Andi Mann recently wrote an interesting post about virtual appliances . He uses the domain name pleasediscuss.com for his blog so I figured I’d do just that. More specifically, I have three comments on his article.
Opaque or transparent appliance
Andi’s concerns about the security and management problems posed by virtual appliances are real, but he seems to assume that the content of the appliance is necessarily opaque to the customer and under the responsibility of the appliance provider. Why can’t a virtual appliance be transparent in the sense that the customer is able to efficiently manage at least some aspects of the software installed on it? “You can’t put agents on most virtual appliances, they don’t come with WMI, and most have only a GUI for management” says Andi. Why can’t an appliance come with an agent (especially in these days of consolidation where many vendors provide many layers of the stack – hypervisor / OS / application container / application / management tools – including their agent)? Why can’t it implement a standard management API (most servers nowadays implement WBEM, WS-Management and/or IPMI pre-boot – on the motherboard – which is a lot more challenging to do than supporting a similar protocol in a virtual appliance). Andi is really criticizing the current offering more than the virtual appliance model per se and in this I can join him.
Let me put it differently, since this is probably just a question of definition: what would Andi call a virtual appliance that does expose management APIs for its infrastructure (e.g. WS-Management for the OS, JMX for the java stack) or that comes with an agent (HP, IBM, BMC, Oracle…) installed on it?
Such an appliance (let’s call it a “transparent virtual appliance” for now) doesn’t provide all the commonly claimed benefits of an appliance (zero config/admin) but as Andi points out these benefits come with major intrinsic drawbacks. A transparent virtual appliance still drastically simplifies installation (especially useful for test/dev/demo/POC). It doesn’t entirely free you of monitoring and configuration but at least it provides you with a very consistent and controlled starting point, manageable from the start (no need to subsequently install an agent). In addition, it can be made “just enough” (just enough OS, just enough app server…) to require a lot less maintenance than an application stack that you assemble yourself out of generic parts. We’ll always have trade offs between how optimized/customized it is versus how uniform your overall environment can be, but I don’t see the use of an appliance as a delivery mechanism as necessarily cornering you into a completely opaque situation, from a management perspective.
Those who attended Oracle Open World a few weeks ago were treated to an example of such an appliance, if they attended any of the sessions that covered Oracle’s Appliance Builder (the main one was, I believe, Virtualizing Oracle Fusion Middleware in the Modern Data Center, in case you have access to the Open World On Demand replay and slides). I believe it’s probably the same content that @jayfry3 was shown when he tweeted about “Oracle is demoing their private cloud self-service app”. These appliances are not at all opaque from a management perspective. To the contrary, they are highly manageable, coming with an Enterprise Manager agent installed that can manage everything in the appliance (and when that “everything” doesn’t include the OS, it’s because there isn’t one thanks to JRockit Virtual Edition, making things slimmer, faster, safer and more manageable). And of course the OVM-based environment in which you deploy these appliances is also managed by Enterprise Manager. OK, my point here wasn’t to go into marketing mode, but this is cool stuff and an example of what virtual appliances should be. BTW, this was also demonstrated during Hasan Rizvi’s keynote at OpenWorld, including the management of these systems through Enterprise Manager.
In the long run it’s irrelevant
As with all things computer-related, the issue is going to get blurrier and then irrelevant . The great thing about software is that there is no solid line. In this case, we will eventually get more customized appliances (via appliance builders or model-driven appliance generation) blurring the line between installed software and appliance-based software.
Waiting for PaaS
Towards the end of his post, Andi paints an optimistic vision of the future: “I also think that virtual appliances have a bright future – but in some ways I continue to see them as a beta version of what could (or should) come next. By adding in capabilities for responsible and accountable management, they could form the basis of more fully-functional virtual service management containers. These in turn could form the basis of elastic, mobile, network-deployed, responsible cloud appliances that deliver complete end-to-end service management without regard to physical location or domain of control.”
I mostly agree with this vision, though when I describe it it is in the guise of a PaaS platform. Where your appliance (which today goes from the OS all the way to the app) has shrunk to an application template that you deploy in the PaaS environment (rather than in a hypervisor). If/when the underlying PaaS environment has reached the right level of management automation you get all the benefits of an appliance while maintaining the consistency of your environment and its adherence to your management policies (because the environment is the PaaS platform and its management is driven from your policies).
[As is often the case, this started as a comment (on Andi's blog) and quickly outgrew that environment, leading to this new post. Plus, Andi's blog is brand new and seems to be well worth spreading the word about (Andi himself is under-marketing it).]