Friday, 21 August 2015

Doing Something About Security -- Linuxcon 2015 #3

The Let's Encrypt people are wonderful. They're doing something about the state of security on the Internet. They're providing an easy and free way to get the certificates you need to publish a secure web-site (one using HTTPS, instead of plain HTTP), like your bank does.

If you've run a secure web site, you'll know that it's expensive, inflexible, takes time to set up, and requires you to remember to renew the certificate. Let's Encrypt solves most of those problems for you, at least in a common use case.

If you run a server with a dedicated IP, have privileges to install software on that server (i.e. you can run `apt-get` or `yum`), and you use Apache or Nginx as your HTTP server, then it's brain-dead simple to switch to HTTPS.

Let's Encrypt is planning on going live sometime in the last quarter of 2015. Right now they're in a restricted beta, and users will see browser warnings about your site if you use their certificates. When they go live, they'll be backed by IdenTrust, so users will have the same warning-free experience that any other secure site would have.

But even if it's not ready to use for the general public, you can help them test. (At the moment, you can't use apt or yum to install the Let's Encrypt client. Read these installation instructions instead.)

There are lots of use cases that aren't helped by Let's Encrypt yet. Probably the most glaring are for the legions of us that use $3/month hosting services that don't give us a fixed IP and a way to install the Let's Encrypt client. Still, it's a big step forward for a secure web.

Mood and Swag -- Linuxcon 2015 #2

Four years ago I went to Linuxcon NA 2011. The unspoken mood of the conference seemed to be, "Linux has won the OS wars, but the rest of the world hasn't noticed." At Linuxcon NA 2015, the unspoken mood of the conference was, "It doesn't matter who won the OS wars."

Some big markers of that:

  • IBM announcing LinuxOne, an offering for people who want to buy Z series mainframes to run Linux
  • Microsoft giving out soft squishy Tux penguins with a Microsoft URL on them, and stickers that said, "Microsoft   Linux"
  • Only one joke about 2015 being the year of the Linux desktop

Container Land -- Linuxcon 2015 #1

I went to Linuxcon 2015 NA with a friend this year. It wasn't hard to figure out what the flavour of the year was -- containers. And Docker was the overwhelming favourite. As usual, I found it way easier to see the negative in the hype, rather than the positive.

But I'll try to see the positive first. There's a lot of value in having a thinner layer, thinner than a full virtual machine, between an application's context and the bare metal. There's also value in packaging an application and distributing it in a way that's thinner than shipping a whole virtual machine. Containers have the potential to provide these features.

The container has many historical roots, but from what I saw, we're mostly excited today because this is what Google has been using for 10 years to run their vast server farms. They have a very particular use case: Huge numbers of users accessing a small set of relatively homogeneous functionality. Perfect for a light-weight way of deploying a huge number of instances of applications across the smallest number of physical resources possible.

There were a number of presentation where the engineering challenges around containers were discussed. And there are significant ones, primarily around networking and privileges (all processes in containers run as root on the containing physical machine). These challenges will be solved, but not for another 18-24 months, I'd guess. Only then can we start to talk about adoption in the enterprise world.

In the enterprise world, the one I get paid to play in, we're mostly still dealing with servers as pets. Even at my current client, who have drunk the DevOps kool-aid and have Puppetized a lot of their deploys, we're talking about very few duplicate instances of a server in production. (They get value from Puppet by cleverly factoring the Puppet configuration across development, test, UAT, and production environments.)

Given the engineering effort that was evident in the containers model, I think there's going to be another significant adoption hill, like there was for virtualization. Perhaps even more so, as I'm not convinced that the math will be quite as compelling for containers as it was for VMs. The problem is that the definitions of containers have to be hand-crafted. Once the container is defined, you can spin up thousands, quickly and efficiently. But as I just said, most enterprises just need a few instances of any particular application.

Some of the speakers talked about containers being just another stop on the continuum from physical machines to virtual machines and other models (Amazon Lambdas, for example). SaaS (not PaaS) providers can use containers to realize savings on hardware, because they can amortize the container definition cost over all their customers. Enterprises that use SaaS will use containers, without even knowing it, as it should be.

Compounding the problem of enterprise adoption of containers in-house, is the fact that the orchestration tools (tools for spinning up, shutting down, and monitoring a large number of instances), are largely split along the underlying model: You use VMware or Openstack to manage virtual machines, and Kubernetes (or any one of hundreds of other offerings) to manage containers. Most enterprises won't have the personnel or the volume of applications to justify developing two different skill sets and platforms to manage their VMs and containers. There needs to be a unified orchestration platform that covers the spectrum of deployment models.

In summary, I think that containers will be a significant deployment option in the near future, but the way they will be used in practice is still to be determined, and they may never end up being adopted for in-house enterprise deployments.