Thoughts on Surge 2011

2011-09-30 22:03:47 by jdixon

I had another great year at the Surge scalability conference in Baltimore, MD. Many of you know that I consider Surge to be "my baby", having conceived of the original conference vision, name and motto while employed at OmniTI. Even though I've moved on, I'm proud to see it grow and flourish while keeping its intimate feel intact.

Long story short, Surge 2011 kicked ass and took names. The speaker lineup was impressive and there were improvements across the board. Audio and video were outsourced to a professional team. On Thursday, lunch was provided and after the last session, Google had a nice party with plenty of hors d'oevers and beer. Everyone appeared to have a great time, sharing war stories and networking with peers.

I was invited by this year's team to organize the Lightning Talks on Wednesday night. Although I wish I'd scrapped the Karaoke PowerPoint event as I was inclined to do, the rest of the night went off without a hitch. The talks were consistently awesome, with Adam Jacob putting the capper on the evening.

Sessions on Thursday were excellent. Ben Fried held keynote honors, describing one of his greatest failures and how it helped shape the way Google IT operates. Artur Bergman was typically irreverent towards Linux kernel developers and inferior hardware. My favorite talk of the conference happened to come from Mark Imbriaco, the Director of Cloud Operations at Heroku (and coincidentally, my boss). But seriously, it was a brilliant interactive session full of insightful real-life incident response tactics and Q&A with the audience. Ironically, our Heroku operations team had to skip the 2:30pm slot to respond to an urgent incident within our architecture. My day wrapped up with a hilarious Choose-Your-Own-Adventure talk by Adam Jacob of Opscode.

Friday's sessions were good but struggled to compete with the consistently high quality of the previous day. I enjoyed Theo Schlossnagle's dissection of the Circonus real-time data subsystems, even though I'm intimately familiar with them already (as former Product Manager of the same). I caught the latter portions of Baron Schwartz's talk on performance metrics and the first half of Mike Panchenko's talk on cloud infrastructure. Unfortunately I had to skip the latter half of the conference's last day due to family commitments, but I've heard great things on Twitter about the remaining sessions.

My only real complaint was the Internet connectivity. Unlike last year, where I insisted on using Port Networks exclusively, this year the organizers chose to outsource part of the conference network to the Tremont IT staff. I'm unsure of the specific cause of the failures, but the symptoms were random failures to load TCP connections from various sites. On the first day, for example, I was unable to load the Surge website without it blocking on the Fontdeck CDN. The next day, I couldn't SSH to any EC2 hosts (although I was able to get to my personal server at ARP Networks) or load Basho and Etsy websites. Everyone I spoke with encountered similar failures, but not always the same sites (ruling out DNS issues). It appeared to be caused by overzealous application filtering or possibly a connection limit. I spoke to multiple OmniTI employees and nobody knew what the cause was, other than it had something to do with the Tremont service.

Also, I noticed a distinct lack of war stories as compared to last year's event. Surge was envisioned as a place where internet practitioners could share and learn from each other's mistakes. With a couple distinct exceptions, it just wasn't the case this year. It felt more like a chapter from O'Reilly Strata 2011 (read: Big Data) than Surge 2010. Nevertheless, there was plenty of good information to be gleaned throughout.

I had an incredible time at this year's event with my old friends at OmniTI, my operations and engineering compadres at Heroku, and countless friends and associates from IRC, Twitter and real life. As much as I enjoy conferences like Velocity, OSCON and DevOpsDays, I don't think they hold a candle to the concentration of operational and engineering excellence that you find at Surge. I'm thrilled that they're committed to keeping Surge at the Tremont. Although it's a quirky building with limited modernities, it guarantees that this event will never grow too large or become "commercially compromised". Hope to see all of you (well, 350 of you anyways) again next year.

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