This is the first blog post I am writing this year.
I was planning to publish this before Christmas, but I figured out it would be better to wait and reflect even more about the trends that’s currently taking place in this industry.
So what’s a better way to start the New Year other than with something I really think will be one of the big bets for the coming year(s)?
I drink a lot of coffee. In fact, I might suspect it will kill me someday. On a positive note, at least I was the one who was controlling it. Jokes aside, I like to drink coffee when I'm thinking out loud around technologies and potentially reflect on the steps we’ve made so far.
Going back to 2009-10 when I was entering the world of virtualization with Windows Server 2008 R2 and Hyper-V, I couldn’t possible imagine how things would change in the future.
At this very day, I realized that the things we were doing back then, was just the foundation to what we are seeing today.
The same arguments are being used throughout the different layers of the stack.
We need to optimize our resources, increase density, flexibility and provide fault-tolerant, resilient and highly-available solutions to bring our business forward.
That was the approach back then – and that’s also the approach right now.
We have constantly been focusing on the infrastructure layer, trying to solve whatever issues that might occur. We have been in the belief that if we actually put our effort into the infrastructure layer, then the applications we put on top of that will be smiling from ear to ear.
But things change.
The infrastructure change, and the applications are changing.
Azure made its debut in 2007-08 I remember. Back then it was all about Platform as a Service offerings.
The offerings were a bit limited back then, giving us cloud services (web role – and worker role), caching and messaging systems such as Service Bus, together with SQL and other storage options such as blob, table and queue.
Many organizations were really struggling back then to get a good grasp of this approach. It was complex. It was a new way of developing and delivering services, and in almost all cases, the application had to be rewritten to fully functional using the PaaS components in Azure.
People were just getting used to virtual machines and has started to use them frequently also a part of test and development of new applications. Many customers went deep into virtualization in production as well, and the result was a great demand from customers for having the opportunity to host virtual machines in Azure too.
This would simplify any migration of “legacy” applications to the cloud, and more or less solve the well-known challenges we were aware of back then.
During the summer in 2011 (if my memory serves me well), Microsoft announced their support of Infrastructure as a Service in Azure. Finally they were able to hit the high note!
An increased consumption of Azure was the natural result, and the cloud came a bit closer to most of the customers out there. Finally there was a service model that people could really understand. They were used to virtual machines. The only difference now was the runtime environment, which was now hosted in Azure datacenters instead of their own. At the same time, the PaaS offerings in Azure had evolved and grown to become even more sophisticated.
It is common knowledge now, and it was common knowledge back then that PaaS was the optimal service model for applications living in the cloud, compared to IaaS.
By the end of the day, each and every developer and business around the globe would prefer to host and provide their applications to customers as SaaS instead of anything else, such as traditional client/server applications.
So where are we now?
You probably might wonder where the heck I am going with this?
And trust me, I also wondered at some point. I had to get another cup of coffee before I was able to do a further breakdown.
Looking at Microsoft Azure and the services we have there, it is clear to me that the ideal goal for the IaaS platform is to get as near as possible to the PaaS components in regards to scalability, flexibility, automation, resiliency, self-healing and much more.
For those who have been deep into Azure with Azure Resource Manager know that there’s some really huge opportunities now to leverage the actual platform to deliver IaaS that you ideally don’t have to touch.
With features such as VM Scale Sets (preview), Azure Container Service (also preview), and a growing list of extensions to use together with your compute resources, you can potentially instantiate a state-of-the-art infrastructure hosted in Azure, without having to touch the infrastructure (of course you can’t touch Azure infrastructure, but I am now talking about the virtual infrastructure itself, the one you are basically responsible of).
The IaaS building blocks in Azure is separated in a way so that you can look at them as individual scale-units. Compute, Storage and Networking are all combined to bring you virtual machines. Having this approach with having the loosely coupled, we can also see that these building blocks are empowering many of the PaaS components in Azure itself that lives upon the IaaS.
The following graphic shows how the architecture is layered.
Once Microsoft Azure Stack becomes available on-prem, we will have one consistent platform that brings the same capabilities to your own datacenter as you can use in Azure already.
Starting at the bottom, IaaS is on the left side while PaaS is on the right hand side.
By climbing up, you can see that both Azure Stack and Azure Public cloud – which will be consistent has the same approach. VMs and VM Scale sets covers both IaaS and PaaS, but VM Scale Sets is place more on the right hand side than VMs. This is because VM Scale Sets is considered as the powering backbone from the other PaaS services on top of it.
Also VM Extensions leans more to the right as it gives us the opportunity to do more than traditional IaaS. We can extend our virtual machines to perform advanced in-guest operations when using extensions, so anything from provisioning of complex applications, configuration management and more can be handled automatically by the Azure platform.
On the left hand side on top of VM Extensions, we will find Cluster orchestration such as SCALR, RightScale, Mesos and Swarm. Again dealing with a lot of infrastructure, but also providing orchestration on top of it.
Batch is a service that is powered by Azure compute and is a compute job scheduling service that will start a pool of virtual machines for you, installing applications and staging data, running jobs with as many tasks as you have.
Going further to the right, we are seeing two very interesting things – which also is the main driver for the entire blog post. Containers and Service Fabric is leaning more to the PaaS side, and it is not by coincident that Service Fabric is at the right hand side of containers.
Let us try to do a breakdown of containers and Service Fabric
Comparing Containers and Service Fabric
Right now in Azure, we have a new preview service that I encourage everyone who’s interesting in container technology to look into. The ACS Resource Provider provides you basically with a very efficient and low-cost solution to instantiate a complete container environment using a single Azure Resource Manager API call to the underlying resource provider. After completion of the deployment, you will be surprised to find 23 resources within a single resource groups containing all the components you need to have a complete container environment up and running.
One important thing to note at this point is that ACS is Linux first and containers first, in comparison to Service Fabric – which is Windows first and also microservices first rather to container first.
At this time it is ok to be confused. And perhaps this is a good time for me to explain the difficulties to put this on paper.
I am now consuming the third cup of coffee.
Azure explains it all
Let us take some steps back to get some more context into the discussion we are entering.
If you want to keep up with everything that comes in Azure nowadays, that is more or less a full-time job. The rapid pace of innovation, releases and new features is next to crazy.
Have you ever wondered how the engineering teams are able to ship solutions this fast – also with this level of quality?
Many of the services we are using today in Azure is actually running on Service Fabric as Microservices. This is a new way of doing development and is also the true implementation of DevOps, both as a culture and also from a tooling point of view.
Meeting customer expectations isn’t easy. But it is possible when you have a platform that supports and enables it.
As I stated earlier in this blog post, the end goal for any developer would be to deliver their solutions using the SaaS service model.
That is the desired model which implies continuous delivery, automation through DevOps, adoption of automatable, elastic and scalable microservices.
Wait a moment. What exactly is Service Fabric?
Service Fabric provides the complete runtime management for microservices and is dealing with the things we have been fighting against for decades. Out-of-the box, we get hyper scale, partitioning, rolling upgrades, rollbacks, health monitoring, load balancing, failover and replication. All of these capabilities is built-in so we can focus on building those applications we want to be scalable, reliable, consistent and available microservices.
Service Fabric provides a model so you can wrap together the code for a collection of related microservices and their related configuration manifests to an application package. The package is then deployed to a Service Fabric Cluster (this is actually a cluster that runs on one as much as many thousands Windows virtual machines – yes, hyper scale). We have two defined programming models in Service Fabric, which is ‘Reliable Actor’ and ‘Reliable Service’. Both of these models provides you with – and makes it possible to write both stateless and stateful applications. This is breaking news.
You can go ahead and create and develop stateless applications in more or less the same way you have been doing for years, trusting to externalize the state to some queuing system or some other data store, but again handling the complexity of having a distributed application at scale. Personally I think the stateful approach in Service Fabric is what make this so exciting. Being able to write stateful applications that is constantly available, having a primary/replica relationship with its members is very tempting. We are trusting the Service Fabric itself to deal with all the complexity we have been trying to enable in the Infrastructure layer for years, at the same time as the stateful microservices keep the logic and data close so we don’t need queues and caches.
Ok, but what about the container stuff you mentioned?
So Service Fabric provides everything out of the box. You can think of it as a complete way to handle everything from beginning to the end, including a defined programming model that even brings an easy way of handling stateful applications.
ACS on the other side provides a core infrastructure which provides significant flexibility but this brings a cost when trying to implement stateful services. However, the applications themselves are more portable since we can run them wherever Docker containers can run, while microservices on Service Fabric can only run on Service Fabric.
The focus for ACS right now is around open source technologies that can be taken in whole or in part. The orchestration layer and also the application layer brings a great level of portability as a result of that, where you can leverage open source components and deploy them wherever you want.
In the end of the day, Service Fabric has a more restrictive nature but also gives you a more rapid development experience, while ACS provides the most flexibility.
So what exactly is the comparison of Containers and microservices with Service Fabric at this point?
What they indeed do have in common is that this is another layer of abstraction in addition to the things we are already dealing with. Forget what you know about virtual machines for a moment. Containers and microservices is exactly what engineers and developers are demanding to unlock new business scenarios, especially in a time where IoT, Big Data, insight and analytics is becoming more and more important for businesses world wide. The cloud itself is the foundation that enables all of this, but having the great flexibility that both container – and service fabric provides is really speeding up the innovation we’re seeing.
For organizations that has truly been able to adopt the DevOps mindset, they are harnessing that investment and is capable of shipping quality code at a much more frequent cadence than ever before.
Coffee number 4 and closing notes
First I want to thank you for spending these minutes reading my thoughts around Azure, containers, microservices, Service Fabric and where we’re heading.
2016 is a very exciting year and things are changing very fast in this industry. We are seeing customers who are making big bets in certain areas, while others are taking a potential risk of not making any bets at all. I know at least from my point of view what’s the important focus moving forward. And I will do my best to guide people on my way.
While writing these closing notes, I can only use the opportunity to point to the tenderloin in this blog post:
My background is all about ensuring that the Infrastructure is providing whatever the applications need.
That skillset is far from obsolete, however, I know that the true value belongs to the upper layers.
We are hopefully now realizing that even the infrastructure that we have been ever so careful about is turning into commodity, and now handled more through an ‘infrastructure as code’ approach than ever before, trusting that it works, empowers the PaaS components – that again brings the world forward while powering SaaS applications.
Container technologies and Microservices as part of Service Fabric is taking that for granted, and from now on, I am doing the same.