DevOps vs Cloud Native: Damn, where did all this platform complexity come from?

Complexity has always part of IT and it’s increasing as we embrace microservices and highly abstracted platforms.  Making everyone cope with this challenge is unsustainable.

We’re just more aware of infrastructure complexity now that DevOps is exposing this cluster configuration to developers and automation tooling. We are also building platforms from more loosely connected open components. The benefit of customization and rapid development has the unfortunate side-effect of adding integration points. Even worse, those integrations generally require operations in a specific sequence.

The result is a developer rebellion against DevOps on low level (IaaS) platforms towards ones with higher level abstractions (PaaS) like Kubernetes.
11-11-16-hirschfeld-1080x675This rebellion is taking the form of “cloud native” being in opposition to “devops” processes. I discussed exactly that point with John Furrier on theCUBE at Kubecon and again in my Messy Underlay presentation Defrag Conf.

It is very clear that DevOps mission to share ownership of messy production operations requirements is not widely welcomed. Unfortunately, there is no magic cure for production complexity because systems are inherently complex.

There is a (re)growing expectation that operations will remain operations instead of becoming a shared team responsibility.  While this thinking apparently rolls back core principles of the DevOps movement, we must respect the perceived productivity impact of making operations responsibility overly broad.

What is the right way to share production responsibility between teams?  We can start to leverage platforms like Kubernetes to hide underlay complexity and allow DevOps shared ownership in the right places.  That means that operations still owns the complex underlay and platform jobs.  Overall, I think that’s a workable diversion.

Provisioned Secure By Default with Integrated PKI & TLS Automation

Today, I’m presenting this topic (PKI automation & rotation) at Defragcon  so I wanted to share this background more broadly as a companion for that presentation.  I know this is a long post – hang with me, PKI is complex.

Building automation that creates a secure infrastructure is as critical as it is hard to accomplish. For all the we talk about repeatable automation, actually doing it securely is a challenge. Why? Because we cannot simply encode passwords, security tokens or trust into our scripts. Even more critically, secure configuration is antithetical to general immutable automation: it requires that each unit is different and unique.

Over the summer, the RackN team expanded open source Digital Rebar to include roles that build a service-by-service internal public key infrastructure (PKI).

untitled-drawingThis is a significant advance in provisioning infrastructure because it allows bootstrapping transport layer security (TLS) encryption without having to assume trust at the edges.  This is not general PKI: the goal is for internal trust zones that have no external trust anchors.

Before I explain the details, it’s important to understand that RackN did not build a new encryption model!  We leveraged the ones that exist and automated them.  The challenge has been automating PKI local certificate authorities (CA) and tightly scoped certificates with standard configuration tools.  Digital Rebar solves this by merging service management, node configuration and orchestration.

I’ll try and break this down into the key elements of encryption, keys and trust.

The goal is simple: we want to be able to create secure communications (that’s TLS) between networked services. To do that, they need to be able to agree on encryption keys for dialog (that’s PKI). These keys are managed in public and private pairs: one side uses the public key to encrypt a message that can only be decoded with the receiver’s private key.

To stand up a secure REST API service, we need to create a private key held by the server and a public key that is given to each client that wants secure communication with the server.

Now the parties can create secure communications (TLS) between networked services. To do that, they need to be able to agree on encryption keys for dialog. These keys are managed in public and private pairs: one side uses the public key to encrypt a message that can only be decoded with the receiver’s private key.

Unfortunately, point-to-point key exchange is not enough to establish secure communications.  It too easy to impersonate a service or intercept traffic.  

Part of the solution is to include holder identity information into the key itself such as the name or IP address of the server.  The more specific the information, the harder it is to break the trust.  Unfortunately, many automation patterns simply use wildcard (or unspecific) identity because it is very difficult for them to predict the IP address or name of a server.   To address that problem, we only generate certificates once the system details are known.  Even better, it’s then possible to regenerate certificates (known as key rotation) after initial deployment.

While identity improves things, it’s still not sufficient.  We need to have a trusted third party who can validate that the keys are legitimate to make the system truly robust.  In this case, the certificate authority (CA) that issues the keys signs them so that both parties are able to trust each other.  There’s no practical way to intercept communications between the trusted end points without signed keys from the central CA.  The system requires that we can build and maintain these three way relationships.  For public websites, we can rely on root certificates; however, that’s not practical or desirable for dynamic internal encryption needs.

So what did we do with Digital Rebar?  We’ve embedded a certificate authority (CA) service into the core orchestration engine (called “trust me”).  

The Digital Rebar CA can be told to generate a root certificate on a per service basis.  When we add a server for that service, the CA issues a unique signed certificate matching the server identity.  When we add a client for that service, the CA issues a unique signed public key for the client matching the client’s identity.  The server will reject communication from unknown public keys.  In this way, each service is able to ensure that it is only communicating with trusted end points.

Wow, that’s a lot of information!  Getting security right is complex and often neglected.  Our focus is provisioning automation, so these efforts do not cover all PKI lifecycle issues or challenges.  We’ve got a long list of integrations, tools and next steps that we’d like to accomplish.

Our goal was to automate building secure communication as a default.  We think these enhancements to Digital Rebar are a step in that direction.  Please let us know if you think this approach is helpful.

Why we can’t move past installers to talk about operations – the underlay gap

20 minutes.  That’s the amount of time most developers are willing to spend installing a tool or platform that could become the foundation for their software.  I’ve watched our industry obsess on the “out of box” experience which usually translates into a single CLI command to get started (and then fails to scale up).

Secure, scalable and robust production operations is complex.  In fact, most of these platforms are specifically designed to hide that fact from developers.  

That means that these platforms intentionally hide the very complexity that they themselves need to run effectively.  Adding that complexity, at best, undermines the utility of the platform and, at worst, causes distractions that keep us forever looping on “day 1” installation issues.

I believe that systems designed to manage ops process and underlay are different than the platforms designed to manage developer life-cycle.  This is different than the fidelity gap which is about portability. Accepting that allows us to focus on delivering secure, scalable and robust infrastructure for both users.

In a pair of posts, I lay out my arguments about the harm being caused by trying to blend these concepts in much more detail:

  1. It’s Time to Slay the Universal Installer Unicorn
  2. How the Lure of an ‘Easy Button’ Installer Traps Projects

Three reasons why Ops Composition works: Cluster Linking, Services and Configuration (pt 2)

In part pt 1, we reviewed the RackN team’s hard won insights from previous deployment automation. We feel strongly that prioritizing portability in provisioning automation is important. Individual sites may initially succeed building just for their own needs; however, these divergences limit future collaboration and ultimately make it more expensive to maintain operations.

aid1165255-728px-install-pergo-flooring-step-5-version-2If it’s more expensive isolate then why have we failed to create shared underlay? Very simply, it’s hard to encapsulate differences between sites in a consistent way.

What makes cluster construction so hard?

There are a three key things we have to solve together: cross-node dependencies (linking), a lack of service configuration (services) and isolating attribute chains (configuration).  While they all come back to thinking of the whole system as a cluster instead of individual nodes. let’s break them down:

Cross Dependencies (Cluster Linking) – The reason for building a multi-node system, is to create an interconnected system. For example, we want a database cluster with automated fail-over or we want a storage system that predictably distributes redundant copies of our data. Most critically and most overlooked, we also want to make sure that we can trust cluster members before we share secrets with them.

These cluster building actions require that we synchronize configuration so that each step has the information it requires. While it’s possible to repeatedly bang on the configure until it converges, that approach is frustrating to watch, hard to troubleshoot and fraught with timing issues.  Taking this to the next logical steps, doing upgrades, require sequence control with circuit breakers – that’s exactly what Digital Rebar was built to provide.

Service Configuration (Cluster Services) – We’ve been so captivated with node configuration tools (like Ansible) that we overlook the reality that real deployments are intertwined mix of service, node and cross-node configuration.  Even after interacting with a cloud service to get nodes, we still need to configure services for network access, load balancers and certificates.  Once the platform is installed, then we use the platform as a services.  On physical, there are even more including DNS, IPAM and Provisioning.

The challenge with service configurations is that they are not static and generally impossible to predict in advance.  Using a load balancer?  You can’t configure it until you’ve got the node addresses allocated.  And then it needs to be updated as you manage your cluster.  This is what makes platforms awesome – they handle the housekeeping for the apps once they are installed.

Digital Rebar decomposition solves this problem because it is able to mix service and node configuration.  The orchestration engine can use node specific information to update services in the middle of a node configuration workflow sequence.  For example, bringing a NIC online with a new IP address requires multiple trusted DNS entries.  The same applies for PKI, Load Balancer and Networking.

Isolating Attribute Chains (Cluster Configuration) – Clusters have a difficult duality: they are managed as both a single entity and a collection of parts. That means that our configuration attributes are coupled together and often iterative. Typically, we solve this problem by front loading all the configuration. This leads to several problems: first, clusters must be configured in stages and, second, configuration attributes are predetermined and then statically passed into each component making variation and substitution difficult.

Our solution to this problem is to treat configuration more like functional programming where configuration steps are treated as isolated units with fully contained inputs and outputs. This approach allows us to accommodate variation between sites or cluster needs without tightly coupling steps. If we need to change container engines or networking layers then we can insert or remove modules without rewriting or complicating the majority of the chain.

This approach is a critical consideration because it allows us to accommodate both site and time changes. Even if a single site remains consistent, the software being installed will not. We must be resilient both site to site and version to version on a component basis. Any other pattern forces us to into an unmaintainable lock step provisioning model.

To avoid solving these three hard issues in the past, we’ve built provisioning monoliths. Even worse, we’ve seen projects try to solve these cluster building problems within their own context. That leads to confusing boot-strap architectures that distract from making the platforms easy for their intended audiences. It is OK for running a platform to be a different problem than using the platform.
In summary, we want composition because we are totally against ops magic.  No unicorns, no rainbows, no hidden anything.

Basically, we want to avoid all magic in a deployment. For scale operations, there should never be a “push and prey” step where we are counting on timing or unknown configuration for it to succeed. Those systems are impossible to maintain, share and scale.

I hope that this helps you look at the Digital Rebar underlay approach in a holistic why and see how it can help create a more portable and sustainable IT foundation.

Breaking Up is Hard To Do – Why I Believe Ops Decomposition (pt 1)

Over the summer, the RackN team took a radical step with our previous Ansible Kubernetes workload install: we broke it into pieces.  Why?  We wanted to eliminate all “magic happens here” steps in the deployment.

320px-dominos_fallingThe result, DR Kompos8, is a faster, leaner, transparent and parallelized installation that allows for pluggable extensions and upgrades (video tour). We also chose the operationally simplest configuration choice: Golang binaries managed by SystemDGolang binaries managed by SystemD.

Why decompose and simplify? Let’s talk about our hard earned ops automation battle scars that let to composability as a core value:

Back in the early OpenStack days, when the project was actually much simpler, we were part of a community writing Chef Cookbooks to install it. These scripts are just a sequence of programmable steps (roles in Ops-speak) that drive the configuration of services on each node in the cluster. There is an ability to find cross-cluster information and lookup local inventory so we were able to inject specific details before the process began. However, once the process started, it was pretty much like starting a dominoes chain. If anything went wrong anywhere in the installation, we had to reset all the dominoes and start over.

Like a dominoes train, it is really fun to watch when it works. Also, like dominoes, it is frustrating to set up and fix. Often we literally were holding our breath during installation hoping that we’d anticipated every variation in the software, hardware and environment. It is no surprise that the first and must critical feature we’d created was a redeploy command.

It turned out the the ability to successfully redeploy was the critical measure for success. We would not consider a deployment complete until we could wipe the systems and rebuild it automatically at least twice.

What made cluster construction so hard? There were a three key things: cross-node dependencies (linking), a lack of service configuration (services) and isolating attribute chains (configuration).

We’ll explore these three reasons in detail for part 2 of this post tomorrow.

Even without the details, it easy to understand that we want to avoid all magic in a deployment.

For scale operations, there should never be a “push and prey” step where we are counting on timing or unknown configuration for it to succeed. Likewise, we need to eliminate “it worked from my desktop” automation too.  Those systems are impossible to maintain, share and scale. Composed cluster operations addresses this problem by making work modular, predictable and transparent.

5 Key Aspects of High Fidelity DevOps [repost from]

For all our cloud enthusiasm, I feel like ops automation is suffering as we increase choice and complexity.  Why is this happening?  It’s about loss of fidelity.

Nearly a year ago, I was inspired by a mention of “Fidelity Gaps” during a Cloud Foundry After Dark session.  With additional advice from DevOps leader Gene Kim, this narrative about the why and how of DevOps Fidelity emerged.

As much as we talk about how we should have shared goals spanning Dev and Ops, it’s not nearly as easy as it sounds. To fuel a DevOps culture, we have to build robust tooling, also.

That means investing up front in five key areas: abstraction, composability, automation, orchestration, and idempotency.

Together, these concepts allow sharing work at every level of the pipeline. Unfortunately, it’s tempting to optimize work at one level and miss the true system bottlenecks.

Creating production-like fidelity for developers is essential: We need it for scale, security and upgrades. It’s not just about sharing effort; it’s about empathy and collaboration.

But even with growing acceptance of DevOps as a cultural movement, I believe deployment disparities are a big unsolved problem. When developers have vastly different working environments from operators, it creates a “fidelity gap” that makes it difficult for the teams to collaborate.

Before we talk about the costs and solutions, let me first share a story from back when I was a bright-eyed OpenStack enthusiast…

Read the Full Article on including my section about Why OpenStack Devstack harms the project and five specific ways to improve DevOps fidelity.

my 8 steps that would improve OpenStack Interop w/ AWS

I’ve been talking with a lot of OpenStack people about frustrating my attempted hybrid work on seven OpenStack clouds [OpenStack Session Wed 2:40].  This post documents the behavior Digital Rebar expects from the multiple clouds that we have integrated with so far.  At RackN, we use this pattern for both cloud and physical automation.

Sunday, I found myself back in front of the the Board talking about the challenge that implementation variation creates for users.  Ultimately, the question “does this harm users?” is answered by “no, they just leave for Amazon.”

I can’t stress this enough: it’s not about APIs!  The challenge is twofold: implementation variance between OpenStack clouds and variance between OpenStack and AWS.

The obvious and simplest answer is that OpenStack implementers need to conform more closely to AWS patterns (once again, NOT the APIs).

Here are the eight Digital Rebar node allocation steps [and my notes about general availability on OpenStack clouds]:

  1. Add node specific SSH key [YES]
  2. Get Metadata on Networks, Flavors and Images [YES]
  3. Pick correct network, flavors and images [NO, each site is distinct]
  4. Request node [YES]
  5. Get node PUBLIC address for node [NO, most OpenStack clouds do not have external access by default]
  6. Login into system using node SSH key [PARTIAL, the account name varies]
  7. Add root account with Rebar SSH key(s) and remove password login [PARTIAL, does not work on some systems]
  8. Remove node specific SSH key [YES]

These steps work on every other cloud infrastructure that we’ve used.  And they are achievable on OpenStack – DreamHost delivered this experience on their new DreamCompute infrastructure.

I think that this is very achievable for OpenStack, but we’re doing to have to drive conformance and figure out an alternative to the Floating IP (FIP) pattern (IPv6, port forwarding, or adding FIPs by default) would all work as part of the solution.

For Digital Rebar, the quick answer is to simply allocate a FIP for every node.  We can easily make this a configuration option; however, it feels like a pattern fail to me.  It’s certainly not a requirement from other clouds.

I hope this post provides specifics about delivering a more portable hybrid experience.  What critical items do you want as part of your cloud ops process?