I was recently asked at my day-job to think about what the global fleet would look like if I had the powers of Star Trek’s Q and could snap my fingers with a flourish and re-form prod into what I think would be better. Without the restrictions of design documents, dozens of project management strategies and more meetings than I can shake a stick at, I’ve put a lot of idle time into thinking about this. While I have more specific recommendations about that specific fleet, I think some of the themes are worth discussing more broadly, and its worth publishing to get other people to think in those broad terms as well.

To be clear, every fleet is different and it depends on what you’re designing for. In this article, I’ll be talking about the developer and operator experience framed in the context of a bare-metal fleet in multiple physical datacenters which hosts highly stateful applications that make use of vast arrays of storage. This is quite a different fleet than many places will work with by virtue of not being in a cloud and composed almost entirely out of not only stateful applications that we run, but everyone else’s state they’ve pushed into a “someone else’s problem” field. Surrounding a problem with a SEP field doesn’t make it go away, just makes it the subject of someone else’s blog post.

Lets talk about what the developer experience should be, since its often easy to forget when working as an infrastructure engineer that the product you provide internally is developer experience. Developers often work with pretty bad analogs of production, and then are totally lost when suddenly getting pulled into an outage call that requires debugging of their portion of a large scale system that may be scaled out horizontally beyond the boundaries of your average conference room whiteboard. In my experience, we can divide the developer experience broadly into 2 parts: how you deploy and maintain software into an environment (potentially via some indirection with automation) and how you troubleshoot faults in a deployed application or complete service stack.

Deploying an application shouldn’t require a developer to think about what endpoint they’re connecting to, you shouldn’t need a wiki page that says what regions are serviced by what controllers, and you shouldn’t have to keep track of what endpoint is for staging or production. If you submit a job to the production environment, it should go to the right place without a developer needing to think about it. “The production environment” deserves some discussion here, since I use a more expansive definition for that than is in common use. The production environment for a service is any service or system that people care about if it goes down. Since developers are customers of infrastructure, all staging environments are production to them since an outage of a staging cluster will cost productivity, slow down releases, and potentially jeopardize a production release if testing can’t be performed in a timely manner. Operations may choose to have its own staging or testing systems to play with, but the clusters that are maintained for use by internal customers in the company are for all intents and purposes production clusters, just not necessarily holding data or providing services to external entities.

Its also important to make sure that accessing operations resources is a low friction experience. You shouldn’t need to talk to 5 different departments to get access to something and then connect to 2 different VPNs in the name of “security” just to check CI status on a patch. This goes doubly so for interacting with systems during outages. While consoles are insanely fast and efficient for people who work with systems every day, getting a big picture quickly is often communicated better graphically. Think in terms of web pages that show at a single glance how many shards of a replicated service are healthy, if there’s a global deployment in flight that hasn’t completed successfully, or if there’s a problem with accessing a resource in an external system that’s preventing an update from going through. These are common tasks that are much more quickly expressed by a big red/green indicator than something that a console interface can present for dozens of services at once.

Developers may be the customers, but a system that’s hostile to those maintaining it is not likely to be efficient, performant, or cost effective. For this I like to think in terms of pizza-teams. Jeff Bezos is credited with the 2-pizza team rule, and I think its a pretty good way of trying to keep a lid on how complicated systems get. At the point your system needs more people than can be fed by 2 pizzas your system has become too complicated. This reveals itself at the worst possible times when you need to make a change and have to track down too many people to get it approved and rolled out. Small teams are able to quickly share understanding, work through problems, and maintain strong working relationships with each other to reach high performing states that are unavailable to larger more fragmented teams. Do note though that even a one-pizza team encumbered by management who can’t stand aside and let SMEs work won’t be successful. Fancier titles are always a trade-off that atrophies technical knowledge, and the mark of truly skilled management is knowing when to sit down and be quiet.

Operators want services with predictable failure states, no security theater, and the appropriate amount of complexity for the job at hand. If you were to come to me and tell me that your fleet’s update system has multiple academic whitepapers published about it, I’d be very impressed and interested to read them, and then looking for something simpler and more stable to run in my own environment. Some day I’ll get cfengine working, but that day has yet to happen. There’s rarely a need for the most complicated systems down at the lower levels of system infrastructure. I primarily work in the region from the bare metal up through the operating system and configuration tools, and then hand off to other teams for business applications. Those are cool things, but they have no business in a system that needs to power on, receive work, and then do that work until I reboot it or do something else.

To this end, I often deal with people who forget that containers do actually need to run on something. I deal with a lot of kubernetes hype, and this hype has no place in the fleet of the future. Don’t get me wrong, I believe the developer experience a motivated team can provide on top of kubernetes is impressive, but its the wrong tool for the bottom levels. At the baremetal layer I need simpler and more scale-able primitives. Its nice if I can then use those primitives to orchestrate containers, but its not nice if that comes at the cost of doing privilege isolated baremetal things as real unix users, or the extensibility to drive specialized supervisors on bespoke hardware. The value of an orchestrator is amortization of mental cost associated with the systems it orchestrates and if your orchestrator handles less than half the fleet its less than useless due to the pure cost it adds. It should come as no surprise then that I think Nomad is probably the best orchestrator on the market today for managing large fleets. There has been some really interesting work lately around running single tenant kubernetes clusters on top of nomad, and since that’s how most k8s clusters I’ve encountered in the wild are deployed, this seems to provide a good balance of functionality and tooling.

Likewise to managing services, the experience of managing the network is important. From provisioning machine to provisioning services, its important to have a clean and automated process. If your process involves talking to a human for an IP or DNS name, your process is unworkable at scale and is at best going to frustrate people, and at worst going to double issue resources that you’re probably asserting uniqueness on elsewhere. Make heavy use of the automation the rest of the world has built for you here. Some of my favorites in this category include link local addressing, DHCP, and link-scoped BGP peers. These technologies mean you don’t have to care about moving packets from A to B and can get on with actually using the network to do work.

In actually using the network, always remember that you need to be able to simplify it for a developer workstation. I’ve so far only worked at one place where my desktop was running routing daemons and participating in an MPLS fabric, and while entertaining, you could see it in the ping times that this was a slow and clunky solution. Most of the time it should be possible to remove the network entirely and bind services to a loopback adapter in order to simulate things locally. I’m a huge fan of Consul Connect and being able to shuttle this experience to production where you just keep everything bound to localhost and then can make use of an external service for network ACL-ing and traffic engineering. Since these are concepts that need to happen in absolute lock step with any orchestration they must be automated. If your network security posture depends on me not changing port numbers or IPs, you don’t have a security posture, you have an exercise in directing a river with road signs.

Its been over 10 years now since the Phoenix Project was published, and while some things have changed dramatically in that time, a lot has stayed the same. We still run large fleets of compute to back increasingly complicated and dubiously architect-ed applications. There’s still the hype framework of the month that every CTO is going to want, and there’s still the never ending game of whack-a-mole with byzantine security theater that various clients are going to demand. What has changed though are the timelines people expect you to deliver the moon on the silver platter, and the number of moons per engineer that are now demanded. Its only possible to deliver on these expectations by leveraging automation that didn’t exist 10 years ago and looking critically at the problem you have rather than the solution some blog says you need (including this one).

This is a snapshot of how I think about production systems today, and like an essay I wrote some years ago that remains unpublished, it is a frozen checkpoint in my understanding of the state of the art. I’m sure that in the next decade the world of production fleet management will continue to advance, but I also think that we’re broadly homing in on certain archetypes that are proving to be not quite as limitless as we may have originally thought. Just as the end of Moore’s Law has spurred new and unconventional improvements to semiconductor design, I’m sure that as we start to bump into the limits of current paradigms we’ll find new and unconventional ways to push them out again. What I don’t think will change is the need to run more systems with fewer people all the while running every datacenter hotter and denser. When I started at Google I was shocked to see that the target fleet usage was just shy of 80%; now though I think this figure is almost too low, especially at the margins that Google operates at. It would not surprise me to learn in 10 years that the highest performing infrastructure shops are reaching 90% sustained utilization or higher.

I sincerely hope that this post has been interesting and spurred you to think about the way infrastructure is delivered. If you want to send me an angry rant telling me I got it all wrong, or just want to start a thread discussing some of the thoughts here, feel free to email me at maldridge[at]michaelwashere.net.