StoredState: Uses, Limitations

… and why charm authors should avoid state when they can.

Purpose of this doc

This is an explanatory doc covering how charm authors might track local state in a Juju unit. We’ll cover the Operator Framework’s concept of StoredState, along with some differences in how it works between machine charms and Kubernetes charms. We’ll talk about Peer Relations as an alternative for storing some kinds of information, and also talk about how charm authors probably should avoid recording state when they can avoid doing so. Relying on the SDK’s built in caching facilities is generally the preferred direction for a charm.

A trivial example

We’ll begin by setting up a simple scenario. A charm author would like to charm up a (made up) service called ExampleBlog. The ideal cloud service is stateless and immutable, but ExampleBlog has some state: it can run in either a production mode or a test mode.

The standard way to set ExampleBlog’s mode is to write either the string test or production to /etc/example_blog/mode, then restart the service. Leaving aside whether this is advisable behavior, this is how ExampleBlog works, and an ExampleBlog veteran user would expect a ExampleBlog charm to allow them to toggle modes by writing to that config file. (I sense a patch to upstream brewing, but let’s assume, for our example, that we can’t dynamically load the config.)

Here’s a simplified charm code snippet that will allow us to toggle the state of an already running instance of ExampleBlog.

def _on_config_changed(self, event):
    mode = self.model.config['mode']

    with open('/etc/example_blog/mode', 'w') as mode_file:
        mode_file.write('{}\n'.format(mode)

    self._restart()

Assume that _restart does something sensible to restart the service – e.g., calls service_restart from the systemd library in a machine version of this charm.

A problematic solution

The problem with the code as written is that the ExampleBlog daemon will restart every time the config-changed hooked fires. That’s definitely unwanted downtime! We might be tempted to solve the issue with StoredState:

def __init__(self, *args):
    super().__init__(*args)
    self._stored.set_default(current_mode="test")

def _on_config_changed(self, event):
    mode = self.model.config['mode']
    if self._stored.current_mode == mode:
        return

    with open('/etc/example_blog/mode', 'w') as mode_file:
        mode_file.write('{}\n'.format(mode)

    self._restart()

    self._stored.current_mode = mode

The StoredState docs advise against doing this, for good reason. We have added one to the list of places that attempt to track ExampleBlog's “mode”. In addition to the config file on disk, the juju config, and the actual state of the running code, we’ve added a fourth “instance” of the state: “current_mode” in our StoredState object. We’ve doubled the number of possible states of this part of the system from 8 to 16, without increasing the number of correct states. There are still only two: all set to test, or all set to production. We have essentially halved the reliability of this part of our code.

Differences in StoredState behaviour across substrates

Let’s say the charm is running on Kubernetes, and the container it is running in gets destroyed and recreated. This might happen due to events outside of an operator’s control – perhaps the underlying Kubernetes service rescheduled the pod, for example. In this scenario the StoredState will go away, and the flags will be reset.

Do you see the bug in our example code? We could fix it by setting the initial value in our StoredState to something other than test or production. E.g., self._stored.set_default(current_mode="unset"). This will never match the actual intended state, and we’ll thus always invoke the codepath that loads the operator’s intended state after a pod restart, and write that to the new local disk.

What if we are tracking some piece of information that should survive a pod restart?

In this case, charm authors can pass use_juju_for_storage=True to the a charm’s main routine (example). This will allocate some space on the controller to store per unit data, and that data will persist through events that could kill and recreate the underlying a pod. Keep in mind that this can cause trouble! In the case of ExampleBlog, we clearly would not want the StoredState record for “mode” to survive a pod restart – the correct state is already appropriately stored in Juju’s config, and stale state in the controller’s storage might result in the charm skipping a necessary config write and restart cycle.

Practical suggestions and solutions

Most of the time, charm authors should not track state in a charm.

More specifically, authors should only use StoredState when they are certain that the charm can handle any cache consistency issues, and that tracking the state is actually saving a significant number of unneeded CPU cycles.

In our example code, for instance, we might think about the fact that config_changed hooks, even in a busy cloud, fire with a frequency measured in seconds. It’s not particularly expensive to read the contents of a small file every few seconds, and so we might implement the following, which is stateless (or at least, does not hold state in the charm):

def _on_config_changed(self, event):
    with open('/etc/example_blog/mode') as mode_file:
        prev_mode = mode_file.read().strip()
    if self.model.config['mode'] == prev_mode:
        return

    with open('/etc/example_blog/mode', 'w') as mode_file:
        mode_file.write('{}\n'.format(mode)

    self._restart()

One common scenario where charm authors get tempted to use StoredState, when a no-op would be better, is to use StoredState to cache information from the Juju model. The Operator Framework already caches information about relations, unit and application names, etc. It reads and loads the charm’s config into memory during each hook execution. Authors can simply fetch model and config information as needed, trusting that the Operator Framework is avoiding extra work where it can, and doing extra work to avoid cache coherency issues where it must.

Another temptation is to track the occurence of certain events like pebble-ready. This is dangerous. The emission of a pebble-ready event means that Pebble was up and running when the hook was invoked, but makes no guarantees about the future. Pebble may not remain running – see the note about the Kubernetes scheduler above – meaning your StoredState contains an invalid cache value which will likely lead to bugs. In cases where charm authors want to perform an action if and only if the workload container is up and running, they should call container.can_connect:

def some_event_handler(event):
    if not event.workload.can_connect():
        event.defer()
        return

   self.do_thing_that_assumes_container_running()

In the other cases where state is needed, authors ideally want to relate a charm to a database, attach storage (see Juju storage), or simply be opinionated, and hard code the single “correct” state into the charm. (Perhaps ExampleBlog should always be run in production mode when deployed as a charm?)

In the cases where it is important to share some lightweight configuration data between units of an application, charm author’s should look into peer relations. And in the cases where data must be written to a container’s local file system (Canonical’s Kubeflow bundle, for example, must do this, because the sheer number of services mean that we run into limitations on attached storage in the underlying cloud), authors should do so mindfully, with an understanding of the pitfalls involved.

In sum: use state mindfully, with well chosen tools, only when necessary.

Questions or comments? Please don’t hesitate ask (see below)!


Last updated 2 months ago.