Category Archives: Standards

Podcast with Oracle Cloud experts

A couple of weeks ago, Bob Rhubart (who runs the OTN architect community) assembled four of us who are involved in Oracle’s Cloud efforts, public and private. The conversation turned into a four-part podcast, of which the first part is now available. The participants were James Baty (VP of Global Enterprise Architecture Program), Mark Nelson (lead architect for Oracle’s public Cloud among other responsibilities), Ajay Srivastava (VP of OnDemand platform), and me.

I think the conversation will give a good idea of the many ways in which we think about Cloud at Oracle. Our customers both provide and consume Cloud services. Oracle itself provides both private Cloud systems and a global public Cloud. All these are connected, both in terms of usage patterns (hybrid) and architecture/implementation (via technology sharing between our products and our Cloud services, such as Enterprise Manager’s central role in running the Oracle Cloud).

That makes for many topics and a lively conversation when the four of us get together.

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Filed under Cloud Computing, Everything, Oracle, Oracle Cloud, People, Podcast, Portability, Standards, Utility computing

REST + RDF, finally a practical solution?

The W3C has recently approved the creation of the Linked Data Platform (LDP) Working Group. The charter contains its official marching orders. Its co-chair Erik Wilde shared his thoughts on the endeavor.

This is good. Back in 2009, I concluded a series of three blog posts on “REST in practice for IT and Cloud management” with:

I hereby conclude my “REST in practice for IT and Cloud management” series, with the intent to eventually start a “Linked Data in practice for IT and Cloud management” series.

I never wrote that later part, because my work took me away from that pursuit and there wasn’t much point writing down ideas which I hadn’t  put to the test. But if this W3C working group is successful, they will give us just that.

That’s a big “if” though. Religious debates and paralyzing disconnects between theorists and practitioners are all-too-common in tech, but REST and Semantic Web (of which RDF is the foundation) are especially vulnerable. Bringing these two together and trying to tame both sets of daemons at the same time is a daring proposition.

On the other hand, there is already a fair amount of relevant real-life experience (e.g. – read Jeni Tennison on the choice of Linked Data). Plus, Erik is a great pick to lead this effort (I haven’t met his co-chair, IBM’s Arnaud Le Hors). And maybe REST and RDF have reached the mythical point where even the trolls are tired and practicality can prevail. One can always dream.

Here are a few different ways to think about this work:

The “REST doesn’t provide interoperability” perspective

RESTful API authors too often think they can make the economy of a metamodel. Or that a format (like XML or JSON) can be used as a metamodel. Or they punt the problem towards defining a multitude of MIME types. This will never buy you interoperability. Stu explained it before. Most problems I see addressed via RESTful APIs, in the IT/Cloud management realm, are modeling problems first and only secondarily protocol/interaction problems. And their failures are failures of modeling. LDP should bring modeling discipline to REST-land.

The “RDF was too much, too soon” perspective

The RDF stack is mired in complexity. By the time people outside of academia had formed a set of modeling requirements that cried for RDF, the Semantic Web community was already deep in the weeds and had overloaded its basic metamodel with enough classification and inference technology to bury its core value as a simple graph-oriented and web-friendly metamodel. What XSD-fever was to making XML seem overly complex, OWL-fever was to RDF. Tenfold.

Everything that the LDP working group is trying to achieve can be achieved today with existing Semantic Web technologies. Technically speaking, no new work is needed. But only a handful of people understand these technologies enough to know what to use and what to ignore, and as such this application doesn’t have a chance to materialize. Which is why the LDP group is needed. But there’s a reason why its starting point document is called a “profile”. No new technology is needed. Only clarity and agreement.

For the record, I like OWL. It may be the technology that most influenced the way I think about modeling. But the predominance of RDFS and OWL (along with ugly serializations) in Semantic Web discussions kept RDF safely out of sight of those in industry who could have used it. Who knows what would have happened if a graph query language (SPARQL) had been prioritized ahead of inference technology (OWL)?

The Cloud API perspective

The scope of the LDP group is much larger than Cloud APIs, but my interest in it is mostly grounded in Cloud API use cases. And I see no reason why the requirements of Cloud APIs would not be 100% relevant to this effort.

What does this mean for the Cloud API debate? Nothing in the short term, but if this group succeeds, the result will probably be the best technical foundation for large parts of the Cloud management landscape. Which doesn’t mean it will be adopted, of course. The LDP timeline calls for completion in 2014. Who knows what the actual end date will be and what the Cloud API situation will be at that point. AWS APIs might be entrenched de-facto standards, or people may be accustomed to using several APIs (via libraries that abstract them away). Or maybe the industry will be clamoring for reunification and LDP will arrive just on time to underpin it. Though the track record is not good for such “reunifications”.

The “ghost of WS-*” perspective

Look at the 16 “technical issues” in the LCD working group charter. I can map each one to the relevant WS-* specification. E.g. see this as it relates to #8. As I’ve argued many times on this blog, the problems that WSMF/WSDM/WS-Mgmt/WS-RA and friends addressed didn’t go away with the demise of these specifications. Here is yet another attempt to tackle them.

The standards politics perspective

Another “fun” part of WS-*, beyond the joy of wrangling with XSD and dealing with multiple versions of foundational specifications, was the politics. Which mostly articulated around IBM and Microsoft. Well, guess what the primary competition to LDP is? OData, from Microsoft. I don’t know what the dynamics will be this time around, Microsoft and IBM alone don’t command nearly as much influence over the Cloud infrastructure landscape as they did over the XML middleware standardization effort.

And that’s just the corporate politics. The politics between standards organizations (and those who make their living in them) can be just as hairy; you can expect that DMTF will fight W3C, and any other organization which steps up, for control of the “Cloud management” stack. Not to mention the usual coo-petition between de facto and de jure organizations.

The “I told you so” perspective

When CMDBf started, I lobbied hard to base it on RDF. I explained that you could use it as just a graph-based metamodel, that you could  ignore the ontology and inference part of the stack. Which is pretty much what LDP is doing today. But I failed to convince the group, so we created our own metamodel (at least we explicitly defined one) and our own graph query language and that became CMDBf v1. Of course it was also SOAP-based.

KISS and markup

In closing, I’ll just make a plea for practicality to drive this effort. It’s OK to break REST orthodoxy. And not everything needs to be in RDF either. An overarching graph model is needed, but the detailed description of the nodes can very well remain in JSON, XML, or whatever format does the job for that node type.

All the best to LDP.


Filed under API, Cloud Computing, CMDB Federation, CMDBf, DMTF, Everything, Graph query, IBM, Linked Data, Microsoft, Modeling, Protocols, Query, RDF, REST, Semantic tech, SPARQL, Specs, Standards, Utility computing, W3C

The war on RSS

If the lords of the Internet have their way, the days of RSS are numbered.


John Gruber was right, when pointing to Dan Frakes’ review of the Mail app in Mountain Lion, to highlight the fact that the application drops support for RSS (he calls it an “interesting omission”, which is both correct and understated). It is indeed the most interesting aspect of the review, even though it’s buried at the bottom of the article; Along with the mention that RSS support appears to also be removed from Safari.

[side note: here is the correct link for the Safari information; Dan Frakes’ article mistakenly points to a staging server only available to MacWorld employees.]

It’s not just John Gruber and I who think that’s significant. The disappearance of RSS is pretty much the topic of every comment on the two MacWorld articles (for Mail and Safari). That’s heartening. It’s going to take a lot of agitation to reverse the trend for RSS.

The Mountain Lion setback, assuming it’s not reversed before the OS ships, is just the last of many blows to RSS.


Every twitter profile used to exhibit an RSS icon with the URL of a feed containing the user’s tweets. It’s gone. Don’t assume that’s just the result of a minimalist design because (a) the design is not minimalist and (b) the feed URL is also gone from the page metadata.

The RSS feeds still exist (mine is but to find them you have to know the userid of the user. In other words, knowing that my twitter username is @vambenepe is not sufficient, you have to know that the userid for @vambenepe is 18518601. Which is not something that you can find on my profile page. Unless, that is, you are willing to wade through the HTML source and look for this element:

<div data-user-id="18518601" data-screen-name="vambenepe">

If you know the Twitter API you can retrieve the RSS URL that way, but neither that nor the HTML source method is usable for most people.

That’s too bad. Before I signed up for Twitter, I simply subscribed to the RSS feeds of a few Twitter users. It got me hooked. Obviously, Twitter doesn’t see much value in this anymore. I suspect that they may even see a negative value, a leak in their monetization strategy.

[Updated on 2013/3/1: Unsurprisingly, Twitter is pulling the plug on RSS/Atom entirely.]


It used to be that if any page advertised an RSS feed in its metadata, Firefox would show an RSS icon in the address bar to call your attention to it and let you subscribe in your favorite newsreader. At some point, between Firefox 3 and Firefox 10, this disappeared. Now, you have to launch the “view page info” pop-up and click on “feeds” to see them listed. Or look for “subscribe to this page” in the “bookmarks” menu. Neither is hard, but the discoverability of the feeds is diminished. That’s especially unfortunate in the case of sites that don’t look like blogs but go the extra mile of offering relevant feeds. It makes discovering these harder.


Google has done a lot for RSS, but as a result it has put itself in position to kill it, either accidentally or on purpose. Google Reader is a nice tool, but, just like there has not been any new webmail after GMail, there hasn’t been any new hosted feed reader after Google Reader.

If Google closed GMail (or removed email support from it), email would survive as a communication mechanism (removing email from GMail is hard to imagine today, but keep in mind that Google’s survival doesn’t require GMail but they appear to consider it a matter of life or death for Google+ to succeed). If, on the other hand, Google closed Reader, would RSS survive? Doubtful. And Google has already tweaked Reader to benefit Google+. Not, for now, in a way that harms its RSS support. But whatever Google+ needs from Reader, Google+ will get.

[Updated 2013/3/13: Adios Google Reader. But I’m now a Google employee and won’t comment further.]

As far as the Chrome browser is concerned, I can’t find a way to have it acknowledge the presence of feeds in a page at all. Unlike Firefox, not even “view page info” shows them; It appears that the only way is to look for the feed URLs in the HTML source.


I don’t use Facebook, but for the benefit of this blog post I did some actual research and logged into my account there. I looked for a feed on a friend’s page. None in sight. Unlike Twitter, who started with a very open philosophy, I’m guessing Facebook never supported feeds so it’s probably not a regression in their case. Just a confirmation that no help should be expected from that side.

[update: in fact, Facebook used to offer RSS and killed it too.]

Not looking good for RSS

The good news is that there’s at least one thing that Facebook, Apple, Twitter and (to a lesser extent so far) Google seem to agree on. The bad news is that it’s that RSS, one of the beacons of openness on the internet, is the enemy.

[side note: The RSS/Atom question is irrelevant in this context and I purposedly didn’t mention Atom to not confuse things. If anyone who’s shunning RSS tells you that if it wasn’t for the RSS/Atom confusion they’d be happy to use a standard syndication format, they’re pulling your leg; same thing if they say that syndication is “too hard for users”.]


Filed under Apple, Big picture, Everything, Facebook, Google, Protocols, Social networks, Specs, Standards, Twitter

Why I don’t use iTunes metadata

I am taking quite a beating in the comments section of my previous post. Apparently I am a soon-to-be-crestfallen old man with OCD (if I combine Kelstar’s comment with the one from “Mr. D.”). Thankfully there are also messages from fellow Luddites who support my alternative lifechoice.

The object of the scorn I’m getting? Nothing to do with the Automator scripts I shared (since I am new to Automator I was hoping to get some feedback/correction/suggestions on that). It’s all about the use case that lead me to Automator in the first place, my refusal to rely on iTunes metadata to organize my music collection.

Look, I’m a software engineer. My employer (Oracle) knows a thing or two about structured data. I work in systems management, which is heavily model-driven. As an architect I really care about consistent modeling and not overloading data fields. I’m also a fan of Semantic Technologies. I know proper metadata is the right way to go. As a system designer, that is, I know it; any software I design is unlikely to rely on naming conventions in file names.

But as a user, I have other priorities.

As a user, my goal is not to ensure that the application can be maintained, supported and evolved. My goal is to protect the data. And I am very dubious of format-specific metadata (and even more of application-specific metadata) in that context, at least for data (like music and photos) that I plan to keep for the long term.

I realize that ID3 metadata is not iTunes specific, but calling it a “standard” that’s “not gonna change” as another commenter, Vega, does is pretty generous (I’m talking as someone who actually worked on standards in the last decade).

Standard or not, here are a few of the reasons why I don’t think format-specific metadata is a good way to organize my heirloom data and why I prefer to rely on directory names (I use the artist name for my music directories, and yyyymmdd-description for photos, as in 20050128-tahoe-ski-trip).

[Side note: as you can see, even though I trust the filesystem more than format-specific metadata I don’t even fully trust it and stubbornly avoid spaces in file and especially directory names.]

Some of the pitfalls of format-specific metadata:

  • Metadata standards may guarantee that the same fields will be present, but not that they will be interpreted in the same way. As proven by the fact that my MP3 files carry widely inconsistent metadata values depending on their provenance (e.g. “Beattles” vs. “The Beattles” vs “Beattles, The”).
  • I can read and edit file names from any programming language. Other forms of metadata may or may not be accessible.
  • I don’t have to download/open the file to read the file name. I know exactly which files I want to FTP just by browsing the remote directories.
  • I often have other types of files in the same directory. Especially in my photo directories, which usually contain JPEGs but may include some images in raw format or short videos (AVI, MPEG, MOV…). If I drop them in the 20050128-tahoe-ski-trip directory it describes all of them without having to use the right metadata format for each file type.
  • File formats die. To keep your data alive, you have to occasionally move from one to the other. Image formats change. Sound formats change. The filename doesn’t have to change (other than, conventionally, the extension). Yes, you still have to convert the actual content but keeping the key metadata in file or directory name makes it one less thing that can get lost in translation.
  • Applications have a tendency to muck with metadata without asking you. For example, some image manipulation applications may strip metadata before releasing an image to protect you from accidental disclosure. On the other hand, applications (usually) know better than to muck with directory names without asking.
  • You don’t know when you’re veering into application-specific metadata. I see many fields in iTunes which don’t exist in ID3v2 (and even less in ID3v1) and no indication, for the user, of which are part of ID3 (and therefore somewhat safer) and which are iTunes-specific. It’s very easy to get locked in application-specific metadata without realizing it.

[In addition to the issues with format-specific metadata listed above, application-specific metadata has many more, including the fact that the application may (will) disappear and that, usually, the metadata is not attached to the data files. That kind of metadata is a no-starter for long-term data.]

So what do I give up by not using proper metadata?

  • I give up richness. But for photo and videos I just care about the date and a short description which fit nicely in the directory name. For music I only care about the artist, which again fits in the directory name (albums are meaningless to me).
  • I give up the ability to have the organization of my data reflected in metadata-driven tools (if, like iTunes, they refuse to consider the filesystem structure as meaningful). Or, rather than giving it up, I would say it makes it harder. But either there is a way to automatically transfer the organization reflected in my directories to the right metadata (as I do in the previous post for iTunes) or there isn’t and then I definitely don’t want to have anything to do with software that operates on locked-away metadata.
  • I also give up advanced features that use the more exotic metadata fields. But I am not stripping any metadata away. If it happens to all be there in my files, set correctly and consistently, then I can use the feature. If it isn’t (and it usually isn’t) then that piece of metadata hasn’t reached the level of ecosystem maturity that makes it useful to me. I have no interest in manually fixing it and I just ignore it.

I’m not an audiophile. I’m not a photographer. I have simple needs. You may have more advanced use cases which justify the risk of relying on format-specific metadata. To me, the bargain is not worth it.

I’m not saying I’m right. I’m not saying I’m not a grumpy old man. I’m just saying I have my reasons to be a grumpy old man who clutches his filesystem. And we’ll see who, of Mr. D. and me, is crestfallen first.


Filed under Apple, Everything, Modeling, Off-topic, Standards

DMTF publishes draft of Cloud API

Note to anyone who still cares about IaaS standards: the DMTF has published a work in progress.

There was a lot of interest in the topic in 2009 and 2010. Some heated debates took place during Cloud conferences and a few symposiums were organized to try to coordinate various standard efforts. The DMTF started an “incubator” on the topic. Many companies brought submissions to the table, in various levels of maturity: VMware, Fujitsu, HP, Telefonica, Oracle and RedHat. IBM and Microsoft might also have submitted something, I can’t remember for sure.

The DMTF has been chugging along. The incubator turned into a working group. Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly), it limited itself to the usual suspects (and not all the independent Cloud experts out there) and kept the process confidential. But this week it partially lifted the curtain by publishing two work-in-progress documents.

They can be found at but if you read this after March 2012 they won’t be there anymore, as DMTF likes to “expire” its work-in-progress documents. The two docs are:

The first one is the interesting one, and the one you should read if you want to see where the DMTF is going. It’s a RESTful specification (at the cost of some contortions, e.g. section It supports both JSON and XML (bad idea). It plans to use RelaxNG instead of XSD (good idea). And also CIM/MOF (not a joke, see the second document for proof). The specification is pretty ambitious (it covers not just lifecycle operations but also monitoring and events) and well written, especially for a work in progress (props to Gil Pilz).

I am surprised by how little reaction there has been to this publication considering how hotly debated the topic used to be. Why is that?

A cynic would attribute this to people having given up on DMTF providing a Cloud API that has any chance of wide adoption (the adjoining CIM document sure won’t help reassure DMTF skeptics).

To the contrary, an optimist will see this low-key publication as a sign that the passions have cooled, that the trusted providers of enterprise software are sitting at the same table and forging consensus, and that the industry is happy to defer to them.

More likely, I think people have, by now, enough Cloud experience to understand that standardizing IaaS APIs is a minor part of the problem of interoperability (not to mention the even harder goal of portability). The serialization and plumbing aspects don’t matter much, and if they do to you then there are some good libraries that provide mappings for your favorite language. What matters is the diversity of resources and services exposed by Cloud providers. Those choices strongly shape the design of your application, much more than the choice between JSON and XML for the control API. And nobody is, at the moment, in position to standardize these services.

So congrats to the DMTF Cloud Working Group for the milestone, and please get the API finalized. Hopefully it will at least achieve the goal of narrowing down the plumbing choices to three (AWS, OpenStack and DMTF). But that’s not going to solve the hard problem.


Filed under API, Application Mgmt, Automation, Cloud Computing, DMTF, Everything, IaaS, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Mgmt integration, Modeling, Portability, Protocols, REST, Specs, Standards, Tech, Utility computing, Virtual appliance, Virtualization

Perspectives on acquisition

Interesting analysis (by Gartner’s Lydia Leong) on the acquisition of by Citrix (apparently for 100x revenues) and its position as a cheaper alternative for vCloud (at least until OpenStack Nova becomes stable).

Great read, even though that part:

“[Zygna] uses to provide Amazon-compatible (and thus Rightscale-compatible) infrastructure internally, letting it easily move workloads across their own infrastructure and Amazon’s.”

is a bit of a simplification.

While I’m at it, here’s another take on, this time from an OSS license perspective. Namely, the difference between building your business on GPL (like Eucalyptus) or Apache 2 (like the more community-driven open source projects such as OpenStack).

Towards the end, there’s also a nice nod to the Oracle Cloud API:

“DMTF has been receiving other submissions for an API standard. Oracle has made its submission public.  It is based on an earlier Sun proposal, and it is the best API we have yet seen. Furthermore, Oracle has identified a core subset to allow initial early adoption, as well as areas where vendors (including themselves and crucially VMware) may continue to extend to allow differentiation.”

Here’s more on the Oracle Cloud API, including an explanation of the “core/extension” split mentioned above.


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Filed under Cloud Computing, DMTF, Everything, Governance, Mgmt integration, Open source, OpenStack, Oracle, Specs, Standards, Utility computing, Virtualization, VMware

Yoga framework for REST-like partial resource access

A tweet by Stefan Tilkov brought Yoga to my attention, “a framework for supporting REST-like URI requests with field selectors”.

As the name suggests, “Yoga” lets you practice some contortions that would strain a run-of-the-mill REST programmer. Basically, you can use a request like

GET /teams/4234.json?selector=:(members:(id,name,birthday)

to retrieve the id, name and birthday of all members of a softball team, rather than having to retrieve the team roaster and then do a GET on each and every team member to retrieve their name and birthday (and lots of other information you don’t care about).

Where have I seen this before? That use case came up over and over again when we were using SOAP Web services for resource management. I have personally crafted support for it a few times. Using this blog to support my memory, here is the list of SOAP-related management efforts listed in the “post-mortem on the previous IT management revolution”:

WSMF, WS-Manageability, WSDM, OGSI, WSRF, WS-Management, WS-ResourceTransfer, WSRA, WS-ResourceCatalog, CMDBf

Each one of them supports this “partial access” use case: WS-Management has :

WSMF, WS-Manageability, WSDM, OGSI, WSRF, WS-Management, WS-ResourceTransfer, WSRA, WS-ResourceCatalog, CMDBf

Each one of them supports this “partial access” use case: WS-Management has SelectorSet, WSRF has ResourceProperties, CMDBf has ContentSelector, WSRA has Fragments, etc.

Years ago, I also created the XMLFrag SOAP header to attack a more general version of this problem. There may be something to salvage in all this for people willing to break REST orthodoxy (with the full knowledge of what they gain and what they loose).

I’m not being sarcastic when I ask “where have I seen this before”. The problem hasn’t gone away just because we failed to solve it in a pragmatic way with SOAP. If the industry is moving towards HTTP+JSON then we’ll need to solve it again on that ground and it’s no surprise if the solution looks similar.

I have a sense of what’s coming next. XPath-for-JSON-over-the-wire. See, getting individual properties is nice, but sometimes you want more. You want to select only the members of the team who are above 14 years old. Or you just want to count these members rather than retrieve specific information about them individually. Or you just want a list of all the cities they live in. Etc.

But even though we want this, I am not convinced (anymore) that we need it.

What I know we need is better support for graph queries. Kingsley Idehen once provided a good explanation of why that is and how SPARQL and XML query languages (or now JSON query languages) complement one another (wouldn’t that be a nice trifecta: RDF/OWL’s precise modeling, JSON’s friendly syntax and SPARQL’s graph support – but I digress).

Going back to partial resource access, the last feature is the biggie: a fine-grained mechanism to update resource properties. That one is extra-hard.


Filed under API, CMDBf, Everything, Graph query, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Mgmt integration, Modeling, Protocols, Query, REST, SOAP, SOAP header, Specs, Standards, Web services, WS-Management, WS-ResourceCatalog, WS-ResourceTransfer, WS-Transfer, XMLFrag, XPath

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.

Comments Off on Redeeming the service description document

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

The Tragedy of the Commons in Cloud standards

I wasn’t at the OSCON Cloud Summit this past week, but I’ve spent some time over the weekend trying to collect the good bits. Via Twitter, I had heard echos of an interesting debate on Cloud standards between Sam Johnston and Benjamin Black. Today I got to see Benjamin’s slides and read reports from two audience members, Charles Engelke and Krishnan Subramanian. Sam argued that Cloud standards are needed, Benjamin that they would be premature.

Benjamin is right about what to think and Sam is right about what to do.

Let me put it differently: Benjamin is right in theory, but it doesn’t matter. Here is why.

Say I’m a vendor and Benjamin convinces me

Assume I truly believe the industry would be better served if we all waited. Does this mean I’ll stay away from Cloud standards efforts for now? Not necessarily, because nothing is stopping my competitors from doing it. In the IT standards world, your only choice is to participate or opt out. For the most part you can’t put your muscle towards stopping an effort. Case in point, Amazon has so far chosen to opt out; has that stopped VMWare and others from going to DMTF and elsewhere to ratify specifications as standards? Of course not. To the contrary, it has made the option even more attractive because when the leader stays home it is a lot easier for less popular candidates to win the prize. So as a vendor-who-was-convinced-by-Benjamin I now have the choice between letting my competitor get his specification rubberstamped (and then hit me with the competitive advantage of being “standard compliant” and even “the standard leader”) or getting involved in an effort that I know to be counterproductive for the industry. Guess what most will choose?

Even the initial sinner (who sets the wheels of premature standardization in motion) may himself be convinced that it’s too early for Cloud standards. But he has to assume that one of his competitors will make the move, and in that context why give them first mover advantage (and the choice of the battlefield). It’s the typical Tragedy of the Commons scenario. By acting in a rational and self-interested way, participants invariably end up creating a bad situation, one that they might all know is against everyone’s self interest.

And it’s not just vendors.

Say I’m an officer of a Standard-setting organization and Benjamin convinces me

If you expect that I would use my position in the organization to prevent companies from starting a Cloud standard effort there, you live in fantasy-land. Standard-setting organizations compete with one another just as fiercely as companies do. If I have achieved a position of leadership in a given standard organization, the last thing I want is to see another organization lay claims to a strategic and fast-growing area of the IT landscape. It takes a lot of time and money for a company to get elected on the right board and gets its employees (or other reliable allies) in the right leadership positions. Or to acquire people already in that place. You only get a return on that investment if the organization manages to be the one where the key standards get created. That’s what’s behind the landgrab reflex of many standards organizations.

And it goes beyond vendors and standards organizations

Say I’m an IT buyer and Benjamin convinces me

Assume I really believe Cloud standards are premature. Assume they get created anyway and I have to choose between a vendor who supports them and one who doesn’t. Do I, as a matter of principle, refuse consider the “standard-compliant” label in my purchasing decision? Even if I know that the standard shouldn’t have been created, I also know that, all other things being equal, the “standard-compliant” product will attract more tools and complementary solutions and will likely ease future integration problems.

And then there is the question of how I’ll explain this to my boss. Will Benjamin be by my side with his beautiful slides when I am called in an emergency meeting to explain to the CIO why we, unlike the competitors, didn’t pick “a standards-based solution”?

In the real world, the only way to solve problems caused by the Tragedy of the Commons is to have some overarching authority regulate the usage of the resource at risk of being ruined. This seems unlikely to be a workable solution when the resource is not a river to protect from sewer discharges but an IT domain to protect from premature standardization. If called, I’d be happy to serve as benevolent dictator for the IT industry (I could fix a few other things beyond the Cloud standards landgrab issue). But as long as neither I nor anyone else is in a dictatorial position, Benjamin’s excellent exposé has no audience for which his call to arms (or rather to lay down the arms) is actionable. I am not saying that everyone agrees with Benjamin, but that even if everyone did it still wouldn’t make a difference. Many of us in the industry share his views and rationally act as if we didn’t.

[UPDATED 2010/7/25: In a nice example of Blog/Twitter synergy, minutes after posting this I was having a conversation on Twitter with Benjamin Black about my interpretation of what he said. Based on this conversation, I realize that I should clarify that what I mean by “standards” in this post is “something that comes out of a standard-setting organization” (whether or not it gets adopted), in other words what Benjamin calls a “standard specification”. He uses the word “standard” to mean “what most people use”, which may or may not be a “standard specification”. That’s a big part of the disconnect that led to our Twitter chat. The other part is that what I presented as Benjamin’s thesis in my post is actually only one of the propositions in his talk, and not even the main one. It’s the proposition that it is damaging for the industry when a standard specification comes out of a standard organization too early. I wasn’t at the conference where Benjamin presented but it’s hard to understand anything else out of slide 61 (“standardize too soon, and you lock to the wrong thing”) and 87 (“to discover the right standards, we must eschew standards”). So if I misrepresented him I believe it was in making it look like this was the focus of his talk while in fact it was only one of the points he made. As he himself clarified for me: “My _actual_ argument is that it doesn’t matter what we think about cloud standards, if they are needed, they will emerge” (again, in this sentence he uses “standards” to mean “something that people have converged on”).

More generally, my main point here has nothing to do with Benjamin, Sam and their OSCON debate, other than the fact that reading about it prompted me to type this blog entry. It’s simply that there is a perversion in the IT standards landscape that makes it impossible for premature standardization *not* to happen. It’s something I’ve written before, e.g. in this post:

Saying “it’s too early” in the standards world is the same as saying nothing. It puts you out of the game and has no other effect. Amazon, the clear leader in the space, has taken just this position. How has this been understood? Simply as “well I guess we’ll do it without them”. It’s sad, but all it takes is one significant (but not necessarily leader) company trying to capitalize on some market influence to force the standards train to leave the station. And it’s a hard decision for others to not engage the pursuit at that point. In the same way that it only takes one bellicose country among pacifists to start a war.

Benjamin is just a messenger; and I wasn’t trying to shoot him.]

[UPDATED 2010/8/13: The video of the debate between Sam Johnston and Benjamin Black is now available, so you can see for yourself.]


Filed under Amazon, Big picture, Cloud Computing, DMTF, Ecology, Everything, Governance, Standards, Utility computing, VMware

Introducing the Oracle Cloud API

Oracle recently published a Cloud management API on OTN and also submitted a subset of the API to the new DMTF Cloud Management working group. The OTN specification, titled “Oracle Cloud Resource Model API”, is available here. In typical DMTF fashion, the DMTF-submitted specification is not publicly available (if you have a DMTF account and are a member of the right group you can find it here). It is titled the “Oracle Cloud Elemental Resource Model” and is essentially the same as the OTN version, minus sections 9.2, 9.4, 9.6, 9.8, 9.9 and 9.10 (I’ll explain below why these sections have been removed from the DMTF submission). Here is also a slideset that was recently used to present the submitted specification at a DMTF meeting.

So why two documents? Because they serve different purposes. The Elemental Resource Model, submitted to DMTF, represents the technical foundation for the IaaS layer. It’s not all of IaaS, just its core. You can think of its scope as that of the base EC2 service (boot a VM from an image, attach a volume, connect to a network). It’s the part that appears in all the various IaaS APIs out there, and that looks very similar, in its model, across all of them. It’s the part that’s ripe for a simple standard, hopefully free of much of the drama of a more open-ended and speculative effort. A standard that can come out quickly and provide interoperability right out of the gate (for the simple use cases it supports), not after years of plugfests and profiles. This is the narrow scope I described in an earlier rant about Cloud standards:

I understand the pain of customers today who just want to have a bit more flexibility and portability within the limited scope of the VM/Volume/IP offering. If we really want to do a standard today, fine. Let’s do a very small and pragmatic standard that addresses this. Just a subset of the EC2 API. Don’t attempt to standardize the virtual disk format. Don’t worry about application-level features inside the VM. Don’t sweat the REST or SOA purity aspects of the interface too much either. Don’t stress about scalability of the management API and batching of actions. Just make it simple and provide a reference implementation. A few HTTP messages to provision, attach, update and delete VMs, volumes and IPs. That would be fine. Anything else (and more is indeed needed) would be vendor extensions for now.

Of course IaaS goes beyond the scope of the Elemental Resource Model. We’ll need load balancing. We’ll need tunneling to the private datacenter. We’ll need low-latency sub-networks. We’ll need the ability to map multi-tier applications to different security zones. Etc. Some Cloud platforms support some of these (e.g. Amazon has an answer to all but the last one), but there is a lot more divergence (both in the “what” and the “how”) between the various Cloud APIs on this. That part of IaaS is not ready for standardization.

Then there are the extensions that attempt to make the IaaS APIs more application-aware. These too exist in some Cloud APIs (e.g. vCloud vApp) but not others. They haven’t naturally converged between implementations. They haven’t seen nearly as much usage in the industry as the base IaaS features. It would be a mistake to overreach in the initial phase of IaaS standardization and try to tackle these questions. It would not just delay the availability of a standard for the base IaaS use cases, it would put its emergence and adoption in jeopardy.

This is why Oracle withheld these application-aware aspects from the DMTF submission, though we are sharing them in the specification published on OTN. We want to expose them and get feedback. We’re open to collaborating on them, maybe even in the scope of a standard group if that’s the best way to ensure an open IP framework for the work. But it shouldn’t make the upcoming DMTF IaaS specification more complex and speculative than it needs to be, so we are keeping them as separate extensions. Not to mention that DMTF as an organization has a lot more infrastructure expertise than middleware and application expertise.

Again, the “Elemental Resource Model” specification submitted to DMTF is the same as the “Oracle Cloud Resource Model API” on OTN except that it has a different license (a license grant to DMTF instead of the usual OTN license) and is missing some resources in the list of resource types (section 9).

Both specifications share the exact same protocol aspects. It’s pretty cleanly RESTful and uses a JSON serialization. The credit for the nice RESTful protocol goes to the folks who created the original Sun Cloud API as this is pretty much what the Oracle Cloud API adopted in its entirety. Tim Bray described the genesis and design philosophy of the Sun Cloud API last year. He also described his role and explained that “most of the heavy lifting was done by Craig McClanahan with guidance from Lew Tucker“. It’s a shame that the Oracle specification fails to credit the Sun team and I kick myself for not noticing this in my reviews. This heritage was noted from the get go in the slides and is, in my mind, a selling point for the specification. When I reviewed the main Cloud APIs available last summer (the first part in a “REST in practice for IT and Cloud management” series), I liked Sun’s protocol design the best.

The resource model, while still based on the Sun Cloud API, has seen many more changes. That’s where our tireless editor, Jack Yu, with help from Mark Carlson, has spent most of the countless hours he devoted to the specification. I won’t do a point to point comparison of the Sun model and the Oracle model, but in general most of the changes and additions are motivated by use cases that are more heavily tilted towards private clouds and compatibility with existing application infrastructure. For example, the semantics of a Zone have been relaxed to allow a private Cloud administrator to choose how to partition the Cloud (by location is an obvious option, but it could also by security zone or by organizational ownership, as heretic as this may sound to Cloud purists).

The most important differences between the DMTF and OTN versions relate to the support for assemblies, which are groups of VMs that jointly participate in the delivery of a composite application. This goes hand-in-hand with the recently-released Oracle Virtual Assembly Builder, a framework for creating, packing, deploying and configuring multi-tier applications. To support this approach, the Cloud Resource Model (but not the Elemental Model, as explained above) adds resource types such as AssemblyTemplate, AssemblyInstance and ScalabilityGroup.

So what now? The DMTF working group has received a large number of IaaS APIs as submissions (though not the one that matters most or the one that may well soon matter a lot too). If all goes well it will succeed in delivering a simple and useful standard for the base IaaS use cases, and we’ll be down to a somewhat manageable triplet (EC2, RackSpace/OpenStack and DMTF) of IaaS specifications. If not (either because the DMTF group tries to bite too much or because it succumbs to infighting) then DMTF will be out of the game entirely and it will be between EC2, OpenStack and a bunch of private specifications. It will be the reign of toolkits/library/brokers and hell on earth for all those who think that such a bridging approach is as good as a standard. And for this reason it will have to coalesce at some point.

As far as the more application-centric approach to hypervisor-based Cloud, well, the interesting things are really just starting. Let’s experiment. And let’s talk.


Filed under Amazon, API, Application Mgmt, Cloud Computing, DMTF, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Mgmt integration, Modeling, OpenStack, Oracle, Portability, Protocols, Specs, Standards, Utility computing, Virtual appliance, Virtualization

Dear Cloud API, your fault line is showing

Most APIs are like hospital gowns. They seem to provide good coverage, until you turn around.

I am talking about the dreadful state of fault reporting in remote APIs, from Twitter to Cloud interfaces. They are badly described in the interface documentation and the implementations often don’t even conform to what little is documented.

If, when reading a specification, you get the impression that the “normal” part of the specification is the result of hours of whiteboard debate but that the section that describes the faults is a stream-of-consciousness late-night dump that no-one reviewed, well… you’re most likely right. And this is not only the case for standard-by-committee kind of specifications. Even when the specification is written to match the behavior of an existing implementation, error handling is often incorrectly and incompletely described. In part because developers may not even know what their application returns in all error conditions.

After learning the lessons of SOAP-RPC, programmers are now more willing to acknowledge and understand the on-the-wire messages received and produced. But when it comes to faults, there is still a tendency to throw their hands in the air, write to the application log and then let the stack do whatever it does when an unhandled exception occurs, on-the-wire compliance be damned. If that means sending an HTML error message in response to a request for a JSON payload, so be it. After all, it’s just a fault.

But even if fault messages may only represent 0.001% of the messages your application sends, they still represent 85% of those that the client-side developers will look at.

Client developers can’t even reverse-engineer the fault behavior by hitting a reference implementation (whether official or de-facto) the way they do with regular messages. That’s because while you can generate response messages for any successful request, you don’t know what error conditions to simulate. You can’t tell your Cloud provider “please bring down your user account database for five minutes so I can see what faults you really send me when that happens”. Also, when testing against a live application you may get a different fault behavior depending on the time of day. A late-night coder (or a daytime coder in another time zone) might never see the various faults emitted when the application (like Twitter) is over capacity. And yet these will be quite common at peak time (when the coder is busy with his day job… or sleeping).

All these reasons make it even more important to carefully (and accurately) document fault behavior.

The move to REST makes matters even worse, in part because it removes SOAP faults. There’s nothing magical about SOAP faults, but at least they force you to think about providing an information payload inside your fault message. Many REST APIs replace that with HTTP error codes, often accompanied by a one-line description with a sometimes unclear relationship with the semantics of the application. Either it’s a standard error code, which by definition is very generic or it’s an application-defined code at which point it most likely overlaps with one or more standard codes and you don’t know when you should expect one or the other. Either way, there is too much faith put in the HTTP code versus the payload of the error. Let’s be realistic. There are very few things most applications can do automatically in response to a fault. Mainly:

  • Ask the user to re-enter credentials (if it’s an authentication/permission issue)
  • Retry (immediately or after some time)
  • Report a problem and fail

So make sure that your HTTP errors support this simple decision tree. Beyond that point, listing a panoply of application-specific error codes looks like an attempt to look “RESTful” by overdoing it. In most cases, application-specific error codes are too detailed for most automated processing and not detailed enough to help the developer understand and correct the issue. I am not against using them but what matters most is the payload data that comes along.

On that aspect, implementations generally fail in one of two extremes. Some of them tell you nothing. For example the payload is a string that just repeats what the documentation says about the error code. Others dump the kitchen sink on you and you get a full stack trace of where the error occurred in the server implementation. The former is justified as a security precaution. The latter as a way to help you debug. More likely, they both just reflect laziness.

In the ideal world, you’d get a detailed error payload telling you exactly which of the input parameters the application choked on and why. Not just vague words like “invalid”. Is parameter “foo” invalid for syntactical reasons? Is it invalid because inconsistent with another parameter value in the request? Is it invalid because it doesn’t match the state on the server side? Realistically, implementations often can’t spend too many CPU cycles analyzing errors and generating such detailed reports. That’s fine, but then they can include a link to a wiki a knowledge base where more details are available about the error, its common causes and the workarounds.

Your API should document all messages accurately and comprehensively. Faults are messages too.


Filed under API, Application Mgmt, Automation, Cloud Computing, Everything, Mgmt integration, Protocols, REST, SOAP, Specs, Standards, Tech, Testing, Twitter, Utility computing

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

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

Enterprise application integration patterns for IT management: a blast from the past or from the future?

In a recent blog post, Don Ferguson (CTO at CA) describes CA Catalyst, a major architectural overhaul which “applies enterprise application integration patterns to the problem of integrating IT management systems”. Reading this was fascinating to me. Not because the content was some kind of revelation, but exactly for the opposite reason. Because it is so familiar.

For the better part of the last decade, I tried to build just this at HP. In the process, I worked with (and sometimes against) Don’s colleague at IBM, who were on the same mission. Both companies wanted a flexible and reliable integration platform for all aspects of IT management. We had decided to use Web services and SOA to achieve it. The Web services management protocols that I worked on (WSMF, WSDM, WS-Management and the “reconciliation stack”) were meant for this. We were after management integration more than manageability. Then came CMDBf, another piece of the puzzle. From what I could tell, the focus on SOA and Web services had made Don (who was then Mr. WebSphere) the spiritual father of this effort at IBM, even though he wasn’t at the time focused on IT management.

As far as I know, neither IBM nor HP got there. I covered some of the reasons in this post-mortem. The standards bickering. The focus on protocols rather than models. The confusion between the CMDB as a tool for process/service management versus a tool for software integration. Within HP, the turmoil from the many software acquisitions didn’t help, and there were other reasons. I am not sure at this point whether either company is still aiming for this vision or if they are taking a different approach.

But apparently CA is still on this path, and got somewhere. At least according to Don’s post. I have no insight into what was built beyond what’s in the post. I am not endorsing CA Catalyst, just agreeing with the design goals listed by Don. If indeed they have built it, and the integration framework resists the test of time, that’s impressive. And exciting. It apparently even uses some the same pieces we were planning to use, namely WS-Management and CMDBf (I am reluctantly associated with the first and proudly with the second).

While most readers might not share my historical connection with this work, this is still relevant and important to anyone who cares about IT management in the enterprise. If you’re planning to be at CA World, go listen to Don. Web services may have a bad name, but the technical problems of IT management integration remain. There are only a few routes to IT management automation (I count seven, the one taken by CA is #2). You can throw away SOAP if you want, you still need to deal with protocol compatibility, model alignment and instance reconciliation. You need to centralize or orchestrate the management operations performed. You need to be able to integrate with complementary products or at the very least to effectively incorporate your acquisitions. It’s hard stuff.

Bonus point to Don for not forcing a “Cloud” angle for extra sparkle. This is core IT management.

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Filed under Automation, CA, CMDB, CMDB Federation, CMDBf, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Mgmt integration, Modeling, People, Protocols, SOAP, Specs, Standards, Tech, Web services, WS-Management

Standards Disconnect at Cloud Connect

Yesterday’s panel session on the future of Cloud standards at Cloud Connect is still resonating on Twitter tonight. Many were shocked by how acrimonious the debate turned. It didn’t have to be that way but I am not surprised that it was.

The debate was set up and moderated by Bob Marcus (ET-Strategies CTO and master standards coordinator). On stage were Krishna Sankar (Cisco and DMTF Cloud incubator), Archie Reed (HP and CSA), Winston Bumpus (VMWare and DMTF), a gentleman whose name I unfortunately forgot (and who isn’t listed on the program) and me.

If the goal was to glamorize Cloud standards, it was a complete failure. If the goal was to come out with some solutions and agreements, it was also a failure. But if the goal, as I believe, was to surface the current issues, complexities, emotions and misunderstandings surrounding Cloud standards, then I’d say it was a success.

I am not going to attempt to summarize the whole discussion. Charles Babcock, who was in the audience, does a good enough job in this InformationWeek article and, unlike me, he doesn’t have a horse in the race [side note: I am not sure why my country of origin is relevant to his article, but my guess is that this is the main thing he remembered from my presentation during the Cloud Connect keynote earlier that morning, thanks to the “guillotine” slide].

Instead of reporting on what happened during the standards discussion, I’ll just make one comment and provide one take-away.

The comment: the dangers of marketing standards

Early in the session, audience member Reuven Cohen complained that standards organizations don’t do enough to market their specifications. Winston was more than happy to address this and talk about all the marketing work that DMTF does, including trade shows and PR. He added that this is one of the reasons why DMTF needs to charge membership fees, to pay for this marketing. I agree with Winston at one level. Indeed, the DMTF does what he describes and puts a fair amount of efforts into marketing itself and its work. But I disagree with Reuven and Winston that this is a good thing.

First it doesn’t really help. I don’t think that distributing pens and tee-shirts to IT admins and CIO-wannabes results in higher adoption of your standard. Because the end users don’t really care what standard is used. They just want a standard. Whether it comes from DMTF, SNIA, OGF, or OASIS is the least of their concerns. Those that you have to convince to adopt your standard are the vendors and the service providers. The Amazon, Rackspace and GoGrid of the world. The Microsoft, Oracle, VMWare and smaller ones like… Enomaly (Reuven’s company). The highly-specialized consultants who work with them, like Randy. And also, very importantly, the open source developers who provide all the Cloud libraries and frameworks that are the lifeblood of many deployments. I have enough faith left in human nature to assume that all these guys make their strategic standards decisions on a bit more context than exhibit hall loot and press releases. Well, at least we do where I work.

But this traditional approach to marketing is worse than not helping. It’s actually actively harmful, for two reasons. The first is that the cost of these activities, as Winston acknowledges, creates a barrier for participation by requiring higher dues. To Winston it’s an unfortunate side effect, to me it’s a killer. Not necessarily because dropping the membership fee by 50% would bring that many more participants. But because the organizations become so dependent on dues that they are paranoid about making anything public for fear of lowering the incentive for members to keep paying. Which is the worst thing you can do if you want the experts and open source developers, who are the best chance Cloud standards have to not repeat the mistakes of the past, to engage with the standard. Not necessarily as members of the group, also from the outside. Assuming the work happens in public, which is the key issue.

The other reason why it’s harmful to have a standards organization involved in such traditional marketing is that it has a tendency to become a conduit for promoting the agenda of the board members. Promoting a given standard or organization sounds good, until you realize that it’s rarely so pure and unbiased. The trade shows in which the organization participates are often vendor-specific (e.g. Microsoft Management Summit, VMWorld…). The announcements are timed to coincide with relevant corporate announcements. The press releases contain quotes from board members who promote themselves at the same time as the organization. Officers speaking to the press on behalf of the standards organization are often also identified by their position in their company. Etc. The more a standards organization is involved in marketing, the more its low-level members are effectively subsiding the marketing efforts of the board members. Standards have enough inherent conflicts of interest to not add more opportunities.

Just to be clear, that issue of standards marketing is not what consumed most of the time during the session. But it came up and I since I didn’t get a chance to express my view on this while on the panel, I used this blog instead.

My take-away from the panel, on the other hand, is focused on the heart of the discussion that took place.

The take away: confirmation that we are going too fast, too early

Based on this discussion and other experiences, my current feeling on Cloud standards is that it is too early. If you think the practical experience we have today in Cloud Computing corresponds to what the practice of Cloud Computing will be in 10 years, then please go ahead and standardize. But let me tell you that you’re a fool.

The portion of Cloud Computing in which we have some significant experience (get a VM, attach a volume, assign an IP) will still be relevant in 10 years, but it will be a small fraction of Cloud Computing. I can tell you that much even if I can’t tell you what the whole will be. I have my ideas about what the whole will look like but it’s just a guess. Anybody who pretends to know is fooling you, themselves, or both.

I understand the pain of customers today who just want to have a bit more flexibility and portability within the limited scope of the VM/Volume/IP offering. If we really want to do a standard today, fine. Let’s do a very small and pragmatic standard that addresses this. Just a subset of the EC2 API. Don’t attempt to standardize the virtual disk format. Don’t worry about application-level features inside the VM. Don’t sweat the REST or SOA purity aspects of the interface too much either. Don’t stress about scalability of the management API and batching of actions. Just make it simple and provide a reference implementation. A few HTTP messages to provision, attach, update and delete VMs, volumes and IPs. That would be fine. Anything else (and more is indeed needed) would be vendor extensions for now.

Unfortunately, neither of these (waiting, or a limited first standard) is going to happen.

Saying “it’s too early” in the standards world is the same as saying nothing. It puts you out of the game and has no other effect. Amazon, the clear leader in the space, has taken just this position. How has this been understood? Simply as “well I guess we’ll do it without them”. It’s sad, but all it takes is one significant (but not necessarily leader) company trying to capitalize on some market influence to force the standards train to leave the station. And it’s a hard decision for others to not engage the pursuit at that point. In the same way that it only takes one bellicose country among pacifists to start a war.

Prepare yourself for some collateral damages.

While I would prefer for this not to proceed now (not speaking for my employer on this blog, remember), it doesn’t mean that one should necessarily stay on the sidelines rather than make lemonade out of lemons. But having opened the Cloud Connect panel session with somewhat of a mea-culpa (at least for my portion of responsibility) with regards to the failures of the previous IT management standardization wave, it doesn’t make me too happy to see the seeds of another collective mea-culpa, when we’ve made a mess of Cloud standards too. It’s not a given yet. Just a very high risk. As was made clear yesterday.


Filed under Amazon, Cloud Computing, Conference, DMTF, Everything, Mgmt integration, People, Portability, Standards, Trade show, Utility computing

Two versions of a protocol is one too many

There is always a temptation, when facing a hard design decision in the process of creating an interface or a protocol, to produce two (or more) versions. It’s sometimes a good idea, as a way to explore where each one takes you so you can make a more informed choice. But we know how this invariably ends up. Documents get published that arguably should not. It’s even harder in a standard working group, where someone was asked (or at least encouraged) by the group to create each of the alternative specifications. Canning one is at best socially awkward (despite the appearances, not everyone in standards is a psychopath or a sadist) and often politically impossible.

And yet, it has to be done. Compare the alternatives, then pick one and commit. Don’t confuse being accommodating with being weak.

The typical example these days is of course SOAP versus REST: the temptation is to support both rather than make a choice. This applies to standards and to proprietary interfaces. When a standard does this, it hurts rather than promote interoperability. Vendors have a bit more of an excuse when they offer a choice (“the customer is always right”) but in reality it forces customers to play Russian roulette whether they want it or not. Because one of the alternatives will eventually be left behind (either discarded or maintained but not improved). If you balance the small immediate customer benefit of using the interface style they are most used to with the risk of redoing the integration down the road, the value proposition of offering several options crumbles.

[Pedantic disclaimer: I use the term “REST” in this post the way it is often (incorrectly) used, to mean pretty much anything that uses HTTP without a SOAP wrapper. The technical issues are a topic for other posts.]


CMDBf v1 is a DMTF standard. It is a SOAP-based protocol. For v2, it has been suggested that there should a REST version. I don’t know what the CMDBf group (in which I participate) will end up doing but I’ve made my position clear: I could go either way (remain with SOAP or dump it) but I do not want to have two versions of the protocol (one SOAP one REST). If we think we’re better off with a REST version, then let’s make v2 REST-only. Supporting both mechanisms in v2 would be stupid. They would address the same use cases and only serve to provide political ass-coverage. There is no functional need for both. The argument that we need to keep supporting SOAP for the benefit of those who implemented v1 doesn’t fly. As an implementer, nobody is saying that you need to turn off your v1 services the second you launch the v2 version.

DMTF Cloud

Between the specifications submitted directly to DMTF, the specifications developed by DMTF “partner” organizations and the existing DMTF protocols, the DMTF Cloud effort is presented with a mix of SOAP, RESTful and XML-RPC-over-HTTP options. In the process of deciding what to create or adopt I am sure that the temptation will be high to take the easy route of supporting several versions to placate everyone. But such a “consensus” would be achieved on the back of the implementers so I very much hope it won’t be the case.

When it is appropriate

There are cases where supporting alternatives options is worth the cost. But it typically happens when they serve very different use cases. Think of SAX versus DOM, which have clearly differentiated sweetspots. In the Cloud world, Amazon S3 gives us interesting examples of both justified and extraneous alternatives. The extraneous one is the choice between REST and SOAP for the S3 API. I often praise AWS for its innovation and pragmatism, but this is an example of something that only looks pragmatic. On the other hand, the AWS import/export mechanism is a useful alternative. It allows you to physically ship a device with a few terabytes of data to Amazon. This is technically an alternative to the S3 programmatic interface, but one with obviously differentiated use cases. I recommend you reserve the use of “alternative APIs” for such scenarios.

If it didn’t work for Tiger Woods, it won’t work for your Cloud API either. Learn to commit.

[CLARIFICATION: based on some of the early Twitter feedback on this entry, I want to clarify that it’s alternative versions that I am against, not successive versions (i.e. an evolution of the interface over time). How to manage successive versions properly is a whole other debate.]


Filed under Amazon, API, Cloud Computing, CMDB, CMDBf, DMTF, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Protocols, REST, SOAP, Specs, Standards, Utility computing, Web services

HP has submitted a specification to the DMTF Cloud incubator

When I lamented, in a previous post, that I couldn’t tell you about recent submissions to the DMTF Cloud incubator, one of those I had in mind was a submission from HP. I can now write this, because the author of the specification, Nigel Cook, has recently blogged about it. Unfortunately he is isn’t publishing the specification itself, just an announcement that it was submitted. Hopefully he is currently going through the long approval process to make the submitted document public (been there, done that, I know it takes time).

In the blog, Nigel makes a good argument for the need to go beyond a hypervisor-centric view of Cloud computing. Even at the IaaS layer there are cases of automated-but-not-virtualized deployment that have all the characteristics of Cloud computing and need to be supported by Cloud management APIs. Not to mention OS-level isolation like Solaris Containers.

Nigel also offers a spirited defense of SOAP-based protocols. I don’t necessarily agree with all his points (“one could easily map the web service definition I described to REST if that was important” suggests a “it’s just SOAP without the wrapper” view of REST), but I am glad he is launching this debate. We need to discuss this rather than assume that REST is the obvious answer. Remember, a few years ago SOAP was just as obvious an answer to any protocol question. It may well be that indeed REST comes out ahead of this discussion, but the process will force us to be explicit about what benefits of REST we are trying to achieve and will allow us to be practical in the way we approach it.


Filed under Automation, Cloud Computing, DMTF, Everything, HP, IT Systems Mgmt, Mgmt integration, Specs, Standards, Utility computing, Virtualization

Waiting for events (in Cloud APIs)

Events/alerts/notifications have been a central concept in IT management at least since the first SNMP trap was emitted, and probably even long before that. And yet they are curiously absent from all the Cloud management APIs/protocols. If you think that’s because “THE CLOUD CHANGES EVERYTHING” then you may have to think again. Over the last few days, two of the most experienced practitioners of Cloud computing pointed out that this omission is a real pain in the neck. RightScale’s Thorsten von Eicken was first to request “an event based interface instead of a request-reply based interface”, pointing out that “we run a good number of machines that do nothing but chew up 100% cpu polling EC2 to detect changes”. George Reese seconded and started to sketch a solution. And while these blog posts gave the issue increased visibility recently, it has been a recurring topic on the AWS Forum and other similar discussion boards for quite some time. For example, in this thread going back to 2006, an Amazon employee wrote that “this is a feature we’ve discussed recently and we’re looking at options” (incidentally, I see a post by Thorsten in that old thread). We’re still waiting.

Let’s look at what it would take to define such a feature.

I have some experience with events for IT management, having been involved in the WS-Notification family of specifications and having co-chaired the OASIS technical committee that standardized them. This post is not about foisting WS-Notification on Cloud APIs, but just about surfacing some of the questions that come up when you try to standardize such a mechanism. While the main use cases for WS-Notification came from IT (and Grid) management, it was supposed to be a generic mechanism. A Cloud-centric eventing protocol can be made simpler by focusing on fewer use cases (Cloud scenarios only). In addition, WS-Notification was marred by the complexity-is-a-sign-of-greatness spirit of the time . On this too, a Cloud eventing protocol could improve things by keeping IBM at bay simplicity in mind.

Types of event

When you pull the state of a resource to see if anything changed,  you don’t have to tell the provider what kind of change you are interested in. If, on the other hand, you want the provider to notify you, then they need to know what you care about. You may not want to be notified on every single change in the resource state. How do you describe the changes you care about? Is there an agreed-upon set of states for the resource and you are only notified on state transitions? Can you indicate the minimum severity level for an event to be emitted? Who determines the severity of an event? Or do you get to specify what fields in the resource state you want to watch? What about numeric values for which you may not want to be notified of every change but only when a threshold is crossed? Do you get to specify a query and get notified whenever the query result changes? In WS-Notification some of this is handled by WS-Topics which I still like conceptually (I co-edited it) but is too complex for the task at hand.

Event formats

What format are the events serialized in? How is the even metadata captured (e.g. time stamp of observation, which may not be the same as the time at which the notification message was sent)? If the event payload is a representation of the new state of the resource, does it indicate what field changes (and what the old value was)? How do you keep event payloads consistent with the resource representation in the request/response interactions? If many events occur near the same time, can you group them in one notification message for better scalability?

Subscription creation

Presumably you need a subscription mechanism. Is the subscription set in stone when the resource is created? Or can you come later and subscribe? If subscription is an operation on the resource itself, how do you subscribe for events on something that doesn’t exist yet (e.g. “create a VM and notify me once it’s started”)? Do you get to set subscriptions on a per-resource-basis? Or is this a global setting for all the resources that you own? Can you have two different subscriptions on the same resource (e.g. a “critical events only” subscription that exist throughout the life of the resource, plus a “lots of events please” subscription that you keep for a few hours while troubleshooting)?

Subscription management

Do you get to come back and update/pause/delete a subscription? Do you get to change what filter the subscription carries? Or is it set in stone until the subscription expires? Can you change the delivery endpoint? What if events fail to be delivered? Does the provider cancel your subscription? After how many failures? Does it just pause it for a few hours? Keep trying?

Subscription expiration

Who sets the expiration period? The subscriber? Can the provider set a max duration? Do you get a warning message before the subscription expires? Can you renew a subscription or do you have to create a new one? Do you get a message telling you that it has expired? Where are these subscription-lifecycle messages sent? To the same endpoint as the regular messages? What if your subscription is being killed because your deliver endpoint is down, clearly it makes no sense to send the warning message to that same endpoint. Do you provide a separate “subscription management” endpoint (different from the event delivery endpoint) when you subscribe? Alternatively, does an email message get sent to the registered user who set the subscription?

Delivery reliability

How reliable do you want the notifications to be? Should the emitter retry until they’ve received a confirmation? How long do they keep messages that can’t be delivered? Some may have a very short shelf life while others are still useful weeks later. If you don’t have a reliable mechanism but you really “need to know about a lost server within a minute of it disappearing” (the example Georges gives) then in reality you may still have to poll just to make sure that an event wasn’t lost. If you haven’t received an event in a while, how can you test if the subscription is still working? Should subscriptions send a heartbeat message once a while?

Delivery mechanism

How do you deliver notifications? Do you keep HTTP connections open through tricks similar to how self-updating web pages work (e.g. COMET, long polling and soon WebSockets)? Or do you just provide a listener endpoint to which the notifier tries to connect (which, in the case of public cloud deployments, means you need to have a publicly-addressable listener, but hopefully not on the same Cloud infrastructure). Do you use XMPP? AMQP? Email? Can I have you hold my events and let me come pull them?


Do you need to verify the origin of the events you receive? Or do you assume they may be forged and always initiate a connection to the provider to double-check? And on the other side, what are the security requirements for event delivery? If a user looses some of their privileges, do you have to go and cancel the still-active subscriptions that they created?


Is there a maximum event rate? Do you get charged for the events the Cloud provider sends you? How do you make sure that someone doesn’t create a subscription pointing to the wrong endpoint (either erroneously or maliciously, e.g. DoS). Do you send a test message at registration asking the delivery endpoint to acknowledge that they indeed want to receive these notifications?


My goal is not to argue that we cannot have a simple yet good enough notification system or to scare anyone from attempting to define it. It’s just to show that it’s not as simple as it may seem at first blush. But there probably is a sweetspot and people like Thorsten and George are very well qualified to find it.

[UPDATED 2010/4/7: Amazon releases AWS Simple notification Service. Not just as an eventing feature for the Cloud API, as a generic notification service. Which can, of course, also carry Cloud management events. Though at this point you’re on your own to publish them from your instances, it doesn’t look like the AWS infrastructure can do it for you. Which means, for example, that you’re not going to be able to publish an event for a sudden crash.]


Filed under API, Application Mgmt, Automation, Cloud Computing, Desired State, Everything, IT Systems Mgmt, Manageability, Mgmt integration, Protocols, Specs, Standards, Tech, Utility computing

Can Cloud standards be saved?

Then: Web services standards

One of the most frustrating aspects of how Web services standards shot themselves in the foot via unchecked complexity is that plenty of people were pointing out the problem as it happened. Mark Baker (to whom I noticed Don Box also paid tribute recently) is the poster child. I remember Tom Jordahl tirelessly arguing for keeping it simple in the WSDL working group. Amberpoint’s Fred Carter did it in WSDM (in the post announcing the recent Amberpoint acquisition, I mentioned that “their engineers brought to the [WSDM] group a unique level of experience and practical-mindedness” but I could have added “… which we, the large companies, mostly ignored.”)

The commonality between all these voices is that they didn’t come from the large companies. Instead they came from the “specialists” (independent contractors and representatives from small, specialized companies). Many of the WS-* debates were fought along alliance lines. Depending on the season it could be “IBM vs. Microsoft”, “IBM+Microsoft vs. Oracle”, “IBM+HP vs. Microsoft+Intel”, etc… They’d battle over one another’s proposal but tacitly agreed to brush off proposals from the smaller players. At least if they contained anything radically different from the content of the submission by the large companies. And simplicity is radical.

Now: Cloud standards

I do not reminisce about the WS-* standards wars just for old time sake or the joy of self-flagellation. I also hope that the current (and very important) wave of standards, related to all things Cloud, can do better than the Web services wave did with regards to involving on-the-ground experts.

Even though I still work for a large company, I’d like to see this fixed for Cloud standards. Not because I am a good guy (though I hope I am), but because I now realize that in the long run this lack of perspective even hurts the large companies themselves. We (and that includes IBM and Microsoft, the ringleaders of the WS-* effort) would be better off now if we had paid more attention then.

Here are two reasons why the necessity to involve and include specialists is even more applicable to Cloud standards than Web services.

First, there are many more individuals (or small companies) today with a lot of practical Cloud experience than there were small players with practical Web services experience when the WS-* standardization started (Shlomo Swidler, Mitch Garnaat, Randy Bias, John M. Willis, Sam Johnston, David Kavanagh, Adrian Cole, Edward M. Goldberg, Eric Hammond, Thorsten von Eicken and Guy Rosen come to mind, though this is nowhere near an exhaustive list). Which means there is even more to gain by ensuring that the Cloud standard process is open to them, should they choose to engage in some form.

Second, there is a transparency problem much larger than with Web services standards. For all their flaws, W3C and OASIS, where most of the WS-* work took place, are relatively transparent. Their processes and IP policies are clear and, most importantly, their mailing list archives are open to the public. DMTF, where VMWare, Fujitsu and others have submitted Cloud specifications, is at the other hand of the transparency spectrum. A few examples of what I mean by that:

  • I can tell you that VMWare and Fujitsu submitted specifications to DMTF, because the two companies each issued a press release to announce it. I can’t tell you which others did (and you can’t read their submissions) because these companies didn’t think it worthy of a press release. And DMTF keeps the submission confidential. That’s why I blogged about the vCloud submission and the Fujitsu submission but couldn’t provide equivalent analysis for the others.
  • The mailing lists of DMTF working groups are confidential. Even a DMTF member cannot see the message archive of a group unless he/she is a member of that specific group. The general public cannot see anything at all. And unless I missed it on the site, they cannot even know what DMTF working groups exist. It makes you wonder whether Dick Cheney decided to call his social club of energy company executives a “Task Force” because he was inspired by the secrecy of the DMTF (“Distributed Management Task Force”). Even when the work is finished and the standard published, the DMTF won’t release the mailing list archive, even though these discussions can be a great reference for people who later use the specification.
  • Working documents are also confidential. Working groups can decide to publish some intermediate work, but this needs to be an explicit decision of the group, then approved by its parent group, and in practice it happens rarely (mileage varies depending on the groups).
  • Even when a document is published, the process to provide feedback from the outside seems designed to thwart any attempt. Or at least that’s what it does in practice. Having blogged a fair amount on technical details of two DMTF standards (CMDBf and WS-Management) I often get questions and comments about these specifications from readers. I encourage them to bring their comments to the group and point them to the official feedback page. Not once have I, as a working group participant, seen the comments come out on the other end of the process.

So let’s recap. People outside of DMTF don’t know what work is going on (even if they happen to know that a working group called “Cloud this” or “Cloud that” has been started, the charter documents and therefore the precise scope and list of deliverables are also confidential). Even if they knew, they couldn’t get to see the work. And even if they did, there is no convenient way for them to provide feedback (which would probably arrive too late anyway). And joining the organization would be quite a selfless act because they then have to pay for the privilege of sharing their expertise while not being included in the real deciding circles anyway (unless there are ready to pony up for the top membership levels). That’s because of the unclear and unstable processes as well as the inordinate influence of board members and officers who all are also company representatives (in W3C, the strong staff balances the influence of the sponsors, in OASIS the bylaws limit arbitrariness by the board members).

What we are missing out on

Many in the standards community have heard me rant on this topic before. What pushed me over the edge and motivated me to write this entry was stumbling on a crystal clear illustration of what we are missing out on. I submit to you this post by Adrian Cole and the follow-up (twice)by Thorsten von Eicken. After spending two days at a face to face meeting of the DMTF Cloud incubator (in an undisclosed location) this week, I’ll just say that these posts illustrate a level of practically and a grounding in real-life Cloud usage that was not evident in all the discussions of the incubator. You don’t see Adrian and Thorsten arguing about the meaning of the word “infrastructure”, do you? I’d love to point you to the DMTF meeting minutes so you can judge for yourself, but by now you should understand why I can’t.

So instead of helping in the forum where big vendors submit their specifications, the specialists (some of them at least) go work in OGF, and produce OCCI (here is the mailing list archive). When Thorsten von Eicken blogs about his experience using Cloud APIs, they welcome the feedback and engage him to look at their work. The OCCI work is nice, but my concern is that we are now going to end up with at least two sets of standard specifications (in addition to the multitude of company-controlled specifications, like the ubiquitous EC2 API). One from the big companies and one from the specialists. And if you think that the simplest, clearest and most practical one will automatically win, well I envy your optimism. Up to a point. I don’t know if one specification will crush the other, if we’ll have a “reconciliation” process, if one is going to be used in “private Clouds” and the other in “public Clouds” or if the conflict will just make both mostly irrelevant. What I do know is that this is not what I want to see happen. Rather, the big vendors (whose imprimatur is needed) and the specialists (whose experience is indispensable) should work together to make the standard technically practical and widely adopted. I don’t care where it happens. I don’t know whether now is the right time or too early. I just know that when the time comes it needs to be done right. And I don’t like the way it’s shaping up at the moment. Well-meaning but toothless efforts like don’t make me feel better.

I know this blog post will be read both by my friends in DMTF and by my friends in Clouderati. I just want them to meet. That could be quite a party.

IBM was on to something when it produced this standards participation policy (which I commented on in a cynical-yet-supportive way – and yes I realize the same cynicism can apply to me). But I haven’t heard of any practical effect of this policy change. Has anyone seen any? Isn’t the Cloud standard wave the right time to translate it into action?

Transparency first

I realize that it takes more than transparency to convince specialists to take a look at what a working group is doing and share their thoughts. Even in a fully transparent situation, specialists will eventually give up if they are stonewalled by process lawyers or just ignored and marginalized (many working group participants have little bandwidth and typically take their cues from the big vendors even in the absence of explicit corporate alignment). And this is hard to fix. Processes serve a purpose. While they can be used against the smaller players, they also in many cases protect them. Plus, for every enlightened specialist who gets discouraged, there is a nutcase who gets neutralized by the need to put up a clear proposal and follow a process. I don’t see a good way to prevent large vendors from using the process to pressure smaller ones if that’s what they intend to do. Let’s at least prevent this from happening unintentionally. Maybe some of my colleagues  from large companies will also ask themselves whether it wouldn’t be to their own benefit to actually help qualified specialists to contribute. Some “positive discrimination” might be in order, to lighten the process burden in some way for those with practical expertise, limited resources, and the willingness to offer some could-otherwise-be-billable hours.

In any case, improving transparency is the simplest, fastest and most obvious step that needs to be taken. Not doing it because it won’t solve everything is like not doing CPR on someone on the pretext that it would only restart his heart but not cure his rheumatism.

What’s at risk if we fail to leverage the huge amount of practical Cloud expertise from smaller players in the standards work? Nothing less than an unpractical set of specifications that will fail to realize the promises of Cloud interoperability. And quite possibly even delay them. We’ve seen it before, haven’t we?

Notice how I haven’t mentioned customers? It’s a typical “feel-good” line in every lament about standards to say that “we need more customer involvement”. It’s true, but the lament is old and hasn’t, in my experience, solved anything. And today’s economical climate makes me even more dubious that direct customer involvement is going to keep us on track for this standardization wave (though I’d love to be proven wrong). Opening the door to on-the-ground-working-with-customers experts with a very neutral and pragmatic perspective has a better chance of success in my mind.

As a point of clarification, I am not asking large companies to pick a few small companies out of their partner ecosystem and give them a 10% discount on their alliance membership fee in exchange for showing up in the standards groups and supporting their friendly sponsor. This is a common trick, used to pack a committee, get the votes and create an impression of overwhelming industry support. Nobody should pick who the specialists are. We should do all we can to encourage them to come. It will be pretty clear who they are when they start to ask pointed questions about the work.

Finally, from the archives, a more humorous look at how various standards bodies compare. And the proof that my complaints about DMTF secrecy aren’t new.


Filed under Cloud Computing, CMDBf, DMTF, Everything, HP, IBM, Mgmt integration, Microsoft, Oracle, People, Protocols, Specs, Standards, Utility computing, VMware, W3C, Web services, WS-Management

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