb tables, security groups, IAM users, S3 buckets, ebs volumes etc etc. You get the idea.

Want to see what serverless did? Head over to your aws dashboard, navigate to CloudFormation. You should see a new stack there called myEndpoint-dev. Scroll down and click the "Template" tab. You'll see the exact JSON code in all it's gory detail!

Related: 5 surprising features of Amazon Lambda serverless computing

3. Edit handler.js

Next up let's add a bit of code.

'use strict';

// return the current time in JSON format
module.exports.endpoint = (event, context, callback) => {
  const response = {
    statusCode: 200,
    body: JSON.stringify({
      message: `Hello, the current time is ${new Date().toTimeString()}.`,

  callback(null, response);

Whenever this function gets called, we'll just return the current time. Pretty self explanatory.

Related: Are you getting errors building lambda functions? I got you covered!

4. Deploy!

Now the fun party. Let's deploy the code.

$ serverless deploy

Simple command, but it's doing a lot of work. Serverless framework is packaging up your nodejs code into a zip file and uploading it to aws for you. You should see some output telling you what happened.

$ serverless deploy
Serverless: Packaging service...
Serverless: Excluding development dependencies...
Serverless: Uploading CloudFormation file to S3...
Serverless: Uploading artifacts...
Serverless: Uploading service .zip file to S3 (1.2 KB)...
Serverless: Validating template...
Serverless: Updating Stack...
Serverless: Checking Stack update progress...
Serverless: Stack update finished...
Service Information
service: myEndpoint
stage: dev
region: us-east-1
stack: myEndpoint-dev
api keys:
  GET -
  currentTime: myEndpoint-dev-currentTime

Related: Is Amazon too big to fail?

5. Test

Awesome, now it's time to make sure it's working.

You can invoke the function directly using serverless' "invoke" command like this:

$ serverless invoke --function currentTime --log
    "statusCode": 200,
    "body": "{\"message\":\"Hello, the current time is 20:46:02 GMT+0000 (UTC).\"}"
START RequestId: ed5e427c-fe22-11e7-90cc-a1fe66d674ce Version: $LATEST
END RequestId: ed5e427c-fe22-11e7-90cc-a1fe66d674ce
REPORT RequestId: ed5e427c-fe22-11e7-90cc-a1fe66d674ce	Duration: 0.67 ms	Billed Duration: 100 ms 	Memory Size: 1024 MB	Max Memory Used: 21 MB	


But we created an API endpoint didn't we? Yep. You can hit that. If you have a browser open, go ahead and copy/past the url listed in the endpoints section of your deploy process.

You can also use curl like this:

$ curl
{"message":"Hello, the current time is 20:46:18 GMT+0000 (UTC)."}

Related: Is Amazon Web Services too complex for small dev teams?

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How do I migrate my skills to the cloud?


Hi, I’m currently an IT professional and I’m training for AWS Solutions Architect – Associate exam. My question is how to gain some valuable hands-on experience without quitting my well-paying consulting gig I currently have which is not cloud based. I was thinking, perhaps I could do some cloud work part time after I get certified.

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I work in the public sector and the IT contract prohibits the agency from engaging any cloud solutions until the current contract expires in 2019. But I can’t just sit there without using these new skills – I’ll lose it. And if I jump ship I’ll loose $$$ because I don’t have the cloud experience.

Hi George,

Here’s what I’d suggest:

1. Setup your AWS account

A. open aws account, secure with 2FA & create IAM roles

First things first, if you don’t already have one, go signup. Takes 5 minutes & a credit card.

From there be sure to enable two factor authentication. Then stop using your root account! Create a new IAM user with permissions to command line & API. Then use that to authenticate. You’ll be using the awscli python package.

Also: Is Amazon too big to fail?

2. Automatic deployments

B. plugin a github project
C. setup CI & deployment
D. get comfy with Ansible

Got a pet project on github? If not it’s time to start one. πŸ™‚

You can also alternatively use Amazon’s own CodeCommit which is a drop-in replacement for github and works fine too. Get your code in there.

Next setup codedeploy so that you can deploy that application to your EC2 instance with one command.

But you’re not done yet. Now automate the spinup of the EC2 instance itself with Ansible. If you’re comfortable with shell scripts, or other operational tools, the learning curve should be pretty easy for you.

Read: Is AWS too complex for small dev teams? The growing demand for Cloud SRE

3. Clusters

E. play around with kubernetes or docker swarm

Both of these technologies allow you to spinup & control a fleet of containers that are running on a fixed set of EC2 instances. You may also use Amazon ECS which is a similar type of offering.

Related: How to deploy on EC2 with Vagrant

4. Version your infrastructure

F. use terraform or cloudformation to manage your aws objects
G. put your terraform code into version control
H. test rollback & roll foward infrastructure changes

Amazon provides CloudFormation as it’s foundational templating system. You can use JSON or YAML. Basically you can describe every object in your account, from IAM users, to VPCs, RDS instances to EC2, lambda code & on & on all inside of a template file written in JSON.

Terraform is a sort of cloud-agnostic version of the same thing. It’s also more feature rich & has got a huge following. All reasons to consider it.

Once you’ve got all your objects in templates, you can checkin these files into your git or CodeCommit repository. Then updating infrastructure is like updating any other pieces of code. Now you’re self-documenting, and you can roll-forward & backward if you make a mistake!

Related: How I use terraform & composer to automate wordpress on AWS

5. Learn serverless

I. get familiar with lambda & use serverless framework

Building applications & deploying only code is the newest paradigm shift happening in cloud computing. On Amazon you have Lambda, on Google you have Cloud Functions.

Related: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

6. Bonus: database skills

J. Learn RDS – MySQL, Postgres, Aurora, Oracle, SQLServer etc

For a bonus page on your resume, dig into Amazon Relational Database Service or RDS. The platform supports various databases, so try out the ones you know already first. You’ll find that there are a few surprises. I wrote Is upgrading RDS like a sh*t storm that will not end?. That was after a very frustrating weekend upgrading a customers production RDS instance. πŸ™‚

Related: Is Amazon about to disrupt your data warehouse?

7. Bonus: Data warehousing

K. Redshift, Spectrum, Glue, Quicksight etc

If you’re interested in the data side of the house, there is a *LOT* happening at AWS. From their spectrum technology which allows you to keep most of your data in S3 and still query it, to Glue which provides an ETL as a service offering.

You can also use a world-class columnar storage database called Redshift. This is purpose built for reporting & batch jobs. It’s not going to meet your transactional web-backend needs, but it will bring up those Tableau reports blazingly fast!

Related: Is Amazon about to disrupt your data warehouse?

8. Now go find that cloud deployment job!

With the above under your belt there’s plenty of work for you. There is tons of demand right now for this stuff.

Did you do learn all that? You’ve now got very very in-demand skills. The recruiters will be chomping at the bit. Update those buzzwords (I mean keywords). This will help match you with folks looking for someone just like you!

Related: Why I don’t work with recruiters

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What’s the *real* way to deploy on Google Cloud?


I was talking to a customer recently and they asked about deployments. They wanted to do things the real way. Here’s a snippet…

I’m helping out a company called Blue Marble and they are getting ready to deploy a new POS system. The app has been built using a Node.js back-end and Google Cloud Datastore for storage. The current dev build is hosted on AWS and connects to Google for the data bits.

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For prod launch, they are interested in migrating to the β€œreal” way of deployment on Google for everything.

They are pressed on time and looking for someone who can jump in quickly. Are you available? Do you have Google Cloud expertise?

Here’s what I said.

Cultural hurdles

Yep, I’ve have used Bigquery & GCE.

What are they looking for specifically? Full deployment automation? Multiple deploys per day?

I’ve found that sometimes the biggest hurdle to fully automated deploys can be cultural issues.

In other words yes you can automate your deployment so it is push button, get all the artifacts & moving parts automated. Then deploy without much intervention. But to go from that to the team having *faith* in the system, that is a challenge.

Also: Why would I help a customer that’s not paying?

Unit testing

Once the process has been streamlined, a lot often still needs to happen around unit & smoke tests.

If the team isn’t already in the habit of building tests for each bit of code, this may take some time. Also building tests can be an art in itself. What are the edge cases? What values are out of bounds?

Consider for example odd vulnerabilities that show up when hackers type SQL code into fields that devs were expecting. Sanity checking anyone?

Read: Is AWS too complex for small dev teams? The growing demand for Cloud SRE

Integraton testing

What makes this all even more complicated is integration testing. Today many application use various third party APIs, service-based authentication, and even web-based databases like Firebase. So these things can complicate testing.

Related: How to build an operational datastore on Amazon Redshift with S3

Getting there

Although your project, startup or business may be pressed for time, that may not change the realities of development. Your team has to become culturally ready to be completely agile. Many teams choose a middle ground of automating much of the deployment process, but still having a person in the loop just in case.

Same with testing. Sure automating can make you more agile & more efficient. But you’ll never automate out creative thinking, problem solving & ownership of the product.

Related: Why did Flatiron School fail?

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What does the fight between palantir & nypd mean for your data?


In a recent buzzfeed piece, NYPD goes to the mat with Palantir over their data. It seems the NYPD has recently gotten cold feet.

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As they explored options, they found an alternative that might save them a boatload of money. They considered switching to an IBM alternative called Cobalt.

And I mean this is Silicon Valley, what could go wrong?

Related: Will SQL just die already?

Who owns your data?

In the case of Palantir, they claim to be an open system. And of course this is good marketing. Essential in fact to get the contract. Promise that it’s easy to switch. Don’t dig too deep into the technical details there. According to the article, Palantir spokeperson claims:

“Palantir is an open platform. As with all our customers, their data & analysis are available to them at all times in an open & nonproprietary format.”

And that does appear to be true. What appears to be troubling NYPD isn’t that they can’t get the analysis, for that’s available to them in perpetuity. Within the Palantir system. But getting access to how the analysis is done, well now that’s the secret sauce. Palantir of course is not going to let go of that.

And that’s the devil in the details when you want to switch to a competing service.

Also: Top serverless interview questions for hiring aws lambda experts

Who owns the algorithms?

Although the NYPD can get their data into & out of the Palantir system easily, that’s just referring to the raw data. That’s the data they ingested in the first place, arrest records, license plate reads, parking tickets, stuff like that.

“This notion of how portable your data is when you engage in a contract with a platform is really, really complex, and hasn’t really been tested” – Tal Klein

Palantir’s secret sauce, their intellectual property, is finding the needle in the haystack. What pieces of data are relevant & how can I present the detectives the right information at the right time.

Analysis *is* the algorithms. It’s the big data 64 million dollar question. Or in this case $3.5 million per year, as the contract is reported to be worth!

Related: Which engineering roles are in greatest demand?

The nature of software as a service

The web is bringing us great platforms, like google & amazon cloud. It’s bringing a myriad of AI solutions to our fingertips. Palantir is providing a push button solution to those in need of insights like the NYPD.

The Cobalt solution that IBM is offering goes the other way. Build it yourself, manage it, and crucially control it. And that’s the difference.

It remains to be seen how the rush to migrate the universe of computing to Amazon’s own cloud will settle out. Right now their in a growth phase, so it’s all about lowering prices. But at some point their market muscle will mean they can go the Oracle route a la Larry Ellison. That’s why customers start feeling the squeeze.

If the NYPD example is any indication, it could get ugly!

Read: Can on-demand consulting save startups time & money?

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Do we have to manage ops in the cloud?


One of the things that is exciting about the cloud is the reduced need for operations staff. There seem to be two drivers of this trend. One is devops, and all the automation that comes with it. As we formalize configurations, things become repeatable, and fewer people can manage greater armies of servers.

The second is by moving to a cloud hosting provider, we essentially outsource the operations to their team.

1. Pretty abstractions? still hardware buried somewhere

That’s right, beneath all the virtual EC2 instances & VPCs there is physical hardware. Huge datacenters sit in North Virginia, Oregon, Ireland, London and many other cities. Within them there are racks upon racks of servers. The hypervisor layer, the abstraction built on top of that, orchestrates everything.

Although we outsource the management of those datacenters to Amazon, there are still responsibilities we carry. Let’s dig into those more.

Also: Top serverless interview questions to ask an expert

2. Full-stack dev – demand for generalists?

These days we see the demand for a full stack developer. That is someone who does not only front end dev, but also backend. In turn, they are often asked to wear the had of ops. Spinup EC2 instance, decide on the capacity & size, choose proper disk I/O, place it within the right subnet & vpc & then configure the security groups properly.

All of these tasks would previously been managed by a dedicated ops team, but now those responsibilities are being put on developers shoulders. In some cases, such as with microservices, devs also carry the on-call duties of their applications.

Lastly there is likely ops to handle automation. Devops will formalize configurations, into ansible playbooks or chef recipes, so they can be checked into version control. At this point infrastructure can even be unit tested.

Read: Build an operational datastore on aws S3 with Spectrum

3. Design, resiliency, instrumentation, debugging

In previous eras, ops teams would be heavily involved with design of applications & architecture to support that. Now that may be handed to devs, but it still needs to happen.

Furthermore resiliency is said to be the customers responsibility. In the pre-cloud days, hardware was more reliable. It had a slower failure rate. With virtual machines, they’re expected to fail, and all the components to make your applications resilient are given to you. But it’s your job to architect them together.

That means your applications need to be self-healing. Failures need to be detected, taken out of autoscaling groups, and replaced. All automatically. Code or not, that is certainly operations.

Check this: Which engineering roles are in top demand?

4. It’s amazon’s fault we’re down!

I’ve seen quite a few outages in the past year, from Dropbox to Airbnb, and DYN themselves. Ultimately these outages could be tied back to a failure with Amazon. But when your business customers are relying on your service, it is *YOUR* business that answers to it’s own SLA.

In the news we see many of these firms pointing the finger at Amazon, “hey it’s not our fault, our cloud provider went down!”. Ultimately your customers don’t care. They don’t want excuses. If using multiple regions in AWS is not sufficient, you’ll need to build your application to be multi-cloud.

Also: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

5. It’s hard to outsource your expertise

Remember, while you outsource your operations to Amazon, you’re getting very professional management of those systems. However they will optimize for their many customers. Your particular problems are less of a concern.

Read this: What can startups learn from the DYN DNS outage?

6. Only you can thinking holistically about interdependancies

Your application more than likely uses a number of APIs to capture data, perhaps do single sign on or even a third party database like Firebase. It’s your responsibility to do integration testing. All that becomes more complex in the cloud.

Also: How to lock down systems from outgoing employees

7. How do services complicate things?

SaaS solutions are everywhere now. auth0, firebase and an infinite variety of third party apis complicate reliability, security, storage, performance, integration testing & debugging?

Security is a traditional responsibility held by the operations hat. Much of that becomes more complex in the cloud. With serverless applications for example you may use a few APIs, plus an authentication broker, and a backend database. As this list of services grows, the code you write may decrease. But testing & securing it all becomes much more complex.

With more services like this, the attack vector or surface area becomes greater. Each of those services, can and will have bugs. What if a zero day is found in the authentication broker, allowing a hacker to break into a broad cross section of applications across the internet? How do you discover this? What if your vendor hasn’t found out yet?

Read: Is Amazon cloud too complex for small dev teams?

8. How does co-tenancy impact performance tuning?

Back to point #1 above, all these virtual servers sit on real physical servers. That affects customers in two ways. One you may be sharing the same host. That is if you use a very small vm, it may sit along side another customer with a small vm. If those eat up CPU cycles or network on that box, neighbors or co-tenants will suffer.

There are many other instance types where you get your own dedicated hardware. With those you have your own nic as well, so no competition. Except wait there’s network storage! That’s right all the machines in the AWS environment use EBS now, which is all co-tenant. So your data is sitting alongside other customers, and you are all fighting for usage of the same disk read heads.

One way to mitigate this is to configure specific provisioned IOPS for your servers. But that costs more. It’s normally reserved for database instances where disk I/O is really crucial.

Granted the NewRelics of the world will certainly help us with this process. But they’re not giving us a hypervisor or global view of those servers, network or storage. So we can’t see how the overall systems performance may be impacted.

Related: Is AWS a patient that needs constant medication?

9. Operations can be invisible

When security is done well, you don’t have breakins, you don’t have data stolen, everything just runs smoothly. Operations is like that too. When it is done well it can be invisible.

It can also be invisible in a different way. When you deploy your application on serverless, all the servers & autoscaling is completely abstracted away. So when you get some weird outage because the farm of servers is offline, or because you hit some account limit in the number of functions you can run at once, then it quickly comes into focus.

Beware of invisible operations, because it’s harder to see what to monitor, and know how to stay ahead of outages.

Read: Is amazon too big to fail?

10. We can’t oursource true ownership

At the end of the day you can’t outsource ownership of your application or your business. The holistic view of your application in totality can only be understood by your engineers.

And that in the end is what operations is all about, no matter who’s wearing the hat!

Also: 5 reasons to move data to amazon redshift

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Is Amazon about to disrupt your data warehouse?


Amazon is about to launch a product called glue. As you can see below, this is the last piece in the data warehousing puzzle. With that in place, Amazon will own you! Or at least have push button products to meet all of enterprises varying needs.

Even if you’re a small startup, you can do big-shot big enterprise data warehousing. That means everyone can use cutting edge data driven techniques for product & business decisions.

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What is Redshift

Redshift is like the OLAP databases of years past, the Oracle’s of the world purpose built for warehousing data. Obviously without the crazy licensing model Oracle was famous for. With Amazon you can get enterprise class data warehouse for modest hourly prices.

If my recent conversations with recruiters about Redshift demand are any indication, there’s been a sudden uptick in startups looking for redshift expertise.

Also: Top serverless interview questions for hiring aws lambda experts

What is Spectrum?

Spectrum is a very new extension of Redshift allowing you to access & query S3 file data directly. This means you can have petabytes of data that you can access pre-load time. So you will ETL and load portions of it, but with Spectrum you can still access the offline data too.

In the old Oracle days this was called an EXTERNAL TABLE. I mention this only to say that Amazon isn’t doing anything that hasn’t been done before. Rather they’re bringing these advanced features within reach of everyday startups. That’s cool.

Related: Which engineering roles are in greatest demand?

What is glue?

Glue is still in beta, but if the RE:Invent talk above is any indication, it’s set to disrupt an entire industry. Wow!

Glue first catalogs your data sources. What does this mean, it scans them & models their schemas.

It then generates sample python ETL code. Modify it, or write your own. Share your code on Git. Or borrow other open source pieces, that already address your specific ETL use case!

Lastly it includes a job scheduler which handles dependencies. Job A must be completed before B can run and so forth. Error handling & logging are also all included.

Since these are native Amazon services, of course they’re going to integrate with their dangerously fast Redshift warehouse.

Read: Can on-demand consulting save startups time & money?

What is serverless?

I’ve written about how to throw fastballs at a serverless fanboy and even how to hire a serverless expert. But really what is it?

Serverless means deploying functions directly into the cloud. No servers, no configuration. All the systems administration & automation is hidden. No more devops to argue with! Amazon’s own offering is called Lambda.

Also: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

What is Quicksight?

Amazon’s even jumped into the fray at the presentation layer. Quicksight is a BI tool along the lines of mode, domo, looker or Tableau.

Now it’s possible to stay completely within the cozy Amazon ecosystem even for business insight and analytics.

Also: What can startups learn from the DYN DNS outage?

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30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

Everyone is hot under the collar again. So-called serverless or no-ops services are popping up everywhere allowing you to deploy “just code” into the cloud. Not only won’t you have to login to a server, you won’t even have to know they’re there.

As your code is called, but cloud events such a file upload, or hitting an http endpoint, your code runs. Behind the scene through the magic of containers & autoscaling, Amazon & others are able to provision in milliseconds.

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Pretty cool. Yes even as it outsources the operations role to invisible teams behind Amazon Lambda, Google Cloud Functions or Webtask it’s also making companies more agile, and allowing startup innovation to happen even faster.

Believe it or not I’m a fan too.

That said I thought it would be fun to poke a hole in the bubble, and throw some criticisms at the technology. I mean going serverless today is still bleeding edge, and everyone isn’t cut out to be a pioneer!

With that, here’s 30 questions to throw on the serverless fanboys (and ladies!)…

1. Security

o Are you comfortable removing the barrier around your database?
o With more services, there is more surface area. How do you prevent malicious code?
o How do you know your vendor is doing security right?
o How transparent is your vendor about vulnerabilities?

Also: Myth of five nines – Why high availability is overrated

2. Testing

o How do you do integration testing with multiple vendor service components?
o How do you test your API Gateway configurations?
o Is there a way to version control changes to API Gateway configs?
o Can Terraform or CloudFormation help with this?
o How do you do load testing with a third party db backend?
o Are your QA tests hitting the prod backend db?
o Can you easily create & destroy test dbs?

Related: 5 ways to move data to amazon redshift

3. Management

o How do you do zero downtime deployments with Lambda?
o Is there a way to deploy functions in groups, all at once?
o How do you manage vendor lock-in at the monitoring & tools level but also code & services?
o How do you mitigate your vendors maintenance? Downtime? Upgrades?
o How do you plan for move to alternate vendor? Database import & export may not be ideal, plus code & infrastructure would need to be duplicated.
o How do you manage a third party service for authentication? What are the pros & cons there?
o What are the pros & cons of using a service-based backend database?
o How do you manage redundancy of code when every client needs to talk to backend db?

Read: Why were dev & ops siloed job roles?

4. Monitoring & debugging

o How do you build a third-party monitoring tool? Where are the APIs?
o When you’re down, is it your app or a system-wide problem?
o Where is the New Relic for Lambda?
o How do you degrade gracefully when using multiple vendors?
o How do you monitor execution duration so your function doesn’t fail unexpectedly?
o How do you monitor your account wide limits so dev deploy doesn’t take down production?

Also: Are SQL databases dead?

5. Performance

o How do you handle startup latency?
o How do you optimize code for mobile?
o Does battery life preclude a large codebase on client?
o How do you do caching on server when each invocation resets everything?
o How do you do database connection pooling?

Also: Is Amazon too big to fail?

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