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The Great Divide: Preflight vs Inflight Resource Creation ⚔️

· 6 min read
Chris Rybicki

Why does Wing let you only create resources in preflight?

There are two ways to create resources in the cloud: in preflight, or in inflight. In this post, I'll explore what these terms mean, and why I think most cloud applications should avoid dynamically creating resources in inflight and instead stick to managing resources in preflight using tools like IaC.

Today, the cloud computing revolution has made it easier than ever to build applications that scale to meet the demands of users. However, as the cloud has become more prevalent, it has also become more complex.

One of the important questions you'll have to answer in order to build an application with AWS, Azure, or Google Cloud is: how should I create the cloud resources for my application?

For simple applications, you can get away with creating resources by clicking around in the cloud console. But as your application grows, a more structured approach is necessary. Infrastructure as code (IaC) tools like Terraform and CloudFormation have become popular for this purpose.

In general, there are two ways to create cloud resources for an application: before the application starts running, as part of the deployment process, and while the application is running, as part of the data path. We refer to these two phases of the application's lifecycle as preflight and inflight. Clever, ha?

In the cloud ecosystem, many cloud services do not make a hard distinction between APIs that manage resources and APIs that use those resources. For example, in AWS's documentation for SQS, operations like CreateQueue and SendMessage are listed side by side. The same goes for Google Cloud's Pub/Sub service.

However, there are significant differences between these two types of APIs in practice. This post will explore why I believe most cloud applications should avoid dynamically creating resources in inflight and, instead, focus on managing resources in preflight using tools like IaC.

Resource management is hard

First, dynamic resource creation introduces enormous complexity from a resource management perspective. This is the main reason why the IaC tools were created. Not only is it too cumbersome and error-prone to create large numbers of cloud resources by clicking buttons in your web browser, but it also becomes difficult to reliably maintain, update, and track the infrastructure. This is especially true as you start to pay attention to the cost of your application.

When you use tools like Terraform or CloudFormation, you typically create a YAML file or JSON file that describes resources in a declarative format. These solutions have several benefits:

  • By using version control, it's easier to identify where resources came from or when they were changed among different versions of your app (especially across apps and teams).
  • Provisioning tools can detect and fix "resource drift" (when the actual configuration of a resource differs from the desired configuration).
  • You can estimate the cost of your workload based on the list of resources using tools like infracost.
  • It's more straightforward to clean up / spin down your application, since all of the resources in your app are tracked in the file.

When resources are created, updated, and deleted dynamically as part of an application's data path, we lose many of these benefits. I’ve heard of many cases where an application was designed around creating resources dynamically, and entire projects and teams had to be dedicated just to writing code that garbage collects these resources.

There are a few kinds of applications that require dynamic resource creation of course (like applications that provision cloud resources on behalf of other users), but these tend to be the exception to the rule.

Static app architectures are more resilient

Second, dynamic resource creation can make your application more likely to encounter runtime errors in production. Resource creation and deletion typically requires performing control plane operations on the underlying cloud provider, while most inflight operations only require data plane operations.

Cloud services are more fault tolerant when they only depend on data plane operations as part of the business logic's critical path. This is because even if the control plane of a cloud service has a partial outage (for example, if AWS Lambda functions could not be updated with new code), the data plane can continue running with the last known configuration, even as servers come in and out of service. This property, called static stability, is a desirable attribute in distributed systems, and most cloud platforms are designed around these tradeoffs.

Dynamic resource creation requires broader security permissions

Lastly, dynamic resource creation means your code needs to have admin-like permissions, which dramatically increases the attack surface for bad actors.

In the cloud, most machines ultimately need some form of network access - whether it’s to connect with other VMs in a cluster, or to connect to other cloud services (like automatically scaling databases and messaging queues).

When resources are statically defined, you can narrowly scope these permissions to define which resources are exposed to the public, which resources can call which endpoints, and even which teams can view sensitive data (and how data accesses are logged and audited).

How to follow best practices... in practice?

I believe the best way to write applications for the cloud is to define your resources in preflight, and then use them in inflight. That's why Wing, the programming language my team and I are building, encourages developers to create resources in preflight as the easiest path to follow. We think the distinction between preflight and inflight is critical, which is why we've built it into the language itself. For example, if you try to create a resource in a block of code that is labeled with an inflight scope, Wing will produce a compiler error:

bring cloud;

let queue = new cloud.Queue();
queue.addConsumer(inflight (message: str) => {
// error: Cannot create the resource "Bucket" in inflight phase.
new cloud.Bucket();

Wing is intended to be a general purpose language, so you'll still be able to make API calls to a cloud providers (through network requests or JavaScript/TypeScript libraries) to dynamically create resources if you really want to. But in these scenarios, Wing won't provide resource management capabilities or generate resource permissions for you, so it would be your responsibility to manage the resource and ensure they get cleaned up.

If you're curious to learn more, check out our getting started guide or join us on our community discord and share what kinds of applications you're building in the cloud! We would love to hear your feedback about this design -- and if you have use case where dynamically creating resources would be helpful, please share it with us through a GitHub issue or on this blog's discussion post! ❤️