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Pets and Cattle

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The machines that we administer range from highly customized to entirely generic. The analogy commonly used is “pets and cattle.” Pets are the highly customized machines and cattle are the generic machines. With this analogy, recognized sys admin experts explain how to improve your efficiency by minimizing variation.

This chapter is from the book

This chapter is about improving our efficiency by minimizing variation. We mass-produce our work by unifying like things so that they can be treated the same. As a result we have fewer variations to test, easier customer support, and less infrastructure to maintain. We scale ourselves. We can’t eliminate all variation, but the more we can unify, the more efficient we can be. Managing the remaining variation is the topic of the next chapter. For now, let’s focus on unification itself.

We can’t spend hours custom-building every machine we install. Instead, we make our machines generic so that they can all be treated as similarly as possible. Likewise, we are more efficient when we treat related tasks the same way. For example, the process of onboarding new employees usually involves creating accounts and supplying hardware to the new hires. If we invent the process anew with each employee, it not only takes longer but also looks unprofessional as we stumble through improvising each step as the new hires wait. People appreciate a process that is fast, efficient, and well executed.

It is difficult to get better at a process when we never do the same thing more than once. Improvement comes from repetition; practice makes perfect. The more we can consolidate similar things so they can be treated the same, the more practice we get and the better we get at it.

3.1 The Pets and Cattle Analogy

The machines that we administer range from highly customized to entirely generic. The analogy commonly used is “pets and cattle.” Pets are the highly customized machines and cattle are the generic machines.

This analogy is generally attributed to Yale computer scientist David Gelernter, who used it in reference to filesystems. Gelernter wrote, “If you have three pet dogs, give them names. If you have 10,000 head of cattle, don’t bother.”

The analogy gained in popularity when Joshua McKenty, co-founder of Piston Cloud, explained it this way in a press release (McKenty 2013):

  • The servers in today’s datacenter are like puppies—they’ve got names and when they get sick, everything grinds to a halt while you nurse them back to health. . . . Piston Enterprise OpenStack is a system for managing your servers like cattle—you number them, and when they get sick and you have to shoot them in the head, the herd can keep moving. It takes a family of three to care for a single puppy, but a few cowboys can drive tens of thousands of cows over great distances, all while drinking whiskey.

A pet is a unique creature. It is an animal that we love and take care of. We take responsibility for its health and well-being. There is a certain level of emotional attachment to it. We learn which food it likes and prepare special meals for it. We celebrate its birthdays and dress it up in cute outfits. If it gets injured, we are sad. When it is ill, we take it to the veterinarian and give it our full attention until it is healed. This individualized care can be expensive. However, since we have only one or two pets, the expense is justified.

Likewise, a machine can be a pet if it is highly customized and requires special procedures for maintaining it.

A herd of cattle is a group of many similar animals. If you have a herd of cows each one is treated the same. This permits us the benefits of mass-production. All cattle receive the same living conditions, the same food, the same medical treatment, the same everything. They all have the same personality, or at least are treated as if they do. There are no cute outfits. The use of mass-production techniques keeps maintenance costs low and improves profits at scale: Saving a dollar per cow can multiply to hundreds of thousands in total savings.

Likewise, machines can be considered cattle when they are similar enough that they can all be managed the same way. This can be done at different levels of abstraction. For example, perhaps the OS is treated generically even though the hardware may comprise any number of virtual or physical machine configurations. Or perhaps the machine hardware, OS, and applications are all the same, but the data they access is different. This is typical in a large web hosting farm, where the only difference is which specific web site is being served by each machine.

Preferably the systems we deal with are fungible resources: Any one unit can substitute for any other.

A related metaphor is the snowflake. A snowflake is even more unique than a pet. It is one of a kind. A system may have started out similar to others, but it was customized, modified, and eventually becomes unlike any other system. Or maybe it started out unique and had very little chance of being properly brought into line with the others. A snowflake requires special operational procedures. Rebooting it requires extra care. Upgrades require special testing. As Martin Fowler (2012) wrote, a snowflake is “good for a ski resort, bad for a datacenter.”

A snowflake server is a business risk because it is difficult to reproduce. If the hardware fails or the software becomes corrupted, it would be difficult to build a new machine that provides the same services. It also makes testing more difficult because you cannot guarantee that you have replicated the host in your testing environment. When a bug is found in production that can’t be reproduced in the test environment, fixing it becomes much more difficult.

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