What benefits does REST provide for configuration management (in traditional data centers and in Clouds)?
Part 1 of the “REST in practice for IT and Cloud management” investigation looked at Cloud APIs from leading IaaS providers. It examined how RESTful they are and what concrete benefits derive from their RESTfulness. In part 2 we will now look at the configuration management domain. Even though it’s less trendy, it is just as useful, if not more, in understanding the practical value of REST for IT management. Plus, as long as Cloud deployments are mainly of the IaaS kind, you are still left with the problem of managing the configuration of everything that runs of top the virtual machines (OS, middleware, DB, applications…). Or, if you are a glass-half-full person, here is another way to look at it: the great thing about IaaS (and host virtualization in general) is that you can choose to keep your existing infrastructure, applications and management tools (including configuration management) largely unchanged.
At first blush, REST is ideally suited to configuration management.
The RESTful Cloud APIs have no problem retrieving resource descriptions, but they seem somewhat hesitant in the way they deal with resource-specific actions. Tim Bray described one of the challenges in his well-considered Slow REST post. And indeed, applying REST to these “do something that may take some time and not result exactly in what was requested” scenarios is a lot less straightforward than when you’re just doing document/data retrieval. In contrast you’d think that applying REST to the task of retrieving configuration data from a CMDB or other configuration store would be a no-brainer. Especially in the IT management world, where we already have explicit resource models and a rich set of relationships defined. Let’s give each resource a URI that responds to HTTP GET requests, let’s turn the associations into hyperlinks in the resource presentation, let’s mint a MIME type to represent this format and we are out of the office in time for a 4:00PM tennis game when all the courts are available (hopefully our tennis partners are as bright as us and can get out early too). This “work smarter not harder” approach would allow us to present this list of benefits in our weekly progress report:
-1- A URI-based scheme makes the protocol independent of the resource topology, unlike today’s data stores that usually struggle to represent relationships between stores.
-2- It is simpler to code against than CIM-over-HTTP or WS-Management. It is cross-platform, unlike WMI or JMX.
-3- It makes it trivial to browse the configuration data from a Web browser (the resources themselves could provide an HTML representation based on content-type negotiation, or a simple transformation could generate it for the Web browser).
-4- You get REST-induced caching and scalability.
In the shower after the tennis game, it becomes apparent that benefit #4 is largely irrelevant for IT management use cases. That the browser in #3 would not be all that useful beyond simple use cases. That #2 is good for karma but developers will demand a library that hides this benefit anyway. And that the boss is going to say that he doesn’t care about #1either because his product is “the single source of truth” so it needs to import from the other configuration store, not reference them.
Even if we ignore the boss (once again) it only leaves #1 as a practical benefit. Surprise, that’s also the aspect that came out on top of the analysis in part 1 (see “the API doesn’t constrain the design of the URI space” highlight, reinforced by Mark’s excellent comment on the role of hypertext). Clearly, there is something useful for IT management in this “hypermedia” thing. This will largely be the topic of part 3.
There are also quite a few things that this RESTification of the configuration management store doesn’t solve:
-1- The ability to query: “show me all the WebLogic instances that run on a Windows host and don’t have patch xyz applied”. You don’t have much of a CMDB if you can’t answer this. For an analogy, remember (or imagine) a pre-1995 Web with no search engine, where you can only navigate by starting from your browser home page and clicking through static links step by step, or through bookmarks.
-2- The ability to retrieve the configuration change history and to compare configurations across resources (or to a reference configuration).
This is not to say that these two features cannot be built on top of a RESTful IT resource model. Just that they are the real meat of configuration management (rather than a simple resource-by-resource configuration browser) and that your brilliant re-architecture hasn’t really helped in addressing them. Does a RESTful foundation make these features harder to build? Not necessarily, but there are some tricky aspects to take care of:
-1- In hypermedia systems, the links are usually part of the resource representation, not resources of their own. In IT management, relationships/associations can have their own lifecycle and configuration properties.
-2- Be careful that you can really maintain the address of a resource. It’s one thing to make sure that a UUID gets maintained as a resource configuration changes, it’s another to ensure that a dereferenceable URI remains unchanged. For example, the admin server of a cluster may move over time from one node to another.
More fundamentally, the ability to deal with multiple resources at the same time and/or to use the model at different levels of granularity is often a challenge. Either you make your protocol more complex to account for this or your pollute your resource model (with a bunch of arbitrary “groups”, implicit or explicit).
We saw this in the Cloud APIs too. It typically goes something like this: you can address an individual server (called “foo”) by sending requests to http://Cloudprovider.com/server/foo. Drop the “foo” part of the URL and now you can address all the servers, for example to retrieve their configuration or possibly to reboot them. This gives me a way of dealing with multiple resources at time, but only along the lines pre-defined by the API. What if I want to deal only with the servers that host nodes of a given cluster. Sorry, not possible. What if the servers have different hosts in their URIs (remember, “the API doesn’t constrain the design of the URI space”)? Oops.
WS-Management, in the SOAP world, takes this one step further with Selectors, through which you can embed some kind of query, the result of which is what you are addressing in your message. Or, if all you want to do is GET, you can model you entire datacenter as one giant virtual XML doc (a document which is never assembled in practice) and use WSRF/WSDM’s “QueryExpression” or WS-Management’s “FragmentTransfer” to the same effect. BTW, I have issues with the details of how these mechanisms work (and I have described an alternative under the motto “if you are going to suffer with WS-Addressing, at least get some value out of it”).
These are all non-RESTful atrocities to a RESTafarian, but in my mind the Cloud REST API reviewed in part 1 have open Pandora’s box by allowing less-qualified URIs to address all instances of a class. I expect you’ll soon see more precise query parameters in these URIs and they’ll look a lot like WS-Management Selectors (e.g. http://Cloudprovider.com/server?OS=Linux&CPUType=X86). Want to take bets about when a Cloud API URI format with an embedded regex first arrives?
When you need this, my gut feeling is that you are better off not worrying too much about trying to look RESTful. There is no shame to using an RPC pattern in the right circumstances. Don’t be the stupid skier who ends up crashing in a tree because he is just too cool for the using snowplow position.
One of the most common reasons to deal with multiple resources together is to run queries such as the “show me all the WebLogic instances that run on a Windows host and don’t have patch xyz applied” example above. Such a query mechanism recently became a DMTF standard, it’s called CMDBf. It is SOAP-based and doesn’t attempt to have anything to do with REST. Not that it didn’t cross the mind of a bunch of people, lead by Michael Coté when CMDBf first emerged (read the comments too). But as James Governor rightly predicted in the first comment, Coté heard “dick” from us on this (I represented HP in CMDBf and ended up being an editor of the specification, focusing on the “query” part). I don’t remember reading the entry back then but I must have since I have been a long time Coté fan. I must have dismissed the idea so quickly that it didn’t even register with my memory. Well, it’s 2009 now, CMDBf v1 is a DMTF standard and guess what? I, and many other SOAP-the-world-till-it-shines alumni, are looking a lot more seriously into what’s in this REST thing (thus this series of posts for me). BTW in this piece Coté also correctly predicted that CMDBf would be “more about CMDB interoperation than federation” but that didn’t take as much foresight (it was pretty obvious to me from the start).
Frankly I am still not sure that there is much benefit from REST in what CMDBf does, which is mostly a query interface. Yes the CMDBf query and its response go over SOAP. Yes in this case SOAP is mostly a useless wrapper since none of the implementations will likely support any WS-* SOAP header (other than paying the WS-Addressing tax). Sure we could remove it and send plain XML over HTTP. Or replace the SOAP wrapper with an Atom wrapper. Would it be anymore RESTful? Not one bit.
And I don’t see how to make it more RESTful. There are plenty of things in the periphery the query operation that can be made RESTful, along the lines of what I described above. REST could make the discovery/reconciliation tasks of the CMDB more efficient. The CMDBf query result format could be improved so that from the returned elements I can navigate my way among resources by following hyperlinks. But the query operation itself looks fundamentally RPCish to me, just like my interaction with the Google search page is really an RPC call that happens to return a Web page full of hyperlinks. In a way, this query (whether Google or CMDBf) can at best be the transition point from RPC to REST. It can return results that open a world of RESTful requests to you, but the query invocation itself is not RESTful. And that’s OK.
In part 3 (now available), I will try to synthesize the lessons from the Cloud APIs (part 1) and configuration management (this post) and extract specific guidance to get the best of what REST has to offer in future IT management protocols. Just so you can plan ahead, in part 4 I will reform the US health care system and in part 5 I will provide a practical roadmap for global nuclear disarmament. Suggestions for part 6 are accepted.