Platform services play an increasingly important role in cloud infrastructures. They enable application operators to quickly stick together the dependencies they need to run their applications. For example, when deploying your application and you need a database, you just request a service instance for the database of your choice and connect it to your application. Done.

Specifications like the Open Service Broker API provide a standard interface to provide backing services such as databases or analytics to applications. However, the nature of a service offered by someone else to your application is not always that clearly defined and therefore you should pay attention to the exact contract the service offers.

At meshcloud we work with customers to integrate Open Service Broker API compatible services into a private multi-cloud marketplace. Based on that experience, we provide a compact check matrix for clear communication and understanding what type of service you receive when requesting a service instance. The following abstract scheme might not necessarily be complete (please comment if you have anything to add), but it gives a first idea which questions to ask and to ensure there is no misunderstanding between service owner and service consumer.

Service Model classification matrix

Unmanaged Operated Managed
Whitebox The service provides an instance in your space. You have full access to its internal wiring and start from there customizing for your purposes. This is a tricky model, as the service vendor offers operation support, but service consumers are also able to access the service interna, e.g. the service vendor offers a joint internal monitoring and provides an automatic recovery, but if you break anything, you need to recreate the service instance on your own. (Managed Whitebox would not work because the service vendor is responsible for smooth operations, therefore the interna will be protected from outside access. Exception would be supported operations where you have service operators support you in running your systems.) Whitebox means you see details of the service deployment, e.g. the service instance will be deployed into an IaaS space you have access to.
Blackbox (Unmanaged Blackbox would not work as no one would control the service instance) The service vendor has automatic tooling in place to check service health and recover the instance. Service consumers can not access interna, so the vendor has exclusive control and hence should be able to provide a consistent service experience. This is the most usual and common perception of a platform service. You request a service instance and use it for your application without any further effort. Blackbox means you only have a defined interface to control your service instance (e.g. the Open Service Broker API), but no insight where or how this service is deployed or operated.
Unmanaged: The service vendor does not undertake any measures to ensure the service is running smoothly. You get a service instance provisioned and from there, you're on your own with operations, but you don't need to start from scratch. You usually only pay for the bare resources consumed by the service. Operated: The service vendor monitors execution of the service itself and recovers the service when it fails. However, how this affects your application or your data is out of scope for the service vendor, but as a service consumer you need to add your own routines on top of the service instance. Managed: The service vendor takes over responsibility for availability and, often, data backup and recovery. Further, service updates will be conducted by the service owner without your involvement as a service consumer. This is the most comfortable, but also most expensive way of consuming a service.

 

The gold standard and typical understanding of a platform service is certainly: Managed Blackbox. However, there are cases when the other service models make sense, e.g. for highly customizable systems – let’s say a Kubernetes cluster. Providing a K8s cluster as unmanaged whitebox service would mean you get a fully provisioned K8s cluster and take over from there in further configuration and maintenance. You still save the time to setup and provision a cluster on your own, but don’t have to bear the costs of a fully managed K8s cluster.

In any case, there should be no misunderstanding between service vendor and consumer as to what the level of support really is. Especially, when procuring services becomes fast and easy and happens with a few clicks, simply assuming the vendor will take care of everything might create unpleasant surprises. Be sure to be aware of the exact service conditions, which are hopefully communicated transparently and easy to access.

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