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.

Mad as Hell

2011-09-25 00:24:02 by jdixon

Laid a smackdown of truth on a loudmouth conservative parent at a kid's birthday party today. This guy (another kid's father) complained about pro athletes being "greedy" and how firemen are underpaid and not getting salary increases. I forced myself to get up and explain to him how:

  • Both are a result of the supply and demand of the capitalist society he believes so strongly in.
  • He's a hypocrite for supporting his own union but decrying the work of the NFL Player's Union.
  • While I respect his work and applaud him for his efforts, he chose his profession. Nobody forced him into it. If he wasn't there to do it, someone else would fill the vacuum and happily take his paycheck.
  • Blaming Obama, or Bush, or even Clinton for his woes is asinine. The toxic state of our government is a direct result of unbridled capitalism that's run unchecked for the last 30 years and continues to deteriorate.
  • Corporations like GE earn $14B in profits but pay zero in taxes.
  • Iraq didn't attack the United States, Al Qaeda did. We invaded Iraq without cause and continue to participate in wars without justification.
  • The aforementioned reasons are why our government programs and agencies are struggling to make ends meet, not because of "entitlements" paid out to citizens who've earned their social security.
  • We can't continue to support an upper-class that refuses to pay forward their dues to society.

Generally speaking, I'm a timid sort at social affairs. I'll keep to myself with a soda and my phone. But I heard this guy ranting and called him out on it. I shouldn't brag, but I'm fucking proud of standing up for my beliefs today. And to his credit, this guy had the decency to listen to what I was saying and, as best as I could tell, actually made sense of what he heard. At the end we shook hands and agreed that it's good to talk about these issues in healthy debate in public.

I don't know what came over me. It might have something to do with me watching Network again this week. Although the film is 35 years old, it's a striking narrative of today's problems in politics, mainstream media and corporate America. I'm tired of the ignorant posturing by both sides, fueled by self-serving tabloid hawkers and a political system tainted by corporate greed. There are decent people on both sides of the two-party spectrum but we're forced to eat from the news feedbag with a hood over our eyes.

I think Howard Beale said it best.

Why the Netflix Pivot Will Fail

2011-09-19 12:12:27 by jdixon

Netflix has always been about convenience. They killed Blockbuster on customer service, convenience and price. They've continued to compete against up-and-comers like Redbox thanks to their streaming offering. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings feels that now is the time for an epic pivot, allowing each product to stand (and compete) on its own.

As a cohesive unit with simplified billing, and offering customers the flexibility and choice they're accustomed to, Netflix is ubiquitous. Thanks to a loyal and addicted user base, they've made inroads with a multitude of video and gaming appliances. Consumers pushed for Netflix access on their TiVos and Xboxen, and TV manufacturers are starting to include Netflix support in newer "smart TVs".

And yet, I predict that Netflix/Qwikster will be dead within three years. The move to independent business units a) results in higher prices, b) makes it less convenient for viewers, and c) removes operational and marketing efficiencies found in their current business operations.

Redbox will continue to chip away at the Qwikster "legacy" DVD market. Who wants to wait 2 days for a DVD when I can pick one up in 10 minutes from the corner Walgreens? And how long before the movie studios push Netflix aside for more lucrative, direct partnerships with the appliance manufacturers and vendors?

Hastings is trying to sell the vision that this is a necessary pivot to remain viable in the market. Rather, I suspect this is their attempt to increase short-term shareholder value. I chose to stick with Netflix through the recent price hikes for the continued convenience of one-stop shopping. But with the lack of streaming choice, separate bills, and less convenient DVD rentals, I don't see myself sticking around for long.

Why Chef pwns Puppet

2011-09-10 09:18:16 by jdixon

I don't know why, it just does. Seriously, Ruby just destroys Puppet's DSL. I guess that's not really a vote for Chef as much as it is an incrimination of poor DSLs. Either way I'm 10x as productive with a fraction of the hair loss.

Thanks, Opscode.