Chef inventor Adam Jacob introduces System Initiative, ‘Figma for infrastructure’

Chef inventor Adam Jacob introduces System Initiative, ‘Figma for infrastructure’

System Initiative, a US company co-founded in 2019 by Chef inventor Adam Jacob along with ex-Chef Chief of Staff Mahir Lupinacci, has released a private beta of its first product, also called System Initiative, which lets developers simulate, validate and deploy cloud applications.

In an introductory video Jacob described the product as “an intelligent automation platform that allow you to make detailed interactive simulations of your infrastructure and use it to manage your real world systems.”

Composing an application with System Initiative

System Initiative (SI) has a visual web-based designer which allows drag-and-drop of infrastructure components, which can then be connected. In an example, for a container-based application to be deployed on AWS, Jacob adds a Butane component to the diagram, where Butane is a tool for automatically configuring Fedora CoreOS Linux. Jacobs connects Butane to another component representing a Docker container image, and SI automatically configures Butane to run the container when the OS boots. Next, he added components representing an AWS region, a virtual machine image, an EC2 instance type, a security group, and an ingress rule for which he configured a port to expose. SI was then able both to list and create the necessary AWS resources to deploy the application. Once deployed, SI was able to monitor the health of the example application and surface information such as its public URL.

How does it work? “Every configuration parameter, qualification and action you can take is a TypeScript function sitting on a hypergraph,” said Jacob. “Each function takes inputs from elsewhere on the graph, and if any of the inputs change, we automatically re-run the function for you, and store the results.” The system also supports policy rules such as “always run the latest version of the AWS machine image.”

Jacob said that one of the goals is to surface and correct “small issues that show up late in the daily DevOps workflow.” Another goal is to foster collaboration, since the SI interface is fully multi-user. The “intelligent automation” claim is based on the ability to infer configuration dynamically from models and then to write the necessary code to define and deploy it. The plan is that SI will be open source, but the code is not available during the private beta.

Chef first appeared in 2008 and has been influential in the drive towards automation and infrastructure of code, though perhaps not as much as its rival Puppet, for which the initial release was in 2005. Chef was acquired by Progress in 2020 and remains popular.

How many of the huge range of AWS services are covered with components, and what about other clouds? “It’s very early days,” Jacob told DevClass. “Our focus is on core functionality and getting SI in the hands of early open source developers to explore. We’ll be adding coverage for other clouds in the future.”

Can Jacob now attract attention for SI as he did for Chef? His simple application demos well but this type of tool can become difficult to use with large and complex applications. The idea of diagramming infrastructure and then instantiating the resources in the diagram is not new, another example being AWS Application Composer, introduced at the re:Invent conference last year, though this is focused on serverless applications.

That said, if SI succeeds in simplifying application deployment to the cloud it may be easy to find users. The advance publicity describes it as “Figma for infrastructure”, and also quotes RedMonk analyst Stephen O’Grady who spoke of “increasing demand from enterprises for pre-integrated, carefully designed toolchains that are thoughtful about the developer and operator experiences they deliver. This is the precise opportunity that System Initiative was built for.” The project is supported by $18M of venture funding.