Refereeing the Unikernels Slamdown

07Jan16

Background

The last two interviews that I’ve done for InfoQ have been with Anil Mahavapeddy and Bryan Cantrill, and in both cases we talked about unikernels. Anil is very much pro unikernels, whilst Bryan takes the opposing view.

long and rambling Twitter thread about oncoming architecture diversity in Docker images took a turn into the unikernel cul-de-sac the other day, and I was asked what I thought. It wasn’t something I was willing to address in 140 characters or less, so this post is here to do that.

Smoking the whole pack

Bryan made a point that anybody advocating unikernels should be ‘forced to smoke the whole pack’ and that soundbite was used by a bunch of people to promote the interview. It wasn’t traditional clickbait, but it seemed to have the desired effect. I must however confess that I was somewhat uncomfortable about being so closely associated with that quote – it’s what Bryan said, not my own opinion on the matter.

Debugging

The point behind Bryan’s position is that it’s basically impossible to debug unikernels in situ – they either work or they don’t. As most of us know that software fails all the time it should therefore be obvious that software that can’t be debugged is a major hazard and QED it shouldn’t ever be used.

In which Bryan makes Anil’s point for him

Elsewhere in the interview Bryan says that we’re surrounded by correct software:

Correct software is timeless, and people say “Yes, but software is never correct”, that’s not true, there is lots of correct software, there is correct software every day that our lives silently come into contact with correct perfectly working software.

Arguably if you have correct software in a unikernel then there’s no need to debug it, and the argument that it can’t effectively be debugged in production being a major problem starts to subside.

So how do we make correct software?

That’s probably the multi $Bn question for many industries, and at this point the formal methods wonks that do safety critical stuff for planes and cars start to poke their noses in and it all gets very complicated…

But in general, keep it simple, keep it small, avoid side effects are all signposts on the path to righteousness, and I can almost hear Anil saying – ‘and that’s why we use OCAML’.

My conclusion

I don’t think unikernels are a general panacea, Bryan makes some very good points. I do however think that there are some use cases where it’s possible for software that’s small and simple, and most importantly likely to be correct where unikernels can be appropriate.

Feel free to continue the argument/debate in the comments below.



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