Wednesday, October 04, 2023

SMF - part of the Solaris 10 legacy

The Service Management Facility, or SMF, integrated extremely late in the Solaris 10 release cycle. We only got one or two beta builds to test, which seemed highly risky for such a key feature.

So there was very little time to gather feedback from users. And something that central really can't be modified once it's released. It had to work first time.

That said, we did manage some improvements. The current implementation of `svcs -x` is largely due to me struggling to work out why a service was broken.

One of the obvious things about SMF is that it relies on manifests written in XML. Yes, that's of its time - there's a lot of software you can date by the file format it uses.

I don't have a particular problem with the use of XML here, to be honest. What's more of a real problem is that the manifest files were presented as a user interface rather than an internal implementation detail, so that users were forced to write XML from scratch with little to no guidance.

There are a lot of good features around SMF.

Just the very basic restart of an application that dies is something that's so blindingly obvious as a requirement in an operating system. So much so that once it existed I refused to support anything that didn't have SMF when I was on call - after all, most of the 3am phone calls were to simply restart a crashed application. And yes, when we upgraded our systems to Solaris 10 with SMF our availability went way up and the on-call load plummeted.

Being able to grant privileges to a service, and just within the context of that service, without having to give privileges to an application (eg set*id) or a user, makes things so much safer. Although in practice it's letting applications bind to privileged ports while running as a regular user, as that's far and away the most common use case.

Dependencies has been a bit of a mixed bag. Partly because working out what the dependencies should be in the first place is just hard to get right, but also because dependency declaration is bidirectional - you can inject a dependency on yourself into another service, and that other service may not respond well, or you can create a circular dependency if the two services are developed independently.

One part of dependency management in services is deciding whether a given service should start or not given the state of other services (such as its dependencies). Ideally, you want strict dependency management. In the real world, systems are messy and complicated, the dependency tree isn't terribly well understood, and some failure modes don't matter. And in many cases you want the system to try and boot as far as possible so you can get in and fix it.

A related problem is that we've ended up with a complex mesh of services because someone had to take the old mess of rc scripts and translate them into something that would work on day 1. And nobody - either at the time or since  - has gone though the services and studied whether the granularity is correct. One other thing - that again has never happened - once we got a good handle on what services there are is to look at whether the services we have are sensible, or whether there's an opportunity to rearchitect the system to do things better, And because all these services are now baked into SMF, it's actually quite difficult to do any major reworking of the system.

Not only that, but because people write SMF manifests, they simply copy something that looks similar to the problem at hand, so bad practices and inappropriate dependency declarations multiply.

This is one example of what I see as the big problem with SMF - we haven't got supporting tools that present the administrator with useful abstractions, so that everything is raw.

In terms of configuration management, SMF is very much a mixed bag. Yes, it guarantees a consistent and reproducible state of the system. The snag is that there isn't really an automated way to capture the essential state of a system and generate something that will reproduce it (either later or elsewhere) - it can be done, but it's essentially manual. (Backing up the state is a subset of this problem.)

It's clear that there were plans to extend the scope of SMF. Essentially, to be the Solaris version of the Windows registry. Thankfully (see also systemd for where this goes wrong) that hasn't happened much.

In fact, SMF hasn't really involved in any material sense since the day it was introduced. It's very much stuck in time.

There were other features that were left open. For example, there's the notion of the scope of SMF, and the only one available right now is the "localhost" scope - see the smf(7) manual in illumos - so in theory there could be other, non-localhost, scopes. And there was the notion of monitor methods, which never appeared but I can imagine solving a range of niggling application issues I've seen over the years.

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