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 DevOps.com 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.

Container Migration 101: Cloudcast.net & Lachlan Evenson

Last week, the CloudCast.net interviewed Lachlan Evenson (now at Deis!).  I highly recommend listening to the interview because he has a unique and deep experience with OpenStack, Kubernetes and container migration.

15967I had the good fortune of lunching with Lachie just before the interview aired.  We got compare notes about changes going on in the container space.  Some of those insights will end up in my OpenStack Barcelona talk “Will it Blend? The Joint OpenStack Kubernetes Environment.”

There’s no practical way to rehash our whole lunch discussion as a post; however, I can point you to some key points [with time stamps] in his interview that I found highly insightful:

  • [7:20] In their pre-containers cloud pass, they’d actually made it clunky for the developers and it hurt their devops attempts.
  • [17.30] Developers advocating for their own use and value is a key to acceptance.  A good story follows…
  • [29:50] We’d work with the app dev teams and if it didn’t fit then we did not try to make it fit.

Overall, I think Lachie does a good job reinforcing that containers create real value to development when there’s a fit between the need and the technology.

Also, thanks Brian and Aaron for keeping such a great podcast going!



yes, we are papering over Container ops [from @TheNewStack #DockerCon]

thenewstackIn this brief 7 minute interview made at DockerCon 16, Alex Williams and I cover a lot of ground ranging from operations’ challenges in container deployment to the early seeds of the community frustration with Docker 1.12 embedding swarm.

I think there’s a lot of pieces we’re still wishing away that aren’t really gone. (at 4:50)

Rather than repeat TheNewStack summary; I want to highlight the operational and integration gaps that we continue to ignore.

It’s exciting to watch a cluster magically appear during a keynote demo, but those demos necessarily skip pass the very real provisioning, networking and security work needed to build sustained clusters.

These underlay problems are general challenges that we can address in composable, open and automated ways.  That’s the RackN goal with Digital Rebar and we’ll be showcasing how that works with some new Kubernetes automation shortly.

Here is the interview on SoundCloud or youtube:


OpenStack Interop, Container Security, Install & Open Source Posts

In case you missed it, I posted A LOT of content this week on other sites covering topics for OpenStack Interop, Container Security, Anti-Universal Installers and Monetizing Open Source.  Here are link-bait titles & blurbs from each post so you can decide which topics pique your interest.

Thirteen Ways Containers are More Secure than Virtual Machines on TheNewStack.com

Last year, conventional wisdom had it that containers were much less secure than virtual machines (VMs)! Since containers have such thin separating walls; it was easy to paint these back door risks with a broad brush.  Here’s a reality check: Front door attacks and unpatched vulnerabilities are much more likely than these backdoor hacks.

It’s Time to Slay the Universal Installer Unicorn on DevOps.com 

While many people want a universal “easy button installer,” they also want it to work on their unique snowflake of infrastructures, tools, networks and operating systems.  Because there is so much needful variation and change, it is better to give up on open source projects trying to own an installer and instead focus on making their required components more resilient and portable.

King of the hill? Discussing practical OpenStack interoperability on OpenStack SuperUser

Can OpenStack take the crown as cloud king? In our increasingly hybrid infrastructure environment, the path to the top means making it easier to user to defect from the current leaders (Amazon AWS; VMware) instead of asking them to blaze new trails. Here are my notes from a recent discussion about that exact topic…

Have OpenSource, Will Profit?! 5 thoughts from Battery Ventures OSS event on RobHirschfeld.com

As “open source eats software” the profit imperative becomes ever more important to figure out.  We have to find ways to fund this development or acknowledge that software will simply become waste IP and largess from mega brands.  The later outcome is not particularly appealing or innovative.

Open Source as Reality TV and Burning Data Centers [gcOnDemand podcast notes]

During the OpenStack summit, Eric Wright (@discoposse) and I talked about a wide range of topics from scoring success of OpenStack early goals to burning down traditional data centers.

Why burn down your data center (and move to public cloud)? Because your ops process are too hard to change. Rob talks about how hybrid provides a path if we can made ops more composable.

Here are my notes from the audio podcast (source):

1:30 Why “zehicle” as a handle? Portmanteau from electrics cars… zero + vehicle

Let’s talk about OpenStack & Cloud…

  • OpenStack History
    • 2:15 Rob’s OpenStack history from Dell and Hyperscale
    • 3:20 Early thoughts of a Cloud API that could be reused
    • 3:40 The practical danger of Vendor lock-in
    • 4:30 How we implemented “no main corporate owner” by choice
  • About the Open in OpenStack
    • 5:20 Rob decomposes what “open” means because there are multiple meanings
    • 6:10 Price of having all open tools for “always open” choice and process
    • 7:10 Observation that OpenStack values having open over delivering product
    • 8:15 Community is great but a trade off. We prioritize it over implementation.
  • Q: 9:10 What if we started later? Would Docker make an impact?
    • Part of challenge for OpenStack was teaching vendors & corporate consumers “how to open source”
  • Q: 10:40 Did we accomplish what we wanted from the first summit?
    • Mixed results – some things we exceeded (like growing community) while some are behind (product adoption & interoperability).
  • 13:30 Interop, Refstack and Defcore Challenges. Rob is disappointed on interop based on implementations.
  • Q: 15:00 Who completes with OpenStack?
    • There are real alternatives. APIs do not matter as much as we thought.
    • 15:50 OpenStack vendor support is powerful
  • Q: 16:20 What makes OpenStack successful?
    • Big tent confuses the ecosystem & push the goal posts out
    • “Big community” is not a good definition of success for the project.
  • 18:10 Reality TV of open source – people like watching train wrecks
  • 18:45 Hybrid is the reality for IT users
  • 20:10 We have a need to define core and focus on composability. Rob has been focused on the link between hybrid and composability.
  • 22:10 Rob’s preference is that OpenStack would be smaller. Big tent is really ecosystem projects and we want that ecosystem to be multi-cloud.

Now, about RackN, bare metal, Crowbar and Digital Rebar….

  • 23:30 (re)Intro
  • 24:30 VC market is not metal friendly even though everything runs on metal!
  • 25:00 Lack of consistency translates into lack of shared ops
  • 25:30 Crowbar was an MVP – the key is to understand what we learned from it
  • 26:00 Digital Rebar started with composability and focus on operations
  • 27:00 What is hybrid now? Not just private to public.
  • 30:00 How do we make infrastructure not matter? Multi-dimensional hybrid.
  • 31:00 Digital Rebar is orchestration for composable infrastructure.
  • Q: 31:40 Do people get it?
    • Yes. Automation is moving to hybrid devops – “ops is ops” and it should not matter if it’s cloud or metal.
  • 32:15 “I don’t want to burn down my data center” – can you bring cloud ops to my private data center?