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Cloud computing: would you like flexibility with your simplicity?

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The recent announcement of the Sun Cloud, and more specifically its API is a good occasion to think about how much simplicity we really want in our datacenter automation mechanisms. The Sun API is very simple and its authors are proud of that fact. Indeed they should be proud of avoiding unneeded complexity. They have probably also kept out (at least so far), some needed complexity.

First, let’s focus on the important part:

It’s not REST that matters, it’s the rest

Most of the comments on the API focus on the fact that it’s RESTful. The authoritative source on this is Tim Bray’s description of the API, which he helped shape. But Tim is very down-to-earth about the reasons to use REST:

Why REST? · It’s a sensible question. The chief virtue of RESTful interfaces is massive scaling. But gimme a break, these are data-center management operations; a typical transaction frequency would be a single-digit number per week, with the single digit often being “0”, and it wouldn’t be surprising if a big multi-cluster staged-boot operation had a latency of minutes. The data-center controls are unlikely to be a bottleneck.

Why, then? Simply because we wanted a bits-on-the-wire interface. APIs, in the general case, suck; and are really hard to make portable. Bits-on-the-wire are ultimately flexible and interoperable. If you’re going to do bits-on-the-wire, Why not use HTTP? And if you’re going to use HTTP, use it right. That’s all.

The use of REST is not a fundamental characteristic of the API. In other words, if this API turns out to be useful I can rewrite it as a SOAP API and it would still be useful. Unless the SOAP API is made purposely complicated, it would only be marginally harder to use, not fundamentally less useful.

In fact, we may find out. If the rumor is confirmed and IBM decides to Tivolify (rather than kill) the Sun Cloud, the whole thing can be refactored as WS-RT/XML/XQuery (and maybe WS-ResourceCatalog) in five days, four of which would be spent capturing, sedating and restraining Tim Bray (and his “spec machete”) with the last one used for coding.

In the case of the Sun Cloud API, REST makes the API simpler in the same way that a keyless system makes a car easier to operate. You don’t have to fumble for they key, but you still need to know to parallel park, change a tire and operate the stereo.

By using REST, the Sun team has kept away some arbitrary complexity (e.g. fine-grained PUT; instead Sun decides what are the two valid sets of input parameters to create a cluster). But that’s only a small percentage of the potential complexity of the system. Not to mention that most developer will use libraries rather than on-the-wire protocols so they won’t see any difference. Instead, the real deal is:

The model

By “the model” I mean both the resource model and the capabilities of the resources. For capabilities, I don’t care whether a virtual machine can be started via an HTTP GET request on a URL that ends with ?control=start, or via a SOAP message with the was:Action header set to http://iloveclouds.com/vm/start or via an RPC call to a Start(…) method. I just care that the model includes the capability to start a VM. And the list of states a VM can be in.

Look at a datacenter today. Make an inventory of all the networking equipment, storage, servers, hypervisors, operating systems and infrastructure services that it contains. Consider all the configuration settings of all these resources (as they would be represented in a complete, authoritative and consistent CMDB, that most elusive creature). Add to it all the controls and APIs they expose. That’s a lot of data, even if you don’t consider the applications layer. That’s a few orders of magnitude larger than what the model in the Sun Cloud API can describe. That gap (between our CMDB model and the Sun Cloud model) is what we should look at and analyze. Why are they so far apart? How big is the ideal datacenter automation and virtualization model?

Among other things, these hundreds of configuration settings in your current datacenter are used to optimize deployments. No-one would miss the pain of dealing with the optimizations if they went away, but we would miss the performance benefits they bring. So what replaces them if the model is too simple to support any tweak? Is the infrastructure behind the API auto-optimized, based on a actual application patterns? Now that would be real progress towards simplicity and may allow us to rely on an API as simple as the Sun API. But the industry has been trying to do this with little success for a long time. I expect incremental, not radical, progress on this. Alternatively, does Cloud Computing change the economics to the point where performance optimizations through configurations are no longer cost-efficient, where scaling out is the answer? Hard to make this a general statement, considering how difficult it remains for many applications to scale out. And this sounds very SUV-like in these footprint-aware times (we see how well the “stretch the hood and add two cylinders to the engine” approach worked for Detroit).

Sun might very well have this covered under the hood. But I don’t know that I want to assume that they have an auto-optimizing system just because they produced an API that would benefit from having it underneath.

Not to mention that not all configuration tweaks have to do with performance optimization. Some of them are driven by licensing, organizational, risk and compliance considerations. If auto-detecting an application performance profile is hard, try auto-detecting its regulatory requirements.

Complexity with a purpose

The right place to be, between the “omniscient CMDB model” and the “Sun Cloud model” is somewhere in the middle, with a couple of incrementally complex layers. Of course they are so far apart that saying “somewhere in the middle” is a cope-out.  The current level of complexity is very hard to manage by humans (assisted by processes and tools, e.g. ITIL) and impossible to really automate. A lot of the complexity and variability is arbitrary rather than flexibility-inducing. We need to reduce this (all-out standardization is one way, stack integration is another). But the simplicity of the model in the Sun Cloud API is too extreme. Look at Amazon EC2. Everyone lauds the simplicity of the APIs and everyone, in the same breath, asks for more options (different instance types, availability zones, reserved instances…). Amazon (and Sun too, I assume) is taking the eminently rational approach of starting from simple and adding complexity (sorry, flexibility) as needed. That’s great. Just don’t get too enamored with the initial simplicity.

[UPDATED 2009/3/20: James Governor lauds the simplicity of Amazon's cloud offering.  If I understand him correctly, he sees simplicity as coming not just from "few options" but also from backward compatibility with current app infrastructure. That second part is what William Louth criticizes in his comment below. At the very least I like to keep the two separated: "how intrinsicly simple is it" and "how backward compatible is it" even though both can be seen as providing the benefit of simplicity.]

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Published at DZone with permission of William Vambenepe. See the original article here.

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