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William Vambenepe works are architect in the Application and Middleware management group at Oracle. He blogs at http://stage.vambenepe.com/ William has posted 55 posts at DZone. View Full User Profile

A post-mortem on the previous IT management revolution

04.28.2009
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Before rushing to standardize “Cloud APIs”, let’s take a look back at the previous attempt to tackle the same problem, which is one of IT management integration and automation. I am referring to the definition of specifications that attempted to use the then-emerging SOAP-based Web services framework to easily integrate IT management systems and their targets.

Leaving aside the “Cloud” spin of today and the “Web services” frenzy of yesterday, the underlying problem remains to provide IT services (mostly applications) in a way that offers the best balance of performance, availability, security and economy. Concretely, it is about being able to deploy whatever IT infrastructure and application bits need to be deployed, configure them and take any required ongoing action (patch, update, scale up/down, optimize…) to keep them humming so customers don’t notice anything bothersome and you don’t break any regulation. Or rather so that any disruption a customer sees and any mandate you violate cost you less than it would have cost to avoid them.

The realization that IT systems are moving more and more towards distributed/connected applications was the primary reason that pushed us towards the definition of Web services protocols geared towards management interactions. By providing a uniform and network-friendly interface, we hoped to make it convenient to integrate management tasks vertically (between layers of the IT stack) and horizontally (across distributed applications). The latter is why we focused so much on managing new entities such as Web services, their execution environments and their conversations. I’ll refer you to the WSMF submission that my HP colleagues and I made to OASIS in 2003 for the first consistent definition of such a management framework. The overview white paper even has a use case called “management as a service” if you’re still not convinced of the alignment with today’s Cloud-talk.

Of course there are some differences between Web service management protocols and Cloud APIs. Virtualization capabilities are more advanced than when the WS effort started. The prospect of using hosted resources is more realistic (though still unproven as a mainstream business practice). Open source component are expected to play a larger role. But none of these considerations fundamentally changes the task at hand.

Let’s start with a quick round-up and update on the most relevant efforts and their status.

Protocols

WSMF (Web Services Management Framework): an HP-created set of specifications, submitted to the OASIS WSDM working group (see below). Was subsumed into WSDM. Not only a protocol BTW, it includes a basic model for Web services-related artifacts.

WS-Manageability: An IBM-led alternative to parts of WSDM, also submitted to OASIS WSDM.

WSDM (Web Services Distributed Management): An OASIS technical committee. Produced two standards (a protocol, “Management Using Web Services” and a model of Web services, “Management Of Web Services”). Makes use of WSRF (see below). Saw a few implementations but never achieved real adoption.

OGSI (Open Grid Services Infrastructure): A GGF (the organization now known as OGF) standard to provide a service-oriented resource manipulation infrastructure for Grid computing. Replaced with WSRF.

WSRF: An OASIS technical committee which produced several standards (the main one is WS-ResourceProperties). Started as an attempt to align the GGF/OGSI approach to resource access with the IT management approach (represented by WSDM). Saw some adoption and is currently quietly in use under the cover in the GGF/OGF space. Basically replaced OGSI but didn’t make it in the IT management world because its vehicle there, WSDM, didn’t.

WS-Management: A DMTF standard, based on a Microsoft-led submission. Similar to WSDM in many ways. Won the adoption battle with it. Based on WS-Transfer and WS-Enumeration.

WS-ResourceTransfer (aka WS-RT): An attempt to reconcile the underlying foundations of WSDM and WS-Management. Stalled as a private effort (IBM, Microsoft, HP, Intel). Was later submitted to the W3C WS-RA working group (see below).

WSRA (Web Services Resource Access): A W3C working group created to standardize the specifications that WS-Management is built on (WS-Transfer etc) and to add features to them in the form of WS-RT (which was also submitted there, in order to be finalized). This is (presumably) the last attempt at standardizing a SOAP-based access framework for distributed resources. Whether the window of opportunity to do so is still open is unclear. Work is ongoing.

WS-ResourceCatalog : A discovery helper companion specification to WS-Management. Started as a Microsoft document, went through the “WSDM/WS-Management reconciliation” effort, emerged as a new specification that was submitted to DMTF in May 2007. Not heard of since.

CMDBf (Configuration Management Database Federation): A DMTF working group (and soon to be standard) that mainly defines a SOAP-based protocol to query repositories of configuration information. Not linked with (or dependent on) any of the specifications listed above (it is debatable whether it belongs in this list or is part of a new breed).

Modeling

DCML (Data Center Markup Language): The first comprehensive effort to model key elements of a data center, their relationships and their policies. Led by EDS and Opsware. Never managed to attract the major management vendors. Transitioned to an OASIS member section and died of being ignored.

SDM (System Definition Model): A Microsoft specification to model an IT system in a way that includes constraints and validation, with the goal of improving automation and better linking the different phases of the application lifecycle. Was the starting point for SML.

SML (Service Modeling Language): Currently a W3C “proposed recommendation” (soon to be a recommendation, I assume) with the same goals as SDM. It was created, starting from SDM, by a consortium of companies that eventually submitted it to W3C. No known adoption other than the Eclipse COSMOS project (Microsoft was supposed to use it, but there hasn’t been any news on that front for a while). Technically, it is a combination of XSD and Schematron. It appears dead, unless it turns out that Microsoft is indeed using it (I don’t know whether System Center is still using SDM, whether they are adopting SML, whether they are moving towards M or whether they have given up on the model-centric vision).

CML (Common Model Library): An effort by the SML authors to create a set of model elements using the SML metamodel. Appears to be dead (no news in a long time and the cml-project.org domain name that was used seems abandoned).

SDD (Solution Deployment Descriptor): An OASIS standard to define a packaging mechanism meant to simplify the deployment and configuration of software units. It is to an application archive what OVF is to a virtual disk. Little adoption that I know of, but maybe I have a blind spot on this.

OVF (Open Virtualization Format): A recently released DMTF standard. Defines a packaging and descriptor format to distribute virtual machines. It does not defined a common virtual machine format, but a wrapper around it. Seems to have some momentum. Like CMDBf, it may be best thought of as part of a new breed than directly associated with WS-Management and friends.

This is not an exhaustive list. I have left aside the eventing aspects (WS-Notification, WS-Eventing, WS-EventNotification) because while relevant it is larger discussion and this entry to too long already (see here and here for some updates from late last year on the eventing front). It also does not cover the Grid work (other than OGSI/WSRF to the extent that they intersect with the IT management world), even though a lot of the work that took place there is just as relevant to Cloud computing as the IT management work listed above. Especially CDDLM/CDL an abandoned effort to port SmartFrog to the then-hot XML standards, from which there are plenty of relevant lessons to extract.

The lessons

What does this inventory tell us that’s relevant to future Cloud API standardization work? The first lesson is that protocols are easy and models are hard. WS-Management and WSDM technically get the job done. CMDBf will be a good query language. But none of the model-related efforts listed above seem to have hit the mark of “doing the job”. With the possible exception of OVF which is promising (though the current expectations on it are often beyond what it really delivers). In general, the more focused and narrow a modeling effort is, the more successful it seems to be (with OVF as the most focused of the list and CML as the other extreme). That’s lesson learned number two: models that encompass a wide range of systems are attractive, but impossible to deliver. Models that focus on a small sub-area are the way to go. The question is whether these specialized models can at least share a common metamodel or other base building blocks (a type system, a serialization, a relationship model, a constraint mechanism, etc), which would make life easier for orchestrators. SML tries (tried?) to be all that, with no luck. RDF could be all that, but hasn’t managed to get noticed in this context. The OVF and SDD examples seems to point out that the best we’ll get is XML as a shared foundation (a type system and a serialization). At this point, I am ready to throw the towel on achieving more modeling uniformity than XML provides, and ready to do the needed transformations in code instead. At least until the next window of opportunity arrives.

I wish that rather than being 80% protocols and 20% models, the effort in the WS-based wave of IT management standards had been the other way around. So we’d have a bit more to show for our work, for example a clear, complete and useful way to capture the operational configuration of application delivery services (VPN, cache, SSL, compression, DoS protection…). Even if the actual specification turns out to not make it, its content should be able to inform its successor (in the same way that even if you don’t use CIM to model your server it is interesting to see what attributes CIM has for a server).

It’s less true with protocols. Either you use them (and they’re very valuable) or you don’t (and they’re largely irrelevant). They don’t capture domain knowledge that’s intrinsically valuable. What value does WSDM provide, for example, now that’s it’s collecting dust? How much will the experience inform its successor (other than trying to avoid the WS-Addressing disaster)? The trend today seems to be that a more direct use of HTTP (”REST”) will replace these protocols. Sure. Fine. But anyone who expects this break from the past to be a vaccination against past problems is in for a nasty surprise. Because, and I am repeating myself, it’s the model, stupid. Not the protocol. Something I (hopefully) explained in my comments on the Sun Cloud API (before I knew that caring about this API might actually become part of my day job) and something on which I’ll come back in a future post.

Another lesson is the need for clear use cases. Yes, it feels silly to utter such an obvious statement. But trust me, standards groups still haven’t gotten this. It’s not until years spent on WSDM and then WS-Management that I realized that most people were not going after management integration, as I was, but rather manageability. Where “manageability” is concerned with discovering and monitoring individual resources, while “management integration” is concerned with providing a systematic view of the environment, with automation as the goal. In other words, manageability standards can allow you to get a traditional IT management console without the need for agents. Management integration standards can allow you to coordinate your management systems and automate their orchestration. WS-Management is for manageability. CMDBf is in the management integration category. Many of the (very respectful and civilized) head-butting sessions I engaged in during the WSDM effort can be traced back to the difference between these two sets of use cases. And there is plenty of room for such disconnect in the so-loosely-defined “Cloud” world.

We have also learned (or re-learned) that arbitrary non-backward compatible versioning, e.g. for political or procedural reasons as with WS-Addressing, is a crime. XML namespaces (of the XSD and WSDL types, as well as URIs used in similar ways in specifications, e.g. to identify a dialect or profile) are tricky, because they don’t have backward compatibility metadata and because of the practice to use organizations domain names in the URI (as opposed to specification-specific names that can be easily transferred, e.g. cmdbf.org versus dmtf.org/cmdbf). In the WS-based management world, we inherited these problems at the protocol level from the generic WS stack. Our hands are more or less clean, but only because we didn’t have enough success/longevity to generate our own versioning problems, at the model level. But those would have been there had these models been able to see the light of day (CML) or see adoption (DCML).

There are also practical lessons that can be learned about to the tactics and strategies of the main players. Because it looks like they may not change very much, as corporations or even as individuals. Karla Norsworthy speaks for IBM on Cloud interoperability standards in this article. Andrew Layman represented Microsoft in the post-Manifestogate Cloud patch-up meeting in New York. Winston Bumpus is driving the standards strategy at VMWare. These are all veterans of the WS-Management, WSDM and related wars collaborations (and more generally the whole WS-* effort for the first two). For the details of what there is to learn from the past in that area, you’ll have to corner me in a hotel bar and buy me a few drinks though. I am pretty sure you’d get your money’s worth (I am not a heavy drinker)…

In summary, here are my recommendations for standardizing Cloud API, based on lessons from the Web services management effort. The theme is “focus on domain models”. The line items:

  • Have clear goals for each effort. E.g. is your use case to deploy and run an existing application in a Cloud-like automated environment, or is it to create new applications that efficiently take advantage of the added flexibility. Very different problems.
  • If you want to use OVF, then beef it up to better apply to Cloud situations, but keep it focused on VM packaging: don’t try to grow it into the complete model for the entire data center (e.g. a new DCML).
  • Complement OVF with similar specifications for other domains, like the application delivery systems listed above. Informally try to keep these different specifications consistent, but don’t over-engineer it by repeating the SML attempt. It is more important to have each specification map well to its domain of application then it is to have perfect consistency between them. Discrepancies can be bridged in code, or in a later incarnation.
  • As you segment by domain, as suggested in the previous two bullets, don’t segment the models any further within each domain. Handle configuration, installation and monitoring issues as a whole.
  • Don’t sweat the protocols. HTTP, plain old SOAP (don’t call it POS) or WS-* will meet your need. Pick one. You don’t have a scalability challenge as much as you have a model challenge so don’t get distracted here. If you use REST, do it in the mindset that Tim Bray describes: “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.” Not as something that needs to scale to Web scale or as a rebuff of WS-*.
  • Beware of versioning. Version for operational changes only, not organizational reasons. Provide metadata to assert and encourage backward compatibility.

This is not a recipe for the ideal result but it is what I see as practically achievable. And fault-tolerant, in the sense that the failure of one piece would not negate the value of the others. As much as I have constrained expectations for Cloud portability, I still want it to improve to the extent possible. If we can’t get a consistent RDF-based (or RDF-like in many ways) modeling framework, let’s at least apply ourselves to properly understanding and modeling the important areas.

In addition to these general lessons, there remains the question of what specific specifications will/should transition to the Cloud universe. Clearly not all of them, since not all of them even made it in the “regular” IT management world for which they were designed. How many then? Not surprisingly (since IBM had a big role in most of them), Karla Norsworthy, in the interview mentioned above, asserts that “infrastructure as a service, or virtualization as a paradigm for deployment, is a situation where a lot of existing interoperability work that the industry has done will surely work to allow integration of services”. And just as unsurprisingly Amazon’s Adam Selipsky, who’s company has nothing to with the previous wave but finds itself in leadership position WRT to Cloud Computing is a lot more circumspect: “whether existing standards can be transferred to this case [of cloud computing] or if it’s a new topic is [too] early to say”. OVF is an obvious candidate. WS-Management is by far the most widely implemented of the bunch, so that gives it an edge too (it is apparently already in use for Cloud monitoring, according to this press release by an “innovation leader in automated network and systems monitoring software” that I had never heard of). Then there is the question of what IBM has in mind for WS-RT (and other specifications that the WS-RA working group is toiling on). If it’s not used as part of a Cloud API then I really don’t know what it will be used for. But selling it as such is going to be an uphill battle. CMDBf is a candidate too, as a model-neutral way to manage the configuration of a distributed system. But here I am, violating two of my own recommendations (”focus on models” and “don’t isolate config from other modeling aspects”). I guess it will take another pass to really learn…

References
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