WORLDS '05 Preliminary Paper
[WORLDS '05 Technical Program]
Why it is hard to build a long-running service on PlanetLab
Justin Cappos and John Hartman
Department of Computer Science
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721 USA
was conceived as both an experimental testbed and a
platform for long-running services. It has been quite successful
at the former, less so at the latter. In this paper we examine why.
The crux of the problem is that there are few incentives for researchers
to develop long-running services. Research
prototypes fulfill publishing requirements, whereas long-running
services do not.
Several groups have tried to deploy research services
services that are useful, but also novel enough
to be published. These services have been generally
unsuccessful. In this paper we discuss the difficulties in developing
a research service, our experiences in developing a research service called
Stork, and offer suggestions on how to increase the incentives for researchers
to develop research services.
Building a long-running service on PlanetLab is difficult.
PlanetLab has been used
extensively to test and measure experimental research prototypes,
but few long-running services are in wide-spread use.
At the root of the problem is the ``dual use'' purpose of PlanetLab as
originally conceived. On the one hand, PlanetLab is
a research testbed, giving researchers access to numerous
nodes, realistic network behavior, and realistic client
workloads. The bulk of PlanetLab activity to date has been of this sort.
Most of the services that run on PlanetLab are short-lived
research prototypes, developed as part of various
research projects and funded by research funding agencies.
As such, the prototypes exist to support experiments and produce
publishable results. They must be sufficiently novel
and must function only well enough to run the necessary experiments
and collect the necessary results to validate the design.
On the other hand, PlanetLab is supposed to be a platform for deploying
long-lived services, connecting researchers who want to produce these services
with the users who want to use them. Presumably these services
are based on earlier research prototypes, and incorporate novel features
that the users find appealing. To date, very few of these long-lived
services have been deployed and even fewer have come into wide-spread
The reasons for this lie in the lack of incentives for researchers
to produce long-lived services. The original PlanetLab paper is
notably silent on this subject: PlanetLab's dual purpose is touted
as the most distinguishing characteristic of the PlanetLab approach
to changing the Internet, but no blueprint is given for how this
dual use will come to be. Most of the discussion revolves around
how to support it, rather than how to make it
As a result, there are few long-lived services on PlanetLab.
PlanetLab is designed and used by researchers for whom
the reward structure
provides little incentive to
convert research prototypes into long-lived services.
Research prototypes suffice for publication; since the reward
for developing a new research prototype is quite high, and the reward for
converting an existing prototype into a long-lived service is quite low,
it is little wonder that PlanetLab is awash in prototypes while suffering a
drought of services.
A potential middle ground is the research service, a long-lived
service with sufficient research content to warrant publication.
They are more interesting than simple services, and more available and reliable
than research prototypes.
Unfortunately, by spanning the gap between simple services and research prototypes,
research services must meet the requirements of both worlds (Figure 1).
They must have a research component so as to fit into the standard research
reward structure, yet must not have any corner cases that make them unreliable.
They must be long-lived, yet permit experimentation.
There are several reasons why it is
extremely difficult to build a successful research service:
Characteristics of research services, services, and research
- Research services must contain a research component that supports a
They must do something new and interesting,
rather than established and mundane, as the reward system values novelty.
- Research services must rely on other research services.
A research service need not be novel in all respects, but in those areas
where it is not, it is expected to make use of the current state-of-the-art
research results. If, for example, recent research has shown that reliable
data transfer is best achieved using a particular technique, a research
service that incorporates reliable data transfer will be expected to use
that technique. That means that research services end up depending on one
another. Since a well-known aphorism is to avoid having one's research depend
on another research project, this is not a recipe for success.
- Research services are prone to instability. Research prototypes
ignore the corner cases for a reason - they are difficult to handle and
don't contribute to the research results.
This means that a research
service tends to have a relatively high bug/failure rate.
Interaction between research services makes the problem worse.
Each additional service
introduces its own set of corner cases, increasing the size of the corners
and decreasing overall stability.
For the remainder of the paper we describe the development cycle of a
PlanetLab research service called Stork.
We then discuss the issues and
problems that cause research services to enter a downward spiral on PlanetLab, and
conclude with suggestions on how to break the cycle by providing incentives
for researchers to develop research services rather than research prototypes.
Stork is a PlanetLab research service that installs and maintains software
for other services.
A key problem facing PlanetLab services is the difficulty in installing
software on a large set of nodes and keeping that software updated over a
long period of time. Researchers need to quickly and efficiently
distribute new package content to huge numbers of nodes, and do so
in the face of network and node failures.
In such an environment, nodes may miss
software updates, however the correct software state must eventually
be reached. In addition, software must be installed on the nodes
efficiently. Each node runs hundreds of slices, many of which will install
the same software. Having hundreds of copies of the same software on a node is
not feasible; provisions must be made for sharing copies between slices.
this software maintenance problem. Software installed using Stork is
securely shared between
slices, and a package is not downloaded if another slice on the same node
already has it installed. Stork uses efficient transfer
mechanisms such as CoBlitz and BitTorrent to
transfer files. Stork has security features that allow
developers to share a package on a repository without trusting each other
or the package repository administrator.
Stork uses the functionality provided by other
long-running services to enhance its capabilities. Stork uses
Proper to share and protect content, CoDeeN and
CoBlitz to transfer files, and AppManager
to deploy itself on every node.
We first give an overview of the Stork project throughout its development.
We then discuss the specific problems that we encountered
during different phases of
development and how these problems are instances of the more general problems
that plague research services.
This timeline shows the evolution of the Stork project. We show the
resources used during development, the method of implementation, and the
prominent features of each release.
We present a timeline for Stork in Figure 2. The timeline
illustrates the different phases of the project during development and
deployment. Each period begins when the first line of code for a
version was written. The resources, implementation and tool features
for each version are also discussed.
Throughout the design and development of Stork we performed
incremental roll-out and development.
Our intention was to
gradually build Stork's capabilities along with its user base,
relying on user feedback to help define its development.
Plan-apt is a precursor to Stork that we developed for
the purpose of installing and updating packages on PlanetLab nodes. Plan-apt
is essentially a simple remote execution program with functionality
tailored to package installation. It allows a single host to push package
updates to many client slices. Unfortunately, since plan-apt
required the user to start a daemon in each slice to be managed, the
setup cost was unattractive.
We were frustrated by the inefficiencies of plan-apt with regard to setup,
disk usage, and security. We decided to shelve remote execution
to instead focus on a tool that securely shares
package content between slices on a single node.
We developed the first
version of Stork
to address plan-apt's shortcomings.
This version uses apt to fetch packages and
resolve dependencies, but provides extra security and disk space savings.
It was mostly focused on creating a package manager
that efficiently and securely shares content between slices using NFS.
In the next iteration we rewrote Stork using Python to clean up the code and
provide additional functionality missing in the alpha version.
We also developed Stork into an independent package
management tool no longer reliant on apt. We added support for additional
transfer methods and package types. This version of Stork uses packages
primarily in the RPM format and resolves dependencies itself. We also use
Proper to securely share packages between slices using hard links and file
immutable bits. This provides a fast and transparent method to share files
instead of NFS.
We divided Stork into four components to handle different tasks. As in the
previous version there is a Stork slice on each node as well as a set of
installation tools, but the beta version also added repository scripts and a set of tools
to authorize package use. Users digitally sign packages and specify to Stork
which other users' digital signatures they trust for groups of packages.
Stork verifies package signatures before installing a package in a slice.
The latest version of Stork features another re-write and additional
We changed to a more modular design that allows developers to
write simple stubs to perform similar actions using different implementations. For
example, Stork has a stub interface for network transfers with stubs such
as HTTP, CoDeeN, FTP, CoBlitz, and BitTorrent available. A developer could
create a new stub for Bullet and then use that stub with Stork
without modifying any other code.
The problems with different versions of Stork were mainly due
to competing interests. Since Stork is a research service, we
tried to balance research and usefulness.
Where practical, we made use of other research services so as to increase
Stork's functionality. For example, Stork downloads content
using CoBlitz and BitTorrent, shares files across slices using Proper, and has
a novel technique for validating packages. The complexity of providing these
features has greatly decreased the usability and stability of Stork as a whole.
When developing the beta version of Stork we decided to
content transfer. Point-to-point HTTP transfers worked fine
for the loads experienced by earlier versions of Stork, but clearly would not
scale to larger numbers of users.
As a result we added support for
other transfer types, including BitTorrent, CoBlitz, and CoDeeN. We allowed
the user to choose what transfer type they wanted to use for their transfer,
but unfortunately when a transfer type failed, we did not retry with
another type. From a research standpoint this was an appropriate
simplification because all of the functionality was there. From
a service point of view,
it caused failures that our users did not appreciate.
Stork also depends on Proper, a research service that enables inter-slice
interaction such as file sharing. This dependency has also proven
problematic, as getting Stork and Proper to work well together has
When an error occurs it isn't clear where the problem lies.
Stork must depend on Proper because
files between slices is a key motivation for Stork.
Sharing files allows
Stork to save disk space, avoid unnecessary information downloads, and reduces
the memory use of shared programs. However, these
features are more beneficial to the PlanetLab infrastructure than
individual users; users want a service
that always works, rather than one that works most of the time and provides
only intangible benefits.
Downloading packages securely is a major feature of Stork.
The standard solution is a package repository
that is trusted to contain only valid packages.
model is inappropriate for PlanetLab's unbundled management.
Instead, Stork allows users to sign packages digitally, and only install
packages with acceptable signatures. Acceptable signatures can be specified
on a per-package basis, allowing a user to accept another user's signature
for certain packages but not others.
Although these measures greatly increase Stork's security, it makes
Stork more complicated for our users.
must not only sign packages that they upload to our repository,
but they must also configure Stork to accept
the appropriate signatures.
This complexity has been the source of much confusion and
frustration by our users.
The requirements for research and stability oppose each other and create
a fundamental tension in research service development. This tension helps to
create a downward spiral for each research service on PlanetLab and
underscores the gap between research and real world practices.
In this section we describe the downward spiral, and offer suggestions for
One problem that most services face is they get into a negative cycle that
stunts project development and prevents the growth of a strong user base.
A service cannot build a user base because it lacks stability and features.
The features and stability cannot be provided without a large user base to
drive the feature set and do the necessary third-party testing.
Research services on PlanetLab tend to be either very successful in attracting
users (e.g. CoDeploy and Coral) or have few users
(e.g. Stork, Bellagio, and DSMT). There doesn't
appear to be any middle ground. Most of the successful research services on
PlanetLab are HTTP content distribution networks that provide the same
functionality as existing non-PlanetLab services. They
do not have dependencies on external research services: either they don't need
such services, or the research groups developed the necessary research services
themselves. For example, CoBlitz depends on CoDeeN, CoMon, and CoDNS, all
developed by the same research group.
The failed research services tend to only be useful for other PlanetLab researchers,
and have dependencies on other research services. The former reduces the
available user base, while the latter decreases stability.
As a research service depends on more and more research services, the size and number
of corner cases increases. Eventually, almost the entire operational space
is corners, leaving very little of the service functional. This leads users to avoid
the service and continues the spiral.
The number of slices that used Stork on each day from June
1st to August 20th, 2005.
We have several suggestions to help improve the quality and usability of
research services on PlanetLab.
- Fall-back gracefully to independent operation.
Although a research service may depend on other research services, it should
fall back to more reliable functionality if necessary.
For example, Stork uses Proper to
share files but will directly download and install them if Proper fails.
Stork also falls back to direct HTTP transfers should
the more sophisticated download mechanisms fail. In many cases this fall-back does
not inconvenience the user, it only decreases the overall efficiency of the system.
Since users prefer functionality to efficiency, this seems a reasonable trade-off,
at the cost of additional complexity to implement the fall-back mechanism.
- Build on other research services.
The previous suggestion does not mean that research services should never
rely on one another. It should just be done in moderation.
We believe that inter-dependency is a good thing,
as it increases research service
functionality and potential user base. To date, we have tried to be active users of
any appropriate research service on PlanetLab.
Stork uses Proper, CoDeeN, CoBlitz, and AppManager to
provide it with improved functionality. We have also investigated using
PLuSH, DSMT, Coral, Bellagio, PsEPR, and Sirius to various degrees.
- There must be a reliable core.
While research services are interesting because of the research
component, users just want them to work. If a research service provides
an operational subset that always works, then users can be assured that
there are some functions that are well tested and can be depended upon. In
other words, the research service developer should make a reliable service
and build the research framework around it.
- Incentives are needed for research service creation.
Services like AppManager work very well in practice, but are uninteresting
from a research standpoint. For that reason few of them exist on PlanetLab,
although those that do exist are stable and well-used.
The motivation for creating such services isn't clear, but may be similar to that of
people who write open source software. Service creators obtain a certain
amount of renown within the community but largely donate their effort
with the hope that others will also donate useful software.
If the PlanetLab Consortium were to offer prizes for service creation and
deployment (similar to the Ansari X-Prize ), it would
increase the interest in service creation. Currently there are too many
research prototypes and too few services to have a stable base to build upon.
Perhaps PlanetLab should start its own conferences and/or journals that
focus on research services that have real user bases.
WORLDS is a step in the right direction, but workshop publications don't
have the same weight as conferences and journals.
Not only would
these publications help other researchers to develop research services,
it would give them an incentive to do so. Alternatively, sessions which
focus on high-quality experiences papers could be added to existing
- Standardized interfaces are not the solution.
The problem with inter-service
dependency is not the lack of standardized interfaces. Dealing with different interfaces
for different services is not that difficult; adding a new data transfer service to
Stork is as simple as writing a few stub routines. The problem is running into corner
cases in which the research service does not work correctly. Working around a bug in
another service is extremely difficult and time-consuming. Effort should be expended reducing corner cases and documenting those that remain, rather than
Throughout this paper we have described the problems that
research services face on PlanetLab. The requirements for novelty and
interuse cause instability that frustrates users.
We have provided suggestions explaining how to build a reliable and stable tool
for users without sacrificing the research value of the service. New
incentives for research services along with better techniques for building
research service would help to develop PlanetLab. With time, PlanetLab
may fulfill the dream of having long-running research services running
alongside research prototypes.
We would like to thank Vivek Pai and Steve Muir for suggesting we
write this paper and the entire Stork team, especially Jason Hardies, for
keeping other projects moving while we worked on this. We would also
like to thank our shepherd, Dave Andersen, and the anonymous reviewers for
their comments that greatly improved this paper.
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