Tag Archives: oss

Cloud automation: Not your father’s cpanel

Traditionally, web and email hosting management tools have been mainly two platforms: Plesk and cPanel. Both tools offered the end user complete control over their email domains, DNS records, web server and lots of other goodies. Internet service providers and web hosters offered their customers rich toolsets based either on vanilla or heavily customized cPanel and Plesk environments.

Features offered from such platforms range from DNS record self management, email account and capacity configuration, web server management and database tools. At the end of the day, both address a concept which lies at the very heart of cloud computing: Software as a service. Indeed, the end user does not care about underlying storage, web server installation and tuning and all the “dirty bits”: All that is needed is access to the portal of the control panel of their web services.

So, could such tools inflate, get smarter and take over cloud automation as well? Well… Google already uses cpanel as the control panel of Google Apps and Plesk’s parent company have dipped their feet well into virtualization, but are these enough to use them as cloud provisioning and self management platforms?

Cloud automation goes well beyond service control panels. A cloud stack starts from hardware management (computing, storage nodes, network L2/L3 switching, load balancing, data and service replication), extends into the virtualization layer (VMware, HyperV, XEN and KVM stacks), takes over server and service template management, deals with metrics collection and billing interfaces, can burst your services to public clouds and finally provides a very comprehensive end user management tools. It’s simply much bigger than a web hosting management panel.

Your cloud cockpit

To name a few vendors of cloud automation products that offer all the features described above, AppLogic, Embotics, Cloudstack, Abiquo, OnApp, all of them more or less manage the entire cloud stack, bottom to top and top to bottom. What is the catch here? cPanel and Plesk are mature and usable after many years of evolution; cloud automation has been around for much less time and cloud mechanics (virtualization layer, APIs and the SaaS ecosystem) are still not concrete.

When Windows XP counts your cash

Time for an illustrated post: From a nearby mall (I swear I didn’t do it; I was fast enough to grab these shots with my relic Nokia 6300)

OK, we know that XP has been loooong ago out of support for regular customers; will be around since 2014 for banks, presumably… So this ATM will be upgraded in two-three years from now. Let’s see the next slide, please:

That’s the splash screen of IBM Tivoli TMF and we can see it’s version 4.1.1. Currently the latest release is 4.3.1, so we’re a bit behind on this, too, aren’t we?

A few questions that pop in my head as I deactivate the phone camera and put my wallet back in my pocket:

  1. Why on earth would I trust a machine running XP, the most targeted and abused OS so far, to count my money?
  2. This ATM rebooted three times in a row and then worked just fine; most probably not due to a fault (we know that PCs fail miserably and die or reboot constantly) but due to maintenance. Why would a bank run maintenance tasks remotely in broad daylight?
  3. Tivoli is a quite decent platform for managing the box and its software; yet it’s not cheap and needs backend infrastructure, let alone services from (expensive) consultants for customization and operation. If XP was chosen as a low cost platform, bundling Tivoli and friends would make it a quite costly solution.

Your Virtual Cisco IOS

Want to play with IOS but you don’t have a catalyst around? Try this. GNS3 is a marvelous and clever frontend to dynamips, dynagen and qemu which allow emulation/execution of IOS and JunOS code under a third operating system. That is, Cisco and Juniper virtualized on your desktop.

GNS3 topology of our virtual lab

What you will need is a decent PC with lots of memory (4GB to start with plus a fast CPU) and IOS/JunOS software images. The first is easy to do, for the second you will need access to licensed software or the actual hardware itself. My recommendation for the OS is Ubuntu with readily donwloadable and installable packages of all bits and pieces (# apt-get install gns3), however windows works just fine but with the 4GB constrains for a 32bit OS. Cool screenshots here.

How it works in a few words: MIPS and PPC based hardware (Cisco 26xx, 36XX, 37xx, 72xx) is emulated via dynamips running the IOS image unchanges. JunOS on the other hand is emulated with qemu using Olive, a stripped down version of JunOS, sort of an SDK. You design the topology via a snappy GUI (that is, GNS3), configure your virtual gear and then GNS3 fires up the emulators underneath. CPU and mem usage go skyhigh, but then, you have your own virtual private lab. Communication with the real world (the wire) is done via tap and bridge interfaces. Using a sniffer you can actually see real packets (with Cisco MAC prefixes and stuff) from your virtual devices swimming in your LAN.

What will work: All popular Cisco IOS devices with most linecards, JunOS Olive.

What will not work: Virtualizing dynamips itself is tricky. The emulator engine will work in a virtual host savagely consuming virtual CPU and memory resources, yet, the forged MAC addresses may not exit your hypervisor virtual switch. In vSphere, *sometimes* dynamips could emit packages only to other virtual machines running on the same ESX host, but this was not always the case… Also, note that performance is sluggish, so use GNS3 only as a demonstration and lab tool.

Business customer support: C-

Recently, a partner portal suddenly vanished: The DNS name (say http://www.acme.biz) was there but no web server was there. A call to our partner confirmed that they had changed the IP address of their portal since they upgraded their CRM, but such a problem was not reported by others. Their portal was up and running. The problem was on our side.

Indeed, http://www.acme.biz was alive and well from other uplinks. Time for nslookup, which showed that acme.biz was served by its own DNS servers. Yet, when our service provider’s DNS servers were queried for acme.biz, they responded as being authoritative for that domain. So, our service provider had effectively hijacked the domain and http://www.acme.biz does not point to the new IP address.

OK, that’s weird. We are a business customer. We have a pool of static IP addresses. We are entitled to decent DNS services, right? Anyway, let’s call their support. Oh joy, we cannot login to their customer portal! OK, let’s send an email to their helpdesk – wait, there is no helpdesk email address. The portal happily says

To provide its subscribers with optimum service, XXX has set up a Corporate Customer Technical Support Department. You can call 800 XXX XXXX (free of charge) or 69X XXX XXXX (from a mobile phone at a charge) on a 24-hour basis.

Yeah, let’s give them a call. “Dial 1 for english” “Dial 1 for product information, 2 for customer support” etc etc etc, wait a couple of minutes, a human replies. Apparently, they do not know us by company name, so they ask for our VAT code… Seems that it’s a primary key in their CRM. Found it, described the problem, “we’ll investigate it”, goodbye. No service ticket ID, no email address to reach them directly, nothing… “We’ll call you back”. Three days later nothing is resolved and nobody bothered to call back. 

So, we are a business customer of a service provider that cannot do IP address management, their self service portal does not work, their CRM is not integrated with their OSS and they do not have a mail or web gateway to their service desk… Gone with the wind.

The car paradigm

Have you ever come across a situation where you have to explain something in 3 minutes to an audience which seems to have no clue what you are talking about? Use the car metaphor. It works.

Cars are ubiquitous. We all use them, either driving them or being simple passengers. We know their shape, size, their brands, the engine noise – some even name their cars. They are big or small, fast, slow, mean, cute. Making a parallelism of a solution or product with cars is easier, but you have to pick the right attributes. An example is systems and network management and why you need them. Try to drive your car without adjusted mirrors and no dashboard: You don’t know if there are other cars in your rear corners, so you cannot change lane easily or turn. You don’t know how fast you are going, neither if your engine runs too hot. You don’t know how much gas you have in your tank. Pretty awkward, right? Well, it’s the same with running an IT and network  infrastructure without some kind of OSS or network management framework: As long as you drive straight and with a constant speed, everything is fine, yet, at some time, something will break down, a service will start spinning, storage pools will degrade or fill up, Will you be aware of these events before they occur and phones start ringing?