Simulated Annealing is a modeling strategy from Computer Science for seeking optimum or stable outcomes through iterative analysis. The physical analogy is the process of strengthening steel by repeatedly heating, quenching and hammering. In both computer science and metallurgy, the process involves evaluating state, taking action, factoring in new data and then repeating. Each annealing cycle improves the system even though we may not know the final target state.
Annealing is well suited for problems where there is no mathematical solution, there’s an irregular feedback loop or the datasets change over time. We have all three challenges in continuous operations environments. While it’s clear that a deployment can modeled as directed graph (a mathematical solution) at a specific point in time, the reality is that there are too many unknowns to have a reliable graph. The problem is compounded because of unpredictable variance in hardware (NIC enumeration, drive sizes, BIOS revisions, network topology, etc) that’s even more challenging if we factor in adapting to failures. An operating infrastructure is a moving target that is hard to model predictively.
Crowbar implements the simulated annealing algorithm by decomposing the operations infrastructure into atomic units, node-roles, that perform the smallest until of work definable. Some or all of these node-roles are changed whenever the infrastructure changes. Crowbar anneals the environment by exercising the node-roles in a consistent way until system re-stabilizes.
One way to visualize Crowbar annealing is to imagine children who have to cross a field but don’t have a teacher to coordinate. Once student takes a step forward and looks around then another sees the first and takes two steps. Each child advances based on what their peers are doing. None wants to get too far ahead or be left behind. The line progresses irregularly but consistently based on the natural relationships within the group.
To understand the Crowbar Annealer, we have to break it into three distinct components: deployment timeline, annealing and node-role state. The deployment timeline represents externally (user, hardware, etc) initiated changes that propose a new target state. Once that new target is committed, Crowbar anneals by iterating through all the node-roles in a reasonable order. As the Annealer runs the node-roles they update their own state. The aggregate state of all the node-roles determines the state of the deployment. Let’s look at each in detail.
A deployment is a combination of user and system defined state. Crowbar’s job is to get deployments stable and then maintain over time.