The dynamic data center of the future, enabled by IT as a Service, is stateless.
One of the core concepts associated with SOA – and one that failed to really take hold, unfortunately – was the ability to bind, i.e. invoke, a service at run-time. WSDL was designed to loosely couple services to clients, whether they were systems, applications or users, in a way that was dynamic. The information contained in the WSDL provided everything necessary to interface with a service on-demand without requiring hard-coded integration techniques used in the past. The theory was you’d find an appropriate service, hopefully in a registry (UDDI-based), grab the WSDL, set up the call, and then invoke the service. In this way, the service could “migrate” because its location and invocation specific meta-data was in the WSDL, not hard-coded in the client, and the client could “reconfigure”, as it were, on the fly.
There are myriad reasons why this failed to really take hold (notably that IT culture inhibited the enforcement of a strong and consistent governance strategy) but the idea was and remains sound. The goal of a “stateless” architecture, as it were, remains a key characteristic of what is increasingly being called IT as a Service – or “private” cloud computing .
The reason the concept of a “stateless” infrastructure architecture is so vital to a successful IT as a Service initiative is the volatility inherent in both the application and network infrastructure needed to support such an agile ecosystem. IP addresses, often used to bypass the latency induced by resolution of host names at run-time from DNS calls, tightly couple systems together – including network services. Routing and layer 3 switching use IP addresses to create a virtual topology of the architecture and ensure the flow of data from one component to the next, based on policy or pre-determine routes as meets the needs of the IT organization. It is those policies that in many cases can be eliminated; replaced with a more service-oriented approach that provisions resources on-demand, in real-time. This eliminates the “state” of an application architecture by removing delivery dependencies on myriad policies hard-coded throughout the network.
Policies are inexorably tied to configurations, which are the infrastructure equivalent of state in the infrastructure architecture.
Because of the reliance on IP addresses imposed by the very nature of network and Internet architectural design, we’ll likely never reach full independence from IP addresses. But we can move closer to a “stateless” run-time infrastructure architecture inside the data center by considering those policies that can be eliminated and instead invoked at run-time. Not only would such an architecture remove the tight coupling between policies and infrastructure, but also between applications and the infrastructure tasked with delivering them. In this way, applications could more easily be migrated across environments, because they are not tightly bound to the networking and security policies deployed on infrastructure components across the data center.
The pre-positioning of policies across the infrastructure requires codifying topological and architectural meta-data in a configuration. That configuration requires management; it requires resources on the infrastructure – storage and memory – while the device is active. It is an extra step in the operational process of deploying, migrating and generally managing an application. It is “state” and it can be reduced – though not eliminated – in such a way as to make the run-time environment, at least, stateless and thus more motile.
What’s needed to move from a state-dependent infrastructure architecture to one that is more stateless is to start viewing infrastructure functions as services. Services can be invoked, they are loosely coupled, they are independent of solution and product. Much in the same way that stateless application architectures address the problems associated with persistence and impede real-time migration of applications across disparate environments, so too does stateless infrastructure architectures address the same issues inherent in policy-based networking – policy persistence.
While standardized APIs and common meta-data models can alleviate much of the pain associated with migration of architectures between environments, they still assume the existence of specific types of components (unless, of course, a truly service-oriented model in which services, not product functions, are encapsulated). Such a model extends the coupling between components and in fact can “break” if said service does not exist. Conversely, a stateless architecture assumes nothing; it does not assume the existence of any specific component but merely indicates the need for a particular service as part of the application session flow that can be fulfilled by any appropriate infrastructure providing such a service. This allows the provider more flexibility as they can implement the service without exposing the underlying implementation – exactly as a service-oriented architecture intended. It further allows providers – and customers – to move fluidly between implementations without concern as only the service need exist. The difficulty is determining what services can be de-coupled from infrastructure components and invoked on-demand, at run-time. This is not just an application concern, it becomes an infrastructure component concern, as well, as each component in the flow might invoke an upstream – or downstream – service depending on the context of the request or response being processed.
Assuming that such services exist and can be invoked dynamically through a component and implementation-agnostic mechanism, it is then possible to eliminate many of the pre-positioned, hard-coded policies across the infrastructure and instead invoke them dynamically. Doing so reduces the configuration management required to maintain such policies, as well as eliminating complexity in the provisioning process which must, necessarily, include policy configuration across the infrastructure in a well-established and integrated enterprise-class architecture.
Assuming as well that providers have implemented support for similar services, one can begin to see the migratory issues are more easily redressed and the complications caused by needed to pre-provision services and address policy persistence during migration mostly eliminated.
One way of accomplishing such a major transformation in the data center – from policy to service-oriented architecture – is to shift our thinking from functions to services. It is not necessarily efficient to simply transplant a software service-oriented approach to infrastructure because the demands on performance and aversion to latency makes a dynamic, run-time binding to services unappealing. It also requires a radical change in infrastructure architecture by adding the components and services necessary to support such a model – registries and the ability of infrastructure components to take advantage of them. An in-line, transparent invocation method for infrastructure services offers the same flexibility and motility for applications and infrastructure without imposing performance or additional dependency constraints on implementers.
But to achieve a stateless infrastructure architectural model, one must first shift their thinking from functions to services and begin to visualize a data center in which application requests and responses communicate the need for particular downstream and upstream services with them, rather than completely in hard-coded policies stored in component configurations. It is unlikely that in the near-term we can completely eliminate the need for hard-coded configuration, we’re just no where near that level of dynamism and may never be. But for many services – particularly those associated with run-time delivery of applications, we can achieve the stateless architecture necessary to realize a more mobile and dynamic data center.