Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What Language Does the Cloud Speak, Now and In the Future?

You're a developer writing applications that use the cloud. Your code manipulates cloud resources, creating and destroying VMs, defining storage and networking, and gluing these resources together to create the infrastructure upon which your application runs. You use an API to perform these cloud operations - and this API is specific to the programming language and to the cloud provider you're using: for example, for Java EC2 applications you'd use typica, for Python EC2 applications you'd use boto, etc. But what's happening under the hood, when you call these APIs? How do these libraries communicate with the cloud? What language does the cloud speak?

I'll explore this question for today's cloud, and touch upon what the future holds for cloud APIs.

Java? Python? Perl? PHP? Ruby? .NET?

It's tempting to say that the cloud speaks the same programming language whose API you're using. Don't be fooled: it doesn't.

"Wait," you say. "All these languages have Remote Procedure Call (RPC) mechanisms. Doesn't the cloud use them?"

No. The reason why RPCs are not provided for every language is simple: would you want to support a product that needed to understand the RPC mechanism of many languages? Would you want to add support for another RPC mechanism as a new language becomes popular?

No? Neither do cloud providers.

So they use HTTP.

HTTP: It's a Protocol

The cloud speaks HTTP. HTTP is a protocol: it prescribes a specific on-the-wire representation for the traffic. Commands are sent to the cloud and results returned using the internet's most ubiquitous protocol, spoken by every browser and web server, routable by all routers, bridgeable by all bridges, and securable by any number of different methods (HTTP + SSL/TLS being the most popular, a.k.a. HTTPS). RPC mechanisms cannot provide all these benefits.

Cloud APIs all use HTTP under the hood. EC2 actually has two different ways of using HTTP: the SOAP API and the Query API. SOAP uses XML wrappers in the body of the HTTP request and response. The Query API places all the parameters into the URL itself and returns the raw XML in the response.

So, the lingua franca of the cloud is HTTP.

But EC2's use of HTTP to transport the SOAP API and the Query API is not the only way to use HTTP.

HTTP: It's an API

HTTP itself can be used as a rudimentary API. HTTP has methods (GET, PUT, POST, DELETE) and return codes and conventions for passing arguments to the invoked method. While SOAP wraps method calls in XML, and Query APIs wrap method calls in the URL (e.g. http://ec2.amazonaws.com/?Action=DescribeRegions), HTTP itself can be used to encode those same operations. For example:
GET /regions HTTP/1.1
Host: cloud.example.com
Accept: */*
That's a (theoretical) way to use raw HTTP to request the regions available from a cloud located at cloud.example.com. It's about a simple as you can get for an on-the-wire representation of the API call.

Using raw HTTP methods we can model a simple API as follows:
  • HTTP GET is used as a "getter" method.
  • HTTP PUT and POST are used as "setter" or "constructor" methods.
  • HTTP DELETE is used to delete resources.
All CRUD operations can be modeled in this manner. This technique of using HTTP to model a higher-level API is called Representational State Transfer, or REST. RESTful APIs are mapped to the HTTP verbs and are very lightweight. They can be used directly by any language (OK, any language that supports HTTP - which is every useful language) and also by browsers directly.

RESTful APIs are "close to the metal" - they do not require a higher-level object model in order to be usable by servers or clients, because bare HTTP constructs are used.

Unfortunately, EC2's APIs are not RESTful. Amazon was the undisputed leader in bringing cloud to the masses, and its cloud API was built before RESTful principles were popular and well understood.

Why Should the Cloud Speak RESTful HTTP?

Many benefits can be gained by having the cloud speak RESTful HTTP. For example:
  • The cloud can be operated directly from the command-line, using curl, without any language libraries needed.
  • Operations require less parsing and higher-level modeling because they are represented close to the "native" HTTP layer.
  • Cache control, hashing and conditional retrieval, alternate representations of the same resource, etc., can be easily provided via the usual HTTP headers. No special coding is required.
  • Anything that can run a web server can be a cloud. Your embedded device can easily advertise itself as a cloud and make its processing power available for use via a lightweight HTTP server.
All these benefits are important enough to be provided by any cloud API standard.

Where are Cloud API Standards Headed?

There are many cloud API standardization efforts. Some groups are creating open standards, involving all industry stakeholders and allowing you (the developer) to use them or implement them without fear of infringing on any IP. Some of them are not open, where those guarantees cannot be made. Some are language-specific APIs, and others are HTTP-based APIs (RESTful or not).

The following are some popular cloud APIs:

Zend Simple Cloud API
Dasein Cloud API
Open Cloud Computing Interface (OCCI)
Microsoft Azure
Amazon EC2
VMware vCloud

Here's how the above products (APIs) compare, based on these criteria:

Open: The specification is available for anyone to implement without licensing IP, and the API was designed in a process open to the public.
Proprietary: The specification is either IP encumbered or the specification was developed without the free involvement of all ecosystem participants (providers, ISVs, SIs, developers, end-users).
API: The standard defines an API requiring a programming language to operate.
Protocol: The standard defines a protocol - HTTP.

This chart shows the following:
  • There are many language-specific APIs, most open-source.
  • Proprietary standards are the dominant players in the marketplace today.
  • OCCI is the only completely open standard defining a protocol.
  • Deltacloud was begun by RedHat and is currently open, but its initial development was closed and did not involve players from across the ecosystem (hence its location on the border between Open and Proprietary).

What Does This Mean for the Cloud Developer?

The future of the cloud will have a single protocol that can be used to operate multiple providers. Libraries will still exist for every language, and they will be able to control any standards-compliant cloud. In this world, a RESTful API based on HTTP is a highly attractive option.

I highly recommend taking a look at the work being done in OCCI, an open standard that reflects the needs of the entire ecosystem. It'll be in your future.

Update 27 October 2009:
Further Reading
No mention of cloud APIs would be complete without reference to William Vambenepe's articles on the subject:

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Avoiding EC2 InsufficientInstanceCapacity: Insufficient Capacity Errors

Here's a quick tip from this thread on the AWS EC2 Developer Forums.

If you experience the InsufficientInstanceCapacity: Insufficient Capacity error, you'll be glad to know there are some strategies for working around it. Justin@AWS offers this advice:
There can be short periods of time when we are unable to accommodate instance requests that are targeted to a specific Availability Zone. When a particular instance type experiences unexpected demand in an Availability Zone, our system must react by shifting capacity from one instance type to another. This can result in short periods of insufficient capacity. We incorporate this data into our capacity planning and try to manage all zones to have adequate capacity at all times. The following steps will ensure that you will have the best experience launching Amazon EC2 instances when an initial insufficient capacity message is received:

1. Don't specify an Availability Zone in your request unless necessary. By targeting a specific Availability Zone you eliminate our ability to satisfy that request by using our other available Availability Zones. Please note that a single RunInstances call will allocate all instances within a single Availability Zone.

2. If you require a large number of instances for a particular job, please request them in batches. The best practice to follow here is to request 25% of your total cluster size at a time. For example, if you want to launch 200 instances, launching 50 instances at a time will result in a better experience.

3. Try using a different instance type. As capacity varies across instance types, attempting to launch difference instance types provides spill over capacity should your primary instance type be temporarily unavailable.

Unfortunately, these techniques require that you be willing to accept higher bandwidth costs for cross-availability-zone traffic.

And, none of these tips help if you're using Auto Scaling. A single Auto Scaling Group must be in a specific availability zone, so #1 won't help. You can try using smaller numbers of instances when a trigger is reached by choosing a smaller LowerBreachScaleIncrement or UpperBreachScaleIncrement (which control by how many instances or by what percent to scale in each direction), as per #2, but this is only helpful if you've planned in advance. And #3 is only possible if you've already noticed an auto scaling activity failure and changed the Launch Configuration - which defeats the purpose of Auto Scaling.

Auto Scaling's error reporting and recovery is very limited currently. Are you listening, AWS?

Update 18 October 2009: AWS is listening. The following post by John@AWS appears in this thread:
AutoScaling currently reports [...] InsufficientInstanceCapacity [...] as a generic Internal Error. This is unintentional, and will be remedied in our next release.

Update 19 October 2009: Auto Scaling Groups can now be configured to support more than one Availability Zone. Here is the salient quote from the updated documentation:
Instance Distribution and Balance across Multiple Zones

Amazon Auto Scaling attempts to distribute instances evenly between the Availability Zones that are enabled for your AutoScalingGroup. Auto Scaling uses the Availability Zone with the least number of instances when launching new instances. However, if an Availabilty Zone has insufficient capacity or if Amazon EC2 is unable to launch new instances in it, then Auto Scaling launches instances in another Availability Zone to satisfy the required capacity for your group.

Certain operations and conditions can cause your AutoScalingGroup to become unbalanced. Auto Scaling compensates by creating a rebalancing activity under any of the following conditions:

  1. You issue a request to change the Availability Zones for your group.

  2. You call TerminateInstanceInAutoScalingGroup, which causes the group to become unbalanced.

  3. An Availability Zone that previously had insufficient capacity recovers and has additional capacity available.

Auto Scaling always launches new instances before attempting to terminate old ones, so a rebalancing activity will not compromise the performance or availability of your application.

Multi-Zone Instance Counts when Approaching Capacity

Because Auto Scaling always attempts to launch new instances before terminating old ones, being at or near the specified maximum capacity could impede or completely halt rebalancing activities. To avoid this problem, the system can temporarily exceed the specified maximum capacity of a group by a 10% margin during a rebalancing activity. The margin is only extended if the group is at or near maximum capacity and needs rebalancing (either as a result of user-requested rezoning or to compensate for zone availability issues). The extension only lasts as long as needed to re-balanced the group (typically a few minutes).