The Difference Between Applications and Infrastructure

Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Recently someone asked me what the difference was between Applications and Infrastructure. He asked why a Linux operating system wasn’t “software” and I said it was but it’s a perfect copy… I tend to speak about ‘custom software’. We ended up talking for a very long time about it, and I thought a blog post was in order.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Infrastructure is the operating systems and hardware that applications live on. Think Windows, Linux, containers, and so much more. Sometimes hardware is included in this category (depending on who you talk to), and sometimes it is not. Infrastructure is necessary to run an application, even serverless runs (briefly) on a container. Operating systems are also all standardized, and not unique in nature. For instance, if I’m running SQL server 2012 R2, and so are you, we both have the same options for patches, configuration, etc. Operating systems are software that speak to hardware. 

Applications are software that speak to operating systems, databases, APIs and anything else you can think of. There are custom applications (what I’m almost always talking about, software developed for a specific business need or as a product to sell), COTS (configurable off the shelf, like sharepoint or confluence, administered by a person or team, installed locally on a server) and regular old software that you install or access via a web browser that you use as-is (no administration required/simpler). More newly there is SaaS, software as a service, which is basically a great big COTS product, hosted by someone else (no need for you to patch or otherwise take care of it, you pick your settings and use it). 

Infrastructure usually needs to be patched, updated/upgraded, and hardened (secure configuration choices). Patches and upgrades arrive in a prepackaged format, but sometimes these updates can break the applications living on that infrastructure. Testing and sometimes downtime is required. This is why so many people say ‘patching is hard’, it is difficult to plan for testing, downtime and to ensure everything will go smoothly. 

Software, on the other hand, includes many different components that will be provided prepackaged (such as a new version of a library or a framework) but when you update them sometimes other libraries or framework parts break and/or the custom code that your team wrote can break as well. Meaning you may need to re-code or rewrite things, or update a whole bunch of things at the same time. I’ve heard developers refer to this as “dependency hell”

If you have just released something brand new, it’s super easy to keep it up to date. Tiny changes present less risk (which is why people love devops over waterfall), making it easier to maintain. But because it’s sparkling and new… Usually management says “hey, please build this new feature, and update that library later”. This is how technical debt accrues. It’s not operational staff or software developers saying ”forget that, I don’t care about this“, it’s almost always conflicting priorities. 

I hope this helps clarify the difference.