A sweet metaphor

If you’ve spent any time in the tech world lately, you’ve probably heard about the “Pets vs. Cattle” metaphor for describing system deployments. To recap: the idea is that administrators treat their systems as animals: some they treat very much like a pet; they care for them, monitor them intently and if they get “sick”, nurse them back to help. Other systems are more like livestock: their value to them is in their ready availability and if any individual one gets sick, lamed, etc. you simply euthanize it and then go get a replacement.

Leaving aside the dreadfully inaccurate representation of how ranchers treat their cattle, this metaphor is flawed in a number of other ways. It’s constantly trotted out as being representative of “the new way of doing things vs. the old way”. In reality, I cannot think of a realistic environment that would ever be able to move exclusively to the “new way”, with all of their machines being small, easily-replaceable “cattle”.

No matter how much the user-facing services might be replaced with scalable pods, somewhere behind that will always be one or more databases. While databases may have load-balancers, failover and other high-availability and performance options, ultimately they will always be “pets”. You can’t have an infinite number of them, because the replication storm would destroy you, and you can’t kill them off arbitrarily without risking data loss.

The same is true (perhaps doubly so) for storage servers. While it may be possible to treat the interface layer as “cattle”, there’s no way that you would expect to see the actual storage itself being clobbered and overwritten.

The main problem I have with the traditional metaphor is that it doesn’t demonstrate the compatibility of both modes of operation. Yes, there’s a lot of value to moving your front-end services to the high resilience that virtualization and containerization can provide, but that’s not to say that it can continue to function without the help of those low-level pets as well. It would be nice if every part of the system from bottom to top was perfectly interchangeable, but it’s unlikely to happen.

So, I’d like to propose a different metaphor to describe things (in keeping with the animal husbandry theme): beekeeping. Beehives are (to me) a perfect example of how a modern hybrid-mode system is set up. In each hive you have thousands of completely replaceable workers and drones; they gather nectar and support the hive, but the loss of any one (or even dozens) makes no meaningful difference to the hive’s production.

However, each hive also has a queen bee; one entity responsible for controlling the hive and making sure that it continues to function as a coherent whole. If the queen dies or is otherwise removed from the hive, the entire system collapses on itself. I think this is a perfect metaphor for those low-level services like databases, storage and domain control.

This metaphor better represents how the different approaches need to work together. “Pets” don’t provide any obvious benefit to their owners (save companionship), but in the computing world, those systems are fundamental to keeping things running. And with the beekeeping metaphor, we even have a representative for the collaborative output… and it even rhymes with “money”.