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3.4 Server Hardware as Cattle

Server hardware and software in a datacenter is another situation where we have pets and cattle. At some companies each machine in the datacenter is specified to meet the exact needs of the applications it will run. It has the right amount of RAM and disk, and possibly even additional external storage peripherals or other hardware. Each machine may run a different operating system or OS release. This ensures that each application is maximally optimized to the best of the system administration team’s ability.

However, these local optimizations cause inefficiencies at the macro scale. Each machine requires special maintenance procedures. Each operating system in use, and possibly each version of each operating system, requires individual attention. A security patch that must be tested on ten OS versions is a lot more work than one that has to be tested on only one or two versions. This kind of cost eventually outweighs the optimizations one can do for individual applications.

As a result, in large companies it often takes six months or more to deploy a new server in a datacenter. A consultant working at a U.S. bank said it takes 18 months from the initial request to having a working server in their datacenter. If you aren’t sure why banks have such lousy interest rates and service, imagine if a phone app you wanted didn’t start to run until a year after you bought it.

Contrast this to an environment that has a cattle strategy for its datacenter. Some companies standardize on two or three hardware variations and one or two OS releases. You might not receive the exact hardware you want, but you receive it quickly. Perfect is the enemy of good: Would you rather be up and running this week with hardware that is good enough, or wait a year and have the exact hardware you dreamed of, which is now obsolete?

Not every environment can standardize down to one machine type, but we can provide a few standard configurations (small, medium, and large) and guide people to them. We can minimize the number of vendors, so that there is one firmware upgrade process, one repair workflow, and so on.

Offering fixed sizes of virtual machines (VMs) results in less isolated or stranded capacity. For example, we can make the default VM size such that eight fit on a physical machine with no waste. We can offer larger sizes that are multiples of the default size. This means we are never left with a physical machine that has unused capacity that is too small for a new machine. It also makes it easier to plan future capacity and reorganize placement of existing VMs within a cluster.

By offering standardized sizes we enable an environment where we no longer look at machines individually, but rather treat them as scaling units to be used when sizing our deployments. This is a better fit for how distributed computing applications are designed and how most applications will be built in the future.

We can also standardize at the software level. Each machine is delivered to the user with a standard OS installation and configuration. The defaults embody the best practices we wish all users would follow. Modifications made after that are the application administrator’s responsibility. We’ll discuss better ways to handle this responsibility in the next chapter.

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