My interview in le Journal du Hacker

Thursday 17 September 2015 OpenStack, Books, Python, Work Comments

A few days ago, the French equivalent of Hacker News, called "Le Journal du Hacker", interviewed me about my work on OpenStack, my job at Red Hat and my self-published book The Hacker's Guide to Python. I've spent some time translating it into English so you can read it if you don't understand French! I hope you'll enjoy it.

Hi Julien, and thanks for participating in this interview for the Journal du Hacker. For our readers who don't know you, can you introduce you briefly?

You're welcome! My name is Julien, I'm 31 years old, and I live in Paris. I now have been developing free software for around fifteen years. I had the pleasure to work (among other things) on Debian, Emacs and awesome these last years, and more recently on OpenStack. Since a few months now, I work at Red Hat, as a Principal Software Engineer on OpenStack. I am in charge of doing upstream development for that cloud-computing platform, mainly around the Ceilometer, Aodh and Gnocchi projects.

Being myself a system architect, I follow your work in OpenStack since a while. It's uncommon to have the point of view of someone as implied as you are. Can you give us a summary of the state of the project, and then detail your activities in this project?

The OpenStack project has grown and changed a lot since I started 4 years ago. It started as a few projects providing the basics, like Nova (compute), Swift (object storage), Cinder (volume), Keystone (identity) or even Neutron (network) who are basis for a cloud-computing platform, and finally became composed of a lot more projects.

For a while, the inclusion of projects was the subject of a strict review from the technical committee. But since a few months, the rules have been relaxed, and we see a lot more projects connected to cloud-computing joining us.

As far as I'm concerned, I've started with a few others people the Ceilometer project in 2012, devoted to handling metrics of OpenStack platforms. Our goal is to be able to collect all the metrics and record them to analyze them later. We also have a module providing the ability to trigger actions on threshold crossing (alarm).

The project grew in a monolithic way, and in a linear way for the number of contributors, during the first two years. I was the PTL (Project Technical Leader) for a year. This leader position asks for a lot of time for bureaucratic things and people management, so I decided to leave my spot in order to be able to spend more time solving the technical challenges that Ceilometer offered.

I've started the Gnocchi project in 2014. The first stable version (1.0.0) was released a few months ago. It's a timeseries database offering a REST API and a strong ability to scale. It was a necessary development to solve the problems tied to the large amount of metrics created by a cloud-computing platform, where tens of thousands of virtual machines have to be metered as often as possible. This project works as a standalone deployment or with the rest of OpenStack.

More recently, I've started Aodh, the result of moving out the code and features of Ceilometer related to threshold action triggering (alarming). That's the logical suite to what we started with Gnocchi. It means Ceilometer is to be split into independent modules that can work together – with or without OpenStack. It seems to me that the features provided by Ceilometer, Aodh and Gnocchi can also be interesting for operators running more classical infrastructures. That's why I've pushed the projects into that direction, and also to have a more service-oriented architecture (SOA)

I'd like to stop for a moment on Ceilometer. I think that this solution was very expected, especially by the cloud-computing providers using OpenStack for billing resources sold to their customers. I remember reading a blog post where you were talking about the high-speed construction of this brick, and features that were not supposed to be there. Nowadays, with Gnocchi and Aodh, what is the quality of the brick Ceilometer and the programs it relies on?

Indeed, one of the first use-case for Ceilometer was tied to the ability to get metrics to feed a billing tool. That's now a reached goal since we have billing tools for OpenStack using Ceilometer, such as CloudKitty.

However, other use-cases appeared rapidly, such as the ability to trigger alarms. This feature was necessary, for example, to implement the auto-scaling feature that Heat needed. At the time, for technical and political reasons, it was not possible to implement this feature in a new project, and the functionality ended up in Ceilometer, since it was using the metrics collected and stored by Ceilometer itself.

Though, like I said, this feature is now in its own project, Aodh. The alarm feature is used since a few cycles in production, and the Aodh project brings new features on the table. It allows to trigger threshold actions and is one of the few solutions able to work at high scale with several thousands of alarms. It's impossible to make Nagios run with millions of instances to fetch metrics and triggers alarms. Ceilometer and Aodh can do that easily on a few tens of nodes automatically.

On the other side, Ceilometer has been for a long time painted as slow and complicated to use, because its metrics storage system was by default using MongoDB. Clearly, the data structure model picked was not optimal for what the users were doing with the data.

That's why I started Gnocchi last year, which is perfectly designed for this use case. It allows linear access time to metrics (O(1) complexity) and fast access time to the resources data via an index.

Today, with 3 projects having their own perimeter of features defined – and which can work together – Ceilometer, Aodh and Gnocchi finally erased the biggest problems and defects of the initial project.

To end with OpenStack, one last question. You're a Python developer for a long time and a fervent user of software testing and test-driven development. Several of your blogs posts point how important their usage are. Can you tell us more about the usage of tests in OpenStack, and the test prerequisites to contribute to OpenStack?

I don't know any project that is as tested on every layer as OpenStack is. At the start of the project, there was a vague test coverage, made of a few unit tests. For each release, a bunch of new features were provided, and you had to keep your fingers crossed to have them working. That's already almost unacceptable. But the big issue was that there was also a lot of regressions, et things that were working were not anymore. It was often corner cases that developers forgot about that stopped working.

Then the project decided to change its policy and started to refuse all patches – new features or bug fix – that would not implement a minimal set of unit tests, proving the patch would work. Quickly, regressions were history, and the number of bugs largely reduced months after months.

Then came the functional tests, with the Tempest project, which runs a test battery on a complete OpenStack deployment.

OpenStack now possesses a complete test infrastructure, with operators hired full-time to maintain them. The developers have to write the test, and the operators maintain an architecture based on Gerrit, Zuul, and Jenkins, which runs the test battery of each project for each patch sent.

Indeed, for each version of a patch sent, a full OpenStack is deployed into a virtual machine, and a battery of thousands of unit and functional tests is run to check that no regressions are possible.

To contribute to OpenStack, you need to know how to write a unit test – the policy on functional tests is laxer. The tools used are standard Python tools, unittest for the framework and tox to run a virtual environment (venv) and run them.

It's also possible to use DevStack to deploy an OpenStack platform on a virtual machine and run functional tests. However, since the project infrastructure also do that when a patch is submitted, it's not mandatory to do that yourself locally.

The tools and tests you write for OpenStack are written in Python, a language which is very popular today. You seem to like it more than you have to, since you wrote a book about it, The Hacker's Guide to Python, that I really enjoyed. Can you explain what brought you to Python, the main strong points you attribute to this language (quickly) and how you went from developer to author?

I stumbled upon Python by chance, around 2005. I don't remember how I hear about it, but I bought a first book to discover it and started toying with that language. At that time, I didn't find any project to contribute to or to start. My first project with Python was rebuildd for Debian in 2007, a bit later.

I like Python for its simplicity, its object orientation rather clean, its easiness to be deployed and its rich open source ecosystem. Once you get the basics, it's very easy to evolve and to use it for anything, because the ecosystem makes it easy to find libraries to solve any kind of problem.

I became an author by chance, writing blog posts from time to time about Python. I finally realized that after a few years studying Python internals (CPython), I learned a lot of things. While writing a post about the differences between method types in Python – which is still one of the most read post on my blog – I realized that a lot of things that seemed obvious to me where not for other developers.

I wrote that initial post after thousands of hours spent doing code reviews on OpenStack. I, therefore, decided to note all the developers pain points and to write a book about that. A compilation of what years of experience taught me and taught to the other developers I decided to interview in the book.

I've been very interested by the publication of your book, for the subject itself, but also the process you chose. You self-published the book, which seems very relevant nowadays. Is that a choice from the start? Did you look for an editor? Can you tell use more about that?

I've been lucky to find out about others self-published authors, such as Nathan Barry – who even wrote a book on that subject, called Authority. That's what convinced me it was possible and gave me hints for that project.

I've started to write in August 2013, and I ran the firs interviews with other developers at that time. I started to write the table of contents and then filled the pages with what I knew and what I wanted to share. I manage to finish the book around January 2014. The proof-reading took more time than I expected, so the book was only released in March 2014. I wrote a complete report on that on my blog, where I explain the full process in detail, from writing to launching.

I did not look for editors though I've been proposed some. The idea of self-publishing really convince me, so I decided to go on my own, and I have no regret. It's true that you have to wear two hats at the same time and handle a lot more things, but with a minimal audience and some help from the Internet, anything's possible!

I've been reached by two editors since then, a Chinese and Korean one. I gave them rights to translate and publish the books in their countries, so you can buy the Chinese and Korean version of the first edition of the book out there.

Seeing how successful it was, I decided to launch a second edition in Mai 2015, and it's likely that a third edition will be released in 2016.

Nowadays, you work for Red Hat, a company that represents the success of using Free Software as a commercial business model. This company fascinates a lot in our community. What can you say about your employer from your point of view?

It only has been a year since I joined Red Hat (when they bought eNovance), so my experience is quite recent.

Though, Red Hat is really a special company on every level. It's hard to see from the outside how open it is, and how it works. It's really close to and it really looks like an open source project. For more details, you should read The Open Organization, a book wrote by Jim Whitehurst (CEO of Red Hat), which he just published. It describes perfectly how Red Hat works. To summarize, meritocracy and the lack of organization in silos is what makes Red Hat a strong organization and puts them as one of the most innovative company.

In the end, I'm lucky enough to be autonomous for the project I work on with my team around OpenStack, and I can spend 100% working upstream and enhance the Python ecosystem.