One of the changes coming in the Queens release of OpenStack is the addition of alternate hosts to the response from the Scheduler's select_destinations() method. If the previous sentence was gibberish to you, you can probably skip the rest of this post.
In order to understand why this change was made, we need to understand the old way of doing things (before Cells v2). Cells were an optional configuration back then, and if you did use them, cells could communicate with each other. There were many problems with the cells design, so a few years ago, work was started on a cleaner approach, dubbed Cells v2. With Cells v2, an OpenStack deployment consists of a top-level API layer, and one or more cells below it. I'm not going to get into the details here, but if you want to know more about it, read this document about Cells v2 layout. The one thing that's important to take away from this is that once a process is cast to a cell, that cell cannot call back up to the API layer.
Why is that important? Well, let's take the most common case for the scheduler in the past: retrying a failed VM build. The process then was that Nova API would receive a request to build a VM with particular amounts of RAM, disk, etc. The conductor service would call the scheduler's select_destinations() method, which would filter the entire list of physical hosts to find only those with enough resources to satisfy the request, and then run the qualified hosts through a series of weighers in order to determine the "best" host to fulfill the request, and return that single host. The conductor would then cast a message to that host, telling it to build a VM matching the request, and that would be that. Except when it failed.
Why would it fail? Well, for one thing, the Nova API could receive several simultaneous requests for the same size VM, and when that happened, it was likely that the same host would be returned for different requests. That was because the "claim" for the host's resources didn't happen until the host started the build process. The first request would succeed, but the second may not, as the host may not have had enough room for both. When such a race for resources happened, the compute would call back to the conductor and ask it to retry the build for the request that it couldn't accomodate. The conductor would call the scheduler's select_destinations() again, but this time would tell it to exclude the failed host. Generally, the retry would succeed, but it could also run into a similar race condition, which would require another retry.
However, with cells no longer able to call up to the API layer, this retry pattern is not possible. Fortunately, in the Pike release we changed where the claim for resources happens so that the FilterScheduler now uses the Placement service to do the claiming. In the race condition described above, the first attempt to claim the resources in Placement would succeed, but the second request would fail. At that point, though, the scheduler has a list of qualified hosts, so it would just move down to the next host on the list and try claiming the resources on that host. Only when the claim is successful would the scheduler return that host. This eliminated the biggest cause for failed builds, so cells wouldn't need to retry nearly as often as in the past.
Except that not every OpenStack deployment uses the Placement service and the FilterScheduler. So those deployments would not benefit from the claiming in the scheduler change. And sometimes builds fail for reasons other than insufficient resources: the network could be flaky, or some other glitch happens in the process. So in all these cases, retrying a failed build would not be possible. When a build fails, all that can be done is to put the requested instance into an ERROR state, and then someone must notice this and manually re-submit the build request. Not exactly an operator's dream!
This is the problem that alternate hosts addresses. The API for select_destinations() has been changed so that instead of returning a single destination host for an instance, it will return a list of potential destination hosts, consisting of the chosen host, along with zero or more alternates from the same cell as the chosen host. The number of alternates is controlled by a configuration option (CONF.scheduler.max_attempts), so operators can optimize that if necessary. So now the API-level conductor will get this list, pop the first host off, and then cast the build request, along with the remaining alternates, to the chosen host. If the build succeeds, great — we're done. But now, if the build fails, the compute can notify the cell-level conductor that it needs to retry the build, and passes it the list of alternate hosts.
The cell-level conductor then removes any allocated resources against the failed host, since that VM didn't get built. It then pops the first host off the list of alternates, and attempts to claim the resources needed for the VM on that host. Remember, some other request may have already consumed that host's resources, so this has a non-zero chance of failing. If it does, the cell conductor tries the next host in the list until the resource claim succeeds. It then casts the build request to that host, and the cycle repeats until one of two things happen: the build succeeds, or the list of alternate hosts is exhausted. Generally failures should now be a rare occurrence, but if an operator finds that they happen too often, they can increase the number of alternate hosts returned, which should reduce that rate of failure even further.