This is an exciting time for those who want to shrink the computer. They are having a field day playing with devices powered by Android, the iPhone’s Cocoa, Palm’s new WebOS, Windows Mobile, JavaFX (maybe one day) and, to a lesser extent, the Blackberry.
But times are good too for those who want to go the other way and program larger things rather than smaller ones. If you are interested in thinking about datacenters as a programmable entity, you are in luck: for these long plane trips when you run out of battery, bring a printout of the proceedings of the research meeting organized last year in Cambridge by Microsoft and HP Labs, titled “The Rise and Rise of the Declarative Datacentre”. When you’re back on-line go check the presentations on the site.
And if you liked Paul Anderson’s “Programming the Data Centre” presentation at the Cambridge meeting, you can also read his “Programming the Virtual Infrastructure” slides from LISA 08. More LISA 08 presentations here.
I got the link to Paul Anderson’s second presentation (and maybe also the first one, some time ago) from Steve Loughran, who also adds a few comments, starting with the debate between the declarative and procedural approaches. This question has plenty of down-the-road implications. There is a lot to like about the declarative approach in terms of composition, manageability and more generally as a framework to manage complexity via encapsulation.
A simple analogy for this debate is to think about driving directions. The declarative approach is for me to give you a map with a circle on it showing where my house is and let you find your way. It’s more work for you but it’s also more resilient. The procedural approach is for me to give you a set of turn-by-turn directions, based on where you are coming from. If you miss one turn or if one road happens to be blocked at the time, then you’re in trouble.
That being said, there are enough powerful and useful PowerShell or Puppet scripts out there to give you a pause before discarding procedural approaches. While the declarative (aka “desired state”, “policy-driven” and sometimes “model-based”) approach looks a lot more elegant, at this point in time the real work usually gets done via scripts, deployment procedures or the likes.
In additin to academia, the competition between these approaches is playing out right now between all the companies and products that want to help you automate and manage your cloud deployments (public and/or private): for example, Rightscale scripts (custom scripts and Righscripts, see here and here) versus the more declarative ECML/EDML documents from Elastra. Or the very declarative approach taken by SmartFrog.