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I haven’t talked about Microsoft in quite a while (mainly because I don’t follow mainstream tech news as much anymore), but I happened by a very interesting post on the Windows Azure blog the other day. It’s a very detailed postmortem of the major outage of the Windows Azure cloud service which occurred from 4:00 PM PST on February 28th through 2:15 AM on March 1st. Before I get into any of the details, I should say that it really is a nice, well-done post. And the fact that they’re willing to do such a detailed, public postmortem - and admit the failures that they did - is a step in the right direction for Microsoft (a company that I don’t particularly care for, to put it lightly).

I’m going to glance over the majority of the post, though I highly recommend that anyone interested in running web-scale services, specifically highly available ones, read it. The general overview (really just the points that are germane to my discussion) is as follows: An agent running inside the guest VM instances (i.e. domU) communicates with a counterpart on the host OS (i.e. dom0) over an encrypted channel, authenticated by certificate. The certs are generated and passed from the guest to the host when the guest instance is first initialized, which means when an app is first deployed, scaled out, OS updated, or when an app is reinitialized on a new host. This cert was generated for a 1-year validity period, by adding 1 to the integer year - hence, the generation process failed on February 29th of a leap year, as the cert end date wasn’t valid. When the cert generation failed, the guest agent essentially stopped cold. The host agent waited for a 25 minute timeout, then re-initialized the guest and started over. After three of these failures, the host assumes there’s a hardware error (since the guest would have reported a more specific error otherwise), declares itself in an error state, and tries to move its current workload over to another host. Which re-initializes the guests on that host, thereby causing a chain-reaction of failures in this case. Skip forward the 2-1/2 hours it took them to identify the problem, and further 2-1/2 hours to get a fix ready. They fast-tracked their fix to 7 clusters that had already been in the process of a software update, but ended up with those clusters in an inconsistent state with incompatibilities between the guest and host networking subsystems, bringing down previously-unaffected instances on these clusters.

This whole scenario offers a few important points on both the development and operations sides:

Inputs need error checking, and errors need to be raised. So the first problem here was the failed cert generation. I’ll leave alone the fact that, in my opinion, doing math on a the integer year of a date is a high school or college programming mistake, and never should have been made by someone doing platform coding for a major company (believe it or not, 25% of years are leap years </sarcasm>). If whatever code was generating the cert was smart enough to check the cert end date validity and error out, that error should have been pushed up the stack to somewhere where it could be handled - or, at least, sent to a central log server that does error trending.

Secure communications when provisioning need an insecure error path. This is somewhat connected to the previous point. If the normal process of creating a new instance and communicating errors up the stack relies on certs and authentication or encryption, there should be some method of communicating errors with that process either up the stack, or to a separate event correlation/trending system. Errors with a certificate-based system are not unusual, and even something as simple as a vastly incorrect time set on the guests could have caused this same problem. In environments where management/control communication between levels of a system are encrypted or authenticated, there should be some way for lower levels of the system to deliver a meaningful error message “somewhere”. Even if this is just a syslog server or web service that listens for errors and can escalate a warning when the numbers spike, it’s a useful alarm and debugging tool.

Autonomous systems shouldn’t lightly assume hardware failures. It’s arrogance for a host system to assume that just because it can’t instantiate new guests, a hardware failure exists. This entire incident is a perfect example that, at least if hardware error indicators are properly monitored, it’s more likely for a software problem to be falsely identified as a hardware problem than the other way around. All of my points are somewhat related, but I can think of many more reasons why a new guest can’t be instantiated that are software-related rather than hardware-related.

Autonomous control mechanisms need historical trending, and need to call for help if this looks wrong. These host systems tried to instantiate new guests three times, waiting 25 minutes in between, and then declared themselves bad and tried to migrate guests to other hosts. From what I understand, Microsoft got it right in having a “kill switch” that prevented further migration of guests. What they didn’t have right was reporting of autonomous actions (guest migration) to a central location that performs trending. The 25 minute timeout with three attempts is a great safety feature, but if the status of guest creation actions was reported to a central server, it would have been much more quickly apparent that 100% of guest creations in the past, say, 10 minutes, had failed - across all clusters. I know plenty of shops that do little, if any, real-time analysis and historical comparisons of their log data. But when systems are designed to perform self-healing and autonomous actions, it’s imperative that these actions are tracked in near-real-time, compared to historical averages, and that deviation from a baseline is identified and escalated to humans.

Release procedures are more, not less, important when the sky is falling. The extended downtime of the last seven clusters was because of an improperly QA’ed update that was pushed out bypassing the normal release and testing procedures. As a matter of fact, it was so poorly QA’ed that the update totally broke networking for the guest VMs, and was still pushed out. I’m sure this was more of a management/executive decision than one made by the actual engineers, but organizations (even management) need to understand that when the sky is falling, services are down, and everybody is stressed, it’s more likely for mistakes and oversights to happen, and this is when a proper, well-documented QA and release procedure (including phased rollout) is most important. Failure to follow these procedures results in exactly what happened in this case - making an already bad problem much worse.

Even I can’t blame Microsoft specifically for all this (though the whole thing would have been avoided if they just represented timestamps as integers like the rest of us…), but it is a good opportunity for us all to learn from a major incident at a “pretty well known” company.

release procedures are most important when things are already going wrong


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