Linux vs. Hadoop - some inspiration?

2013-01-16 20:22 More posts about Hadoop brainstorming standardisation Linux desgin Hacking
This (even for my blog’s standards) long-ish blog post was inspired by a talk given late last year at Apache Con EU as well as from discussions around what constitutes “Apache Hadoop compatibility” and how to make extending Hadoop easier. The post is based on conversations with at least one guy close to the Linux kernel community and another developer working on Hadoop. Both were extremly helpful in answering my questions and sanity checking the post below. After all I’m neither an expert on Linux kernel development and design, nor am I an expert on the detailed design and implementation of features coming up in the next few Hadoop releases. Thanks for your input.

Posting this here as I thought the result of my trials to understand the exact design commonalities and differences better might be interesting for others as well. Disclaimer: This is by no means an attempt to influence current development, it just summarizes some recent thoughts and analysis. As a result I’m happy about comments pointing out additions or corrections - preferably as trackback or maybe on Google Plus as I had to turn of comments on this very blog for spamming reasons.



In his slides on “Insides Hadoop dev” during Apache Con EU:


Steve Loughran included a comparison that popped up rather often already in recent past but still made me think:

“Apache Hadoop is an OS for the datacenter”


It does make a very good point, even though being slightly misleading in my opinion:


  • There are lots of applications that need to run in a datacenter that do not imply having to use Hadoop at all - think mobile application backends, content management systems of publishers, encyclopedia hosting. Growing you may still run into the need for central log processing, scheduling and storing data.
  • Even if your application benefits from a Hadoop cluster you will need a zoo of other projects not necessarily related to the project to successfully run your cluster - think configuration management, monitoring, alerting. Actually many of these topics are on the radar of Hadoop developers - with an intend to avoid the NIH principle and rather integrate better with existing proven standard tools.


However if you do want to do large scale data analysis on largely unstructured data today you will most likely end up using Apache Hadoop.

When talking about operating systems in the free software world inevitably the topic will drift towards the Linux kernel. Being one the most successful free software projects out there from time to time it’s interesting and valuable to look at its history and present in terms of development process, architecture, stakeholders in the development cycle and the way conflicting interests are being dealt with.

Although interesting in many dimensions this blog post focuses just on two related aspects:


  • How to balance innovation for stability in critical parts of the system.
  • How to deal with modularity and API stability from an architectural point of view taking project-external (read: non-mainline) module contributions into account.


The post is not going to deal with just “everything map/reduce” but focus solely on software written specifically to work with Apache Hadoop. In particular Map/Reduce layers plugged on top of existing distributed file systems that ignore data locality guarantees as well as layers on top of existing relational database management systems that ignore easy distribution and fail over are intentionally being ignored.

Balancing innovation with stability



One pain point mentioned during Steve’s talk was the perceived need for a very stable and reliable HDFS that prevents changes and improvements from making it into Hadoop. The rational is very simple: Many customers have entrusted lots (as in not easy to re-create in any reasonable time frame) of critical (as in the service offered degrades substantially when no longer based on that data) data to Hadoop. Even when in a backup Hadoop going down for a file system failure would still be catastrophic as it would take ages to get all systems back to a working state - time that means loosing lots of customer interaction with the service provided.

When glancing over to Linux-land (or Windows, or MacOS really) the situation isn’t much different: Though both backup and recovery are much cheaper there, having to restore a user’s hard-disk just due to some weird programming mistake still is not acceptable. Where does innovation happen there? Well, if you want durability and stability all you do is to use one of the well proven file system implementations - everyone knows names like ext2, xfs and friends. A simple “man mount” will reveal many more. If on the contrary you need some more cutting edge features or want to implement a whole new idea of how a file system should work, you are free to implement your own module or contribute to those marked as EXPERIMENTAL.

If Hadoop really is the OS of the datacenter than maybe it’s time to think about ways that enable users to swap in their prefered file system implementation, maybe it’s time for developers to focus implementation of new features that could break existing deployed systems to separate modules. Maybe it’s time to announce an end-of-support-date for older implementations (unless there are users that not only need support but are willing to put time and implementation effort into maintaining these old versions that is.)

Dealing with modularity and API stability



With the vision of being able to completely replace whole sub-systems comes the question of how to guarantee some sort of interoperability. The market for Hadoop and surrounding projects is already split, it’s hard to grasp for outsiders and newcomers which components work with wich version of Hadoop. Is there a better way to do things?

Looking at the Linux kernel I see some parallels here: There’s components built on top of kernel system calls (tools like ls, mkdir etc. all rely on a fixed set of system calls being available). On the other hand there’s a wide variety of vendors offering kernel drivers for their hardware. Those come in three versions:


  • Some are distributed as part of the mainline kernel (e.g. those for Intel graphics cards).
  • Some are distributed separately but including all source code (e.g. ….)
  • Some are distributed as binary blog with some generic GPLed glue logic (e.g. those provided by NVIDIA for their graphics cards).


Essentially there are two kinds of programming interfaces: ABIs (Application Binary Interfaces) that are being developed against from user space applications like “ls” and friends. APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that are being developed against by kernel modules like the one by NVIDIA.

Coming back to Hadoop I see some parallelism here: There are ABIs that are being used by user space applications like “hadoop fs -ls” or your average map/reduce application. There are also some sort of APIs that strictly only allow for communication between HDFS, Map/Reduce and applications on top.

The Java ecosystem has a history of having APIs defined and standardised through the JCP and implemented by multiple vendors afterwards. With Apache projects people coming from a plain Java world often wonder why there is no standard that defines the APIs of valuable projects like Lucene or even Hadoop. Even log4j, commons logging and build tooling follow the “defacto standardisation” approach where development defines the API as opposed to a standardisation committee.

Going one step back the natrual question to ask is why there is demand for standardisation. What are the benefits of having APIs standardised? Going through a lengthy standardisation process obviously can’t be the benefit.

Advantages that come to my mind:

  • When having multiple vendors involved that do not want to or cannot communicate otherwise a standardisation committee can provide a neutral ground for communication in particular for the engineers involved.
  • For users there is some higher level document they can refer to in order to compare solutions and see how painful it might be to migrate.


Having been to a DIN/ISO SQL meetup lately there’s also a few pitfalls that I can think of:

  • You really have to make sure that your standard isn’t going to be polluted with things that never get implemented just because someone thought a particular feature could be interesting.
  • Standardisation usually takes a long time (read: mutliple years) until something valuable that than can be adopted and implemented in the industry is created.


More concerns include but are not limited to the problem of testing the standard - when putting the standard into main focus instead of the implementation there is a risk of including features in the standard that are hard or even impossible to implement. There is the risk of running into competing organisations gaming the system, making deals with each other - all leading to compromises that are everything but technologically sensible. There clearly is a barrier to entry when standardisation happens in a professional standards body. (On a related note: At least the German group working on the DIN/ISO standard defining the standard query language in particular in big data environments. Let me know if you would like to get involved.)

Concerning the first advantage (having some neutral ground for vendors to meet): Looking at your average standardisation effort those committees may be neutral ground. However communication isn’t necessarily available to the public for whatever reasons. Compared to the situation little over a decade ago there’s also one major shift in how development is done on successful projects: Software is no longer developed in-house only. Many successful components that enable productivity are developed in the open in a collaborative way that is open to any participant. Httpd, Linux, PHP, Lucene, Hadoop, Perl, Python, Django, Debian and others are all developed by teams spanning continents, cultures and most importantly corporations. Those projects provide a neutral ground for developers to meet and discuss their idea of what an implementation should look like.

Pondering a bit more on where successful projects I know of came from reveals something particularly interesting: ODF first was implemented as part of Open Office and then turned into a standardised format. XMPP was first implemented and than turned into an IETF standardised protocol. Lucene never went for any storage format or even search API standardisation but defined very rigid backwards compatibility guidelines that users learnt to trust. Linux itself never went for ABI standardisation - instead they opted for very strict ABI backwards compat guidelines that developers of user space tools could rely on.

Looking at the Linux kernel in particular the rule is that user facing ABIs are supposed to be backwards compatible: You will always be able to run yesterday’s ls against a newer kernel. One advantage for me as a user is that this way I can easily upgrade the kernel in my system without having to worry about any of the installed user space software.

The picture looks rather different with Linux’ APIs: Those are intentionally not considered holy and subject to change if need be. As a result vendors providing proprietary kernel driver like NVIDIA have the burden of providing updated versions in case they want to support more than one kernel version.

I could imaging a world similar to that for Hadoop: A world in which clients run older versions of Hadoop but are still able to talk to their upgraded clusters. A world in which older MapReduce programs still run when deployed on newer clusters. The only people who would need to worry about API upgrades would be those providing plugins to Hadoop itself or replace components of the system. According to Steve this is what YARN promises: Turn MR into user layer code, have the lower level resource manager for requesting machines near the data.