Category Archives: Middleware

Everything is PaaSible

That’s the title of an article I wrote for InfoQ and which went live today.

If you can get past the punny title you’ll read about the following points:

  • In traditional (and IaaS) environments, many available application infrastructure features remain rarely used because of the cost (perceived or real) or adding them to the operational environment.
  • Most PaaS environments of today don’t even let you make use of these features, at any cost, because of  constraints imposed by PaaS providers for the sake of simplifying and streamlining their operations.
  • In the future, PaaS will not only make these available but available at a negligible incremental operational cost.
  • Even beyond that, PaaS will make available application services that are, in traditional settings, completely out of scope for the application programmer. Early examples include CDN, DNS and loab balancing services offered, for example, by Amazon. An application developer in most traditional data centers would have to jump through endless hoops if she wanted to control these services within the application. I believe that these network-related services are just the low hanging fruits and many more once-unthinkable infrastructure services will become programmable as part of the application.

PaaS will become less about “hosting” and more about offering application services. In other words, going back to the formula I proposed on Twitter:

Cloud = Hosting + SOA

IaaS is a lot more “hosting” than SOA, PaaS is a lot more “SOA” (application infrastructure services available via APIs) than “hosting”.

You can read the full article for more.

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Filed under API, Application Mgmt, Articles, Cloud Computing, Everything, Manageability, Mgmt integration, Middleware, PaaS, Utility computing

Why is there more public PaaS than private PaaS?

I asked on Twitter: “For IaaS there’s a fair mix of public and private. But PaaS seems very titled towards public right now. Any idea why?”

Here are the responses I collected:

@wrecks47 challenged the proposition:

  • I see the opposite. I observe much more activity in private PaaS rather than public PaaS.

Others seemed to agree and offered these explanations:

@reillyusa and @mfratto think it’s because it’s too hard to build a private PaaS:

  • Complex and not too many understandable reference architectures – personified by why Azure appliance is taking so long to appear.
  • much harder to build a PaaS in house?

@ryanprociuk and @garnaat think PaaS are very specific (though it’s not clear to me how that explains its lacks of private deployment):

  • PaaS may not be as generic as IaaS, specific to a technical solution. IMO
  • I think a private PaaS might be very domain-specific. Current PaaS target a narrow range of scale which can be generic.

@somic thinks that in a private setting (presumably without specialized app services) there isn’t much to gain by offering PaaS versus letting people run a container on top of IaaS (though this begs the question why don’t private PaaS provide these services like public PaaS do):

  • imho today’s paas, in a private deployment, is just a webapp container – not revolutionary enough to justify a move

@robcheng thinks it’s mostly politics:

  • the same agendas that cause companies to embrace private cloud make them suspicious of PaaS (whose jobs/teams become obsolete?)

@cloud_borat‘s interpretation is just that middleware marketers aren’t as savvy as their infrastructure counterparts.

  • our expert analyst Igor say that because app server marketing people suck more and not label appserver as private PaaS

Thanks all!

[UPDATED 2011/7/5: This was originally a Google+ post, but it really belongs as a blog post here so I am glad this is where you are reading it. The next post explains why.]


Filed under Cloud Computing, Everything, IaaS, Middleware, PaaS

AJAX+REST as the latest architectural mirage

If the Web wasn’t tragically amnesic, I could show you 15-year old articles explaining how XSLT was about to revolutionize Web applications. In that vision, your Web server would return an XML file with all the data; and alongside that XML, an XSLT (which describes how to transform the XML into HTML). The browser would run it on the XML data and display the resulting HTML. Voila! This was going to bring all kinds of benefits over the old server-spits-out-HTML model. The XML could be easily consumed by other applications (not just humans) and different XSLTs could be used to adapt to the various client platforms.

This hasn’t panned out. At least not in that form. Enters AJAX. The XML doc is still there, though it usually wants to be called JSON. The XSLT is now a big pile of JavaScript. That model has many advantages over the XSLT model, the first one being that you don’t have to use XSLT (and I’m talking as someone who actually enjoys XPath). It’s a lot more flexible, you can do small updates and partial page refresh, etc. But does it also maintain the architectural cleanliness of having a data API separated from the rendering logic?

Sometimes. Lori MacVittie describes that model. That’s how the cool kids do it and they make sure to repeat in every sentence that their Web app uses the same API as 3rd party apps. The Twitter web app, for example, is in this category, as Mike Loukides describes. As is Apache Orion (the diagram below comes from the Orion architecture)

That’s one model, and it is conceptually very elegant. One API, many consumers. The Web site of the service provider is just another consumer. Easy versioning. An application management dream (one API to manage, a well-defined set of operations and flows to test, trace and diagnose). From a security perspective, it offers the smallest possible attack surface. Easy interoperability between different applications consuming the same API. All goodies.

And not just theoretical goodies, there are situations where it is the right model.

And yet I am still dubious that it’s going to be the dominant model. Clients of the same service support different interaction models and it’s hard for a single API to work well for all without sprawling out of control (to the point where calling it “one API” becomes a fig leaf). But if you want to keep the API surface small, you might end up with chatty apps. Not to mention the temptation for service providers to give their software special access over those of their partners/competitors (e.g. other Twitter clients).

Take Google+. As of this writing, the web site is up and obviously very AJAX-driven. And yet the API is not available. There maybe non-technical reasons for it, but if the Google+ web site was just another consumer of the API then wouldn’t, by definition, the API already be up?

The decision of whether to expose the interface consumed by your AJAX app as an open API also has ramifications in the implementation strategy. Such an approach pretty much rules out using frameworks that integrate server-side and browser-side development and pushes you towards writing them separately (and thus controlling all the details of how they interact so that you can make sure it happens in a way that’s consumable by 3rd parties). Though the reverse is not true. You may decide that you don’t want that API exposed to 3rd parties and yet still manually define it and keep your server-side and browser-side code at arms length.

If you decide to go the “one REST API for all” route and forgo frameworks that integrate browser code and server code, how much are you leaving on the table? After all, preeminent developers love to sneer at such frameworks. But that’s a short-sighted view.

Some tennis players think of their racket as one tool. Others, who own a stringing machine, think of the frame and the string as two tools, that they expertly combine. Similarly, not all Web developers want to think of their client framework and their server framework as two tools. Using them as one, pre-assembled, tool may not provide the most optimal code, but may still be the optimal use of your development resources.

There’s a bit of Ricardian angle to this. Even if you can produce better JavaScript (by “better” I mean better suited to your need) than the framework, you have a higher Comparative Advantage in developing business logic than JavaScript so you should focus your efforts there and “import” the JavaScript from the framework (which is utterly incompetent in creating business logic).

Just like, in Ricardo’s famous example, Portugal is better off importing its cloth from England (and focusing on producing wine) even though it is, in absolute term, more able to produce cloth than England is.

Which contradicts Matt Raible’s statement that “the only people that like Ajax integrated into their web frameworks are programmers scared of JavaScript (who probably shouldn’t be developing your UI).” His characterization is sometimes correct, but not absolute as he asserts.

I wouldn’t write Google+ with ADF, but it provides benefits to large class of applications, especially internal applications. Where you’re willing to give away some design control for the benefit of faster development and better-tested JavaScript.

Then there is the orthogonal question of whether AJAX technologies are well-suited to a RESTful architecture. You may think it’s obvious, since both are natively designed for the Web. But a wine glass and a steering wheel are both natively designed for the human hand; that doesn’t make them a good pair. Here’s one way to plant doubt in your mind: if AJAX was a natural fit for REST, would we need the atrocity known as the hashbang? Would AJAX applications need to be made crawlable? Reuven Cohen asserts that “AJAX is quite possibly the worst way to consume a RESTful API”, but unfortunately he doesn’t develop the demonstration. Maybe a topic for a future post.

“Because that’s the way it’s done now” was a bad reason to transform perfectly-functional XML-RPC into “message-oriented” SOAP. It also is a bad reason for assuming that your Web application needs to be AJAX-on-REST.

I’ll leave the last word to Stefan Tilkov: “Don’t confuse integration architecture with application architecture.” His talk doesn’t focus on how to build Web UIs, but the main lesson applies. Here’s the video and here are the slides (warning: Flash and PDF, respectively, which is sadly ironic for such a good presentation about Web technology).


Filed under API, Application Mgmt, Everything, JavaScript, Middleware, Mobile, Protocols, REST, Tech, Web services

Nice incremental progress in Google App Engine SDK 1.4

When Google released version 1.3.8 of the Google App Engine SDK in October, they introduced an instance console, showing you how many instances are serving your application and some basic metrics about these instances. I wrote a blog to consider the implications of providing this level of visibility to application administrators. It also pointed out some shortcomings of this first version of the console.

The most glaring problem was that the console showed an “average latency” which was just a straight average of the latencies of all the instances, independently of the traffic they see. Which is a meaningless number.

Today, Google released an update to the SDK (1.4), and along with it some minor updates to the instance console. Except that, as you can see below, the screen capture in their announcement happens to show three instances that have processed exactly the same number of messages. Which means that we can’t tell whether they have fixed the “unweighted average” problem or not. Is this just by chance? Google, WTF? (which stands for “what’s the formula?”, of course).

I decided it was worth spending a few minutes to find the answer. I don’t have any app currently in use on GAE, but it doesn’t take much work to generate enough load to wake up one of my old apps and get it to spin a couple of instances. Here is the resulting console instance:

If you run the numbers, you can see that they’ve fixed that issue; the average latency is now weighted based on instance traffic. Thanks Google for listening.

Apparently, not all the updates have trickled down to my version of the instance console. The “requests”, “errors” and “age” columns are missing. I assume they’re on their way. Seeing the age of the instances, especially, is a nice addition, one of those I requested in my blog.

In the grand scheme of things, these minor updates to the console (which remains quite basic) are not the big news. The major announcement with SDK 1.4 is that the dreaded 30 seconds limit on execution time has been lifted for background tasks (those from Task Queue and Cron). It’s now a much more manageable 10 minutes. This doesn’t apply to the execution of Web requests served by your app.

Google App Engine has been under criticism recently, and that 30-second limit (along with reliability issues) figured prominently in the complains. Assuming the reliability issues are also coming under control, this update will go a long way towards addressing these issues.

Just so you realize how lucky you are if you are just now starting with Google App Engine, here are the kind of hoops you had to jump through, in the early days, to process any task that took a significant amount of time. This was done a year before the Cron and Task Queue features were added to GAE.

Another nice addition with SDK 1.4 is that you can now retrieve the source code of your application from Google’s servers. Of course you should never need that if you are rigorous and well-organized… Presumably this is only for Python since in the Java case Google’s servers never see the source code.

The steady progress of the GAE SDK continues.

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Filed under Application Mgmt, Cloud Computing, Everything, Google, Google App Engine, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Middleware, PaaS, Utility computing

Lifting the curtain on PaaS Cloud infrastructure (can you handle the truth?)

The promise of PaaS is that application owners don’t need to worry about the infrastructure that powers the application. They just provide application artifacts (e.g. WAR files) and everything else is taken care of. Backups. Scaling. Infrastructure patching. Network configuration. Geographic distribution. Etc. All these headaches are gone. Just pick from a menu of quality of service options (and the corresponding price list). Make your choice and forget about it.

In theory.

In practice no abstraction is leak-proof and the abstractions provided by PaaS environments are even more porous than average. The first goal of PaaS providers should be to shore them up, in order to deliver on the PaaS value proposition of simplification. But at some point you also have to acknowledge that there are some irreducible leaks and take pragmatic steps to help application administrators deal with them. The worst thing you can do is have application owners suffer from a leaky abstraction and refuse to even acknowledge it because it breaks your nice mental model.

Google App Engine (GAE) gives us a nice and simple example. When you first deploy an application on GAE, it is deployed as just one instance. As traffic increases, a second instance comes up to handle the load. Then a third. If traffic decreases, one instance may disappear. Or one of them may just go away for no reason (that you’re aware of).

It would be nice if you could deploy your application on what looks like a single, infinitely scalable, machine and not ever have to worry about horizontal scale-out. But that’s just not possible (at a reasonable cost) so Google doesn’t try particularly hard to hide the fact that many instances can be involved. You can choose to ignore that fact and your application will still work. But you’ll notice that some requests take a lot more time to complete than others (which is typically the case for the first request to hit a new instance). And some requests will find an empty local cache even though your application has had uninterrupted traffic. If you choose to live with the “one infinitely scalable machine” simplification, these are inexplicable and unpredictable events.

Last week, as part of the release of the GAE SDK 1.3.8, Google went one step further in acknowledging that several instances can serve your application, and helping you deal with it. They now give you a console (pictured below) which shows the instances currently serving your application.

I am very glad that they added this console, because it clearly puts on the table the question of how much your PaaS provider should open the kimono. What’s the right amount of visibility, somewhere between “one infinitely scalable computer” and giving you fan speeds and CPU temperature?

I don’t know what the answer is, but unfortunately I am pretty sure this console is not it. It is supposed to be useful “in debugging your application and also understanding its performance characteristics“. Hmm, how so exactly? Not only is this console very simple, it’s almost useless. Let me enumerate the ways.


Actually it’s worse than useless, it’s misleading. As we can see on the screen shot, two of the instances saw no traffic during the collection period (which, BTW, we don’t know the length of), while the third one did all the work. At the top, we see an “average latency” value. Averaging latency across instances is meaningless if you don’t weight it properly. In this case, all the requests went to the instance that had an average latency of 1709ms, but apparently the overall average latency of the application is 569.7ms (yes, that’s 1709/3). Swell.

No instance identification

What happens when the console is refreshed? Maybe there will only be two instances. How do I know which one went away? Or say there are still three, how do I know these are the same three? For all I know it could be one old instance and two new ones. The single most important data point (from the application administrator’s perspective) is when a new instance comes up. I have no way, in this UI, to know reliably when that happens: no instance identification, no indication of the age of an instance.

Average memory

So we get the average memory per instance. What are we supposed to do with that information? What’s a good number, what’s a bad number? How much memory is available? Is my app memory-bound, CPU-bound or IO-bound on this instance?

Configuration management

As I have described before, change and configuration management in a PaaS setting is a thorny problem. This console doesn’t tackle it. Nowhere does it say which version of the GAE platform each instance is running. Google announces GAE SDK releases (the bits you download), but these releases are mostly made of new platform features, so they imply a corresponding update to Google’s servers. That can’t happen instantly, there must be some kind of roll-out (whether the instances can be hot-patched or need to be recycled). Which means that the instances of my application are transitioned from one platform version to another (and presumably that at a given point in time all the instances of my application may not be using the same platform version). Maybe that’s the source of my problem. Wouldn’t it be nice if I knew which platform version an instance runs? Wouldn’t it be nice if my log files included that? Wouldn’t it be nice if I could request an app to run on a specific platform version for debugging purpose? Sure, in theory all the upgrades are backward-compatible, so it “shouldn’t matter”. But as explained above, “the worst thing you can do is have application owners suffer from a leaky abstraction and refuse to even acknowledge it“.

OK, so the instance monitoring console Google just rolled out is seriously lacking. As is too often the case with IT monitoring systems, it reports what is convenient to collect, not what is useful. I’m sure they’ll fix it over time. What this console does well (and really the main point of this blog) is illustrate the challenge of how much information about the underlying infrastructure should be surfaced.

Surface too little and you leave application administrators powerless. Surface more data but no control and you’ll leave them frustrated. Surface some controls (e.g. a way to configure the scaling out strategy) and you’ve taken away some of the PaaS simplicity and also added constraints to your infrastructure management strategy, making it potentially less efficient. If you go down that route, you can end up with the other flavor of PaaS, the IaaS-based PaaS in which you have an automated way to create a deployment but what you hand back to the application administrator is a set of VMs to manage.

That IaaS-centric PaaS is a well-understood beast, to which many existing tools and management practices can be applied. The “pure PaaS” approach pioneered by GAE is much more of a terra incognita from a management perspective. I don’t know, for example, whether exposing the platform version of each instance, as described above, is a good idea. How leaky is the “platform upgrades are always backward-compatible” assumption? Google, and others, are experimenting with the right abstraction level, APIs, tools, and processes to expose to application administrators. That’s how we’ll find out.

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Filed under Application Mgmt, Automation, Cloud Computing, Everything, Google App Engine, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Mgmt integration, Middleware, PaaS, Utility computing

Redeeming the service description document

A bicycle is a convenient way to go buy cigarettes. Until one day you realize that buying cigarettes is a bad idea. At which point you throw away your bicycle.

Sounds illogical? Well, that’s pretty much what the industry has done with service descriptions. It went this way: people used WSDL (and stub generation tools built around it) to build distributed applications that shared too much. Some people eventually realized that was a bad approach. So they threw out the whole idea of a service description. And now, in the age of APIs, we are no more advanced than we were 15 years ago in terms of documenting application contracts. It’s tragic.

The main fallacies involved in this stagnation are:

  • Assuming that service descriptions are meant to auto-generate all-encompassing program stubs,
  • Looking for the One True Description for a given service,
  • Automatically validating messages based on the service description.

I’ll leave the first one aside, it’s been widely covered. Let’s drill in a bit into the other two.

There is NOT One True Description for a given service

Many years ago, in the same galaxy where we live today (only a few miles from here, actually), was a development team which had to implement a web service for a specific WSDL. They fed the WSDL to their SOAP stack. This was back in the days when WSDL interoperability was a “promise” in the “political campaign” sense of the term so of course it didn’t work. As a result, they gave up on their SOAP stack and implemented the service as a servlet. Which, for a team new to XML, meant a long delay and countless bugs. I’ll always remember the look on the dev lead’s face when I showed him how 2 minutes and a text editor were all you needed to turn the offending WSDL in to a completely equivalent WSDL (from the point of view of on-the-wire messages) that their toolkit would accept.

(I forgot what the exact issue was, maybe having operations with different exchange patterns within the same PortType; or maybe it used an XSD construct not supported by the toolkit, and it was just a matter of removing this constraint and moving it from schema to code. In any case something that could easily be changed by editing the WSDL and the consumer of the service wouldn’t need to know anything about it.)

A service description is not the literal word of God. That’s true no matter where you get it from (unless it’s hand-delivered by an angel, I guess). Just because adding “?wsdl” to the URL of a Web service returns an XML document doesn’t mean it’s The One True Description for that service. It’s just the most convenient one to generate for the app server on which the service is deployed.

One of the things that most hurts XML as an on-the-wire format is XSD. But not in the sense that “XSD is bad”. Sure, it has plenty of warts, but what really hurts XML is not XSD per se as much as the all-too-common assumption that if you use XML you need to have an XSD for it (see fat-bottomed specs, the key message of which I believe is still true even though SML and SML-IF are now dead).

I’ve had several conversations like this one:

– The best part about using JSON and REST was that we didn’t have to deal with XSD.
– So what do you use as your service contract?
– Nothing. Just a human-readable wiki page.
– If you don’t need a service contract, why did you feel like you had to write an XSD when you were doing XML? Why not have a similar wiki page describing the XML format?
– …

It’s perfectly fine to have service descriptions that are optimized to meet a specific need rather than automatically focusing on syntax validation. Not all consumers of a service contract need to be using the same description. It’s ok to have different service descriptions for different users and/or purposes. Which takes us to the next fallacy. What are service descriptions for if not syntax validation?

A service description does NOT mean you have to validate messages

As helpful as “validation” may seem as a concept, it often boils down to rejecting messages that could otherwise be successfully processed. Which doesn’t sound quite as useful, does it?

There are many other ways in which service descriptions could be useful, but they have been largely neglected because of the focus on syntactic validation and stub generation. Leaving aside development use cases and looking at my area of focus (application management), here are a few use cases for service descriptions:

Creating test messages (aka “synthetic transactions”)

A common practice in application management is to send test messages at regular intervals (often from various locations, e.g. branch offices) to measure the availability and response time of an application from the consumer’s perspective. If a WSDL is available for the service, we use this to generate the skeleton of the test message, and let the admin fill in appropriate values. Rather than a WSDL we’d much rather have a “ready-to-use” (possibly after admin review) test message that would be provided as part of the service description. Especially as it would be defined by the application creator, who presumably knows a lot more about that makes a safe and yet relevant message to send to the application as a ping.

Attaching policies and SLAs

One of the things that WSDLs are often used for, beyond syntax validation and stub generation, is to attach policies and SLAs. For that purpose, you really don’t need the XSD message definition that makes up so much of the WSDL. You really just need a way to identify operations on which to attach policies and SLAs. We could use a much simpler description language than WSDL for this. But if you throw away the very notion of a description language, you’ve thrown away the baby (a classification of the requests processed by the service) along with the bathwater (a syntax validation mechanism).

Governance / versioning

One benefit of having a service description document is that you can see when it changes. Even if you reduce this to a simple binary value (did it change since I last checked, y/n) there’s value in this. Even better if you can introspect the description document to see which requests are affected by the change. And whether the change is backward-compatible. Offering the “before” XSD and the “after” XSD is almost useless for automatic processing. It’s unlikely that some automated XSD inspection can tell me whether I can keep using my previous messages or I need to update them. A simple machine-readable declaration of that fact would be a lot more useful.

I just listed three, but there are other application management use cases, like governance/auditing, that need a service description.

In the SOAP world, we usually make do with WSDL for these tasks, not because it’s the best tool (all we really need is a way to classify requests in “buckets” – call them “operations” if you want – based on the content of the message) but because WSDL is the only understanding that is shared between the caller and the application.

By now some of you may have already drafted in your head the comment you are going to post explaining why this is not a problem if people just use REST. And it’s true that with REST there is a default categorization of incoming messages. A simple matrix with the various verbs as columns (GET, POST…) and the various resource types as rows. Each message can be unambiguously placed in one cell of this matrix, so I don’t need a service description document to have a request classification on which I can attach SLAs and policies. Granted, but keep these three things in mind:

  • This default categorization by verb and resource type can be a quite granular. Typically you wouldn’t have that many different policies on your application. So someone who understands the application still needs to group the invocations into message categories at the right level of granularity.
  • This matrix is only meaningful for the subset of “RESTful” apps that are truly… RESTful. Not for all the apps that use REST where it’s an easy mental mapping but then define resource types called “operations” or “actions” that are just a REST veneer over RPC.
  • Even if using REST was a silver bullet that eliminated the need for service definitions, as an application management vendor I don’t get to pick the applications I manage. I have to have a solution for what customers actually do. If I restricted myself to only managing RESTful applications, I’d shrink my addressable market by a few orders of magnitude. I don’t have an MBA, but it sounds like a bad idea.

This is not a SOAP versus REST post. This is not a XML versus JSON post. This is not a WSDL versus WADL post. This is just a post lamenting the fact that the industry seems to have either boxed service definitions into a very limited use case, or given up on them altogether. It I wasn’t recovering from standards burnout, I’d look into a versatile mechanism for describing application services in a way that is geared towards message classification more than validation.

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Filed under API, Application Mgmt, Everything, Governance, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Mashup, Mgmt integration, Middleware, Modeling, Protocols, REST, SML, SOA, Specs, Standards

Exalogic, EC2-on-OVM, Oracle Linux: The Oracle Open World early recap

Among all the announcements at Oracle Open World so far, here is a summary of those I was the most impatient to blog about.

Oracle Exalogic Elastic Cloud

This was the largest part of Larry’s keynote, he called it “one big honkin’ cloud”. An impressive piece of hardware (360 2.93GHz cores, 2.8TB of RAM, 960GB SSD, 40TB disk for one full rack) with excellent InfiniBand connectivity between the nodes. And you can extend the InfiniBand connectivity to other Exalogic and/or Exadata racks. The whole packaged is optimized for the Oracle Fusion Middleware stack (WebLogic, Coherence…) and managed by Oracle Enterprise Manager.

This is really just the start of a long linage of optimized, pre-packaged, simplified (for application administrators and infrastructure administrators) application platforms. Management will play a central role and I am very excited about everything Enterprise Manager can and will bring to it.

If “Exalogic Elastic Cloud” is too taxing to say, you can shorten it to “Exalogic” or even just “EL”. Please, just don’t call it “E2C”. We don’t want to get into a trademark fight with our good friends at Amazon, especially since the next important announcement is…

Run certified Oracle software on OVM at Amazon

Oracle and Amazon have announced that AWS will offer virtual machines that run on top of OVM (Oracle’s hypervisor). Many Oracle products have been certified in this configuration; AMIs will soon be available. There is a joint support process in place between Amazon and Oracle. The virtual machines use hard partitioning and the licensing rules are the same as those that apply if you use OVM and hard partitioning in your own datacenter. You can transfer licenses between AWS and your data center.

One interesting aspect is that there is no extra fee on Amazon’s part for this. Which means that you can run an EC2 VM with Oracle Linux on OVM (an Oracle-tested combination) for the same price (without Oracle Linux support) as some other Linux distribution (also without support) on Amazon’s flavor of Xen. And install any software, including non-Oracle, on this VM. This is not the primary intent of this partnership, but I am curious to see if some people will take advantage of it.

Speaking of Oracle Linux, the next announcement is…

The Unbreakable Enterprise Kernel for Oracle Linux

In addition to the RedHat-compatible kernel that Oracle has been providing for a while (and will keep supporting), Oracle will also offer its own Linux kernel. I am not enough of a Linux geek to get teary-eyed about the birth announcement of a new kernel, but here is why I think this is an important milestone. The stratification of the application runtime stack is largely a relic of the past, when each layer had enough innovation to justify combining them as you see fit. Nowadays, the innovation is not in the hypervisor, in the OS or in the JVM as much as it is in how effectively they all combine. JRockit Virtual Edition is a clear indicator of things to come. Application runtimes will eventually be highly integrated and optimized. No more scheduler on top of a scheduler on top of a scheduler. If you squint, you’ll be able to recognize aspects of a hypervisor here, aspects of an OS there and aspects of a JVM somewhere else. But it will be mostly of interest to historians.

Oracle has by far the most expertise in JVMs and over the years has built a considerable amount of expertise in hypervisors. With the addition of Solaris and this new milestone in Linux access and expertise, what we are seeing is the emergence of a company for which there will be no technical barrier to innovation on making all these pieces work efficiently together. And, unlike many competitors who derive most of their revenues from parts of this infrastructure, no revenue-protection handcuffs hampering innovation either.

Fusion Apps

Larry also talked about Fusion Apps, but I believe he plans to spend more time on this during his Wednesday keynote, so I’ll leave this topic aside for now. Just remember that Enterprise Manager loves Fusion Apps.

And what about Enterprise Manager?

We don’t have many attention-grabbing Enterprise Manager product announcements at Oracle Open World 2010, because we had a big launch of Enterprise Manager 11g earlier this year, in which a lot of new features were released. Technically these are not Oracle Open World news anymore, but many attendees have not seen them yet so we are busy giving demos, hands-on labs and presentations. From an application and middleware perspective, we focus on end-to-end management (e.g. from user experience to BTM to SOA management to Java diagnostic to SQL) for faster resolution, application lifecycle integration (provisioning, configuration management, testing) for lower TCO and unified coverage of all the key parts of the Oracle portfolio for productivity and reliability. We are also sharing some plans and our vision on topics such as application management, Cloud, support integration etc. But in this post, I have chosen to only focus on new product announcements. Things that were not publicly known 48 hours ago. I am also not covering JavaOne (see Alexis). There is just too much going on this week…

Just kidding, we like it this way. And so do the customers I’ve been talking to.

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Filed under Amazon, Application Mgmt, Cloud Computing, Conference, Everything, Linux, Manageability, Middleware, Open source, Oracle, Oracle Open World, OVM, Tech, Trade show, Utility computing, Virtualization, Xen

The PaaS Lament: In the Cloud, application administrators should administrate applications

Some organizations just have “systems administrators” in charges of their applications. Others call out an “application administrator” role but it is usually overloaded: it doesn’t separate the application platform administrator from the true application administrator. The first one is in charge of the application runtime infrastructure (e.g. the application server, SOA tools, MDM, IdM, message bus, etc). The second is in charge of the applications themselves (e.g. Java applications and the various artifacts that are used to customize the middleware stack to serve the application).

In effect, I am describing something close to the split between the DBA and the application administrators. The first step is to turn this duo (app admin, DBA) into a triplet (app admin, platform admin, DBA). That would be progress, but such a triplet is not actually what I am really after as it is too strongly tied to a traditional 3-tier architecture. What we really need is a first-order separation between the application administrator and the infrastructure administrators (not the plural). And then, if needed, a second-order split between a handful of different infrastructure administrators, one of which may be a DBA (or a DBA++, having expanded to all data storage services, not just relational), another of which may be an application platform administrator.

There are two reasons for the current unfortunate amalgam of the “application administrator” and “application platform administrator” roles. A bad one and a good one.

The bad reason is a shortcomings of the majority of middleware products. While they generally do a good job on performance, reliability and developer productivity, they generally do a poor job at providing a clean separation of the performance/administration functions that are relevant to the runtime and those that are relevant to the deployed applications. Their usual role definitions are more structured along the lines of what actions you can perform rather than on what entities you can perform them. From a runtime perspective, the applications are not well isolated from one another either, which means that in real life you have to consider the entire system (the middleware and all deployed applications) if you want to make changes in a safe way.

The good reason for the current lack of separation between application administrators and middleware administrators is that middleware products have generally done a good job of supporting development innovation and optimization. Frameworks appear and evolve to respond to the challenges encountered by developers. Knobs and dials are exposed which allow heavy customization of the runtime to meet the performance and feature needs of a specific application. With developers driving what middleware is used and how it is used, it’s a natural consequence that the middleware is managed in tight correlation with how the application is managed.

Just like there is tension between DBAs and the “application people” (application administrators and/or developers), there is an inherent tension in the split I am advocating between application management and application platform management. The tension flows from the previous paragraph (the “good reason” for the current amalgam): a split between application administrators and application platform administrators would have the downside of dampening application platform innovation. Or rather it redirects it, in a mutation not unlike the move from artisans to industry. Rather than focusing on highly-specialized frameworks and highly-tuned runtimes, the application platform innovation is redirected towards the goals of extreme cost efficiency, high reliability, consistent security and scalability-by-default. These become the main objectives of the application platform administrator. In that perspective, the focus of the application architect and the application administrator needs to switch from taking advantage of the customizability of the runtime to optimize local-node performance towards taking advantage of the dynamism of the application platform to optimize for scalability and economy.

Innovation in terms of new frameworks and programming models takes a hit in that model, but there are ways to compensate. The services offered by the platform can be at different levels of generality. The more generic ones can be used to host innovative application frameworks and tools. For example, a highly-specialized service like an identity management system is hard to use for another purpose, but on the other hand a JVM can be used to host not just business applications but also platform-like things like Hadoop. They can run in the “application space” until they are mature enough to be incorporated in the “application platform space” and become the responsibility of the application platform administrator.

The need to keep a door open for innovation is part of why, as much as I believe in PaaS, I don’t think IaaS is going away anytime soon. Not only do we need VMs for backward-looking legacy apps, we also need polyvalent platforms, like a VM, for forward-looking purposes, to allow developers to influence platform innovation, based on their needs and ideas.

Forget the guillotine, maybe I should carry an axe around. That may help get the point across, that I want to slice application administrators in two, head to toe. PaaS is not a question of runtime. It’s a question of administrative roles.

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Filed under Application Mgmt, Cloud Computing, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Mgmt integration, Middleware, PaaS, Utility computing, Virtualization

The necessity of PaaS: Will Microsoft be the Singapore of Cloud Computing?

From ancient Mesopotamia to, more recently, Holland, Switzerland, Japan, Singapore and Korea, the success of many societies has been in part credited to their lack of natural resources. The theory being that it motivated them to rely on human capital, commerce and innovation rather than resource extraction. This approach eventually put them ahead of their better-endowed neighbors.

A similar dynamic may well propel Microsoft ahead in PaaS (Platform as a Service): IaaS with Windows is so painful that it may force Microsoft to focus on PaaS. The motivation is strong to “go up the stack” when the alternative is to cultivate the arid land of Windows-based IaaS.

I should disclose that I work for one of Microsoft’s main competitors, Oracle (though this blog only represents personal opinions), and that I am not an expert Windows system administrator. But I have enough experience to have seen some of the many reasons why Windows feels like a much less IaaS-friendly environment than Linux: e.g. the lack of SSH, the cumbersomeness of RDP, the constraints of the Windows license enforcement system, the Windows update mechanism, the immaturity of scripting, the difficulty of managing Windows from non-Windows machines (despite WS-Management), etc. For a simple illustration, go to EC2 and compare, between a Windows AMI and a Linux AMI, the steps (and time) needed to get from selecting an image to the point where you’re logged in and in control of a VM. And if you think that’s bad, things get even worse when we’re not just talking about a few long-lived Windows server instances in the Cloud but a highly dynamic environment in which all steps have to be automated and repeatable.

I am not saying that there aren’t ways around all this, just like it’s not impossible to grow grapes in Holland. It’s just usually not worth the effort. This recent post by RighScale illustrates both how hard it is but also that it is possible if you’re determined. The question is what benefits you get from Windows guests in IaaS and whether they justify the extra work. And also the additional license fee (while many of the issues are technical, others stem more from Microsoft’s refusal to acknowledge that the OS is a commodity). [Side note: this discussion is about Windows as a guest OS and not about the comparative virtues of Hyper-V, Xen-based hypervisors and VMWare.]

Under the DSI banner, Microsoft has been working for a while on improving the management/automation infrastructure for Windows, with tools like PowerShell (which I like a lot). These efforts pre-date the Cloud wave but definitely help Windows try to hold it own on the IaaS battleground. Still, it’s an uphill battle compared with Linux. So it makes perfect sense for Microsoft to move the battle to PaaS.

Just like commerce and innovation will, in the long term, bring more prosperity than focusing on mining and agriculture, PaaS will, in the long term, yield more benefits than IaaS. Even though it’s harder at first. That’s the good news for Microsoft.

On the other hand, lack of natural resources is not a guarantee of success either (as many poor desertic countries can testify) and Microsoft will have to fight to be successful in PaaS. But the work on Azure and many research efforts, like the “next-generation programming model for the cloud” (codename “Orleans”) that Mary Jo Foley revealed today, indicate that they are taking it very seriously. Their approach is not restricted by a VM-centric vision, which is often tempting for hypervisor and OS vendors. Microsoft’s move to PaaS is also facilitated by the fact that, while system administration and automation may not be a strength, development tools and application platforms are.

The forward-compatible Cloud will soon overshadow the backward-compatible Cloud and I expect Microsoft to play a role in it. They have to.


Filed under Application Mgmt, Automation, Azure, Cloud Computing, DevOps, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Linux, Manageability, Mgmt integration, Microsoft, Middleware, Oslo, PaaS, Research, Utility computing, WS-Management

CMDB in the Cloud: not your father’s CMDB

Bernd Harzog recently wrote a blog entry to examine whether “the CMDB [is] irrelevant in a Virtual and Cloud based world“. If I can paraphrase, his conclusion is that there will be something that looks like a CMDB but the current CMDB products are ill-equipped to fulfill that function. Here are the main reasons he gives for this prognostic:

  1. A whole new class of data gets created by the virtualization platform – specifically how the virtualization platform itself is configured in support of the guests and the applications that run on the guest.
  2. A whole new set of relationships between the elements in this data get created – specifically new relationships between hosts, hypervisors, guests, virtual networks and virtual storage get created that existing CMDB’s were not built to handle.
  3. New information gets created at a very rapid rate. Hundreds of new guests can get provisioned in time periods much too short to allow for the traditional Extract, Transform and Load processes that feed CMDB’s to be able to keep up.
  4. The environment can change at a rate that existing CMDB’s cannot keep up with. Something as simple as vMotion events can create thousands of configuration changes in a few minutes, something that the entire CMDB architecture is simply not designed to keep up with.
  5. Having portions of IT assets running in a public cloud introduces significant data collection challenges. Leading edge APM vendors like New Relic and AppDynamics have produced APM products that allow these products to collect the data that they need in a cloud friendly way. However, we are still a long way away from having a generic ability to collect the configuration data underlying a cloud based IT infrastructure – notwithstanding the fact that many current cloud vendors would not make this data available to their customers in the first place.
  6. The scope of the CMDB needs to expand beyond just asset and configuration data and incorporate Infrastructure Performance, Applications Performance and Service assurance information in order to be relevant in the virtualization and cloud based worlds.

I wanted to expand on some of these points.

New model elements for Cloud (bullets #1 and #2)

These first bullets are not the killers. Sure, the current CMDBs were designed before the rise of virtualized environment, but they are usually built on a solid modeling foundation that can easily be extend with new resources classes. I don’t think that extending the model to describe VM, VNets, Volumes, hypervisors and their relationships to the physical infrastructure is the real challenge.

New approach to “discovery” (bullets #3 and #4)

This, on the other hand is much more of a “dinosaurs meet meteorite” kind of historical event. A large part of the value provided by current CMDBs is their ability to automate resource discovery. This is often achieved via polling/scanning (at the hardware level) and heuristics/templates (directory names, port numbers, packet inspection, bird entrails…) for application discovery. It’s imprecise but often good enough in static environments (and when it fails, the CMDB complements the automatic discovery with a reconciliation process to let the admin clean things up). And it used to be all you could get anyway so there wasn’t much point complaining about the limitations. The crown jewel of many of today’s big CMDBs can often be traced back to smart start-ups specialized in application discovery/mapping, like Appilog (now HP, by way of Mercury) and nLayers (now EMC). And more recently the purchase of Tideway by BMC (ironically – but unsurprisingly – often cast in Cloud terms).

But this is not going to cut it in “the Cloud” (by which I really mean in a highly automated IT environment). As Bernd Harzog explains, the rate of change can completely overwhelm such discovery heuristics (plus, some of the network scans they sometimes use will get you in trouble in public clouds). And more importantly, there now is a better way. Why discover when you can ask? If resources are created via API calls, there are also API calls to find out which resources exist and how they are configured. This goes beyond the resources accessible via IaaS APIs, like what VMWare, EC2 and OVM let you retrieve. This “don’t guess, ask” approach to discovery needs to also apply at the application level. Rather than guessing what software is installed via packet inspection or filesystem spelunking, we need application-aware discovery that retrieves the application and configuration and dependencies from the application itself (or its underlying framework). And builds a model in which the connections between application entities are expressed in terms of the configuration settings that drive them rather than the side effects by which they can be noticed.

If I can borrow the words of Lew Cirne:

“All solutions built in the pre-cloud era are modeled on jvms (or their equivalent), hosts and ports, rather than the logical application running in a more fluid environment. If the solution identifies a web application by host/port or some other infrastructural id, then you cannot effectively manage it in a cloud environment, since the app will move and grow, and your management system (that is, everything offered by the Big 4, as well as all infrastructure management companies that pay lip service to the application) will provide nearly-useless visibility and extraordinarily high TCO.”

I don’t agree with everything in Lew Cirne’s post, but this diagnostic is correct and well worded. He later adds:

“So application management becomes the strategic center or gravity for the client of a public or private cloud, and infrastructure-centric tools (even ones that claim to be cloudy) take on a lesser role.”

Which is also very true even if counter-intuitive for those who think that

cloud = virtualization (in the “fake machine” interpretation of virtualization)

Embracing such a VM-centric view naturally raises the profile of infrastructure management compared to application management, which is a fallacy in Cloud computing.

Drawing the line between Cloud infrastructure management and application management (bullet #5)

This is another key change that traditional CMDBs are going to have a hard time with. In a Big-4 CMDB, you’re after the mythical “single source of truth”. Even in a federated CMDB (which doesn’t really exist anyway), you’re trying to have a unified logical (if not physical) repository of information. There is an assumption that you want to manage everything from one place, so you can see all the inter-dependencies, across all layers of the stack (even if individual users may have a scope that is limited by permissions). Not so with public Clouds and even, I would argue, any private Cloud that is more than just a “cloud” sticker slapped on an old infrastructure. The fact that there is a clean line between the infrastructure model and the application model is not a limitation. It is empowering. Even if your Cloud provider was willing to expose a detailed view of the underlying infrastructure you should resist the temptation to accept. Despite the fact that it might be handy in the short term and provide an interesting perspective, it is self-defeating in the long term from the perspective of realizing the productivity improvements promised by the Cloud. These improvements require that the infrastructure administrator be freed from application-specific issues and focus on meeting the contract of the platform. And that the application administrator be freed from infrastructure-level concerns (while at the same time being empowered to diagnose application-level concerns). This doesn’t mean that the application and infrastructure models should be disconnected. There is a contract and both models (infrastructure and consumption) should represent it in the same way. It draws a line, albeit one with some width.

Blurring the line between configuration and monitoring (bullet #6)

This is another shortcoming of current CMDBs, but one that I think is more easily addressed. The “contract” between the Cloud infrastructure and the consuming application materializes itself in a mix of configuration settings, administrative capabilities and monitoring data. This contract is not just represented by the configuration-centric Cloud API that immediately comes to mind. It also includes the management capabilities and monitoring points of the resulting instances/runtimes.

Wither CMDB?

Whether all these considerations mean that traditional CMDBs are doomed in the Cloud as Bernd Harzog posits, I don’t know. In this post, BMC’s Kia Behnia acknowledges the importance of application management, though it’s not clear that he agrees with their primacy. I am also waiting to see whether the application management portfolio he has assembled can really maps to the new methods of application discovery and management.

But these are resourceful organization, with plenty of smart people (as I can testify: in the end of my HP tenure I worked with the very sharp CMDB team that came from the Mercury acquisition). And let’s keep in mind that customers also value the continuity of support of their environment. Most of them will be dealing with a mix of old-style and Cloud applications and they’ll be looking for a unified management approach. This helps CMDB incumbents. If you doubt the power to continuity, take a minute to realize that the entire value proposition of hypervisor-style virtualization is centered around it. It’s the value of backward-compatibility versus forward-compatibility. in addition, CMDBs are evolving into CMS and are a lot more than configuration repositories. They are an important supporting tool for IT management processes. Whether, and how, these processes apply to “the Cloud” is a topic for another post. In the meantime, read what the IT Skeptic and Rodrigo Flores have to say.

I wouldn’t be so quick to count the Big-4 out, even though I work every day towards that goal, building Oracle’s application and middleware management capabilities in conjunction with my colleagues focused on infrastructure management.

If the topic of application-centric management in the age of Cloud is of interest to you (and it must be if you’ve read this long entry all the way to the end), You might also find this previous entry relevant: “Generalizing the Cloud vs. SOA Governance debate“.


Filed under Application Mgmt, Automation, Cloud Computing, CMDB, CMDB Federation, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, ITIL, Mgmt integration, Middleware, Utility computing, Virtualization

PaaS portability challenges and the VMforce example

The VMforce announcement is a great step for SalesForce, in large part because it lets them address a recurring concern about the PaaS offering: the lack of portability of Apex applications. Now they can be written using Java and Spring instead. A great illustration of how painful this issue was for SalesForce is to see the contortions that Peter Coffee goes through just to acknowledge it: “On the downside, a project might be delayed by debates—some in good faith, others driven by vendor FUD—over the perception of platform lock-in. Political barriers, far more than technical barriers, have likely delayed many organizations’ return on the advantages of the cloud”. The issue is not lock-in it’s the potential delays that may come from the perception of lock-in. Poetic.

Similarly, portability between clouds is also a big theme in Steve Herrod’s blog covering VMforce as illustrated by the figure below. The message is that “write once run anywhere” is coming to the Cloud.

Because this is such a big part of the VMforce value proposition, both from the SalesForce and the VMWare/SpringSource side (as well as for PaaS in general), it’s worth looking at the portability aspect in more details. At least to the extent that we can do so based on this pre-announcement (VMforce is not open for developers yet). And while I am taking VMforce as an example, all the considerations below apply to any enterprise PaaS offering. VMforce just happens to be one of the brave pioneers, willing to take a first step into the jungle.

Beyond the use of Java as a programming language and Spring as a framework, the portability also comes from the supporting tools. This is something I did not cover in my initial analysis of VMforce but that Michael Cote covers well on his blog and Carl Brooks in his comment. Unlike the more general considerations in my previous post, these matters of tooling are hard to discuss until the tools are actually out. We can describe what they “could”, “should” and “would” do all day long, but in the end we need to look at the application in practice and see what, if anything, needs to change when I redirect my deployment target from one cloud to the other. As SalesForce’s Umit Yalcinalp commented, “the details are going to be forthcoming in the coming months and it is too early to speculate”.

So rather than speculating on what VMforce tooling will do, I’ll describe what portability questions any PaaS platform would have to address (or explicitly decline to address).

Code portability

That’s the easiest to address. Thanks to Java, the runtime portability problem for the core language is pretty much solved. Still, moving applications around require changes to way the application communicates with its infrastructure. Can your libraries and frameworks for data access and identity, for example, successfully encapsulate and hide the different kinds of data/identity stores behind them? Even when the stores are functionally equivalent (e.g. SQL, LDAP), they may have operational differences that matter for an enterprise application. Especially if the database is delivered (and paid for) as a service. I may well design my application differently depending on whether I am charged by the amount of data in the DB, by the number of requests to the DB, by the quantity of app-to-DB traffic or by the total processing time of my requests in the DB. Apparently considers the number of “database objects” in its pricing plans and going over 200 pushes you from the “Enterprise” version to the more expensive “Unlimited” version. If I run against my local relational database I don’t think twice about having 201 “database objects”. But if I run in and I otherwise can live within the limits of the “Enterprise” version I’d probably be tempted to slightly alter my data model to fit under 200 objects. The example is borderline silly, but the underlying truth is that not all differences in application infrastructure can be automatically encapsulated by libraries.

While code portability is a solvable problem for a reasonably large set of use cases, things get hairier for the more demanding applications. A large part of the PaaS value proposition is contingent on the willingness to give up some low-level optimizations. This, and harder portability in some cases, may just have to be part of the cost of running demanding applications in a PaaS environment. Or just keep these off PaaS for now. This is part of the backward-compatible versus forward compatible Cloud dilemma.

Data portability

I have covered data portability in the previous entry, in response to Steve Herrod’s comment that “you should be able to extract the code from the cloud it currently runs in and move it, along with its data, to another cloud choice”. Your data in the database can already be moved somewhere else… as long as you’re willing to write code to get it and perform any needed transformation. In theory, any data that you can read is data that you can move (thus fulfilling Steve’s promise). The question is at what cost. Presumably Steve is referring to data migration tools that VMWare will build (or acquire) and make part of its cloud enablement platform. Another way in which VMWare is trying to assemble a more complete middleware portfolio (see Oracle ODI for an example of a complete data integration offering, which goes far beyond ETL).

There is a subtle difference between the intrinsic portability of Java (which will run in any JRE, modulo JDK version) and the extrinsic portability of data which can in theory be moved anywhere but each place you move it to may require a different process. A car and an oak armoire are both “portable”, but one is designed for moving while the other will only move if you bring a truck and two strong guys.

Application service portability

I covered this in my previous entry and Bob Warfield summarized it as “take advantage of all those juicy services and it will be hard to back out of that platform, Java or no Java”. He is referring to all the platform services (search, reporting, mobile, integration, BPM, IdM, administration) that make a large part of the value proposition. They won’t be waiting for you in your private cloud (though some may be remotely invocable, depending on how SalesForce wants to play its cards). Applications that depend on them will have to be changed, at least until we have standards interfaces for all these services (don’t hold your breath).

Management portability

Even if you can seamlessly migrate your application and your data from your internal servers to, what do you think is going to happen to your management console, especially if it uses operating system agents? These agents are not coming along for the ride, that’s for sure. Are you going to tell your administrators that rather than having a centralized configuration/monitoring/event console they are going to have to look at cute “monitoring” web pages for each application? And all the transaction tracing, event correlation, configuration policy and end-user monitoring features they were relying on are unfortunate victims of the relentless march of progress? Good luck with that sale.

VMWare’s answer will probably be that they will eventually provide you with all the management capabilities that you need. And it’s a fair one, along the lines of the “Application-to-Disk Management” message at the recent launch of Oracle Enterprise Manager 11G. With the difference that EM is not the only way to manage a top-to-bottom Oracle stack, just the one that we think is the best. BMC and HP aren’t locked out.

VMWare and SpringSource (+Hyperic) could indeed theoretically assemble a full-fledged management solution. But this doesn’t happen overnight, even with acquisitions as I know from experience both at HP Software and currently at Oracle. Integration (of management domains across the stack, of acquired application management products, of support data/services from is one of the main advances in Enterprise Manager 11G and it took work.

And even then, this leads to the next logical question. If you can move from cloud to cloud but you are forced to use VMWare development, deployment and management tools, haven’t you traded one lock-in problem for another?

Not to mention that your portability between clouds, if it depends on VMWare tools, is limited to VMWare-powered clouds (private or public). In effect, there are now three levels of portability:

  • not portable (only runs on VMforce)
  • portable to any cloud (public or private) built using VMWare infrastructure
  • portable to any Java/Spring Cloud platform

Is your application portable the way cash is portable, or the way a gift card is portable (across stores of a retail chain)?

If this reminds you of the java portability debates of the early days of Enterprise Java that’s no surprise. Remember, we’re replaying the tape.


Filed under Application Mgmt, Cloud Computing, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Mgmt integration, Middleware, PaaS, Portability, Spring, Standards, Tech, Utility computing, VMforce, VMware

Analyzing the VMforce announcement

Let’s start with the disclosures: by most interpretations I work for a competitor to what and VMWare are trying to do with VMforce. And all I know about VMforce is what I read in a few authoritative blogs by VMWare’s Steve Herrod, VMWare/SpringSource’s Rod Johnson and Salesforce’s Anshu Sharma. So no hard feeling if you jump off right now.

Overall, I like what I see. Let me put it this way. I am now a lot more likely to write an application on than I was last week. How could this not be a good thing for SalesForce, me and others like me?

On the other hand, this is also not the major announcement that the “VMforce is coming” drum-roll had tried to make us expect. If you fell for it, then I guess you can be disappointed. I didn’t and I’m not (Phil Wainewright fell for it and yet isn’t disappointed, asserting that “ redefines the PaaS landscape” for reasons not entirely clear to me even after reading his article).

The new thing is that now supports an additional runtime, in addition to Apex. That new runtime uses the Java language, with the constraint that it is used via the Spring framework. Which is familiar territory to many developers. That’s it. That’s the VMforce announcement for all practical purposes from a user’s perspective. It’s a great step forward for which was hampered by the non-standard nature of Apex, but it’s just a new runtime. All the other benefits that Anshu Sharma lists in his blog (search, reporting, mobile, integration, BPM, IdM, administration) are not new. They are the platform services that offers to application writers, whether they use Apex or the new Java/Spring runtime.

It’s important to realize that there are two main parts to a full PaaS platform like or Google App Engine. First there are application runtimes (Apex and now Java for, Python and Java for GAE). They are language-dependent and you can have several of them to support different programming languages. Second are the platform services (reports, mobile, BPM, IdM etc for as we saw above, mostly IdM for Google at this point) which are mostly language agnostic (beyond a library used to access them). I think of data storage (e.g. mySQL, database, Google DataStore) as part of the runtime, but it’s on the edge of the grey zone. A third category is made of actual application services (e.g. the CRM web services out of or the application services out of Google Apps) which I tend not to consider part of PaaS but again there are gray zones between application support services and application services. E.g. how domain-specific does your rule engine have to be before it moves from one category to the other?

As Umit Yalcinalp (who works for SalesForce) told me on Twitter “regardless of the runtime the devs using the db will get the same platform benefits, chatter, workflow, analytics”. What I called the platform services above. Which, really, is where most of the PaaS value lies anyway. A language runtime is just a starting point.

So where are VMWare and SpringSource in this picture? Well, from the point of view of the user nowhere, really. SalesForce could have built this platform themselves, using the Spring framework on top of Tomcat, WebLogic, JBoss… Itself running on any OS they want. With or without a hypervisor. These are all implementation details and are SalesForce’s problem, not ours as application developers.

It so happens that they have chosen to run this as a partnership with VMWare/SpringSource which makes a lot of sense from a portfolio/expertise perspective, of course. But this choice is not visible to the application developer making use of this platform. And it shouldn’t be. That’s the whole point of PaaS after all, that we don’t have to care.

But VMWare and SpringSource really want us to know that they are there, so Rod Johnson leads by lifting the curtain and explaining that:

“VMforce uses the physical infrastructure to run vSphere with a special customized vCloud layer that allows for seamless scaling and management. Above this layer VMforce runs SpringSource tc Server instances that provide the execution environment for the enterprise applications that run on VMforce.”

[Side note: notice what’s missing? The operating system. It’s there of course, most likely some Linux distribution but Rod glances over it, maybe because it’s a missing link in VMWare’s “we have all the pieces” story; unlike Oracle who can provide one or, even better, do without.  Just saying…]

VMWare wants us to know they are under the covers because of course they have much larger aspirations than to be a provider to SalesForce. They want to use this as a proof point to sell their SpringSource+VMWare stack in other settings, such as private clouds and other public cloud providers (modulo whatever exclusivity period may be in their contract with SalesForce). And VMforce, if it works well when it launches, is a great validation for this strategy. It’s natural that they want people to know that they are behind the curtain and can be called on to replicate this elsewhere.

But let’s be clear about what part they can replicate. It’s the Java/Spring language runtime and its underlying infrastructure. Not the platform services that are part of the SalesForce platform. Not an IdM solution, not a rules engine, not a business process engine, etc. We can expect that they are hard at work trying to fill these gaps, as the RabbitMQ acquisition illustrates, but for now all this comes from and isn’t directly replicable. Which means that applications that use them aren’t quite so portable.

In his post, Steve Herrod quickly moves past the VMforce announcement to focus on the SpringSource+VMWare infrastructure part, the one he hopes to see multiplied everywhere. The key promise, from the developers’ perspective, is application portability. And while the use of Java+Spring definitely helps a lot in terms of code portability I see some promises in terms of data portability that will warrant scrutiny when VMforce actually rolls out: “you should be able to extract the code from the cloud it currently runs in and move it, along with its data, to another cloud choice”.

It sounds very nice, but the underlying issues are:

  • Does the code change depending on whether I am talking to a local relational DB in my private cloud or whether I am on VMforce and using the database?
  • If it doesn’t then the application is portable, but an extra service i still needed to actually move the data from one cloud to the other (can this be done in-flight? what downtime is needed?)
  • What about the other services (chatter, workflow, analytics…)? If I use them in my code can I keep using them once I migrate out of VMforce to a private cloud? Are they remotely invocable? Does the code change? And if I want to completely sever my links with SalesForce, can I find alternative implementations of these application platform services in my private cloud? Or from another public cloud provider? The answer to these is probably no, which means that you are only portable out of VMforce if you restrain yourself from using much of the value of the platform. It’s not even clear whether you can completely restrain yourself from using it, e.g. can you run on without using their IdM system?

All these are hard questions. I am not blaming anyone for not answering them today since no-one does. But we shouldn’t sweep them under the rug. I am sure VMWare is working on finding workable compromises but I doubt it will be as simple, clean and portable as Steve Herrod implies. It’s funny  how Steve and Anshu’s posts seem to reinforce and congratulate one another, until you realize that they are in large part talking about very different things. Anshu’s is almost entirely about the application platform services (sprinkled with some weird Facebook envy), Steve’s is entirely about the application runtime and its infrastructure.

One thing that I am surprised not to see mentioned is the management aspect of the platform, especially considering the investment that SpringSource made in Hyperic. I can only assume that work is under way on this and that we’ll hear about it soon. One aspect of the management story that concerns me a bit is the lack of acknowledgment of the challenges of configuration management in a PaaS setting. Especially when I read Steve Herrod asserting that the VMWare/SpringSource PaaS platform is going to free us from the burden of “handling code modifications that may be required as the middleware versions change”. There seems to be a misconception that because the application administrators are not the ones doing the infrastructure updates they don’t need to worry about the impact of these updates on their application. Is Steve implying that the first release of the VMWare/SpringSource PaaS stack is going to be so perfect that the hypervisor, guest OS and app server will never have to be patched and versioned? If that’s not the case, then why are those patches suddenly less likely impact the application code? In fact the situation is even worse as the application administrator does not know which hypervisor/OS/middleware patches are being applied and when. They can’t test against the new version ahead of time for validation and they can’t make sure the change is scheduled during a non-critical period for their business. I wrote an entire blog post on this issue six months ago and it’s a little bit disheartening to see the issue flatly denied and ignored. Management is not just monitoring.

Here is another intriguing comment in Steve’s entry: “one of the key differentiators with EC2 based PaaS will be the efficiencies for the many-app model. Customers are frustrated with the need to buy a whole VM as the minimum service unit for their applications. Our PaaS will provide fine-grained resource separation”. I had to read it twice when I realized that the VMWare CTO was telling us that splitting a physical machine into VMs is not a good enough way to share its resources and that you really need middleware-level multi-tenancy. But who can disagree that a GAE-like architecture can support more low-traffic applications on the same server than anything based on VM-based sharing? Which (along with deep pockets) puts Google in position to offer free hosting for low-traffic applications, a great way to build adoption.

These are very early days in the history of PaaS. VMWare, like the rest of us, will need to tackle all these issues one by one. In the meantime, this is an interesting announcement and a noticeable milestone. Let’s just keep our eyes open on the incremental nature of progress and the long list of remaining issues.

[UPDATED 2010/4/29: See the follow-up post, PaaS portability challenges and the VMforce example.]

[UPDATED 2010/6/9: This entry points out how the OS level is a gap in VMWare’s portfolio. They took a step in addressing this today, by partnering with Novell to offer SUSE support.]



Filed under Application Mgmt, BPM, Cloud Computing, Everything, Google App Engine, Middleware, PaaS, Portability, Spring, Tech, Virtualization, VMforce, VMware

The battle of the Cloud Frameworks: Application Servers redux?

The battle of the Cloud Frameworks has started, and it will look a lot like the battle of the Application Servers which played out over the last decade and a half. Cloud Frameworks (which manage IT automation and runtime outsourcing) are to the Programmable Datacenter what Application Servers are to the individual IT server. In the longer term, these battlefronts may merge, but for now we’ve been transported back in time, to the early days of Web programming. The underlying dynamic is the same. It starts with a disruptive IT event (part new technology, part new mindset). 15 years ago the disruptive event was the Web. Today it’s Cloud Computing.

Stage 1

It always starts with very simple use cases. For the Web, in the mid-nineties, the basic use case was “how do I return HTML that is generated by a script as opposed to a static file”. For Cloud Computing today, it is “how do I programmatically create, launch and stop servers as opposed to having to physically install them”.

In that sense, the IaaS APIs of today are the equivalent of the Common Gateway Interface (CGI) circa 1993/1994. Like the EC2 API and its brethren, CGI was not optimized, not polished, but it met the basic use cases and allowed many developers to write their first Web apps (which we just called “CGI scripts” at the time).

Stage 2

But the limitations became soon apparent. In the CGI case, it had to do with performance (the cost of the “one process per request” approach). Plus, the business potential was becoming clearer and attracted a different breed of contenders than just academic and research institutions. So we got NSAPI, ISAPI, FastCGI, Apache Modules, JServ, ZDAC…

We haven’t reached that stage for Cloud yet. That will be when the IaaS APIs start to support events, enumerations, queries, federated identity etc…

Stage 3

Stage 2 looked like the real deal, when we were in it, but little did we know that we were still just nibbling on the hors d’oeuvres. And it was short-lived. People quickly decided that they wanted more than a way to handle HTTP requests. If the Web was going to be central to most programs, then all aspects of programming had to fit well in the context of the Web. We didn’t want Web servers anymore, we wanted application servers (re-purposing a term that had been used for client-server). It needed more features, covering data access, encapsulation, UI frameworks, integration, sessions. It also needed to meet non-functional requirements: availability, scalability (hello clustering), management, identity…

That turned into the battle between the various Java application servers as well as between Java and Microsoft (with .Net coming along), along with other technology stacks. That’s where things got really interesting too, because we explored different ways to attack the problem. People could still program at the HTTP request level. They could use MVC framework, ColdFusion/ASP/JSP/PHP-style markup-driven applications, or portals and other higher-level modular authoring frameworks. They got access to adapters, message buses, process flows and other asynchronous mechanisms. It became clear that there was not just one way to write Web applications. And the discovery is still going on, as illustrated by the later emergence of Ruby on Rails and similar frameworks.

Stage 4

Stage 3 is not over for Web applications, but stage 4 is already there, as illustrated by the fact that some of the gurus of stage 3 have jumped to stage 4. It’s when the Web is everywhere. Clients are everywhere and so are servers for that matter. The distinction blurs. We’re just starting to figure out the applications that will define this stage, and the frameworks that will best support them. The game is far from over.

So what does it mean for Cloud Frameworks?

If, like me, you think that the development of Cloud Frameworks will follow a path similar to that of Application Servers, then the quick retrospective above can be used as a (imperfect) crystal ball. I don’t pretend to be a Middleware historian or that these four stages are the most accurate representation, but I think they are a reasonable perspective. And they hold some lessons for Cloud Frameworks.

It’s early

We are at stage 1. I’ll admit that my decision to separate stages 1 and 2 is debatable and mainly serves to illustrate how early in the process we are with Cloud frameworks. Current IaaS APIs (and the toolkits that support them) are the equivalent of CGI (and the early httpd), something that’s still around (Google App Engine emulates CGI in its Python incarnation) but almost no-one programs to directly anymore. It’s raw, it’s clunky, it’s primitive. But it was a needed starting point that launched the whole field of Web development. Just like IaaS APIs like EC2 have launched the field Cloud Computing.

Cloud Frameworks will need to go through the equivalent of all the other stages. First, the IaaS APIs will get more optimized and capable (stage 2). Then, at stage 3, we will focus on higher-level, more productive abstraction layers (generally referred to as PaaS) at which point we should expect a thousand different approaches to bloom, and several of them to survive. I will not hazard a guess as to what stage 4 will look like (here is my guess for stage 3, in two parts).

No need to rush standards

One benefit of this retrospective is to highlight the tragedy of Cloud standards compared to Web development standards. Wouldn’t we be better off today if the development leads of AWS and a couple of other Cloud providers had been openly cooperating in a Cloud equivalent of the www-talk mailing list of yore? Out of it came a rough agreement on HTML and CGI that allowed developers to write basic Web applications in a reasonably portable way. If the same informal collaboration had taken place for IaaS APIs, we’d have a simple de-facto consensus that would support the low-hanging fruits of basic IaaS. It would allow Cloud developers to support the simplest use cases, and relieve the self-defeating pressure to standardize too early. Standards played a huge role in the development of Application Servers (especially of the Java kind), but that really took place as part of stage 3. In the absence of an equivalent to CGI in the Cloud world, we are at risk of rushing the standardization without the benefit of the experimentation and lessons that come in stage 3.

I am not trying to sugar-coat the history of Web standards. The HTML saga is nothing to be inspired by. But there was an original effort to build consensus that wasn’t even attempted with Cloud APIs. I like the staged process of a rough consensus that covers the basic use cases, followed by experimentation and proprietary specifications and later a more formal standardization effort. If we skip the rough consensus stage, as we did with Cloud, we end up rushing to do final step (to the tune of “customers demand Cloud standards”) even though all we need for now is an interoperable way to meet the basic use cases.

Winners and losers

Whoever you think of as the current leaders of the Application Server battle (hint: I work for one), they were not the obvious leaders of stages 1 and 2. So don’t be in too much of a hurry to crown the Cloud Framework kings. Those you think of today may turn out to be the Netscapes of that battle.

New roles

It’s not just new technology. The development of Cloud Frameworks will shape the roles of the people involved. We used to have designers who thought their job was done when they produced a picture or at best a FrameMaker or QuarkXPress document, which is what they were used to. We had “webmasters” who thought they were set for life with their new Apache skills, then quickly had to evolve or make way, a lesson for IaaS gurus of today. Under terms like “DevOps” new roles are created and existing roles are transformed. Nobody yet knows what will stick. But if I was an EC2 guru today I’d make sure to not get stuck providing just that. Don’t wait for other domains of Cloud expertise to be in higher demand than your current IaaS area, as by then you’ll be too late.

It’s the stack

There aren’t many companies out there making a living selling a stand-alone Web server. Even Zeus, who has a nice one, seems to be downplaying it on its site compared to its application delivery products. The combined pressure of commoditization (hello Apache) and of the demand for a full stack has made it pretty hard to sell just a Web server.

Similarly, it’s going to be hard to stay in business selling just portions of a Cloud Framework. For example, just provisioning, just monitoring, just IaaS-level features, etc. That’s well-understood and it’s fueling a lot of the acquisitions (e.g. VMWare’s purchase of SpringSource which in turn recently purchased RabbitMQ) and partnerships (e.g. recently between Eucalyptus and GroundWork though rarely do such “partnerships” rise to the level of integration of a real framework).

It’s not even clear what the right scope for a Cloud Framework is. What makes a full stack and what is beyond it? Is it just software to manage a private Cloud environment and/or deployments into public Clouds? Does the framework also include the actual public Cloud service? Does it include hardware in some sort of “private Cloud in a box”, of the kind that this recent Dell/Ubuntu announcement seems to be inching towards?


If indeed we can go by the history of Application Server to predict the future of Cloud Frameworks, then we’ll have a few stacks (with different levels of completeness, standardized or proprietary). This is what happened for Web development (the JEE stack, the .Net stack, a more loosely-defined alternative stack which is mostly open-source, niche stacks like the backend offered by Adobe for Flash apps, etc) and at some point the effort moved from focusing on standardizing the different application environment technology alternatives (e.g. J2EE) towards standardizing how the different platforms can interoperate (e.g. WS-*). I expect the same thing for Cloud Frameworks, especially as they grow out of stages 1 and 2 and embrace what we call today PaaS. At which point the two battlefields (Application Servers and Cloud Frameworks) will merge. And when this happens, I just can’t picture how one stack/framework will suffice for all. So we’ll have to define meaningful integration between them and make them work.

If you’re a spectator, grab plenty of popcorn. If you’re a soldier in this battle, get ready for a long campaign.


Filed under Application Mgmt, Automation, Big picture, Cloud Computing, Everything, Mgmt integration, Middleware, Standards, Utility computing

A week of Oracle Middleware, Management and Cloud

Oracle has a busy week in store for people who are interested in application management. Today, the company announced:

  • Oracle Virtual Assembly Builder, to package and easily deploy virtualized composite applications. It’s an application-aware (via metadata) set of VM disk images. It comes with a graphical builder tool.
  • Oracle WebLogic Suite Virtualization Option (not the most Twitter-friendly name, so if you see me tweet about “WebLogic Virtual” or “WLV” that’s what I mean), an optimized version of WebLogic Server which runs on JRockit Virtual Edition, itself on top of OVM. Notice what’s missing? The OS. If you think you’ll miss it, you may be suffering from learned helplessness. Seek help.

Later this week, Oracle will announce Oracle Enterprise Manager 11g. I am not going to steal the thunder a couple of days before the announcement, but I can safely say that a large chunk of the new features relate to application management.

[UPDATED 2010/4/21: Adam and Blake‘s blogs on the Virtual Assembly Builder and WebLogic Suite Virtualization Option announcements. And Chung on the upcoming EM release.]

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Filed under Application Mgmt, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Middleware, Oracle, Virtual appliance, Virtualization

Is Business Process Execution the killer app for PaaS?

Have you noticed the slow build-up of business process engines available “as a service”? recently introduced a “Visual Process Manager”. Amazon is looking for product managers to help customers “securely compos[e] processes using capabilities from all parts of their organization as well as those outside their organization, including existing legacy applications, long-running activities, human interactions, cloud services, or even complex processes provided by business partners”. I’ve read somewhere (can’t find a link right now) that WSO2 was planning to make its Business Process Server available as a Cloud service. I haven’t tracked Azure very closely, but I expect AppFabric to soon support a BizTalk-like process engine. And I wouldn’t be surprised if VMWare decided to make an acquisition in the area of business process execution.

Attacking PaaS from the business process angle is counter-intuitive. Rather, isn’t the obvious low-hanging fruit for PaaS a simple synchronous HTTP request handler (e.g. a servlet or its Python, Ruby, etc equivalent)? Which is what Google App Engine (GAE) and Heroku mainly provide. GAE almost defined PaaS as a category in the same way that Amazon EC2 defined IaaS. The expectation that a CGI or servlet-like container naturally precedes a business process engine is also reinforced by the history of middleware stacks. Simple HTTP request-response is the first thing that gets defined (the first version of the servlet package was java.servlet.* since it even predates javax), the first thing that gets standardized (JSR 53: servlet 2.3 and JSP 1.2) and the first thing that gets widely commoditized (e.g. Apache Tomcat). Rather than a core part of the middleware stack, business process engines (BPEL and the like) are typically thought of as a more “advanced” or “enterprise” capability, one that come later, as part of the extended middleware stack.

But nothing says it has to be that way. If you think about it a bit longer, there are some reasons why business process execution might actually be a more logical beach head for PaaS  than simple HTTP request handlers.

1) Small contract

Architecturally, the contract between a business process engine and the deployed entities (process definitions) is much smaller than the contract of a GAE-style HTTP handler. Those GAE contracts include an entire programming language and lots of libraries. A BPEL container, on the other hand, has a simple contract. It’s documented in one specification (plus a few dependencies) and offers basic activities like routing logic, message correlation, simple data manipulation, compensation handlers and service invocation. You may not think of BPEL as “simple” but would you rather implement a BPEL engine or a complete Python interpreter along with most of the core libraries? I thought so. That’s what I mean by a simpler (narrower) contract. And BPEL is just one example, I suspect some PaaS platforms will take a more bare-bone approach (e.g. no “scopes”).

Just like “good fences make good neighbors”, small contracts make good Cloud services. When your container only interprets a business process definition (typically an XML document), you don’t need to worry about intercepting/preventing all the nasty low-level APIs (e.g. unfettered network access, filesystem reads, OS calls…) that are not acceptable in a PaaS situation. But that is what Google had to do in the process of pairing down a general-purpose programming language to fit into the constraints of a PaaS container. There is no intrinsic reason why a synchronous HTTP request handler has to have access to image-manipulation libraries and a business process handler doesn’t. But the use cases tend to push you in that direction and the expectations have been set. As a result, a business process engine is architecturally a better candidate for being delivered as a Cloud service.

2) Major differentiator over IaaS-based solutions

Practically speaking, it is pretty easy today to get a (synchronous) Web app framework up and running “in the Cloud”. Provisioning a Django, PHP, RoR or Tomcat (plus the Java framework of your choice) stack on EC2 is a well-traveled path. Even auto-scaling these things is pretty well understood. I am the first one to scream that “here is an AMI of our server stack” is *not* the same as PaaS, but truth be told many people are happy enough with it. As a result, the benefit of going from a “web app on IaaS” situation to GAE-like situation is not perceived as very compelling. I suspect the realization may hit later, but for now people are happy to trade the simplified administration and extra scalability of PaaS for the ability to keep their current framework (MySQL and all) unchanged.

There is no fundamental reason why you can’t run a business process engine on top of an IaaS-provisioned infrastructure. It’s just that you are mostly on your own at this point. Even if you find an existing public AMI that meets your needs, I doubt you’ll find a well-tested way to manage, backup and auto-scale this system (marrying IaaS-level invocations with container-level and DB-level tasks). Or if you do it will probably cost you. In that “new frontier” context, a true PaaS alternative to the “build it on top of IaaS” approach is a lot more compelling than if all you need is yet another RoR-on-EC2 system.

When deciding whether to walk back to your hotel after dinner or take a cab, you don’t just consider the distance. How familiar you are with the neighborhood and how safe it appears are also important parameters.

3) There is an existing market

This may not be obvious to people who come to PaaS from a Web application framework perspective, but there is a large market for business process engines in enterprise integration scenarios. Whether it’s Oracle Fusion Middleware, Microsoft BizTalk, webMethods (now Software AG) or others, this is a very common and useful tool in the enterprise computing toolbox. If this is the market you are after (rather than creating Facebook apps or the next Twitter), then you have to address this need. Not to mention that business processes engines are often used for partner integration scenarios (which makes hosting in a public Cloud a natural choice).


In the end, both synchronous and asynchronous execution engines are useful, as are other core services like storage (here is my proposed list of PaaS container types). I just wanted to bring some attention to business process execution because I think PaaS is the context in which its profile will rise to higher prominence. I also anticipate that this rise will lead to some very interesting progress and innovation in the way these processes are defined, deployed and managed. We haven’t yet seen, in this area, the relentless evolutionary pressure that has shaped today’s synchronous Web application frameworks. Fun times ahead.

[UPDATED 2010/2/18: More information about’s Visual Process Manager.]

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Filed under Application Mgmt, BPEL, BPM, Business Process, Cloud Computing, Everything, Google App Engine, Middleware, PaaS, Portability, Tech, Utility computing

Oracle acquires Amberpoint

Oracle just announced that it has purchased Amberpoint. If you have ever been interested in Web services management, then you surely know about Amberpoint. The company has long led the pack of best-of-breed vendors for Web services and SOA Management. My history with them goes back to the old days of the OASIS WSDM technical committee, where their engineers brought to the group a unique level of experience and practical-mindedness.

The official page has more details. In short, Amberpoint is going to reinforce Oracle Enterprise Manager, especially in these areas:

  • Business Transaction Management
  • SOA Management
  • Application Performance Management
  • SOA Governance (BTW, Oracle Enterprise Repository 11g was released just over a week ago)

I am looking forward to working with my new colleagues from Amberpoint.

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Filed under Application Mgmt, Everything, Governance, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Mgmt integration, Middleware, Web services

Generalizing the Cloud vs. SOA Governance debate

There have been some interesting discussions recently about the relationship between Cloud management and SOA management/governance (run-time and design-time). My only regret is that they are a bit too focused on determining winners and loosers rather than defining what victory looks like (a bit like arguing whether the smartphone is the triumph of the phone over the computer or of the computer over the phone instead of discussing what makes a good smartphone).

To define victory, we need to answer this seemingly simple question: in what ways is the relationship between a VM and its hypervisor different from the relationship between two communicating applications?

More generally, there are three broad categories of relationships between the “active” elements of an IT system (by “active” I am excluding configuration, organization, management and security artifacts, like patch, department, ticket and user, respectively, to concentrate instead on the elements that are on the invocation path at runtime). We need to understand if/how/why these categories differ in how we manage them:

  • Deployment relationships: a machine (or VM) in a physical host (or hypervisor), a JEE application in an application server, a business process in a process engine, etc…
  • Infrastructure dependency relationships (other than containment): from an application to the DB that persists its data, from an application tier to web server that fronts it, from a batch job to the scheduler that launches it, etc…
  • Application dependency relationships: from an application to a web service it invokes, from a mash-up to an Atom feed it pulls, from a portal to a remote portlet, etc…

In the old days, the lines between these categories seemed pretty clear and we rarely even thought of them in the same terms. They were created and managed in different ways, by different people, at different times. Some were established as part of a process, others in a more ad-hoc way. Some took place by walking around with a CD, others via a console, others via a centralized repository. Some of these relationships were inventoried in spreadsheets, others on white boards, some in CMDBs, others just in code and in someone’s head. Some involved senior IT staff, others were up to developers and others were left to whoever was manning the controls when stuff broke.

It was a bit like the relationships you have with the taxi that takes you to the airport, the TSA agent who scans you and the pilot who flies you to your destination. You know they are all involved in your travel, but they are very distinct in how you experience and approach them.

It all changes with the Cloud (used as a short hand for virtualization, management automation, on-demand provisioning, 3rd-party hosting, metered usage, etc…). The advent of the hypervisor is the most obvious source of change: relationships that were mostly static become dynamic; also, where you used to manage just the parts (the host and the OS, often even mixed as one), you now manage not just the parts but the relationship between them (the deployment of a VM in a hypervisor). But it’s not just hypervisors. It’s frameworks, APIs, models, protocols, tools. Put them all together and you realize that:

  • the IT resources involved in all three categories of relationships can all be thought of as services being consumed (an “X86+ethernet emulation” service exposed by the hypervisor, a “JEE-compatible platform” service exposed by the application server, an “RDB service” expose by the database, a Web services exposed via SOAP or XML/JSON over HTTP, etc…),
  • they can also be set up as services, by simply sending a request to the API of the service provider,
  • not only can they be set up as services, they are also invoked as such, via well-documented (and often standard) interfaces,
  • they can also all be managed in a similar service-centric way, via performance metrics, SLAs, policies, etc,
  • your orchestration code may have to deal with all three categories, (e.g. an application slowdown might be addressed either by modifying its application dependencies, reconfiguring its infrastructure or initiating a new deployment),
  • the relationships in all these categories now have the potential to cross organization boundaries and involve external providers, possibly with usage-based billing,
  • as a result of all this, your IT automation system really needs a simple, consistent, standard way to handle all these relationships. Automation works best when you’ve simplified and standardize the environment to which it is applied.

If you’re a SOA person, your mental model for this is SOA++ and you pull out your SOA management and governance (config and runtime) tools. If you are in the WS-* obedience of SOA, you go back to WS-Management, try to see what it would take to slap a WSDL on a hypervisor and start dreaming of OVF over MTOM/XOP. If you’re into middleware modeling you might start to have visions of SCA models that extend all the way down to the hardware, or at least of getting SCA and OSGi to ally and conquer the world. If you’re a CMDB person, you may tell yourself that now is the time for the CMDB to do what you’ve been pretending it was doing all along and actually extend all the way into the application. Then you may have that “single source of truth” on which the automation code can reliably work. Or if you see the world through the “Cloud API” goggles, then this “consistent and standard” way to manage relationships at all three layers looks like what your Cloud API of choice will eventually do, as it grows from IaaS to PaaS and SaaS.

Your background may shape your reference model for this unified service-centric approach to IT management, but the bottom line is that we’d all like a nice, clear conceptual model to bridge and unify Cloud (provisioning and containment), application configuration and SOA relationships. A model in which we have services/containers with well-defined operational contracts (and on-demand provisioning interfaces). Consumers/components with well-defined requirements. APIs to connect the two, with predictable results (both in functional and non-functional terms). Policies and SLAs to fine-tune the quality of service. A management framework that monitors these policies and SLAs. A common security infrastructure that gets out of the way. A metering/billing framework that spans all these interactions. All this while keeping out of sight all the resource-specific work needed behind the scene, so that the automation code can look as Zen as a Japanese garden.

It doesn’t mean that there won’t be separations, roles, processes. We may still want to partition the IT management tasks, but we should first have a chance to rejigger what’s in each category. It might, for example, make sense to handle provider relationships in a consistent way whether they are “deployment relationships” (e.g. EC2 or your private IaaS Cloud) or “application dependency relationships” (e.g. SOA, internal or external). On the other hand, some of the relationships currently lumped in the “infrastructure dependency relationships” category because they are “config files stuff” may find different homes depending on whether they remain low-level and resource-specific or they are absorbed in a higher-level platform contract. Any fracture in the management of this overall IT infrastructure should be voluntary, based on legal, financial or human requirements. And not based on protocol, model, security and tool disconnect, on legacy approaches, on myopic metering, that we later rationalize as “the way we’d want things to be anyway because that’s what we are used to”.

In the application configuration management universe, there is a planetary collision scheduled between the hypervisor-centric view of the world (where virtual disk formats wrap themselves in OVF, then something like OVA to address, at least at launch time, application and infrastructure dependency relationships) and the application-model view of the world (SOA, SCA, Microsoft Oslo at least as it was initially defined, various application frameworks…). Microsoft Azure will have an answer, VMWare/Springsouce will have one, Oracle will too (though I can’t talk about it), Amazon might (especially as it keeps adding to its PaaS portfolio) or it might let its ecosystem sort it out, IBM probably has Rational, WebSphere and Tivoli distinguished engineers locked into a room, discussing and over-engineering it at this very minute, etc.

There is a lot at stake, and it would be nice if this was driven (industry-wide or at least within each of the contenders) by a clear understanding of what we are aiming for rather than a race to cobble together partial solutions based on existing control points and products (e.g. the hypervisor-centric party).

[UPDATED 2010/1/25: For an illustration of my statement that “if you’re a SOA person, your mental model for this is SOA++”, see Joe McKendrick’s “SOA’s Seven Greatest Mysteries Unveiled” (bullet #6: “When you get right down to it, cloud is the acquisition or provisioning of reusable services that cross enterprise walls. (…)  They are service oriented architecture, and they rely on SOA-based principles to function.”)]


Filed under Application Mgmt, Automation, Cloud Computing, CMDB, Everything, Governance, IT Systems Mgmt, ITIL, Mgmt integration, Middleware, Modeling, OSGi, SCA, Utility computing, Virtualization, WS-Management

Book on Middleware Management with Oracle Enterprise Manager

My colleagues (and Enterprise Manager experts) Debu Panda and Arvind Maheshwari have a very handy book out, titled Middleware Management with Oracle Enterprise Manager Grid Control 10gR5 (that’s the latest release of Enterprise Manager). The publisher sent me a copy of the book. It illustrates well that Enterprise Manager does a lot more than just database management; it also provides coverage of most of the Oracle middleware stack (and some non-Oracle middleware components).

I am happy to provide an outline of the book, because it shows both how complete the book is and how wide the coverage of Enterprise Manager is for the Oracle middleware stack.

  • Chapter 1 provides an overview of the base Enterprise Manager product and its various packs.
  • Chapter 2 describes the installation process.
  • Chapter 3 describes the key concepts of the different subsystems of Enterprise Manager.
  • Chapter 4 covers management of WebLogic server, the centerpiece of Oracle Fusion Middleware.
  • Chapter 5 covers management of the core of the pre-BEA Oracle Application Server (OC4J, OHS and WebCache).
  • Chapter 6 is about managing Oracle Forms and Reports (used by EBS and many client-server applications).
  • Chapter 7 is about managing the BPEL server, a major component of the SOA Suite.
  • Chapter 8 (available as a free download) covers management of another part of the SOA Suite, namely Oracle Service Bus (previously AquaLogic Service Bus).
  • Chapter 9 addresses management of Oracle Identity Manager.
  • Chapter 10 covers management of Coherence (a distributed in-memory cache) clusters.
  • Chapter 11 describes the capability to manage non-Oracle middleware for these youthful errors you committed before seeing the (red) light.
  • Chapter 12 introduces some of the cool new application management features: Composite Application Modeler and Monitor (CAMM) to manage a distributed application across all its components, and Application Diagnostic for Java (AD4J) to drill down into a specific JVM.
  • Chapter 13 invites you to roll-up your sleeves and write your own plug-in so that Enterprise Manager can manage new types of targets.
  • Chapter 14 ends the book by sharing some best practices from customer experience.

All in all, this is the most user-friendly and accessible way to learn and become familiar with the scope of what Enterprise Manager has to offer for middleware management. The gory details (e.g. the complete list of target types, metrics and their definitions) are not in the book but available from the on-line documentation.

To end on a ludic note, you can use this table of content to test your knowledge of some Oracle acquisitions. Can you associate the following acquired companies with the corresponding chapter? Auptyma, Oblix, BEA, ClearApp, Collaxa, Tangosol.

The ROT-13-encoded answer is: ORN: 4&8 – Pbyynkn: 7 – Boyvk: 9 – Gnatbfby:10 – Nhcglzn: 12 – PyrneNcc: 12

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Filed under Application Mgmt, Book review, BPEL, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Middleware, Oracle

PaaS as the path to MDA?

Lots of communities think of Cloud Computing as the realization of a vision that they have been pusuing for a while (“sure we didn’t call it Cloud back then but…”). Just ask the Grid folks, the dynamic data center folks (DCML, IBM’s “Autonomic Computing”, HP’s “Adaptive Enterprise”,  Microsoft’s DSI), the ASP community, and those of us who toiled on what was going to be the SOAP-based management stack for all IT (e.g. my HP colleagues and I can selectively quote mentions of “adaptation mechanisms like resource reservation, allocation/de-allocation” and “management as a service” in this WSMF white paper from 2003 to portray WSMF as a precursor to all the Cloud APIs of today).

I thought of another such community today, as I ran into older OMG specifications: the Model-Driven Architecture (MDA) community. I have no idea what people in this community actually think of Cloud Computing, but it seems to me that PaaS is a chance to come close to part of their vision. For two reasons: PaaS makes it easier and more rewarding, all at the same time, to practice model-driven design. More bang for less buck.


My understanding of the MDA value proposition is that it would allow you to create a high-level design (at the level of something like an augmented version of UML) and have it automatically turn into executable code (e.g. that can run in a JEE or .NET container). I am probably making it sound more naive than it really is, but not by much. That’s a might wide gap to bridge, for QVT and friends, from UMLish to byte-code and it’s no surprise that the practical benefits of MDA are still to be seen (to put it kindly).

In a PaaS/SaaS world, on the other hand, you are mapping to something that is higher level than byte code. Depending on what types of PaaS containers you envision, some of the abstractions provided by these containers (e.g. business process execution, event processing) are a lot closer to the concepts manipulated in your PIM (Platform-independent model, the UMLish mentioned above). Thus a smaller gap to bridge and a better chance of it being automagical. Especially if you add a few SaaS building blocks to the mix.

More rewarding

Not only should it be easier to map a PIM to a PaaS deployment environments, the benefits you get once you are done are incommensurably greater. Rather than getting a dump of opaque auto-generated byte-code running in a regular JVM/CLR, you get an environments in which the design concepts (actors/services, process, rules, events) and the business model elements are first class citizens of the platform management infrastructure. So that you can monitor and set policies on the same things that you manipulate in you PIM. As opposed to falling down to the lowest common denominator of CPU/memory metrics. Or, god forbid, trying to diagnose/optimize machine-generated code.

We shall see

I wasn’t thinking of Microsoft SQL Server Modeling (previously known as Oslo) when I wrote this, but Doug Purdy’s tweet made the connection for me. And indeed, one can see in SQLSM+Azure the leading candidate today to realizing the MDA vision… minus the OMG MDA specifications.

[Note: I wasn’t planning to blog this, but after I tweeted the basic idea (“Attempting MDA (model-driven architecture) before inventing model-driven deployment and mgmt was hopeless. Now possibly getting there.”) Shlomo requested more details and I got frustrated by the difficulty to explain my point in twitterisms. In effect, this blog entry is just an expanded tweet, not something as intensely believed, fanatically researched and authoritatively supported as my usual blog posts (ah!).]

[UPDATED 2009/12/29: Some relevant presentations from OMG-land, thanks to Jean Bezivin. Though I don’t see mention of any specific plan to use/adapt MOF/XMI/QVT/etc for the Cloud.]


Filed under Application Mgmt, Automation, Azure, BPM, Business Process, Cloud Computing, Everything, Implementation, Microsoft, Middleware, Modeling, Specs, Standards, Utility computing

Desirable technical characteristics of PaaS

PaaS can most dramatically improve the IT experience in four areas:

  • Hosting/operations efficiency
  • Application-centric management
  • Development productivity
  • Security

To do so, there are technical characteristics that PaaS frameworks should eventually exhibit. These are not technical characteristics of a given PaaS container, they are shared characteristics that go across all container types, no matter what the operational capabilities of the containers are.

Here is a rough and unorganized list of the desirable characteristics (meta-capabilities) of PaaS Cloud containers:

  • An application component model that supports deployment/configuration across all PaaS container types.
  • Explicit interactions/invocations between application components (resilient connections between component: infrastructure-level retry/reroute)
  • Uniform and consistent request tracking across all components. Ability to intercept component-to-component communication.
  • Short-term (or externally persisted) state so that all instances can be quickly redirected out of any one node.
  • Subset of platform management interface exposed to consumer, along with out of the box application management. Application metrics consolidated at application level rather than node level.
  • Consistent, model-based application management interface across all container types. Hooks for component code to provide its manageability in the same framework.
  • Minimal footprint of any container node for limited patching requirements.
  • Assistance for debugging platform-hosted code (see this entry).
  • No encroachment of container technology on application contract (e.g. no forced URL structure).
  • Application uniformly scalable to the limit of the underlying hardware (no imposed partitioning).
  • Shared authentication / authorization / auditing across containers.
  • Minimum contract/interface exposed by each container.
  • Governance of application services, aligned (in model/protocols) with the container management interfaces.
  • [UPDATE: need to add metering+billing as William Louth pointed out in a comment]

This applies across the board to public, private and hybrid PaaS. The distinctions between these delivery models are real but at a different level. The important thing is that the PaaS administrator is different from the application administrator in all cases. On the other hand, most of these technical characteristics are not achievable for lower-level Cloud resources (like virtual hosts and low-level storage) which is why the IaaS form of Cloud leaves the Cloud promise only partially fulfilled.


Filed under Application Mgmt, Cloud Computing, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Mgmt integration, Middleware, PaaS, Utility computing