unBIOSed? Is Redfish an IPMI retread or can vendors find unification?

Server management interfaces stink.  They are inconsistent both between vendors and within their own product suites.  Ideally, Vendors would agree on a single API; however, it’s not clear if the diversity is a product of competition or actual platform variation.  Likely, it’s both.

From RedFish SiteWhat is Redfish?  It’s a REST API for server configuration that aims to replace both IPMI and vendor specific server interfaces (like WSMAN).  Here’s the official text from RedfishSpecification.org.

Redfish is a modern intelligent [server] manageability interface and lightweight data model specification that is scalable, discoverable and extensible.  Redfish is suitable for a multitude of end-users, from the datacenter operator to an enterprise management console.

I think that it’s great to see vendors trying to get on the same page and I’m optimistic that we could get something better than IPMI (that’s a very low bar).  However, I don’t expect that vendors can converge to a single API; it’s just not practical due to release times and pressures to expose special features.  I think the divergence in APIs is due both to competitive pressures and to real variance between platforms.

Even if we manage to a grand server management unification; the problem of interface heterogeneity has a long legacy tail.

In the best case reality, we’re going from N versions to N+1 (and likely N*2) versions because the legacy gear is still around for a long time.  Adding Redfish means API sprawl is going to get worse until it gets back to being about the same as it is now.

Putting pessimism aside, the sprawl problem is severe enough that it’s worth supporting Redfish on the hope that it makes things better.

That’s easy to say, but expensive to do.  If I was making hardware (I left Dell in Oct 2014), I’d consider it an expensive investment for an uncertain return.  Even so, several major hardware players are stepping forward to help standardize.  I think Redfish would have good ROI for smaller vendors looking to displace a major player can ride on the standard.

Redfish is GREAT NEWS for me since RackN/Crowbar provides hardware abstraction and heterogeneous interface support.  More API variation makes my work more valuable.

One final note: if Redfish improves hardware security in a real way then it could be a game changer; however, embedded firmware web servers can be tricky to secure and patch compared to larger application focused software stacks.  This is one area what I’m hoping to see a lot of vendor collaboration!  [note: this should be it’s own subject – the security issue is more than API, it’s about system wide configuration.  stay tuned!]

Boot me up! out-of-band IPMI rocks then shuts up and waits

It’s hard to get excited about re-implementing functionality from v1 unless the v2 happens to also be freaking awesome.   It’s awesome because the OpenCrowbar architecture allows us to it “the right way” with real out-of-band controls against the open WSMAN APIs.

gangnam styleWith out-of-band control, we can easily turn systems on and off using OpenCrowbar orchestration.  This means that it’s now standard practice to power off nodes after discovery & inventory until they are ready for OS installation.  This is especially interesting because many servers RAID and BIOS can be configured out-of-band without powering on at all.

Frankly, Crowbar 1 (cutting edge in 2011) was a bit hacky.  All of the WSMAN control was done in-band but looped through a gateway on the admin server so we could access the out-of-band API.  We also used the vendor (Dell) tools instead of open API sets.

That means that OpenCrowbar hardware configuration is truly multi-vendor.  I’ve got Dell & SuperMicro servers booting and out-of-band managed.  Want more vendors?  I’ll give you my shipping address.

OpenCrowbar does this out of the box and in the open so that everyone can participate.  That’s how we solve this problem as an industry and start to cope with hardware snowflaking.

And this out-of-band management gets even more interesting…

Since we’re talking to servers out-of-band (without the server being “on”) we can configure systems before they are even booted for provisioning.  Since OpenCrowbar does not require a discovery boot, you could pre-populate all your configurations via the API and have the Disk and BIOS settings ready before they are even booted (for models like the Dell iDRAC where the BMCs start immediately on power connect).

Those are my favorite features, but there’s more to love:

  • the new design does not require network gateway (v1 did) between admin and bmc networks (which was a security issue)
  • the configuration will detect and preserves existing assigned IPs.  This is a big deal in lab configurations where you are reusing the same machines and have scripted remote consoles.
  • OpenCrowbar offers an API to turn machines on/off using the out-of-band BMC network.
  • The system detects if nodes have IPMI (VMs & containers do not) and skip configuration BUT still manage to have power control using SSH (and could use VM APIs in the future)
  • Of course, we automatically setup BMC network based on your desired configuration


Mark Stouse’s “Making Predictions for 14” series

I was invited to be part of Mark Stouse’s 2014 big data & cloud predictions series.  His questions had me thinking deeply about the past year and I’m happy to repost them here with links to the other predictors too including (Robert ScobleShel Israel, and David H. Deans).

1.  Describe in one sentence what you do and why you’re good at it.

I specialize in architecture for infrastructure software for scale data center operations (aka “cloud”) and I have 14 years of battle scars that inform my designs.

 2.  Cloud Computing, Big Data or Consumerization: Which trend do you feel is having the most impact on IT today and why?

Cloud, Data & Consumerization are all connected, so there’s no one clear “most impactful” winner except that all three are forcing IT to rethink how we handle operations.   The pace of change for these categories (many of which are open source driven) is so fast that traditional IT governance cannot keep up.  I’m specifically talking about the DevOps and Lean Software Delivery paradigms.  These approaches do not mean that we’re trading speed for quality; in fact, I’ve seen that we’re adopting techniques that deliver both higher quality and speed.

 3.  What do you think is the biggest misconception about Cloud computing/Big Data/Consumerization?

That someone can purchase them as a SKU.  These are really architectural concepts that impact how we solve problems instead of specific products.  My experience is that customers overlook their need to understand how to change their business to take advantage of these technologies.  It’s the same classic challenge for ROI from most new technologies – they don’t exist apart from the business matching changes to the business to leverage them.

 4.  Which (Cloud Computing/Big Data/Consumerization) trend has surprised you most in the last five years?

Open source has surprised me because we’ve seen it transform from a cost concern into a supply chain concern.  When I started doing open source work for Dell, customers were very interested in innovation and controlling license costs.  This has really changed over the last few years.  Today, customers are more concerned with community participation and transparency of their product code base.  This surprised me until I realized that they are really seeking to ensure that they had maximum control and visibility into their “IT Supply Chain.”   It may seem like a paradox, but open source software is uniquely positioned to help companies maintain more control of their critical IT because they are not tightly coupled to a single vendor.

 5.  How has Cloud Computing/Big Data/Consumerization had the biggest impact in YOUR life to date?

Beyond it being my career, I believe these technologies have created a new degree of freedom for me.  I’m answering these questions from the SFO airport where I’m carrying all of the tools I need to do my job in a space small enough to fit under the seat in front of me plus a free Wifi connection.  I believe we are only just learning how access to information and portable computing will change our experience.  This learning process will be both liberating and painful as we work out the right balances between access, identity and privacy.

 6.  On a lighter note – If Cloud/Big Data/Consumerization could be personified by a superhero, which superhero would it be and why?

The Hulk.   Looks like a friendly geek but it’s going to crush you if you’re not careful.

 7.  What aspect of (Cloud Computing/Big Data/ Consumerization) are you most excited about in the future, and what excites you about it?

The Internet of Things (even if I hate the term) is very exciting because we’re moving into a place where we have real ways to connect our virtual and physical lives.  That translates into cool technologies like self-driving cars and smart power utilities.  I think it will also motivate a revolution in how people interact with computers and each other.  It’s going to open up a whole new dimension on our personal interaction with our surroundings.   I’m specifically thinking about a book “Rainbows End” by Vernor Vinge that paints this future in vivid detail.