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Does a Serverless Brexit mean goodbye to infrastructure management problems?

Last week I was able to get myself along to the London CloudCamp event at the Crypt on the Green, for an evening the theme of “We’ve done cloud, what’s next?”. For those of you unfamiliar with the event, CloudCamp is an “unconference” where early adopters of Cloud Computing technologies exchange ideas. As you can probably guess from the theme title, many of the discussions were around the concept of “serverless” computing.

So, other than being something which seems to freak out my spell check function, what is “serverless” then?

I think Paul Johnston of movivo summed it up well, as “scaling a single function / object in your code instead of an entire app”, which effectively means a microservices architecture. In practical terms, it’s really just another form of PaaS, where you upload your code to a provider (such as AWS Lambda), and they take care of managing all of the underlying infrastructure including compute, load balancing, scaling, etc, on your behalf.

The instances then simply act upon events (i.e. they are event driven), which could be anything from an item hitting a queue, to a user requesting a web page, and when not required, they are not running. AWS currently supports a limited subset of languages, specifically Node.js, Java, and Python.

serverless introduction

There are of course other vendors who provide similar platforms, including Google Cloud Functions, IBM Bluemix OpenWhisk, etc. They tend to support a similarly small pool of languages, however some are more agnostic and will even allow you to upload Docker containers as well. Iron.io also allows you to do serverless using your own servers, which seems a bit of an oxymoron! 🙂

Anyway, the cool thing about serverless is that you can therefore “vote to leave” your managed or IaaS infrastructure (yes, I know, seriously tenuous connection!), and just concentrate on writing your applications. This is superb for developers who don’t necessarily have the skills or the time to manage an IaaS platform once it has been deployed.

Serverless Introduction - Tenuous doesn't even come close!

The Case for Remain

Much like the Brexit vote however, it does come with some considerations and challenges, and you may not get exactly what you expected when you went to the polling booth! For example:

  • You may believe you are now running alone, but you are ultimately still dependent on actual servers! However, you no longer have access to those servers, so basic things like logging and performance monitoring suddenly become a lot trickier.
  • Taking this a step further, testing and troubleshooting becomes more challenging. When a fault occurs, how can you trace exactly where it occurred? This is further exacerbated if you are integrating with other SaaS and PaaS platforms, such as Auth0 (IAM), Firebase (DB), etc. This is already a very common architectural pattern for serverless designs.
    You therefore need to start introducing centralised logging and error trapping systems which will allow you to see what’s actually going on, which of course sounds a lot like infrastructure management again!
  • It’s still early days for serverless, so things like documentation and support are a lot more scarce. If you plan to be an early serverless adopter, you had better know your technical onions!
  • As with any microservices architecture, with great flexibility, comes great complexity! Instead of managing just a handful of interacting services, you could now be managing many hundreds of individual functions. You can understand each piece easily, but looking at the big picture is not so simple!Serverless and Microservices Complexity
  • Another level of complexity is in billing of course. Serverless services such as AWS Lambda charge you per 100ms of compute time, and per 1 million requests. If you are paying for a server and some storage, even in a cloud computing model, it’s reasonably easy to understand how much your bill will be at the end of the month.
    Paying for transactions and processing time however is could potentially provide a few nasty surprises, especially if you come under heavy load or even a DoS attack.
  • Finally, the biggest and most obvious concern about serverless is vendor lock-in. Indeed this is potentially the ultimate lock-in as once you pick a vendor and write your application specific to their cloud, moving that bad boy is going to mean some major refactoring and re-writes!
    As long as that vendors pricing is competitive, this shouldn’t matter too much (after all, every single vendor is lock-in to some varying degree), but if that vendor manages to take the lions share of the market they could easily change that pricing and you are almost powerless to react (at least not without significant additional investment).
The Case for Leave

If you understand and mitigate (or ignore!) the above however, serverless can be quite a compelling use case. For example:

  • From an environmental perspective, you will probably never find a more efficient or greener computing paradigm. It minimises the number of extraneous operating systems, virtual or physical machines required, as this is truly multi-tenant computing. Every serverless host could undoubtedly be run at 70-90% utilisation, rather than the 10-50% you typically see in most enterprise DCs today! If you could take every workload in the world and switch it to serverless overnight, based on those efficiency levels, how many data centres, how much power and how many thousands of tonnes of metals could you save? Greenpeace should be refactoring their website as we speak!Serverless Computing is green!
  • Although you do have to introduce a number of tools to help you track what is actually going on with your environment, you can move away from doing a whole load of the mundane management tasks such as patching, OS management etc, and move up the stack to spend your resources on more productive and creative activities; actually adding business value (Crazy idea! I thought in IT we just liked patching for a living?)!
  • The VM sprawl we have today would be reduced as workloads are rationalised. That said, you just end up with replacing this with container or function sprawl, which is even harder to manage! 🙂
  • You gain potentially massive scalability for your applications. Instead of scaling entire applications, you just scale the bottleneck functions, which means your application becomes more efficient overall. Definitely time to read The Goal by Goldratt and understand the Theory of Constraints before you go down this route!
  • Finally you can potentially see significant cost savings. If there are no requests, then there is no charge! If you were running some form of event driven application or trigger, instead of paying tens or hundreds of pounds per month for a server, you might only be paying pennies! Equate this to dev/test platforms which might only be needed to run workloads for a few hours a day, or production platforms which only need to process transactions when customers are actually online, it really starts to add up, even more than auto-scaling IaaS platforms.
    Taking that a step further, if you have are running a startup, why pay hundreds or thousands a month for compute you “might” need but which often sits idle, over-throwing your functions into a scalable platform which will only charge you for actual use! I know where I would be putting my money if I were a VC…

Serverless Computing is hot!

Closing Thoughts

Serverless is a really interesting technology move for the industry which (as always) comes with it’s own unique set of benefits and challenges. I can’t see it ever being the defacto standard for everything (for the same reasons we still use mainframes and physical servers today), however there are plenty of brilliant use cases for it. If devs and startups are comfortable with the vendor lock-in and other risks, why wouldn’t they consider using it?

Cohesity Announces Cloud Integration Services

With the release of v2.0 of their OASIS platform, as presented as Storage Field Day 9 recently, Cohesity’s development team have continued churn out new features and data services at a significant rate. It seems that they are now accelerating towards the cloud (or should that be The Cloud?) with a raft of cloud integration features announced today!

There are three key new features included as part of this, called CloudArchive, CloudTier and CloudReplicate respectively, all of which pretty much do exactly what it says on the tin!

CloudArchive is a feature which allows you to archive datasets to the cloud (duh!), specifically onto Google Nearline, Azure, and Amazon S3. This would be most useful for things like long term retention of backups without taking up space on your primary platform.

CohesityCloudFeatures.png

CloudTier extends on-premises storage, allowing you to use cloud storage as a cold tier, moving your least used blocks out. If you are like me, you like to understand how these things work down deep in the guts! Mohit Aron, Founder & CEO of Cohesity, kindly provided Tekhead.it with this easy to understand explanation on their file and tiering system:

NFS/SMB files are mapped to objects in our system – which we call blobs. Each blob consists though of small pieces – which we call chunks. Chunks are variable sized – approximately ranging from 8K-16K. The variable size is due to deduplication – we do variable length deduplication.

The storage of the chunks [is] done by a completely different component. We group chunks together into what we call a chunkfile – which is approximately 8MB in size. When we store a chunkfile on-prem, it is a file on Linux. But when we put it in the cloud, it becomes an S3 object.

Chunkfiles are the units of tiering – we’ll move around chunkfiles based on their hotness.

So there you have it folks; chunkfile hotness is the key to Cohesity’s very cool new tiering technology! I love it!

chunkfilehotness

With the chunkfiles set at 8mb this seems like a sensible size for moving large quantities of data back and forth to the cloud with minimal overhead. With a reasonable internet connection in place, it should still be possible to recall a “cool” chunk without too much additional latency, even if your application does require it in a hurry.

You can find out more information about these two services on a new video they have just published to their youtube channel.

The final feature, which is of most interest to me is called CloudReplicate, though this is not yet ready for release and I am keen to find out more as information becomes available. With CloudReplicate, Cohesity has made the bold decision to allow customers to run a software only edition of their solution in your cloud of choice, with native replication from their on premises appliances, paving the way to true hybrid cloud, or even simply providing a very clean DR strategy.

This solution is based on their native on-premises replication technology, and as such will support multiple replication topologies, e.g. 1-to-many, many-to-1, many-to-many, etc, providing numerous simple or complex DR and replication strategies to meet multiple use cases.

Cohesity-CloudReplicate.png

It could be argued that the new solution potentially provides their customers with an easy onramp to the cloud in a few years… I would say that anyone making an investment in Cohesity today is likely to continue to use their products for some time, and between now and then Cohesity will have the time to significantly grow their customer base and market share, even if it means enabling a few customers to move away from on-prem down the line.

I have to say that once again Cohesity have impressed with their vision and speedy development efforts. If they can back this with increase sales to match, their future certainly looks rosy!

Disclaimer/Disclosure: My flights, accommodation, meals, etc, at Storage Field Day 9 were provided by Tech Field Day, but there was no expectation or request for me to write about any of the vendors products or services and I was not compensated in any way for my time at the event.

SpiceWorld London – Day One

As I clickety clack my way home on the train from my first day experiencing SpiceWorld, I thought it would be worth jotting down a few thoughts from the day. For those people who haven’t heard of the conference before, I would describe it as a vendor sponsored conference largely about Spiceworks, but with a healthy sprinkling of community content for good measure.

The day (unsurprisingly) started with the keynote session, which kicked off with something which is apparently a SpiceWorld tradition. An amusing video, this time about the Spiceworks staff who weren’t able to come to London for the event, so held their own mock conference featuring a smoking Microsoft Clippy as keynote speaker and the currently under secret development, iGunbrellunger (don’t ask!).

Clippy - the root of all that is evil in the world!

Clippy – the root of all that is evil in the world!

The keynote was split into three main sections, most of which were explaining for the benefit of non-Spiceheads, where Spiceworks originated. Some of those key facts being:

  • Founded in 2005 with a vision to create iTunes for system management.
  • First version released in 2006, which was (quite transparently) a free service with Google AdWords built into the the client from day one
  • Reached 1m users within about 4 years
  • By the end of 2014 they were serving 3.4m users and 100m page views per month on their platform

For me, some of the more interesting things covered were around the thought processes and principles by which the company was founded. These include concentrating on developing the 20% of functionality which users require 80% of the time (hence not spending resources developing stuff users will hardly use), and building a strong community to which services could be provided. This week Spiceworks have released their latest feature, which is an SDK for developers to be able to fill the feature gaps with whatever they can dream up, and made these available via an App Store interface. Extensibility FTW!

Their commercial model was further enhanced through the years by allowing users to rate ads so they didn’t receive irrelevant content. In 2010 Spiceworks used the performance, configuration and even warranty data they held on their customer’s solutions to warn customers when they may need to upgrade kit, and to offer them the appropriate SKUs to order from their partner suppliers, all from within the client… Very clever indeed! Similarly when client printers are running low on ink, they notify administrators and offer the ability to procure replacements. A very simple but highly effective solution, and as long as those partners are offering competitive rates, then a win-win for all it seems!

I had some very interesting conversations in the vendor breakout area including a couple of particular interest to me. The first of these was with a company I had only recently heard about, Cyberoam, who provide UTM devices for SMBs. They aren’t massively well known in the UK, but have significantly larger market shares in other parts of the world, such as South Africa, where I’m told they rank 3rd in terms of unit sales. Their offerings seem pretty interesting and relatively keenly priced, particularly as the software on all models is identical, with the only differences between models tending to be around their throughput/connection capabilities.

Cyberoam are now also part of Sophos, so have pretty decent backing and are definitely worth checking out, if the interface demo I saw was anything to go by. Comparing their product lineup, if you are looking for something with high availability and the ability to rack mount, then your real entry point solution is something like the Cyberoam 25iNG, capable of 125Mbps of full UTM throughput, or >1Gbps of standard firewall traffic. Certainly comparable with many of the big name solutions out there.

The second company which I took note of was Scale Computing. I believe that although they are a relatively mature solution in the hyper-converged space, having been around since the noughties, they only recently presented at tech field day but were pretty well received. Also targeting the SME space, they too are keenly priced, starting at about £20k for 3 nodes and a bunch of Sata drives. As you move up the model ranges you get more compute and faster SAS disks. Their licensing model is all inclusive, including a KVM hypervisor underlying (though you still need to buy Windows licenses if that’s your chosen OS, so some of those KVM savings are lost already). For me, the only element l feel potentially let the product down is the lack of SSDs, but if the primary audience is only looking to run a handful of VMs such as DCs, file servers, Exchange etc, then it could be a very good value proposition.

scalecomputing

I attended a number of sessions throughout the rest of the day including Andrew Bettany on the IT certification hamster wheel (something I think we all know too well!), the Ctrl Alt Tech IT Pro Web Show, a very brief session from Dell on Big Data, and Unitrends’ session on their new Free Edition. These sessions were all fine, though I felt they potentially lacked the depth I have seen at other events. That said, the last two sessions of the afternoon were really what made the day for me.

The penultimate session of the day was Andy Malone talking about TOR and the Dark Web. This session was genuinely quite disturbing, but gave a great insight into the kinds of content available via TOR, and how to identify and lock down users from potentially using TOR networks to abuse your IT services.

The Internet

In the demo, Andy actually loaded up the TOR client live on stage and went fishing in the depths for some content that was not too NSFW, but it wasn’t that easy to find:

Sites dont always last long on the Dark Web

The example below also describes some of the potential fingerprints left behind after a user has been using TOR, allowing you to at least know it’s going on, if not what has been accessed.

The final session was a real breath of fresh air, and definitely made a nice change from the usual tech conference keynotes. It was presented by special guest Simon Singh, who talked about the subjects of several of his books, and finished with a live demonstration of a real enigma machine which he had brought along. This was really quite fascinating, especially to consider the level of complexity of these cryptographic systems even 70+ years ago!

The day ended with some great community discussion at the Unitrends Happy Hour, after which it was time for me to head home, missing the chance to head out to the Namco Funscape for the Totally 80s party!

So closing thoughts for day one? Well as I mentioned above I would like to have perhaps seen a little more technical depth to one or two of the presentations, but overall it was definitely a worthwhile experience and has opened my eyes to some of the challenges and the perceptions which some of my customers have. The price for the event is typically around £150 for the two days, with numerous early bird discounts, so is significantly less expensive than other paid vendor events. If you don’t have the budget to go to a paid event, or would like to build on the knowledge you have gained from Spiceworld, I suggest you check out your local VMUG event, or even better the UK VMUG event held in Birmingham every year. These events are well attended by vendors and community members alike, so well worth checking out!

Anyhow, I’m definitely looking forward to day two and it’s getting late, so for now, nuff said!

Disclaimer: Please note that Spiceworks kindly provided my entry to the event, but there was no expectation or request for me to write about their products or services.

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