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Orchestration: Stitching IT together

Posted by Pascal Joly July 7, 2017
Orchestration: Stitching IT together

The process of automating application and IT infrastructure deployment, also known as "Orchestration", has sometimes been compared to old fashioned manual stitching. In other words, as far as I am concerned, a tedious survival skill best left for the day you get stranded on a deserted island.

In this context, the term "Orchestration" really describes the process of gluing disparate pieces that never seem to fit quite perfectly together. Most often it ends up as a one-off task best left to the expert, system integrator and other professional service organization, who will eventually make it come together after throwing enough time, $$ and resources at the problem. Then the next "must have" cool technology comes around and you have to repeat the process all over again.

But it shouldn't have to be that way. What does it take for Orchestration to be sustainable and stand the test of time?

From Run Book Automation to Micro Services Orchestration

IT automation over the years has taken various names and acronyms. Back in the days (early 2000s - seems like pre-history) when I got first involved in this domain, it was referred to as Run Book Automation (RBA). RBA was mostly focused around troubleshooting automatically failure conditions and possibly take corrective action.

Cloud Orchestration became a hot topic when virtualization came of age with private and public cloud offerings pioneered by VMWare and Amazon. Its main goal was primarily to offer infrastructure  as a service (IaaS) on top of the existing hypervisor technology (or public cloud) and provide VM deployment in a technology/cloud agnostic fashion. The primary intent of these platforms (such as CloudBolt) was initially to supply a set of ready to use catalog of  predefined OS and Application images to organizations adopting virtualization technologies, and by extension create a "Platform as a Service" offering (PaaS).

Then in the early 2010s, came DevOps, popularized by Gene Kim's Phoenix Project.  For Orchestration platforms, it meant putting application release front and center, and bridging developer automation and IT operation automation under a common continuous process. The wide spread adoption by developers of several open source automation frameworks, such as Puppet, Chef and Ansible, provided a source of community driven content that could finally be leveraged by others.

Integrating and creating an ecosystem of external components has long been one of the main value add of orchestration platforms. Once all the building blocks are available it is both easier and faster to develop even complex automation workflows. Front and center to these integrations has been the adoption of RESTful APIs  as the de facto standard. For the most part, exposing these  hooks has made the task of interacting with each component quite a bit faster. Important caveats: not all APIs are created equal, and there is a wide range of maturity level across platforms.

With the coming of age and adoption of container technologies, which provide a fast way to distribute and scale lightweight application processes, a new set of automation challenges naturally occurs: connecting these highly dynamic and ephemeral infrastructure components to networking, configuring security and linking these to stateful data stores.

Replacing each orchestration platform by a new one when the next technology (such as serverless computing) comes around is neither cost effective or practical. Let's take a look at what makes such framework(s) a sustainable solution that can be used for the long run.

There is no "one size fits all" solution

What is clear from my experience interacting with this domain over the last 10 years is that there is no "one size fits all"  solution, but rather a combination of orchestrations frameworks that depend on each others with a specific role and focus area. A  report on the topic was recently published by SDx Central covering the plethora of tools available. Deciding what is the right platform for the job can be overwhelming at first, unless you know what to look for. Some vendors offer a one stop shop for all functions, often taking the burden of integrating different products from their portfolio, while some others provide part of the solution and the choices to integrate northbound and southbound to other tools and technologies.

To better understand how this would shape up, let's go through a typical example of continuous application testing and certification, using the Quali's CloudShell Platform to define and deploy the environment (also available in a video).

The first layer of automation will come with a workflow tool such as the Jenkins pipeline. This tool will be used to orchestrate the deployment of the infrastructure for the different stages of the pipeline as well as trigger the test/validation steps. It delegates the next layer down the task to deploy the application. then orchestration will set up the environment and deploy the infrastructure and configure the application on top. Finally the last layer, closest to the infrastructure will be responsible for deploying the Virtual Machines and Containers onto the hypervisor or physical hosts, such as Openstack and Kubernetes.

Standardization and Extensibility

When it comes to scaling such a solution to multiple applications across different teams, there are 2 fundamental aspects to consider in any orchestration platform: standardization and extensibility.

Standardization should come from templates and modeling based on a common language. Aligning on an industry open standard such as TOSCA to model resources will provide a way to quickly on board new technologies into the platform as they mature without "reinventing the wheel".

Standardization of the content also means providing management and control to allow access by multiple teams concurrently. Once the application stack is modeled into a blueprint it is published to a self service catalog based on categories and permissions. Once ready for deployment, the user or API provides any required input and the orchestration creates a sandbox. This sandbox can then be used for completing some testing against its components. Once testing and validation is complete, another "teardown" orchestration kicks in and all the resources in the sandbox get reset to their initial state and are cleaned up (deleted).

Extensibility is what brings the community around a platform together. From a set of standard templates and clear rules, it should be possible to extend the orchestration and customize it to meet the needs of my equipment, application and technologies. That means the option, if you have the skill set, to not depend on professional services help from the vendor. The other aspect of it is what I would call vertical extensibility, or the ability to easily incorporate other tools as part of an end to end automation workflow. Typically that means having a stable and comprehensive northbound REST API and providing a rich set of plugins. For instance, using the Jenkins pipeline to trigger a Sandbox.

Another important consideration is the openness of the content. At Quali we've open sourced all the content on top of the CloudShell platform to make it easier for developers. On top of that a lot of out of the box content is already available so a new user will never have to start from scratch.

Want to learn more on how we implemented some of these best practices with Quali's Cloud Sandboxes? Watch a Demo!

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