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This is your sysadmin speaking: please expect some turbulence.

This is your sysadmin speaking: please expect some turbulence.

A few months back I blogged about my HP DL320 Gen8’s (in)compatibility with the outside world, and someone suggested me to solve the problem by replacing the P420i RAID controller with an LSI-something which would ensure wider flexibility.

Others were suggesting to replace (again) the hard drives instead, and someone was even pushing to swap this “hobby” with something healthier and go cloud instead*.

For the first time in my life I decided to listen to friends, so I replaced the RAID controller with an LSI 9300i HBA (I’m using mdraid anyway)…

…well, not really: I also replaced the chassis, motherboard, CPU, RAM banks, fans, PSUs and drive caddies.

Meet “ZA Rev2″**:

This is how it evolved:

  • HP -> Supermicro (yay!)
  • Xeon E3-1240 v2 -> Xeon E3-1240 v6
  • 4×8 GB DDR3 RAM -> 2×16 GB DDR4 RAM (2 slots free for future upgrades)
  • HP P420i -> LSI-9300i
  • 2x SSD Samsung 850 EVO 250 GB -> no change
  • 2x HGST SATA 7.2k 1 TB -> no change

D-Day for replacement is April 18th (taking a day off from my job to go and do the same things, just for hobby, feels really weird, yes), with a 6 AM wake up call, flight to AMS, 8/10 hours to do everything and a flight back to LON (LTN to be precise, because I didn’t double check before hitting “Buy”).

Now to the sad part: there is no (easy) way to just move the drives to the new server and have everything working, so I have to reinstall it from the ground up. This means my stuff (including this blog, because loose-coupling is a thing but I decided to run its DB and NFS from another country… …for some reason) will be down (or badly broken) during that time window and possibly longer, depending how much I manage to do while I’m onsite.

The timing couldn’t be better for a clean start, as in the last few months I had been considering the option to move away (escape) from Proxmox (which, as an example, is so flexible that its management port number is hardcoded everywhere and can’t be changed) to something else, most likely oVirt or OpenNebula. Haven’t taken a decision yet, but I’ve really fallen in love with the latter: it’s perfect for the cloud-native minds and runs on Debian, whereas oVirt would force me to move to the RPM side of the world.

Deeply apologise in advance for my rants on Twitter while I try to accomplish this mission. Stay tuned.

Giorgio

 

* I.AM.100%.CLOUD. There are two things you can’t (yet) do in the cloud: physical backup of your assets that live in the cloud and testing stuff which requires VT extensions. This is what I’m doing here: ZA is my bare-metal lab.

** this is not ZA Rev2. It was supposed to be, but it came in with a faulty backplane so I pushed for it to be entirely replaced. I don’t have a picture of the new one with me at the time of writing but… yeah, it looks exactly the same (with better cable management).

Eventi straordinari e siti istituzionali: un rapporto (ancora) tormentato.

Eventi straordinari e siti istituzionali: un rapporto (ancora) tormentato.

Anni fa ho scritto questo articolo (in un momento di frustrazione causata dalla puntuale indisponibilità dei siti istituzionali nei momenti di loro maggiore utilità), nella speranza quantomeno di aprire una linea di dialogo. Ero stato fortunato e questa si era aperta, ma il tutto era stato impacchettato e rispedito al mittente senza troppi complimenti.

Il problema in breve: sono molti i siti informativi, soprattutto in ambito Pubblica Amministrazione, “inutili” e poco visitati per il 99.9% del tempo, che però diventano critici in momenti di particolare interesse. Immaginate ad esempio il censimento della popolazione: ha cadenza decennale e dura due mesi. Durante questa finestra di tempo ogni cittadino userà l’apposito servizio online, ovviamente aspettandosi che tutto funzioni a dovere.

Altro esempio è il portale del Ministero dell’Istruzione: basso carico per gran parte dell’anno, ma quando vengono annunciate le commissioni di maturità, deve essere funzionante, pronto e scattante. Pensate poi al sito dove vengono pubblicati i risultati delle elezioni: utilizzato ogni quattro o cinque anni, diventa il più visitato d’Italia durante le poche ore di scrutinio.

Internet oggi è la fonte primaria di informazione per molte persone: è un dato di fatto che non si può ignorare, ed è necessario dare adeguata importanza alle piattaforme che contribuiscono a questa informazione.

Ne parlavo nel 2011, perchè è stato l’anno in cui i tre servizi sopracitati hanno mancato il loro obiettivo primario: quando servivano, non funzionavano. Se ne era parlato, soprattutto tra gli addetti ai lavori: ci eravamo arrabbiati, ma qualcuno aveva commentato che le soluzioni al problema (che spaziano da questioni molto tecniche come lo sharding dei database e l’elasticità delle infrastrutture a questioni più di buon senso, come una corretta previsione dei carichi) erano molto distanti dal mondo dei “comuni mortali”, e ancor di più dal settore pubblico.

Un punto di vista secondo me contestabile, ma quasi sicuramente con un fondo di verità: al tempo il concetto di “cloud” esisteva da pochi anni, e alcuni vendor dubitavano ancora delle sue potenzialità.

Sembra di parlare della preistoria.

(per non dimenticare: il load balancing manuale delle Elezioni 2011)

Adesso siamo nel 2017: sono passati sei anni dal mio articolo e come alcuni continuano a ripetere, “cloud is the new normal”. Il cloud è la nuova normalità, tutti lo usano, lo scetticismo, se mai c’è stato, è sparito: il tempo ha ormai provato che è una nuova e rivoluzionaria tecnologia e non solo un trend temporaneo o una pazzia di un singolo vendor.

In questi anni, nella nostra PA, sarà cambiato qualcosa?

Alcuni segnali fanno ben sperare: Eligendo ad esempio, il portale delle Elezioni, è esposto tramite una CDN (ma non supporta HTTPS). Altri fanno invece perdere la speranza appena guadagnata: questo mese si è tenuto il Referendum per l’Autonomia della Lombardia – serve che vi dica in che stato era il sito ufficiale durante gli scrutini? Timeout.

Le soluzioni a questo tipo di problemi sono ormai ben conosciute e consolidate: caching estremo, utilizzo di CDN, sfruttamento di infrastrutture scalabili, etc. I costi sono molto bassi e granulari: con una architettura ben studiata, si possono servire tutte le richieste senza sprecare un euro. Fa in un certo senso pensare il fatto che in certi ambienti siano ancora presenti e gravi problemi che l’industria ha risolto già da tempo, come quello dei picchi di carico.

Quali sono quindi i fattori limitanti, quindi?

Non stento a credere ci sia una scarsa comprensione del tema e della sua importanza ai “piani alti” di ogni ente: solo di recente siamo riusciti a mettere insieme una community di sviluppatori e un “team digitale” (composto da professionisti di veramente alto rango) volto a svecchiare il “sistema Italia”.

L’iniziativa sta già portando i suoi primi frutti, ma si tratta di un team per ora piccolo molto focalizzato sullo sviluppo e non sulle operations/mantenimento: il passo per il cambiamento della mentalità generale è ancora lungo. Non è difficile immaginare come una scarsa comprensione del tema porti molto velocemente alla mancanza di interesse e di risorse dedicate – con conseguente frustrazione di quelli che sono i “piani inferiori”.

Un secondo fattore spesso portato (o meglio, trascinato) in gioco è la scarsità di infrastrutture: se questo poteva essere vero una volta, oggi, con l’affermazione delle tecnologie cloud e del concetto di “on demand”, questo smette di essere un punto bloccante. Le infrastrutture ci sono, basta sfruttarle.

Ultimo, ma non per importanza, il discorso “competenze”: non stento a credere come molti fanno notare che sia difficile reclutare personale adatto e che chi si occupa oggi di sistemi nella PA abbia ben altre responsabilità e quindi ben altre basi. Ritengo però non si possa ignorare il fatto che al giorno d’oggi il concetto di “as a service” (servizi managed se volete chiamarli con un nome forse più familiare) rimuova buona parte di questo problema, e che l’immensa offerta di training e relativa facilità di sperimentazione renda estremamente facile la coltivazione delle skills mancanti.

Può servire tempo, ma da qualche parte bisognerà pur partire. Molti IT manager e sistemisti sono lì fuori pronti, a fare il passo: hanno solo bisogno di essere ispirati.

Ispiriamoli, no?

Story of a journey: my first year at Amazon Web Services

Story of a journey: my first year at Amazon Web Services

Exactly one year ago today I was sitting in a room in Amazon’s London Holborn office, attending the New Hire induction and waiting for my manager to pick me up and introduce me to the rest of the Technical Account Managers team.

It has been one year already – it’s about time to tell my story, and share my experience in this (amazing) reality.

(this is me at this year’s London Summit, looking for something, somewhere)

Looking back at the first year (or, in Amazonian terms: “those first 365 day one’s.”), I can easily highlight a few different phases. Here they are, in a more or less chronological order.

Phase 1: “lost” (in an hexagonal office)

Technical Account Managers (TAM) spend a lot of time with customers, and only drop into the AWS office when required. As a new starter this can be a little daunting, especially when trying to get set up – configuring your mobile, using the vast array of internal tools you have at your fingertips and the simple things, like finding the toilet.

The good news is: everybody is always happy to help you. Literally: everybody. In my first days I had phone calls with most of my team mates, shadowing sessions in front of customers, and even asked a mix of random people in the office for various kinds of help: they always guided me, as if it was a single, big family and that helped me, and I never really felt lost (yeah, I know, but it looked as a good title for this chapter…).

(about the toilet, if you’re wondering: I realised that as our office was hexagonal – or kind of -, everything was “straight on and then on the left”)

I’ll skip phase 1.5, the official training: we spend about two to three weeks in classes with Support Engineers before getting hands on with the day to day job. The training is what you’d expect from training, but it provides a great opportunity to meet and learn from tenured colleagues. This is also when I personally went from getting lost in the London office to getting lost in the Seattle campus (every. single. time.).

Phase 2: the ramp up (aka: “OMG I don’t know anything”)

The ramp up that comes after the training is exciting: you’re back, you’ve had 2/3 weeks to try to learn as much as possible and after three weeks of training, you think you know what you are doing – you’ve learnt the theory, you know how to use the tools, you think you know what to do when, and you’re ready to get on with it.

In theory.

What you realise at this point is that yes, it’s true, and you’re working with Amazon Web Services. If you work with cloud, you hear this name daily, and becoming part of it doesn’t simply feel real for a while.

One of the first matters I understood was that the only thing I was bringing with me in AWS was my brain: your past experience can definitely help, but Amazon is so different from other companies that you have to learn, literally from scratch, almost everything. If you’ve been hired it’s because you share the mindset, so it’s not hard and it’s not an obstacle, it’s just something to keep in mind.

The main differences? First, and by far, is our “Customer Obsession”. We obsess over our customers, and not over our technology: every discussion we have ends up focusing what’s best for our customers, and how we can improve their experience. We work every day making sure we help them doing what’s best for their platforms – not for us – and we spend our time listening to them and trying to figure out how to make their life easier.

The second one is definitely what’s summarised in our “Everyday is Day One” motto, which is much more tangible than you would expect from something that is written on every wall in an HQ. Our customers and us are moving so quickly that you must always be ready to wake up and start as if you were in a completely new world. You learn new things daily and the technology you were using / evangelising three months before could not be the best one for a given use case anymore.

This is all about change and how it becomes part of your daily routine.

Phase 3: the First Customer

After a few months you’re ready to onboard your first customer. I had spent some time shadowing and helping a more tenured colleague, and in November I was ready for onboarding my first “very own” account.

At that point in time I was confident on my daily tasks, had already had to deal with critical situations, and everything was looking good. But the first customer you onboard onto AWS Enterprise Support is just different: you’re starting a journey together, with some pre-defined goals and some others that will eventually show up.

It’s journey of change, a journey toward continuous improvement and optimisation.

It’s just matter of weeks, and you will start knowing your customer’s team members by first name, and recognising who’s logging a support case just by looking at their writing style.

Yes, that’s a very close relationship: some of my colleagues love to say that we work for Amazon, but on behalf of our customers.

Phase 4: the first event

You don’t really feel part of the customer’s team until you go through your first event. An event could be anything, from a planned traffic spike or feature launch, to, ehm, yes, an unplanned downtime.

Let’s pick a feature launch: it’s something big, the customer’s development teams have been working for months on it, the marketing team is heavily pushing and the operational teams do have a single focus, making sure everything will work smoothly.

This is where our teams become glued together with the customer’s: we share a goal, we share a focus, we setup “war rooms” and make sure everything is in place and properly architected for when the big day arrives. The TAM acts here as a customer facing frontman for an army of Support Engineers, Subject Matter Experts, Service Team Engineers, and many more – and during this kind of events, everyone comes together.

And then it happens – detailed and obsessive planning ensure everything works smoothly and meets expectations, leaving plenty of time to celebrate – and to realise that none of this would be possible without the super close relationship we develop with our customers.

Phase 5: personal development

This is not really a phase (mainly because it never ends), but after you’ve been in the company for 6/8 months you begin having really clear ideas on how things work, where you want to go and what you want to do.

AWS is a world of opportunities, for any kind of person: in this first year I joined a team which is helping our customers with the migration of strategic workloads and presented at the AWS Summit in London.

I’m currently trying to decide what to target next.

Phase 6: retrospective

As said, technology is evolving quickly, and so are we and our customers. When you reach the one-year mark, you try to look back and this is when you really understand where you used to be, and where you are now.

Where your customers were, and where they are now: the distance they have most likely covered in a single year looks unbelievable.

Phase 7: writing a blog post about your first year

Come on, I’m just joking.

Time to wrap up: I’m enjoying my new working life, my team, my mentor(s), my manager(s) and the extended Enterprise Support team. I have the opportunity every day to work with exciting customers, to actually be part of my customer’s teams and to experience the latest innovations first hand.

There is a question I get asked a lot, especially from people who know my background: do I miss being hands on, had to do with operations? Not really. First, we have time and business needs for testing and using any new product we launch, so I still spend some time actually “playing” with stuff. Second, despite the name, this role is super-technical – we get to see a lot of operations, development and devops.

 

If you are reading this and looking for a new and interesting challenge, or would like to consider joining the AWS team, then get in touch.

Giorgio

Don’t buy servers.

Don’t buy servers.

No, please don’t. Not even for personal use.

Let me start from the beginning: during my relocation last year, I left my desktop computer behind. It hadn’t been my primary machine for a while and I was probably powering it on only once a month, but it was still my core repository for backups and long term storage.

As I went 100% cloud years ago (no USB drives, no external HDDs, etc) my “current” dataset is now online, synchronised with my laptop(s). Still, there are some hundreds of GBs of “cold” (as in: I will probably never need them again) pictures/docs/archives that I want to be able to access, even remotely, at any time. After exploring some mid-range NAS solutions, I ended up realising that despite having a reliable internet connection, my flat was not the best location for hosting it, so started looking around for a decent colocation space.

It didn’t take much time to figure out that space and power in a datacenter are so expensive that a NAS isn’t suitable nor effective for this purpose.

As a consequence…


…meet MY-ZA*.

MY-ZA is an HP DL320e Gen8 server, equipped with an E3-1240 v2 CPU, 32 GB of RAM, and 2×250 GB SSD + 4x1TB SATA drives. Dual PSU, P420i hardware RAID controller, iLO4, etc… …yes: a real server.

I’m sure you’re now wondering what the hell I am doing here. The answer is easy, and anybody with an engineering mindset can probably confirm: sometimes we need to spend time and energy in experiments even if we know they will fail, because what we want to figure out is how exactly they will fail.

To be honest, even if I knew this choice was sub-optimal at the very least, I was like: “Hey, what could go wrong? It’s just a server”.

Well, now I know the answer: anything – (and if you cross this with Murphy’s law…).

My background is in traditional IT, but looks like I quickly forgot about the pain of having to deal with bare metal. To make sure this doesn’t happen again, here’s a quick reminder that might also help you all:

  • Servers are expensive: this is a $2800 machine (I’ve paid roughly 50% of that), that will cost around 70/80$ per month just by colocation and bandwidth. Moreover, in 2 years time it will be obsolete.
  • Bare metal servers are… …heavy: arranging shipping back and forth costs time. And money, of course.
  • They’re slow, reaaaaaaalllllly slooooooww. This thing wastes 10+ minutes just to get to the operating system boot. Don’t forget this if you’re doing something that requires a lot of reboots (like trying different RAID configurations, updating a newly installed Windows, etc). We’re now in an era where the boot time of an instance is shorter than what it takes to you, slow and inefficient human, to copy and paste connection details in your SSH client.
  • What about the risk? Well, it’s huge. I have onsite support, but no spare parts. So, should something bad happen, the downtime will be counted in hours, at least.
  • They don’t scale. This “thing” has already reached the maximum amount of RAM it can hold. What if I need more? I have two options, double the colocation space (and thus cost) and buy a similar second server, or buy a larger one to replace it and begin a slow, complex and painful migration.
  • Agility? What? – You must manage it as you would do with a pet. If something breaks, repair it, if the OS is out of date, upgrade it. Well, in a world where if an instance is broken you immediately spin up a new one, having to fix an OS doesn’t seem appropriate.
  • SSDs do have a well defined lifespan. This is not something you care about if you’re using a cloud hosting service, but here you should keep it in mind, as they will eventually die. Both at the same time, as their load will be similar.

After having spent the last 7 days (evenings to be fair, as I have a job during the day) on this project, I think I have definitely debunked the theory about cloud not being effective for personal workloads.

Project failed, time to terminat…

…no, wait, you can’t terminate a bare metal server: it’s an investment, it’s a long term decision, you can’t just roll back as you would do with a cloud instance.

Oh, God.

 

* don’t even try to understand my host naming convention. There are no standards, names are just random letters. Servers are cattle, not pets, right?

Going Cloud: the 8 don’ts

Going Cloud: the 8 don’ts

Okay, let’s face it: the world is finally figuring out that cloud is for everyone, and not just for large-scale enterprises. This is a big step ahead, but when it comes to new adopters there are still many misconceptions and wrong expectations.

Wrong expectations are probably the most common reason for failure, because they usually lead to disasters that leave moving back to a legacy infrastructure design as the only option left.

datacenter_scale

(Image Source: XKCD)

But, turns out, it’s easier than you would expect. There is a basic set of rules and guidelines, and if you follow them you can easily be successful.

Let’s begin in this article with the 8 don’ts:

  1. Never, ever trust a single instance of a given service. Don’t rely on redundant database platforms, replicated block devices, and so forth. They can still fail: accounting for this kind of failure at the application layer is the way to go.
  2. Don’t put all your eggs in a bucket: cloud platforms are available in different geographical locations by nature, so you should really leverage this. True geographical redundancy can be hard to achieve at the beginning, but try at least to have read replicas spread over the world, so that in case of downtime in the main region you’re using your service would just be degraded and not completely unreachable.
  3. Never think small. Some design patterns could seem overkills at first sight, but believe me, they are not. If you focus on designing your service so that it is ready for scaling up when needed, you won’t have to worry about later.
  4. Don’t design complex software platforms: micro services are the way to go. Keep them simple and easy to maintain. It will be easier to scale them, and not only from a technical point of view: imagine how easy could be handing over not a part of a complex software, but a micro service to a new dedicated development team.
  5. Never forget that performance is the key: a killer SQL query could still be affordable if you have a small number of users, but is going to be an issue when your platform grows. Make your application as efficient as possible, even when it doesn’t seem needed.
  6. Don’t forget that everything could break, at any time. Keep your instances as simple as possible, so that they are easy to operate. If one fails or starts misbehaving, just respawn it, don’t waste your time trying to fix or debug it. In an ideal world, they should all be stateless.
  7. Vertical scaling is a no go. Choose the size of your instances based on the performance you want a single request to have, but always spread multiple requests horizontally. This pattern will help a lot with availability as well.
  8. Don’t be ‘legacy’: the world around you is moving very fast, and just looking at it makes no sense. New releases of software packages usually improve their performance and efficienty, and new versions of the services your cloud provider is offering you usually improve a number of items, cost being usually the main one. Running a legacy instance type just because your platform is too hard to upgrade to a newer operating system makes no sense and will kill your business in the long term.

Here we are. Now go and build!

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