Snowflakes are a bad sign

snowflakeFirst, allow me a bad joke: If you enter your server room and find real snowflakes, it might be a sign that your air conditioning is over-ambitious. But even if you just enter your server room, you probably see some snowflakes, but in the metaphorical sense.

Snowflake servers

Snowflakes are servers with an unique layout. I cannot say it better than Martin Fowler two years ago in his Bliki posting SnowflakeServer, but I’m trying to add some insights and more current tools. The term probably originates in the motto that everybody is a “precious unique snowflake”. This holds true for humans and animals, but not for machines. Let’s examine how a snowflake is born. Imagine that in the beginning, all servers are the same: standard hardware, a default operating system and nothing more. You pick one server to host a special application and adjust the hardware accordingly. Now you already have an hardware snowflake – not the worst thing, but you better document your rationale behind the adjustment in an accessible way – a wiki page specifically for that server perhaps. Because sooner or later, that machine will fail (or become hopelessly obsolete) and needs to be replaced – with adequate hardware. Without your documentation, you’ll have to remember why the old machine had that specific layout – and if it was sufficient. I’ve seen the “ancient server” anti-pattern much too often: A dusted machine, buzzing like an asthmatic pensioner in the last corner of the server room, and nobody was allowed near. Because there are no spare parts (VESA local bus isn’t supported anymore), if one part fails, the whole system is doomed – operating system and software included. Entire organizations rely on the readiness for duty of one hardware assembly – and almost always a crude one.

Server as cattle

The ancient server happens more likely when you treat your servers like pets. This is the crucial mental switch you’ll have to make: servers are cattle, not pets. They have numbers, not names. They can be monitored, upgraded and fostered, but at the end of the day, they serve a clearly defined business case and deserve no emotional investment of the owner. If a pet gets hurt, you take it to the veterinary and cure it. If cattle gets sick, you call the veterinary to make sure it’s not contagious and then replace the affected individuals – to cure them would be more expensive. Pets live as long as they can, cattle has a dacattlete of expiry. And our cattle (servers) really isn’t sentient, so stop treating it like pets.

Strategies to run a ranch

Our current answer to make the transition from pet zoo to cattle ranch without significantly increasing the amount of metal in our server room can be boiled down to three strategies:

  • Virtualize the logical machines. Instead of working on “real metal machines”, more and more of our services run inside virtual machines. This allows for a clearer separation of concerns (one duty per machine) and keeps the emotional commitment towards the machine low. Currently, we use VirtualBox and Docker for this task. Both are easy to set up and fulfill their task well.
  • Remove the names from real metal machines. We really number our real machines now. Giving clever names to virtual machines is still possible, but not necessary: they are probably only accessed using DNS aliases that specify their use, like “projectX-database” or “projectY-webserver”. We even choose the computer cases for our machines accordingly to separate the pets (unique cases) from cattle (uniform cases).
  • Specify the machine. The virtualized hardware must be described and explained (e.g. why this particular machine needs twice the normal RAM ration). Currently, we use Vagrant to specify the hardware and operating system of our virtual machines. The specifications are stored in a version controlled repository, so there is a place where most of our server infrastructure is described in a deployable fashion. Even more, all necessary third-party software products are specified, too. Imagine a todo list of what to install and prepare, like the one you’ve handed over to your admin in the past, but automatically executable. We currently use Ansible for our configuration management because it has very low requirements for the target platform itself and has a low learning curve.

Applying these three strategies, every (logical) machine in our server room should be reproduceable. They are still individuals, specifically tailored for their jobs, but completely specified and virtualized. The real metal machines only run the bare minimum of software necessary to host the logical machines. None of the machines promote emotional attachment – they are tools for their job.

Data is snow

One important insight is that persistent data will turn your machine into a snowflake over time (we use the term as a verb: “data will snowflake your machine”). You will become emotionally and financially attached to this data – otherwise, there is no need to persist it in the first place. We don’t have a panacea here yet. You probably want to use a database and a sophisticated backup strategy here. Just make sure that the presence of precious data on it doesn’t obscure your stance towards the machine. You want to keep the data and still be able to throw the machine away.

Don’t stop at machines

We are software developers, so we cannot deny that the concept of snowflaking is very helpful for our own projects, too. Every dependency that we can bring with us during deployment (called “self-containment” or “batteries included” in our slang) is one less thing of “snowflaking” the target machine. Every piece of infrastructure (real, virtualized or purely conceptual) we implicitly rely on (like valid certificates, SSH keys or passwords and database locations) will snowflake the target machine and should be treated accordingly: documented, specified and automated. If you hot-fix a production server, it’s definitely a huge snowflaking action that needs to be at least carefully documented. You can’t avoid snowflaking completely, but strive to mimize the manual amount of it and then sanitize the automated part.

Snowflaking is a concept

We’ve found the term of “snowflaking” very useful to transport the necessity and value in documenting, specifying and automating everything that doesn’t happen on a developer machine (and even there, the build process is fully automated). Snowflaked enviroments tend to be expensive in maintainance and brittle in operations. The effort to mitigate the effects of snowflaking pays off very soon and is highly reuseable. But even more powerful is the change in the mindset as soon as the concept of “snowflaking” is understood. It’s a short term for a broad range of strategies and values/beliefs. It’s a powerful and scalable concept.

We’d love to hear your experiences

You’ve probably experimented with various tools and concepts to manage your servers, too. What were your experiences and insights? Add a comment below, we are looking forward to your input.

3 thoughts on “Snowflakes are a bad sign

    • Hi Stephan,
      thank you for the hint to the Apache projects. They look young, but very promising. This is exactly the kind of virtualization that should be our building blocks for applications.

  1. Pingback: Recap of the Schneide Dev Brunch 2015-02-08 | Schneide Blog

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