Chapter 2: Architecture

This chapter identifies all the subsystems that go into building and operationalizing a cloud capable of running an assortment of cloud-native services. We use Aether to illustrate specific design choices, and so we start by describing why an enterprise might install a system like Aether in the first place.

Aether is a Kubernetes-based edge cloud, augmented with a 5G-based connectivity service. Aether is targeted at enterprises that want to take advantage of 5G connectivity in support of mission-critical edge applications requiring predictable, low-latency connectivity. In short, “Kubernetes-based” means Aether is able to host container-based services, and “5G-based connectivity” means Aether is able to connect those services to mobile devices throughout the enterprise’s physical plant. This combination of features to support deployment of edge applications, coupled with Aether being offered as a managed service, means Aether can fairly be characterized as a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS).

Aether supports this combination by implementing both the RAN and the user plane of the Mobile Core on-prem, as cloud-native workloads co-located on the Aether cluster. This is often referred to as local breakout because it enables direct communication between mobile devices and edge applications without data traffic leaving the enterprise. This scenario is depicted in Figure 2, which does not name the edge applications, but substituting Internet-of-Things (IoT) would be an illustrative example.

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Figure 2. Overview of Aether as a hybrid cloud, with edge apps and the 5G data plane (called local breakout) running on-prem and various management and control-related workloads running in a central cloud.

The approach includes both edge (on-prem) and centralized (off-prem) components. This is true for edge apps, which often have a centralized counterpart running in a commodity cloud. It is also true for the 5G Mobile Core, where the on-prem User Plane (UP) is paired with a centralized Control Plane (CP). The central cloud shown in this figure might be private (i.e., operated by the enterprise), public (i.e., operated by a commercial cloud provider), or some combination of the two (i.e., not all centralized elements need to run in the same cloud). Also shown in Figure 2 is a centralized Control and Management Platform. This represents all the functionality needed to offer Aether as a managed service, with system administrators using a portal exported by this platform to operate the underlying infrastructure and services within their enterprise. The rest of this book is about everything that goes into implementing that Control and Management Platform.

2.1 Edge Cloud

The edge cloud, which in Aether is called ACE (Aether Connected Edge), is a Kubernetes-based cluster similar to the one shown in Figure 1 of Chapter 1. It is a platform that consists of one or more server racks interconnected by a leaf-spine switching fabric, with an SDN control plane (denoted SD-Fabric) managing the fabric.

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Figure 3. Aether Connected Edge (ACE) = The cloud platform (Kubernetes and SD-Fabric) plus the 5G connectivity service (RAN and User Plane of Mobile Core). Dotted lines (e.g., between SD-RAN and the individual base stations, and between the Network OS and the individual switches) represent control relationships (e.g., SD-RAN controls the small cells and SD-Fabric controls the switches).

As shown in Figure 3, ACE hosts two additional microservice-based subsystems on top of this platform; they collectively implement 5G-Connectivity-as-a-Service. The first subsystem, SD-RAN, is an SDN-based implementation of the 5G Radio Access Network (RAN). It controls the small cell base stations deployed throughout the enterprise. The second subsystem, SD-Core, is an SDN-based implementation of the User Plane half of the Mobile Core. It is responsible for forwarding traffic between the RAN and the Internet. The SD-Core Control Plane (CP) runs off-site, and is not shown in Figure 3. Both subsystems (as well as the SD-Fabric), are deployed as a set of microservices, but details about the functionality implemented by these containers is otherwise not critical to this discussion. For our purposes, they are representative of any cloud native workload. (The interested reader is referred to our companion 5G and SDN books for more information about the internal working of SD-RAN, SD-Core, and SD-Fabric.)

Once ACE is running in this configuration, it is ready to host a collection of edge applications (not shown in Figure 3), and as with any Kubernetes-based cluster, a Helm chart would be the preferred way to deploy such applications. What’s unique to ACE is the ability to connect such applications to mobile devices throughout the enterprise using the 5G Connectivity Service implemented by SD-RAN and SD-Core. This service is offered as a managed service, with enterprise system administrators able to use a programmatic API (and associated GUI portal) to control that service; that is, authorize devices, restrict access, set Quality-of-Service parameters for different devices and applications, and so on. How to provide such a runtime control interface is the topic of Chapter 5.

2.2 Hybrid Cloud

While it is possible to instantiate a single ACE cluster in just one site, Aether is designed to support multiple ACE deployments, all of which are managed from the central cloud. Such a hybrid cloud scenario is depicted in Figure 4, which shows two subsystems running in the central cloud: (1) one or more instances of the Mobile Core Control Plane (CP), and (2) the Aether Management Platform (AMP).

Each SD-Core CP controls one or more SD-Core UPs, as specified by 3GPP, the standards organization responsible for 5G. Exactly how CP instances (running centrally) are paired with UP instances (running at the edges) is a runtime decision, and depends on the degree of isolation the enterprise sites require. AMP is responsible for managing all the centralized and edge subsystems (as introduced in the next section).

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Figure 4. Aether runs in a hybrid cloud configuration, with Control Plane of Mobile Core and the Aether Management Platform (AMP) running in the Central Cloud.

There is an important aspect of this hybrid cloud that is not obvious from Figure 4, which is that the “hybrid cloud” we keep referring to is best described as a set of Kubernetes clusters, rather than a set of physical clusters (similar to the one we started with in Figure 1 of Chapter 1). This is because, while each ACE site usually corresponds to a physical cluster built out of bare-metal components, each of the SD-Core CP subsystems shown in Figure 4 is actually deployed in a logical Kubernetes cluster on a commodity cloud. The same is true for AMP. Aether’s centralized components are able to run in Google Cloud Platform, Microsoft Azure, and Amazon’s AWS. They also run as an emulated cluster implemented by a system like KIND—Kubernetes in Docker—making it possible for developers to run these components on their laptop.

To be clear, Kubernetes adopts generic terminology, such as “cluster” and “service”, and gives it a very specific meaning. In Kubernetes-speak, a Cluster is a logical domain in which Kubernetes manages a set of containers. This “Kubernetes cluster” may have a one-to-one relationship with an underlying physical cluster, but it is also possible that a Kubernetes cluster is instantiated inside a datacenter, as one of potentially thousands of such logical clusters. And as we’ll see in a later chapter, even an ACE edge site sometimes hosts more than one Kubernetes cluster, for example, one running production services and one used for trial deployments of new services.

2.3 Stakeholders

With the understanding that our target environment is a collection of Kubernetes clusters—some running on bare-metal hardware at edge sites and some running in central datacenters—there is an orthogonal issue of how decision-making responsibility for those clusters is shared among multiple stakeholders. Identifying the relevant stakeholders is an important prerequisite for establishing a cloud service, and while the example we use may not be suitable for all situations, it does illustrate the design implications.

For Aether, we care about two primary stakeholders: (1) the cloud operators who manage the hybrid cloud as a whole, and (2) the enterprise users who decide on a per-site basis how to take advantage of the local cloud resources (e.g., what edge applications to run and how to slice connectivity resources among those apps). We sometimes call the latter “enterprise admins” to distinguish them from “end-users” who might want to manage their own personal devices.

The architecture is multi-tenant in the sense that it authenticates and isolates these stakeholders, allowing each to access only those objects they are responsible for. This makes the approach agnostic as to whether all the edge sites belong to a single organization (with that organization also responsible for operating the cloud), or alternatively, there being a separate organization that offers a managed service to a set of distinct enterprises (each of which spans one or more sites). The architecture can also accommodate end-users, and provide them with a “self-service” portal, but we do not elaborate on that possibility.

There is a potential third stakeholder of note—third-party service providers—which points to the larger issue of how we deploy and manage additional edge applications. To keep the discussion tangible—but remaining in the open source arena—we use OpenVINO as an illustrative example. OpenVINO is a framework for deploying AI inference models, which is interesting in the context of Aether because one of its use cases is processing video streams, for example to detect and count people who enter the field of view of a collection of 5G-connected cameras.

Further Reading

OpenVINO Toolkit.

On the one hand, OpenVINO is just like the 5G-related components we’re already incorporating into our hybrid cloud: it is deployed as a Kubernetes-based set of microservices. On the other hand, we have to ask who is responsible for managing it, which is to say “who operationalizes OpenVINO?”

One answer is that the operators who already manage the rest of the hybrid cloud also manage the collection of edge applications added to cloud. Enterprise admins might activate and control those apps on a site-by-site basis, but it is the operations team already responsible for provisioning, deploying, and managing those edge clouds that also does the same for OpenVINO and any other applications that run on that cloud. Generalizing from one edge service (5G connectivity) to arbitrarily many edge services has implications for control and management (which we’ll discuss throughout the book), but fundamentally nothing changes in the course we’ve already set out for ourselves.

Having the cloud operator curate and manage a set of edge services is the assumption Aether makes (and we assume throughout this book), but for completeness, we take note of two other possibilities. One is that we extend our hybrid architecture to support independent third-party service providers. Each new edge service acquires its own isolated Kubernetes cluster from the edge cloud, and then the 3rd-party provider subsumes all responsibility for managing the service running in that cluster. From the perspective of the cloud operator, though, the task just became significantly more difficult because the architecture would need to support Kubernetes as a managed service, which is sometimes called Container-as-a-Service (CaaS).1 Creating isolated Kubernetes clusters on-demand is a step further than we take things in this book, in part because there is a second possible answer that seems more likely to happen.

1

This is not strictly an either-or-situation. It is possible to curate an edge service, provision cluster resources for it, but then delegate operational responsibility to a 3rd-party service provider.

This second approach is that a multi-cloud emerges within enterprises. Today, most people equate multi-cloud with services running across multiple hyperscalers, but with edge clouds becoming more common, it seems likely that enterprises invite multiple edge clouds onto their local premises, some hyperscaler-provided and some not, each hosting a different subset of edge services. For example, one edge cloud might host a 5G connectivity service and another might host an AI platform like OpenVINO. The question this raises is whether the cloud management technologies described in this book still apply in that setting. The answer is yes: the fundamental management challenges remain the same. The main difference is knowing when to directly control a Kubernetes cluster (as we do in this book) and when to do so indirectly through the manager for that cluster. There are also new problems that are unique to multi-clouds, such as inter-cloud service discovery, but they are beyond the scope of this book.

2.4 Control and Management

We are now ready to describe the architecture of the Aether Management Platform (AMP), which as shown in Figure 5, manages both the distributed set of ACE clusters and the other control clusters running in the central cloud. And illustrating the recursive nature of the management challenge, AMP is also responsible for managing AMP!

AMP includes one or more portals targeted at different stakeholders, with Figure 5 showing the two examples we focus on in this book: a User Portal intended for enterprise admins who need to manage services delivered to a local site, and an Operations Portal intended for the ops team responsible for keeping Aether up to date and running smoothly. Again, other stakeholders (classes of users) are possible, but this distinction does represent a natural division between those who use cloud services and those who operate cloud services.

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Figure 5. The four subsystems that comprise AMP: Resource Provisioning, Lifecycle Management, Runtime Control, and Monitoring & Telemetry.

We do not focus on these portals, which provide a graphical interface to a subset of AMP functionality, but we instead describe the aggregate functionality supported by AMP, which is organized around four subsystems:

  • Resource Provisioning: Responsible for initializing and configuring resources (e.g., servers, switches) that add, replace, or upgrade capacity for Aether.

  • Lifecycle Management: Responsible for continuous integration and deployment of software functionality available on Aether.

  • Runtime Control: Responsible for the ongoing configuration and control of the services (e.g., connectivity) provided by Aether.

  • Monitoring & Telemetry: Responsible for collecting, archiving, evaluating, and analyzing telemetry data generated by Aether components.

Internally, each of these subsystems is implemented as a highly available cloud service, running as a collection of microservices. The design is cloud-agnostic, so AMP can be deployed in a public cloud (e.g., Google Cloud, AWS, Azure), an operator-owned Telco cloud, (e.g, AT&T’s AIC), or an enterprise-owned private cloud. For the current pilot deployment of Aether, AMP runs in the Google Cloud.

The rest of this section introduces these four subsystems, with the chapters that follow filling in more detail about each.

2.4.1 Resource Provisioning

Resource Provisioning configures and bootstraps resources (both physical and virtual), bringing them up to a state so Lifecycle Management can take over and manage the software running on those resources. It roughly corresponds to Day 0 operations, and includes both the hands-on aspect of installing and physically connecting hardware, and the inventory-tracking required to manage physical assets.

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Figure 6. High-level overview of Resource Provisioning.

Figure 6 gives a high-level overview. As a consequence of the operations team physically connecting resources to the cloud and recording attributes for those resources in an Inventory Repo, a Zero-Touch Provisioning system (a) generates a set of configuration artifacts that are stored in a Config Repo and used during Lifecycle Management, and (b) initializes the newly deployed resources so they are in a state that Lifecycle Management is able to control. The idea of storing configuration directives in a Repo, like any other code module, is a practice known as Configuration-as-Code, and we will see it applied in different ways throughout this book.

Recall from Chapter 1 that we called out the “Aether platform” as distinct from the cloud-native workloads that are hosted on the platform. This is relevant here because Resource Provisioning has to get this platform up and running before Lifecycle Management can do its job. But in another example of circular dependencies, Lifecycle Management also plays a role in keeping the underlying platform up to date.

Clearly, the “Install & Inventory” step requires human involvement, and some amount of hands-on resource-prep is necessary, but the goal is to minimize the operator configuration steps (and associated expertise) and maximize the automation carried out by the Zero-Touch Provisioning system. Also realize that Figure 6 is biased towards provisioning a physical cluster, such as the edge sites in Aether. For a hybrid cloud that also includes one or more virtual clusters running in central datacenters, it is necessary to provision those virtual resources as well. Chapter 3 describes provisioning from this broader perspective, considering both physical and virtual resources.

2.4.2 Lifecycle Management

Lifecycle Management is the process of integrating debugged, extended, and refactored components (often microservices) into a set of artifacts (e.g., Docker containers and Helm charts), and subsequently deploying those artifacts to the operational cloud. It includes a comprehensive testing regime, and typically, a procedure by which developers inspect and comment on each others’ code.

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Figure 7. High-level overview of Lifecycle Management.

Figure 7 gives a high-level overview, where it is common to split the integration and deployment phases, the latter of which combines the integration artifacts from the first phase with the configuration artifacts generated by Resource Provisioning described in the previous subsection. The figure does not show any human intervention (after development), which implies any patches checked into the code repo trigger integration, and any new integration artifacts trigger deployment. This is commonly referred to as Continuous Integration / Continuous Deployment (CI/CD), although in practice, operator discretion and other factors are also taken into account before deployment actually happens.

One of the key responsibilities of Lifecycle Management is version control, which includes evaluating dependencies, but also the possibility that it will sometimes be necessary to both roll out new versions of software and rollback to old versions, as well as operate with multiple versions deployed simultaneously. Managing all the configuration state needed to successfully deploy the right version of each component in the system is the central challenge, which we address in Chapter 4.

2.4.3 Runtime Control

Once deployed and running, Runtime Control provides a programmatic API that can be used by various stakeholders to manage whatever abstract service(s) the system offers (e.g., 5G connectivity in the case of Aether). As shown in Figure 8, Runtime Control partially addresses the “management silo” issue raised in Chapter 1, so users do not need to know that connectivity potentially spans four different components, or how to control/configure each of them individually. (Or, as in the case of the Mobile Core, that SD-Core is distributed across two clouds, with the CP sub-part responsible for controlling the UP sub-part.) In the case of the connectivity service, for example, users only care about being able to authorize devices and set QoS parameters on an end-to-end basis.

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Figure 8. Example use case that requires ongoing runtime control.

Note that Figure 8 focuses on Connectivity-as-a-Service, but the same idea applies to all services the cloud offers to end users. Thus, we can generalize the figure so Runtime Control mediates access to any of the underlying microservices (or collections of microservices) the cloud designer wishes to make publicly accessible, including the rest of AMP! In effect, Runtime Control implements an abstraction layer, codified with a programmatic API.

Given this mediation role, Runtime Control provides mechanisms to model (represent) the abstract services to be offered to users; store any configuration and control state associated with those models; apply that state to the underlying components, ensuring they remain in sync with the operator’s intentions; and authorize the set API calls users try to invoke on each service. These details are spelled out in Chapter 5.

2.4.4 Monitoring and Telemetry

In addition to controlling service functionality, a running system has to be continuously monitored so that operators can diagnose and respond to failures, tune performance, do root cause analysis, perform security audits, and understand when it is necessary to provision additional capacity. This requires mechanisms to observe system behavior, collect and archive the resulting data, analyze the data and trigger various actions in response, and visualize the data in human consumable dashboards (similar to the example shown in Figure 9).

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Figure 9. Example Aether dashboard, showing the health of one of the subsystems (SD-Core).

In broad terms, it is common to think of this aspect of cloud management as having three parts: a monitoring component that collects quantitative metrics (e.g., load averages, transmission rates, ops per second); a logging component that collects diagnostic messages (i.e., text strings explaining various event); and a tracing component that can reconstruct workflows through a set of microservices. All include a timestamp, so it is possible to link quantitative analysis with qualitative explanations in support of diagnostics and analytics.

2.4.5 Summary

This overview of the management architecture could lead one to conclude that these four subsystems were architected, in a rigorous, top-down fashion, to be completely independent. But that is not the case. It is more accurate to say that the system evolved bottom up, solving the next immediate problem one at a time, all the while creating a large ecosystem of open source components that can be used in different combinations. What we are presenting in this book is a retrospective description of an end result, organized into four subsystems to help make sense of it all.

There are, in practice, many opportunities for interactions among the four components, and in some cases, there are overlapping concerns that lead to considerable debate. This is what makes operationalizing a cloud a thorny problem. For example, it’s difficult to draw a crisp line between where resource provisioning ends and lifecycle management begins. One could view provisioning as “Step 0” of lifecycle management. As another example, the runtime control and monitoring subsystems are often combined in a single user interface, giving operators a way to both read (monitor) and write (control) various parameters of a running system. Connecting those two subsystems is how we build closed loop control.

These two “simplifications” allow us to reduce the architectural overview of the management platform to the two-dimensional representation shown in Figure 10. In one dimension, layered on top of the hybrid cloud being managed, is the Runtime Control system (including Monitoring and Telemetry to close the control loop). Users and Operators read and write parameters of the running system via a well-defined REST API. In the other dimension, running beside the hybrid cloud, is the Lifecycle Management system (including Resource Provisioning as Step 0). Operators and Developers specify changes to the system by checking code (including configuration specs) into a repo, and then periodically triggering an upgrade of the running system.

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Figure 10. Simplified representation of the management platform.

This simplified perspective draws attention to an ambiguity, which is the distinction between “changes to the parameters of a running system” versus “upgrading the system that is running.” Generally, Lifecycle Management takes responsibility for configuring each component (including what version of each component is deployed), while runtime control takes responsibility for controlling each component. But where you draw the line between configuration and control is somewhat arbitrary. Do configuration changes only happen when you first boot a component, or can you change the configuration of a running system, and if you do, how does that differ from changing a control parameter? And as suggested by the dotted arrow in Figure 10, is there value in having Runtime Control instigate changes via Lifecycle Management? The difference is usually related to frequency of change (which is in turn related to how disruptive to existing traffic/workload the change is), but ultimately it doesn’t matter what you call it, as long as the mechanisms you use meet all of your requirements.

Of course, an operational system doesn’t tolerate such ambiguities very well. Each aspect of management has to be supported in a well-defined, efficient and repeatable way. That’s why we include a description of a concrete realization of each of the four subsystems, reflecting one particular set of design choices. We call out the opportunities to make different engineering decisions, along with the design rationale behind our choices, as we add more details in the chapters that follow.

2.5 DevOps

The preceding discussion focuses on the subsystems that make up the Control and Management Platform, but such a platform is used by people. This implies the need for a set of operational processes and procedures, which in a cloud setting, are now commonly organized around the DevOps model. The following gives a high-level summary, with a more extensive discussion of ops-related procedures presented throughout the book.

DevOps has become an overused term, generally taken to mean that the line between the engineers who develop cloud functionality and the operators who deploy and manage cloud functionality is blurred, with the same team responsible for both. But that definition is too imprecise to be helpful. There are really three aspects of DevOps that are important to understand.

First, when it comes to a set of services (or user-visible features), it is true that the developers play a role in deploying and operating those services. Enabling them to do that is exactly the value of the Management Platform. Consider the team responsible for SD-RAN in Aether, as an example. That team not only implements new SD-RAN features, but once their patch sets are checked into the code repository, those changes are integrated and deployed by the automated toolchain introduced in the previous section. This means the SD-RAN team is also responsible for:

  1. Adding test cases to the CI half of Lifecycle Management, and writing any configuration specifications needed by the CD half of Lifecycle Management.

  2. Instrumenting their code so it reports into the Monitoring and Telemetry framework, giving them the dashboards and alarms they need to troubleshoot any problems that arise.

  3. Augmenting the data model of Runtime Control, so their component’s internal interfaces are plumbed through to the cloud’s externally visible Northbound Interface.

Once deployed and operational, the SD-RAN team is also responsible for diagnosing any problems that cannot be resolved by a dedicated “on call” support staff.2 The SD-RAN team is motivated to take advantage of the platform’s automated mechanisms (rather than exploit short-term workarounds), and to document their component’s behavior (especially how to resolve known problems), so they do not get support calls in the middle of the night.

2

Whether traditional or DevOps-based, there is typically a front-line support team, which is often said to provide Tier-1 support. They interact directly with customers and are the first to respond to alarms, resolving the issue according to a well-scripted playbook. If Tier-1 support is not able to resolve an issue, it is elevated to Tier-2 and eventually Tier-3, the latter of which is the developers who best understand implementation details.

Second, all of the activity outlined in the previous paragraph is possible only because of the rich set of capabilities built into the Control and Management Platform that is the subject of this book.3 Someone had to build that platform, which includes a testing framework that individual tests can be plugged into; an automated deployment framework that is able to roll upgrades out to a scalable number of servers and sites without manual intervention; a monitoring and telemetry framework that components can report into; a runtime control environment that can translate high-level directives into low-level operations on backend components; and so on. While each of these frameworks was once created by a team tasked with keeping some other service running smoothly, they have taken on a life of their own. The Control and Management Platform now has its own DevOps team(s), who in addition to continually improving the platform, also field operational events, and when necessary, interact with other teams (e.g., the SD-RAN team in Aether) to resolve issues that come up. They are sometimes called System Reliability Engineers (SREs), and in addition to being responsible for the Control and Management Platform, they enforce operational discipline—the third aspect of DevOps discussed next—on everyone else.

3

This we why we refer to the management system as a “platform”, with AMP as an illustrative example. It serves as a common framework that developers of all the other cloud components can plug into and leverage. This is how you ultimately address the “management silo” problem.

Finally, when operating with discipline and rigor, all of these teams strictly adhere to two quantitative rules. The first balances feature velocity with system reliability. Each component is given an error budget (percentage of time it can be down), and new features cannot be rolled out unless the corresponding component has been operating within this bound. This test is a “gate” on the CI/CD pipeline. The second rule balances how much time is spent on operational toil (time spent by a human diagnosing or fixing problems) with time spent engineering new capabilities into the Control and Management Platform to reduce future toil. If too much time is spent toiling and too little time is spent making the Control and Management Platform better, then it is taken as a sign that additional engineering resources are needed.