Chapter 1: Introduction

Clouds provide a set of tools for bringing up and operating scalable services, but how do you operationalize a cloud in the first place? The two problems are not mutually exclusive—after all, a cloud is realized as a set of services—but asking the question this way eliminates the temptation to give the answer “the cloud takes care of that for you.” This book describes how to operationalize a cloud, starting with bare-metal hardware, all the way to offering one or more managed services to users.

Few of us are likely to have reason to instantiate a hyperscale datacenter, but deploying private edge clouds in an enterprise—and optionally connecting that edge to a datacenter to form a hybrid cloud—is becoming increasingly common. We use the term “edge cloud” to distinguish our focus from the “core”, which is the traditional domain of the hyperscale operators. The edge is more likely to be in a enterprise or an “Internet of Things” setting such as a factory. The edge is the place where the cloud services connect to the real world, e.g., via sensors and actuators, and where latency-sensitive services are deployed to be close to the consumers of those services.1

1

Server clusters hosted in co-location facilities can also be considered edge clouds, and benefit from the technologies and practices described in this book, but we use enterprises as our exemplar deployment because they expose a broader set of requirements.

The hyperscalers are indeed willing to manage your edge cloud for you, as an extension of their core datacenters. And correspondingly, there is significant activity to provide such products, with Google’s Anthos, Microsoft’s Azure Arc, and Amazon’s ECS-Anywhere as prime examples. But the barrier to operationalizing a cloud is not so high that only a hyperscaler has the wherewithal to do it. It is possible to build a cloud—and all the associated lifecycle management and runtime controls that are required to operate it—using readily available open source software packages.

This book describes what such a cloud management platform looks like. Our approach is to focus on the fundamental problems that must be addressed—design issues that are common to all clouds—but then couple this conceptual discussion with specific engineering choices made while operationalizing a specific enterprise cloud. Our example is Aether, an ONF project to support 5G-enabled edge clouds as a managed service. Aether has the following properties that make it an interesting use case to study:

  • Aether starts with bare-metal hardware (servers and switches) deployed in edge sites (e.g., enterprises). This on-prem cloud can range in size from a partial rack to multi-rack cluster, assembled according to the best practices used in datacenters.

  • Aether supports both “edge services” running on these on-prem clusters and “centralized services” running in commodity cloud datacenters. In this sense it is a hybrid cloud.2

  • Aether augments this edge cloud with 5G-Connectivity-as-a-Service, giving us a service that must be operationalized (in addition to the underlying cloud). The end result is that Aether provides a managed Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS).

  • Aether is built entirely from open source components. The only thing it adds is the “glue code” and “specification directives” required to make it operational. This means the recipe is fully reproducible by anyone.

2

Technically, Aether is also a multi-cloud because it is designed to take advantage of services provided by multiple public clouds, but the private/public (edge/central) aspect is the most relevant, so we use hybrid terminology throughout this book.

There is another important reason Aether makes for an interesting example. It is a system being deployed at the confluence of three traditionally distinct management domains: enterprises (where system admins have long been responsible for installing and maintaining purpose-built appliances), network operators (where access technologies have historically been delivered as Telco-based solutions), and cloud providers (where commodity hardware and cloud native software is now readily available). This complicates our job, because each of these three domains brings its own conventions and terminology to the table. But understanding how these three stakeholders approach operationalization gives us a broader perspective on the problem. We return to the confluence of enterprise, cloud, access technologies later in this chapter, but we start by addressing the terminology challenge.

1.1 Terminology

The terminology used to talk about operating cloud services represents a mix of “modern” concepts that are native to the cloud, and “traditional” concepts that are artifacts from earlier systems (many of which are now being subsumed by the cloud, but retain some of their original operational language). This is especially true at the intersection of the cloud and Telcos, who—like the Sámi of Scandinavia having over 180 words for snow—have an exceedingly rich vocabulary for operating a network.

A major source of confusion is that we are in the midst of a transition from network systems being built from purpose-built devices to software-based services running on commodity hardware. This often results in multiple terms being used for the same concept, or more problematically, having one domain subtly repurpose a term from another domain. To avoid talking past each other, it is important to first define a few concepts and introduce the related terminology.

  • Operations & Maintenance (O&M): A traditional term used to characterize the overall challenge of operationalizing a network, where generally speaking, operators use an O&M Interface to manage the system.

    • FCAPS: An acronym (Fault, Configuration, Accounting, Performance, Security) historically used in the Telco industry to enumerate the requirements for an operational system. The O&M interface must provide a means to detect and manage faults, configure the system, account for usage, and so on.

    • OSS/BSS: Another Telco acronym (Operations Support System, Business Support System), referring to the subsystem that implements both operational logic (OSS) and business logic (BSS). It is usually the top-most component in the overall O&M hierarchy.

    • EMS: Yet another Telco acronym (Element Management System), corresponding to an intermediate layer in the overall O&M hierarchy. An EMS is to a particular type of device what an OSS/BSS is to the network as a whole.

  • Orchestration: A general term similar to O&M, but originating in the cloud context. Involves assembling (e.g., allocating, configuring, connecting) a collection of physical or logical resources on behalf of some workload. If only a single resource or device is involved, we would probably use a term like “configuration” instead, so orchestration typically implies “orchestrating” across multiple components.

    Narrowly defined, an orchestrator is responsible for spinning up virtual machines (or containers) and logically interconnecting them (with virtual networks). More broadly, orchestration encompasses aspects of all the management-related functions described in this book.

    If you are trying to map cloud terminology onto Telco terminology, an orchestrator is often equated with a cloudified version of the OSS/BSS mechanism. This top-most layer is sometimes called a Service Orchestrator since it is responsible for assembling a collection of Virtual Network Functions (VNFs) into an end-to-end-service chain.

    • Playbook/Workflow: A program or script that implements a multi-step orchestration process. (The term workflow is also used in a UX context to describe a multi-step operation that a user performs on a system using a GUI.)

  • Provisioning: Adding capacity (either physical or virtual resources) to a system, usually in response to changes in workload, including the initial deployment.

    • Zero-Touch Provisioning: Usually implies adding new hardware without requiring a human to configure it (beyond physically connecting the device). This implies the new component auto-configures itself, which means the term can also be applied to virtual resources (e.g., virtual machines, services) to indicate that no manual configuration step is needed to instantiate the resource.

    • Remote Device Management: A standard (e.g., IPMI, Redfish) that defines a way to remotely manage hardware devices in support of zero-touch provisioning. The idea is to send and receive out-of-band messages over the LAN in place of having video or serial console access to the device. Additionally, these may integrate with monitoring and other device health telemetry systems.

    • Inventory Management: Planning and tracking both the physical (racks, servers, switches, cabling) and virtual (IP ranges and addresses, VLANs) resources is a sub-step of the provisioning process. This process frequently starts using simple spreadsheets and text files, but as complexity grows, a dedicated database for inventory facilitates greater automation.

  • Lifecycle Management: Upgrading and replacing functionality (e.g., new services, new features to existing services) over time.

    • Continuous Integration / Continuous Deployment (CI/CD): An approach to Lifecycle Management in which the path from development (producing new functionality) to testing, integration, and ultimately deployment is an automated pipeline. CI/CD typically implies continuously making small incremental changes rather than performing large disruptive upgrades.

    • DevOps: An engineering discipline that fuses the Development process and Operational requirements silos, balancing feature velocity against system reliability. As a practice, it leverages CI/CD methods and is typically associated with container-based (also known as cloud native) systems, as typified by Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) practiced by cloud providers like Google.

    • In-Service Software Upgrade (ISSU): A requirement that a component continue running during the deployment of an upgrade, with minimal disruption to the service delivered to end-users. ISSU generally implies the ability to incrementally roll-out (and roll-back) an upgrade, but is specifically a requirement on individual components (as opposed to the platform used to manage a set of components).

  • Monitoring & Telemetry: Collecting data from system components to aid in management decisions. This includes diagnosing faults, tuning performance, doing root cause analysis, performing security audits, and provisioning additional capacity.

    • Analytics: A program (often using statistical models) that produces additional insights (value) from raw data. It can be used to close a control loop (i.e., auto-reconfigure a system based on these insights), but could also be targeted at a human operator who subsequently takes some action.

Another way to talk about operations is in terms of stages, leading to a characterization that is common for traditional network devices:

  • Day (-1): Hardware configuration that is applied to a device (e.g., via a console) when it is first powered on. These configurations correspond to firmware (BIOS or similar) settings, and often need knowledge of how the device is physically connected to the network (e.g., the port being used).

  • Day 0: Connectivity configuration required to establish communication between the device and the available network services (e.g., setting a device’s IP address and default router). While such information may be provided manually, this is an opportunity to auto-configure the device, in support of Zero-Touch Provisioning.

  • Day 1: Service-level configuration needed by the device, including parameters that allow the device to take advantage of other services (e.g., NTP, Syslog, SMTP, NFS), as well as setting the parameters this device needs to perform whatever service it provides. At the end of Day-1 operationalization, the device is considered up-and-running, and able to support user traffic. This is also an opportunity for zero-touch provisioning, in the sense that pre-programmed playbooks (workflows) should be able to auto-configure the device rather than depending on human intervention.

  • Day 2..N: On-going management in support of day-to-day operations, coupled with monitoring the network to detect failures and service degradation, with the goal of sustaining the service. This may involve some closed-loop control, but is often human-intense, which involves monitoring a dashboard and fielding alerts, and then re-configuring the system as necessary. This is often referred to simply as “Day 2 Operations”.

Again, “Day x” is how traditional network vendors characterize the process of operationalizing the devices they sell, which in turn dictates how network operators and enterprise system admins bring those devices online. While the general framework has been extended to Virtual Network Functions (VNFs), it is still a device-centric view of operations. But once a system becomes cloud native, two things happen that shift the balance of concerns. First, all hardware is commodity, and so Days 0 and 1 configurations become fully automated (and Day -1 is minimized since all devices are identical).3 Second, Day 2 operations become a much more sophisticated process. This is because software-based systems are more agile, making functional upgrades more commonplace. This focus on feature velocity is one of the inherent values of cloud-based systems, but not surprisingly, it brings its own set of challenges to management.

3

Colloquially, this is sometimes referred to as a shift from taking care of pets to one of herding cattle.

This book addresses those management challenges, which brings us to a final note about two words we use frequently: Operating and Operationalizing. Being able to operate a cloud is the end goal and implies an ongoing process, whereas to operationalize a cloud implies the process of bringing a set of hardware and software components into a state that makes it easy to sustain their ongoing operation. This distinction is relevant because operationalizing a cloud is not a one-time proposition, but rather, an essential aspect of day-to-day operations. Being rapidly evolvable is one of the cloud’s most important features, making continual operationalization a key requirement for operating an edge cloud.

1.2 Disaggregation

To fully understand the challenge of operating a cloud, we have to start with the underlying building blocks: a collection of software-based microservices running on commodity hardware. These building blocks are the consequence of having disaggregated the bundled and purpose-built network appliances that came before. From the management perspective, it is helpful to identify what becomes easier and what becomes harder when you make this transition. This is both the challenge and the opportunity of disaggregation.

Broadly speaking, disaggregation is the process of breaking large bundled components into a set of smaller constituent parts. SDN is one example of disaggregation—it decouples the network’s control and data planes, with the former running as a cloud service and the latter running in commodity switches. The microservice architecture is another example of disaggregation—it breaks monolithic cloud applications into a mesh of single-function components. Disaggregation is widely viewed as an essential step in accelerating feature velocity. This is the opportunity side of the story, which is nicely summarized by Weaveworks.

Further Reading

Weaveworks. What You Need to Know for Cloud Native.

The challenge side of the story is that there are many more moving parts that have to be integrated, coordinated, and managed. Circling back to terminology, Orchestration and Lifecycle Management become the dominant issues because (a) many smaller parts have to be assembled, and (b) these individual parts are expected to change more frequently. Much of this book focuses on these two issues.

The good news is that the industry seems to have converged on containers as the common representation for “component packaging” and Kubernetes as the first-level container orchestrator. (We say “first-level” because Kubernetes is not sufficient by itself.) This foundation, in turn, makes many of the other challenges more manageable:

  • Monitoring and other telemetry-related mechanisms are themselves realized as a set of container-based microservices, deployed within the cloud they observe.

  • ISSU becomes more tractable because the microservice architecture encourages stateless components, with persistent state isolated in a single function-agnostic storage service, such as a key-value store.

  • Zero-Touch Provisioning is more tractable because the hardware is commodity, and hence, (nearly) identical. This also means the vast majority of configuration involves initiating software parameters, which is more readily automated.

  • Cloud native implies a set of best-practices for addressing many of the FCAPS requirements, especially as they relate to availability and performance, both of which are achieved through horizontal scaling. Secure communication is also typically built into cloud RPC mechanisms.

Another way to say this is that by rearchitecting bundled appliances and devices as horizontally scalable microservices running on commodity hardware, what used to be a set of one-off O&M problems are now solved by widely applied best-practices from distributed systems, which have in turn been codified in state-of-the-art cloud management frameworks (like Kubernetes). This leaves us with the problem of (a) provisioning commodity hardware, (b) orchestrating the container building blocks, (c) deploying microservices to collect and archive monitoring data in a uniform way, and (d) continually integrating and deploying individual microservices as they evolve over time.

Finally, because a cloud is infinitely programmable, the system being managed has the potential to change substantially over time.4 This means that the cloud management system must itself be easily extended to support new features (as well as the refactoring of existing features). This is accomplished in part by implementing the cloud management system as a cloud service, which means we will see a fair amount of recursive dependencies throughout this book. It also points to taking advantage of declarative specifications of how all the disaggregated pieces fit together. These specifications can then be used to generate elements of the management system, rather than having to manually recode them. This is a subtle issue we will return to in later chapters, but ultimately, we want to be able to auto-configure the subsystem responsible for auto-configuring the rest of the system.

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For example, compare the two services Amazon offered ten years ago (EC2 and S3) with the well over 100 services available on the AWS console today (not counting the marketplace of partner-provided services).

1.3 Cloud Technology

Being able to operationalize a cloud starts with the building blocks used to construct the cloud in the first place. This section summarizes the available technology, with the goal of identifying the baseline capabilities of the underlying system. This baseline is then assumed by the collection of management-related subsystems described throughout this book.

Before identifying these building blocks, we need to acknowledge that we are venturing into a gray area, having to do with what you consider to be “part of the platform being managed” versus “part of the subsystem that manages the platform.” To further complicate matters, where you draw the line shifts over time as technology matures and becomes ubiquitous.

For example, if you start with the premise that a cloud hosts a set of containers, then your management layer would be responsible for detecting and restarting failed containers. On the other hand, if you assume containers are resilient (i.e., able to auto-recover), then the management layer would not need to include that functionality (although it probably still needs to detect when the auto-recovery mechanism fails and correct for that). This is not a unique situation—complex systems often include mechanisms that address problems at multiple levels. For the purpose of this book, we just need to decide on a line that separates “technology that is assumed” from “problems that remain and how we address them.” The following identifies the technology we assume.

1.3.1 Hardware Platform

The assumed hardware building blocks are straightforward. We start with bare-metal servers and switches, built using merchant silicon chips. These might, for example, be ARM or x86 processor chips and Tomahawk or Tofino switching chips, respectively. The bare-metal boxes also include a bootstrap mechanism (e.g., BIOS for servers and ONIE for switches), and a remote device management interface (e.g., IPMI or Redfish).

Further Reading

DMTF. Redfish.

A physical cloud cluster is then constructed with the hardware building blocks arranged as shown in Figure 1: one or more racks of servers connected by a leaf-spine switching fabric. The servers are shown above the switching fabric to emphasize that software running on the servers controls the switches.

_images/Slide1.png

Figure 1. Example building block components used to construct a cloud, including commodity servers and switches, interconnected by a leaf-spine switching fabric.

Figure 1 also includes the assumed low-level software components, which we describe next. Collectively, all the hardware and software components shown in the figure form the platform. Where we draw the line between what’s in the platform and what runs on top of the platform, and why it is important, will become clear in later chapters, but the summary is that different mechanisms will be responsible for (a) bringing up the platform and prepping it to host workloads, and (b) managing the various workloads that need to be deployed on that platform.

1.3.2 Software Building Blocks

We assume four foundational software technologies, all running on the commodity processors in the cluster:

  1. Linux provides isolation for running container workloads.

  2. Docker containers package software functionality.

  3. Kubernetes instantiates and interconnects containers.

  4. Helm charts specify how collections of related containers are interconnected to build applications.

These are all well known and ubiquitous, and so we only summarize them here. Links to related information for anyone that is not familiar with them (including excellent hands-on tutorials for the three software building blocks) are given below.

Linux is the OS that runs on the bare metal systems. It provides low-level APIs that container runtime systems use to implement isolation, including namespaces to isolate filesystem and network access, and cgroups to limit memory and processor usage.

Docker is a container runtime that leverages OS isolation APIs to instantiate and run multiple containers, each of which is an instance defined by a Docker image. Docker images are most frequently built using a Dockerfile, which uses a layering approach that allows sharing and building customized images on top of base images. A final image for a particular task incorporates all dependencies required by the software that is to run in the container, resulting in a container image that is portable across servers, depending only on the kernel and Docker runtime. We also assume one or more image artifact repositories of Docker containers that we will want to deploy in our cloud, of which https://hub.docker.com/ is the best known example.

Further Reading

Docker Tutorial.

Kubernetes is a container management system. It provides a programmatic interface for scaling container instances up and down, allocating server resources to them, setting up virtual networks to interconnect those instances, and opening service ports that external clients can use to access those instances. Behind the scenes, Kubernetes monitors the liveness of those containers, and automatically restarts any that have failed. In other words, if you instruct Kubernetes to spin up three instances of microservice X, Kubernetes will do its best to keep three instances of the container that implements X running at all times.

Kubernetes also provides mechanisms that can be used to configure microservices when they start up, including ConfigMaps, Secrets, and Operators. Because of the role they play in cloud management, we discuss these mechanisms in more detail as they are introduced in later chapters.

Further Reading

Kubernetes Tutorial.

Helm is a configuration set manager that runs on top of Kubernetes. It issues calls against the Kubernetes API according to an operator-provided specification, known as a Helm Chart. It is now common practice for cloud applications built from a set of microservices to publish a Helm chart that defines how the application is to be deployed on a Kubernetes cluster. See https://artifacthub.io/ for a collection of publicly available Helm Charts.

Further Reading

Helm Tutorial.

The cloud management software described in this book is available in the form of a set of Docker containers, plus the associated Helm Charts that specify how they are to be deployed in a Kubernetes cluster. Overall, we make use of over 20 such open source software packages in the chapters that follow. Our goal is to show how all these open building blocks can be assembled into a comprehensive cloud management platform. We describe each tool in enough detail to appreciate how all the parts fit together—providing end-to-end coverage by connecting all the dots—plus links to full documentation for those that want to dig deeper into the details.

1.3.3 Switching Fabric

We assume the cloud is constructed using an SDN-based switching fabric, with a disaggregated control plane running in the same cloud as the fabric interconnects. For the purpose of this book, we assume the following SDN software stack:

  • A Network OS hosts a set of control applications, including a control application that manages the leaf-spine switching fabric. We use ONOS as an open source exemplar Network OS. ONOS, in turn, hosts the SD-Fabric control app.

  • A Switch OS runs on each switch, providing a northbound gNMI and gNOI interface through which the Network OS controls and configures each switch. We use Stratum as an open source exemplar Switch OS.

Building a cloud using an SDN-based switching fabric is a best practice adopted by hyperscaler cloud providers. Their solutions remain proprietary, so we use ONOS and Stratum as open source examples. It is noteworthy that ONOS and Stratum are both packaged as Docker containers, and so can be orchestrated (on both servers and switches) by Kubernetes and Helm.5

5

Switches often include a commodity processor, typically running Linux and hosting control software, in addition to any switching chip that implements the data plane. Stratum runs on this processor, and exports a northbound API that ONOS uses to configure and control the switch.

1.3.4 Repositories

For completeness, we need to mention that nearly every mechanism described in this book takes advantage of cloud-hosted repositories, such as GitHub (for code), DockerHub (for Docker images), and ArtifactHub (for Helm charts). We also assume complementary systems like Gerrit, which layer a code-review mechanism on top of a Git repository, but having direct experience with Gerrit is not critical to understanding the material.

1.3.5 Other Options

Just as important as what building blocks we take for granted are the technologies we do not include. We discuss three here.

First, you might have expected Service Mesh frameworks like Istio or Linkerd to be included. While it is true that anyone running applications on top of Kubernetes might decide to use Istio or Linkerd to help do that job—and this includes us, since much of the management system described in this book is implemented as a set of microservices—we happen to not take that approach. This is primarily an engineering choice: Service Meshes provide more features than we need, and correspondingly, we are able to realize the necessary functionality using more narrowly focused mechanisms. There is also a pedagogical reason: The fine-grained components we use are more consistent with our goal of identifying the elemental pieces of operations and management, rather than having those components bundled in a comprehensive package. We do, however, return to the role of service meshes in our discussion of observability in Chapter 6.

Second, we assume a container-based cloud platform. An alternative would have been VM-based. The main reason for this choice is that containers are rapidly becoming the de facto way to deploy scalable and highly available functionality, and operationalizing such functionality in enterprises is our primary use case. Containers are sometimes deployed inside of VMs (rather than directly on physical machines), but in that case, the VMs can be viewed as part of the underlying infrastructure (rather than a service that is offered to users). Another way of saying this is that this book focuses on how to operationalize a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) rather than an Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), although later chapters will describe how to introduce VMs as an optional way to provision the underlying infrastructure for that PaaS.

Finally, the Aether edge cloud we use as an example is similar to many other edge cloud platforms now being promoted as an enabling technology for Internet-of-Things. That Kubernetes-based on-prem/edge clouds are becoming so popular is one reason they make for such a good case study. For example, Smart Edge Open (formerly known as OpenNESS) is another open source edge platform, unique in that it includes several Intel-specific acceleration technologies (e.g., DPDK, SR-IOV, OVS/OVN). For our purposes, however, the exact set of components that make up the platform is less important than how the platform, along with all the cloud services that run on top of it, are managed as a whole. The Aether example allows us to be specific, but hopefully not at the expense of general applicability.

1.4 Future of the Sysadmin

System administrators have been responsible for operating enterprise networks since the first file servers, client workstations, and LANs were deployed over 30 years ago. Throughout that history, a robust vendor ecosystem has introduced an increasingly diverse set of network appliances, compounding the challenge of the sysadmin’s job. The introduction of virtualization technology led to server consolidation, but did not greatly reduce the management overhead. This is because each virtual appliance remains in a management silo.

Cloud providers, because of the scale of the systems they build, cannot survive with operational silos, and so they introduced increasingly sophisticated cloud orchestration technologies. Kubernetes and Helm are two high-impact examples. These cloud best-practices are now available to enterprises as well, but they are often bundled as a managed service, with the cloud provider playing an ever-greater role in operating the enterprise’s services. Outsourcing portions of the IT responsibility to a cloud provider is an attractive value proposition for many enterprises, but comes with the risk of increased dependence on a single provider. This equation is complicated by the increased likelihood that Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) also participate in the rollout of private 5G connectivity within the enterprise, deployed as yet another cloud service.

The approach this book takes is to explore a best-of-both-worlds opportunity. It does this by walking you through the collection of subsystems, and associated management processes, required to operationalize an on-prem cloud, and then provide on-going support for that cloud and the services it hosts (including 5G connectivity). Our hope is that understanding what’s under the covers of cloud-managed services will help enterprises better share responsibility for managing their IT infrastructure with cloud providers, and potentially MNOs.