What's That Noise?! [Ian Kallen's Weblog]

« Previous page | Main | Next page »

20090304 Wednesday March 04, 2009

New Crawlers At Technorati

A lot of changes are afoot at Technorati. Over the last year or so, we've been looking inward at the infrastructure and asking ourselves, "How can we do this better?". The data spigot that Technorati builds on was the first thing to focus on, it's a critical part in one leg of the back-end infrastructure tripod. The tripod consists of data acquisition, search and analytics Technorati; while the ping handling and queuing are relatively simple affairs the crawler is the most sophisticated of the data acquisition subsystems. It's proper functioning is critical to the functioning of the other legs; when it doesn't function well, search and analytics don't either (GIGO="garbage in/garbage out").

As Dorion mentioned recently, we're retiring the old crawler. Why are we giving the old crawler getting an engraved watch and showing it to the door? Well, old age is one reason. The original spider is a technology that dates back to 2003, the blogosphere has changed a lot since then and we have a much better developed understanding of the requirements. The original spider code has presented a sufficient number of GIGO-related and code maintenance challenges to warrant a complete re-thinking. It contrasts starkly with the replacement.

Data model
There are a lot of ways to derive structural information out of the pages and feeds that a blog presents. The old spider used event driven parses, building a complex state as it went with flat data structures (lists and hashes). The new one uses the composed web documents to populate a well-defined object model; all crawls normalize the semi-structured data found on the web to that model.
Crawl persistence
The old spider was hard-wired to persist the aforementioned data structure elements to relational databases (sharded MySQL instances) while it was parsing, so that the flow of saving parsed data was closely coupled with parsing events, forsaking transactional integrity and consuming costly resources. The new spider composes and saves its parse result as a big discreet object (not collections of little objects in an RDBMS). This reduced the hardware footprint by an order of magnitude.
Operational visibility
Whether a blog's page structure was understood (or not), the feed was well formed (or not) or any of the many other things that determine the success or quality of a blog's crawl was opaque under the old spider. With the new spider, detailed metadata and metrics are tracked during the crawl cycles. This better enables the team to support bloggers and extend the system's capabilities.
Unit tests
Wherever you have complex, critical software you want to have unit tests. The old spider had almost no unit tests and was developed in a way that made testing the things that mattered most exceptionally difficult. The new spider was developed with a test harness upfront, it now has hundreds of tests that validate thousands of aspects of the code. The test are uniformly invoked by the developers and automatically whenever the code is updated (AKA under continuous integration).
The old spider didn't leverage packages to logically separate the different concerns (fetching, parsing, validation, change determination, etc), the aforementioned flat data structures, mingling of concerns and absence of unit tests made changing it exceedingly difficult. Now, we have a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts; having a well defined data model, sensible persistence, operational visibility and unit tests has added up to an order of magnitude improvement across several dimensions. The real benefits are seen when we've shown that the system is easy to change, I mentioned this several weeks ago when I noted the ease with which we could adapt custom requirements to crawl the White House blog.

Another change that we've made is to the legacy assumption that everything that pings is a blog. That assumption proved to be increasingly untenable as the ping meme spread amongst those who didn't really understand the difference between some random page and a blog, nefarious publishers (spammers) and other perpetrators of spings. Over 90% of the pings hitting Technorati are rejected outright because they've been identified as invalid pings. A large portion of the remainder are later determined to be invalid but we now have a rigorous system in place for filtering out the noise. We've reduced the spam level considerably (as mentioned in a prior post). For instance, there's a whole genre of splogs that are pornography focused (hardcore pictures, paid affiliate links, etc) that previously plagued our data; now we've eliminated a lot of that nonsense from the index.

Here are a pair of charts showing the daily occurrence of a particular porn term in the index.

6 month retrospective as of November 3rd, 2008:
6 month retrospective today, 5 months later:

As you can see, that's an order of magnitude reduction; 90% of the occurrences of that term was spam.

So what's next for the crawler? We've got some stragglers on the old spider, we're going to migrate them over in the next few days. There are still a lot of issues to shake out, as with any new software (for instance, there are still some error recovery scenarios to deal with). But it's getting better all of the time (love that song). We'll be rolling out new tools internally for identifying where improvements are needed, ultimately we'd like to enable bloggers to help themselves to publish, get crawled, be found and recognized more effectively. And there are more changes afoot, stay tuned.


( Mar 04 2009, 08:31:16 PM PST ) Permalink
Comments [2]

20090227 Friday February 27, 2009

Code Is Social

Like many software developers, I confess that I have found myself on occasion coming back to old code that I wrote asking, "What was I thinking?" Where it's my code, this WWIT question doesn't happen very often these days but in general I can't count the number of times I've encountered and had to work on code that was not written to be read. I think sometimes programmers write terse code and regard its brevity as a badge of honor, "If I'm wizardly enough to write this, then only True Wizards will read it." Or maybe it's just laziness or hurriedness, these code mysteries are akin to omitting comments, API documentation and other communication artifacts. When I see non-descriptive variable names, gratuitous indirection, excessive right indenting, monkey patching or unnecessary cyclomatic complexity, it's almost anti-social behavior; it's a communication fail more than a functional one. Likewise, gratuitous verbosity stifles communication in the opposite manner; this isn't pre-school - grasp of the ABC's is assumed. So spelling out what code is doing in this belabored fashion is just silly:

# an array to collect permalinks
permalinks = []
# loop over the feed entries
for entry in feed.entries:
Whereas this is clear
# extract an array of permalinks from the feed entries
permalinks = [ entry.link for entry in feed.entries ]
OK, I'm assuming the reader knows what a Python list comprehension does. The first one is using a lot of vertical space to satisfy a very simple intent. I often find the opposite problem, excessive brevity, is authored by those enamored with their language's idioms. Software written with scripting languages often exhibit this; Perl is famous for expressiveness (I say this lovingly as a repentant x-Perl Wizard) but even the languages with adherents claiming their tongue is more "readable" have those same users donning wizard hats, trying to be clever. Ever tried to maintain Python code riddled with nested list comprehensions containing lambdas? Ruby, similar idiomatic norms abound, 'nuf said.

I've appreciated celebrations of wizardry (see A folding language) but there's more to wizardry than meta-programming and brevity. Coding like a wizard doesn't mean being so clever that only other wizards can collaborate. In my view, a true wizard has the wisdom to steer clear of verbose indulgences and terse spells; the wizard walks the middle path of clarity so that the code is not dumbed-down but the apprentice will grasp the intent. The wizard's code should read as poetry.

When code is unsocial (or anti-social), the quality suffers. Complex software needs a gene pool - lots of eyeballs, lots of variant perspectives and experiences. A small gene pool leads to in-bred ideas. Thus code from a lone wolf (even a kick-ass wolf) will usually be of lower quality than code developed by a plurality (unless its a plurality of novices, then all bets are off).

My plea to fellow crafters of bits: please code for clarity. Don't be so brief that your intentions are unclear. And don't be so garrulous that your intention is lost in the verbiage. Again, I'm not claiming innocence of these sins of code. But over the years I've become considerably more aware of the costs and benefits in the choices between brevity and verbosity. Perhaps clarity is in the eye of beholder or perhaps more narrowly, in the eye of the author. But I try to look at my own code objectively and ask, "If I don't see this code for six months and then come back to it to do some maintenance, will today's intent be clear?" I hope the code I write will be approachable by those who come behind me to work on it, especially if it's me lest I ask myself the WWIT question.

Sigh, I'm venting because I just got side tracked refactoring some program code (and its single test) that lacked clarity. Thanks for indulging me this far. I'm gonna go listen to some old Social Distortion now, have a great weekend!


( Feb 27 2009, 06:26:15 PM PST ) Permalink
Comments [1]

20090127 Tuesday January 27, 2009

Inbloguration: One Week Later

As mentioned last week on the Technorati blog, Technorati was crawling the new White House blog within a day of its launch. Most of the blogosphere doesn't require individual customization in our crawling framework but in some special cases, it must be done. The White House blog is a prime example of why this is so but I'm pleased to report that Technorati's new crawling technology makes what was impossible with our old crawler easy with the new one.

Given the volume of moderation that'd be required, it doesn't surprise me that the posts don't take comments. But there are other more basic blogging practices of concern:

The absence of full content feeds or full content on the front page isn't a problem for Technorati's new crawler; it can crawl the post pages and extract content to index from those.

So how has the blog done in the last week? Well, it emerged in the top 1000 just five days after its inception. Keep an eye on the blog's Technorati blog info page - it's currently ranked 882 (1,876 links from 1440 blogs). Many of the links are to main blog page, citing its existence. But the majority of the links were to the kick-off post (date line reads: "Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 at 12:01 pm") and the inaugural address. Here are the posts and their link counts:

It's really encouraging to see the White House, specifically Macon Phillips, posting updates about President Obama's policies and political activities. Going forward, I hope to see more consistent publishing practices. For instance, should slug words be separated by underscores or hyphens? Should the proper names in URL slugs be mixed case (e.g. Timothy_Geithner_sworn_in) or down cased (e.g. now-comes-lilly-ledbetter)? It's less important which one but just pick one and stick to it! Also, the White House Blog should use durable URLs for permalinks: there's a posting with the path /blog_post/PressBriefingHighlights/, another with /president-obama-delivers-your-weekly-address - what are they going to use for the next post with highlights from a press briefing or next week's weekly address? If Mr. Phillips needs any further advise on effective blog publishing technology, I'm easy to find and happy to be of service.


( Jan 27 2009, 12:41:39 PM PST ) Permalink

20081225 Thursday December 25, 2008

Downturn, what downturn?

Just the other day, Data Center Knowledge asked Are Colocation Prices Heading Higher? My immediate reaction was, that's a stupid question: last time VC funding went into hibernation, data center space was suddenly cheap and abundant. The article suggested that companies operating their own data centers will run to the colos as a cost cutting measure. Maybe, but I'm not so sure. Data center migrations can be expensive, risky operations. Methinks that the F500's inclined to undertake a migration would have done so already. The article cited a report emphasizing a shift from capital expenses to operating expenses.

Tier 1 says demand for data center space grew 14 percent over the past 12 months, while supply grew by just 6 percent, "exacerbating an already lopsided supply/demand curve."
However, Tier 1 attributed the demand, "especially, (to) the primacy of the Internet as a vehicle for service and application delivery." With the litany of Techcrunch deadpool reports, I'm finding it difficult to believe that the data center space supply/demand will continue skewing.

Sure, it's not all bad news. Fred Wilson reports that Union Square Ventures will be Investing In Thick and Thin. Acknowledging that, "it is easier to invest in thin times. The difficult business climate starts to separate the wheat from the chaff and the strong companies are revealed." Wilson goes on to say

I don't feel that its possible, or wise, or prudent to attempt to time these (venture investment) cycles.
Our approach is to manage a modest amount of capital (in our case less than $300 million across two active funds) and deploy it at roughly $40 million per year, year in and year out no matter what part of the cycle we are in.
That way we'll be putting out money at the top of the market but also at the bottom of the market and also on the way up and the way down. The valuations we pay will average themselves out and this averaging allows us to invest in the underlying value creation process and not in the market per se.
Yes, the economy is gyrating in pain, but the four horsemen aren't galloping nearby. So take a pill, catch your breath and deal with it: the sun will come out, just don't bother trying to time it too carefully.

Now, there's no shortage of reasons for gloom and doom: mega-ponzi schemes collapsing, banks and real estate combusting, the big 3 in various states of failure, yet BMW North America will raise list prices 0.7%. Before the complete credit breakdown, real estate volume was actually rising in a lot of places (ergo: prices were aligning supply and demand). I was at a William-Sonoma store in Albuquerque the other day, the place was mobbed. My point is that while the economy is retrenching (or the country is rebooting), the detritus will be separated (Wilson's wheat from chaff) and data center space should be cheap and abundant. Everything seems fine to me. At least until the next bubble.

For those of you observing that sort of thing, Merry Christmas!


( Dec 25 2008, 01:20:14 PM PST ) Permalink

20081223 Tuesday December 23, 2008

Another Hadoop-backended Database: CloudBase

This post to one of the Hadoop mailing lists caught my eye, Announcing CloudBase-1.1 release. Wait, wasn't Cloudbase the embedded database company that IBM acquired several years back but ended up donating the product to the Apache Software Foundation as Derby? No, not that Cloudbase. This is apparently another project that aims to provide data warehousing on top of Hadoop.

I've been watching the emergence of HBase, Hypertable and most recently the proposed incubation of Facebook's Cassandra with great interest. The first two are modeled from Google's BigTable but all are essentially horizontally scalable column oriented databases. The developers of these systems explicitly steer away having their technologies pegged as relational databases, with the refrain: "We don't do joins." What the CloudBase project aims to do is not model themselves on BigTable but to explicitly support joins between tables built on top of an HDFS cluster. It looks like they've posted extensive documentation and have released a JDBC driver, pretty cool! This is the most interesting database initiative I've seen since GreenPlum announced their support for mapreduce.

Yes, as far as scale-out data analytics, we live in interesting times.


( Dec 23 2008, 04:02:21 PM PST ) Permalink
Comments [2]

20081221 Sunday December 21, 2008

Python SVN Bindings, Trac and mod_python

I have some code I want to noodle on outside of work. Since I'm on a holiday break, I'm doing a bit of that (yes, this is what I do for fun, so?). In the past, I had used my own private CVS server for those kinds of things but these days, I could just as well live without CVS. I decided to roll a subversion server into my Apache build (the latest Apache + other modules aren't in the yum repositories for my distro, so I roll my own). While I'm putting a subversion server up, why not trac, too? Heh, that's where things got stuck.

When I installed the subversion dependencies (specifically, neon), I just used vanilla build params. After installing subversion, I was surprised that Trac couldn't access it. It turns out that the litmus test was this:

$ python
Python ...
>>> from svn import core
...it failed miserably. Various recompile efforts seemed to move the problem around. I saw a variety of the symptoms described in the Trac-Subversion integration docs troubleshooting section. The missing gss_delete_sec_context symbol error was apparently the telltale critical one, it originated from neon having been compiled without SSL support. The neon compile config that led to success was
./configure --enable-shared --enable-static --with-ssl=openssl 
Then the real key was to completely start over with the subversion compile, not just the swig python bindings.
make clean
./configure \
 --with-berkeley-db=/usr/local/BerkeleyDB.4.7 \
 --prefix=/usr/local \ 
 --with-apxs=/usr/local/httpd2.2.11/bin/apxs \
 --with-apr=/usr/local/apr \
make swig-py
make check-swig-py
make install
make install-swig-py
Only then did the litmus test above pass. One of the things about this setup that is kind of a nuisance is that the python bindings didn't get installed into site-packages, therefore mod_python was quite unhappy. Also, trac seemed to want to put its eggs in the root directory. So the Apache server's envvars script has these variables exported to work around those issues
The result (including the requisite httpd.conf tweaks) is a working subversion 1.54 and trac 0.11 setup. It was more fiddling for the evening than I'd hoped for and I'm not sure my foibles and remedies were optimal (clearly, I missed an RTFM somewhere) but I hope this resolution helps at least one reader.

Happy Hannukah and winter solstice!


( Dec 21 2008, 02:55:24 PM PST ) Permalink

20081215 Monday December 15, 2008

World Leader Reflex Tests

Will Chuck-The-Shoe-At-The-World-Leader be an Olympic sport in the years ahead? Since finishing with dinner this evening, I've found no less than three flash games and a compendium of animated GIF satires.

I bet Jon Stewart is pissed that this had to happen two days before his last show of the year. There's still a month left for more Dubya foibles, cut the vacation short Stewart! In the meantime, keep it safe kids.


( Dec 15 2008, 09:35:52 PM PST ) Permalink

20081214 Sunday December 14, 2008

OpenEdge vs. Net Neutrality vs. CDN

The Wall Street Journal reported today that Google Wants Its Own Fast Track on the Web, describing it as an example of the decline of support for net neutrality amongst the The Powers That Be (the usual suspects: Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Amazon). Plenty of deals have been getting struck anyway between TPTB and data carriers (most prominently AT&T + Yahoo DSL) but outright transit preference doesn't seem to be an issue here. What Google appears to be getting into, called OpenEdge, sounds like an arrangement that amounts to co-locating their gear in the major carrier's datacenters. This would move serving capacity closer to the end-users of their services and thereby accelerate the user experience. Since it doesn't concern transit per se, this actually doesn't sound like a net neutrality issue at all, it sounds like another form of datacenter dispersion.

So what exactly is the big deal? All of the TPTB and loads of other online services have content delivery network (CDN) deals. Yahoo, Amazon, Facebook... they all operate or partner with a CDN in some shape or form (full disclosure: I've been working on a CDN evaluation for Technorati). With a CDN, publishers pay specifically to have their content cached at points-of-presence (PoP) around the intertubes that, through some DNS and routing magic, enables web content to get to end-users more quickly. The next step beyond a CDN is to put equipment in the carrier's datacenter. Here's what WSJ said

Google's proposed arrangement with network providers, internally called OpenEdge, would place Google servers directly within the network of the service providers, according to documents reviewed by the Journal. The setup would accelerate Google's service for users. Google has asked the providers it has approached not to talk about the idea, according to people familiar with the plans.
Asked about OpenEdge, Google said only that other companies such as Yahoo and Microsoft could strike similar deals if they desired. But Google's move, if successful, would give it an advantage available to very few.
It seems perfectly logical, actually.

Nonetheless, I am concerned about wavering support for net neutrality. Lawrence Lessig, fresh off of his Big News post concerning setting up shop at Harvard Law School, is quoted as saying

There are good reasons to be able to prioritize traffic. If everyone had to pay the same rates for postal service, than you wouldn't be able to differentiate between sending a greeting card to your grandma versus sending an overnight letter to your lawyer.
But the counter argument says that there's a big difference. Grandma isn't trying to compete with your attorney (at least, not usually). If the big guys are paying more to be faster, who will be able afford to challenge them? The intertubularly rich will get richer, the poor will be stay poor. The TPTB will ensconce themselves as dynastic media walking on paths paved with gold while all of us commoners walk in the gutter.

The dumb pipes should stay dumb. If an internet service wants to operate out of multiple datacenters, lease dedicated pipes to accelerate their inter-datacenter data distribution and peer with the carrier's PoPs proximate to their datacenters, mazel tov. This can be augmented with CDNs. It can even be taken to the next step by directly installing the carrier's datacenters. But at the network exchanges and pipes connecting them, everyone's packets should remain equal.

UPDATE GigaOM posted about a clarification from Google which says that the WSJ was "confused". The hubbub in that article really was misplaced, it's a CDN deal.


( Dec 14 2008, 10:52:25 PM PST ) Permalink
Comments [1]

20081210 Wednesday December 10, 2008

Cloud Hype, An Amazon Web Services Post-Mortem

In the last few years, the scope of Amazon Web Services (AWS) has broadened to cover a range of infrastructure capabilities and has emerged as a game changer. The hype around AWS isn't all wrong, a whole ecosystem of tools and services has developed around AWS that makes the offering compelling. However, the hype isn't all right either. At Technorati, we used AWS this year to develop and put in production a new crawler and a system that produces the web page screenshot thumbnails now seen on search result pages. But now that that chapter is coming to a close, it's time to retrospect.

There's a prevailing myth that using the elasticity of EC2 makes it cheaper to operate than fixed assets. The theory is that by shutting down unneeded infrastructure during the lulls, you're saving money. In a purely fixed infrastructure model, Technorati's data aquisition systems must be provisioned for their maximum utilization capacity threshold. When utilization ebbs, a lot of that infrastructure sits relatively idle. That much is true but the reality is that flexible capacity is only saving money relative to the minimum requirements. So the theory only holds if your variability is high compared to your minimum. That is, if the difference between your minimum and maximum capacity is large or you're not operating a 365/7/24 system but episodically using a lot of infrastructure and then shutting it down. Neither is true for us. The normal operating mode of Technorati's data acquisition systems follows the ebb and flow of the blogosphere, which varies a lot but is always on. The sketch to the left shows the minimum capacity and the variable capacity distinguished.

In response to some of the fallacies posted on an O'Reilly blog the other day (by George Reese), On Why I Don't Like Auto-Scaling in the Cloud, Don MacAskill from SmugMug wrote a really great post yesterday about his SkyNet system, On Why Auto-Scaling in the Cloud Rocks. Don also emphasizes SmugMugs modest requirements for operations staff. In an application with sufficient simplicity and automation around it, it's easy to imagine a 365/7/24 service having meager ops burdens. I think we should surmise that the cost of operating SmugMug with autonomic de/provisioning works because it fits their operating model. I understand Reese's concern, that folks may not do the hard work of really understanding their capacity requirements if they're too coddled by automation. However, that concern comes off as a shill for John Allspaw's capacity planning book (which I'm sure is great, can't wait to read it). Bryan Duxbury from RapLeaf describes their use of AWS and how the numbers work out in his post, Rent or Own: Amazon EC2 vs. Colocation Comparison for Hadoop Clusters. Since the target is to serve a Hadoop infrastructure, AWS must get a thumbs down in their case. Hadoop's performance is impaired by poor rack locality and the latencies of Amazon's I/O systems clearly drags it down. If you're going to be running Hadoop on a continuous basis, use your own racks, with your own switches and your own disk spindles.

At Technorati, we're migrating the crawl infrastructure from AWS to our colo. While I love the flexibility that AWS provides and it's been great using it as a platform to ramp up on , the bottom line is that Technorati has a pre-existing investment in machines, racks and colo infrastructure. As much as I'd like our colo infrastructure to operate with lower labor and communication overhead, running on AWS has amounted to additional costs that we must curtail.

Cloud computing (or utility computing or flex computing or whatever its called) is a game changer. So when do I recommend you use AWS? Ideally: anytime. If your application is architected to expand and contract its footprint with the demands put upon it, provision your minimum capcacity requirements in your colo and use AWS to "burst" when your load demands it. Another case where using AWS is a big win is for a total green field. If you don't have a colo, are still determining the operating charactersics of your applications and need machines provisioned, AWS is an incredible resource. However, I think the flexibility vs. economy imperatives will always lead you to optimize your costs by provisioning your minimum capacity in infrastructure that you own and operate.

There's also another option: instead of buying and operating your own machines and racks, you may be able to optimize costs by renting machines provisioned to your specs in a contract from the services that have established themselves in that market (Rackspace, Server Beach, ServePath, LayeredTech, etc). Ultimately, I'm looking forward to the emergence of a compute market place where the decisions to incur capital expense, rent by the hour or rent under a contract will be easier to traverse.


( Dec 10 2008, 11:53:19 PM PST ) Permalink
Comments [2]

20081209 Tuesday December 09, 2008

The Solar Decade

Ten years ago, you might have been advised that solar energy, while sounding nice, was a bad investment. The installations were failure prone and not cost effective. I don't know if I bought that then, I know of solar panels in San Francisco installed in the 80's that paid for themselves, just slowly. But what we're seeing isn't your father's solar panel. From Google's solar panels to residential rooftops, it seems pretty clear that the Economics of Solar Power Are Looking Brighter. Fast Company is running an article The Solar Industry Gains Ground that sounds a chord that we're hearing a lot of. Solar energy is getting more and more cost effective. What's projected is that the cost of solar power may share up-and-to-the-right properties of Moore's Law. The fabs that make the silicon enabling you to read this may also enable an energy giant leap forward. The Germans have their own "Solar Valley" and their industry projection graph appears pretty Moorish (look at the large yellow area).

The big lift off is 10 years away but the investment that has been made in the area and the advances being made seem to put the benefits close at hand. But the big win, when dependence on fossil fuels are on a clear decline, is at leat 10 and 20 years out. But I think it can happen, I think the solar decade is coming. It should be the coming decade. However, it will require an Apollo-mission like focus from the Obama administration to succeed. And I hope we can make it a reality.


( Dec 09 2008, 11:55:24 PM PST ) Permalink

20081208 Monday December 08, 2008

Good Bye, Perl

The other day, I was patching some Perl code. There I was, in the zone, code streaming off of my finger tips. But wait, I was writing Python in the middle of a Perl subroutine. Um. I found the bare word and missing semi-colon errors invoking perl -cw dingleberry.pl amusing. How did that happen?

Truth is, I find myself rarely using Perl anymore. I spent years building applications with Perl. Having made extensive use of mod_perl APIs and various CPAN modules, studied the Talmudic wisdom of Damian Conway, struggled with the double-edged sword of TMTOWTDI and rolled my eyes at the Perl haters for their failure to appreciate the strange poetry that is Perl it'd seem like a safe bet that Perl would remain on my top shelf. A lot of the complaints of Perl haters seem superficial ("ewe, all of those punctuation characters", shaddup). Yet, Perl has been long in the tooth, for a long time. I recall 5 years ago thinking that Perl 6 wasn't too far away (after all, O'Reilly published Perl 6 Essentials in June 2003). I'm sorry, my dear Perl friends, insistence that Perl is Alive rings hollow, now.

I still find it heartening to hear of people doing cool things with Perl. David McLaughlin's uplifting How I learnt to love Perl, waxing on about Moose and other "modern" Perl frameworks (but come on dude, everyone knows that PHP, sucks, heh). Brad Fitzpatrick released Perl for Google App Engine today. But Perl, I'm sorry. It's just too little, too late.

I'm just weary of the difficulties achieving team adherence to disciplined coding practices (or even appreciate why they're especially necessary in the TMTOWTDI world of Perl). The reliance on Wizardry is high with Perl; the path from novice to master requires grasping a wide range of arcana. Is it too much to ask for less magic in favor of easier developer ramp up? Perl's flexibility and expressiveness, it's high virtues, also comprises the generous reel of rope that programmers routinely hang themselves with. On top of idiomatic obscurities are the traps people fall into with dynamic typing and errors that only make themselves evident at runtime. Good testing practices are usually the anecdote to the woes of dynamic typing and and yet writing a good test harness for a Perl project is often a lot of work compared to the amount of work required to write the application code.

I well understand the security that programmers feel using static typing but I'm not saying the static typing is the cure to any ills. The compiler is the most basic test that your code can be understood and it gives your IDE a lotta help. That's great but static typing is also an anchor dragging on your time. From what I can tell, Java is the new C/C++ and Jython, JRuby. Groovy and friends (Scala, Clojure, etc) are the ways that people program the JVM with higher productivity. I'm not saying fornever to Perl (that's a long time). But I am saying Hasta La Vista, for now. I've been quite productive lately with Python (I know Perl friends, heresy!) and plan on pushing ahead with that, as well as with Java and other JVM languages. And where necessary, using Thrift to enable the pieces to work together. Python is certainly not perfect, it's quirks are many, too. But I've seen recent success with collaborative software development with Python that would have been difficult to accomplish with Perl. I'm not trying to stoke any language war at all, I'm just reflecting on how I've drifted from Perl. Amongst people I know and things I've read elsewhere, I'm not the only one. Don't fret, Perl, I'm sure I'll see you around.


( Dec 08 2008, 12:01:24 AM PST ) Permalink
Comments [7]

20081206 Saturday December 06, 2008

MySQL vs. PostgreSQL (again)

If Kevin Burton wanted to draw attention to MySQL's inattention to scalability concerns, it looks like he's succeeded (126 comments on Reddit in the last day and climbing). I totally understand why he feels that the MySQL folks need to be provoked into action. I'll confess to having serious "MySQL fatigue" after years of struggling with InnoDB quirks (we use MySQL extensively at Technorati), stupid query plans and difficult to predict performance inflection points (there's a calculus behind table row count, row width, number of indices, update rate and query rate -- but AFAIK nobody has a reliable formula to predict response times against those variables). Frankly, I was really surprised when Sun acquired MySQL (for such a hefty sum, too), I was expecting them to build up a PostgreSQL-based platform by rolling up acquisitions of Greenplum and Truviso.

Kevin is totally correct that to find solid innovation with MySQL, don't look to the MySQL corporation. Instead, the consultants and third party shops specializing in MySQL are where the action's at (Palomino DB, Percona, Drizzle, etc). It's kinda sad, both Sun and MySQL have at various times been home to hot-beds of innovation. Sun has great people groundbreaking with cloud computing, impressive CPU performance per watt improvements and the Java ecosystem. But as far as MySQL goes, look to the outside practitioners.

Kevin's post update cites the pluggable back-ends that MySQL supports as a feature but I'm not so sure. I don't have any evidence of this but my intuition is that it's exactly this feature that makes the overall stability and performance such a crap-shoot (or sometimes, just outright crap). I'm working on a personal project that uses PostGIS (PostgreSQL + GIS), nothing is live yet so I haven't had to scale it. But I have a good deal of confidence in the platform. Skype and Pandora look like good case studies. The PostgreSQL people have been focused on MVCC concurrency, procedure languages, UDFs and data integrity semantics for years. In those realms, the MySQL people are Johnny-come-slowlies (and buggily). On the other hand, if you want the append-only characteristics of logging to a database, MyISAM and merge tables have performance properties that PostgreSQL just can't match.

Maybe David Duffield will look beyond enterprise app services and acquire, roll-up and market the PostgreSQL platforms that Sun didn't. Combining big data and event data with Greenplum and Truviso as a way to blow some smoke in Larry Ellison's eye, that would be funny (and smart).


( Dec 06 2008, 12:08:20 PM PST ) Permalink

20081205 Friday December 05, 2008

It's Only The Biggest Country In the World

Should the confirmed reports that Technorati is banned in China be worn as a badge honor? I understand the Chinese authorities value stability but these kinds of things, treating billions of people like little children that need to be sheltered, will ultimately destabilize them.

We've waited 18 years for Chinese Democracy, isn't that long enough? (sorry, couldn't resist the joke)

Best wishes to the Chinese people. At least most of you.


( Dec 05 2008, 06:12:19 PM PST ) Permalink

20081204 Thursday December 04, 2008

Technorati Releases Fixes Some UI Peeves

In general, I regard successful user interfaces as the ones that provide the least amount of hunting and astonishment. Noone is delighted when the things they're looking for aren't obvious, the data displayed requires lots of explanation and the paths through an application are click-heavy. In this regard, Technorati was long saddled with a user interface that I regarded as delightless. However, I see that changing now and I'm delighted to see that!

Technorati's front end was released today with a handful of significant improvements. One is a long standing peeve of mine: the tag pages we're conflated with keyword search. That meant that if your post was about the president-elect and you tagged it "obama", your expectation that the the posts aggregated at http://technorati.com/tag/obama would also be tagged "obama" would be disappointed; there would also be a bunch of keyword matches mixed in. That came out of last year's attempt to "simplify" the experience by making keyword search and tag browsing the same thing; which was, in all honesty, a George Bush level failure. Sure there are folks who don't know, "What's this 'tag' thing you're talking about?" But for the folks who do know what the difference is between browsing blog posts grouped by tags and keyword search results, the mix wasn't received as a simplification but as a software defect.

I tagged my post "obama" but all of these other posts aren't tagged "obama", what's going on?
I'm glad we've gone back to keeping search and tags distinct.

The other failed aspect of the prior design was the demotion of the search box. The form input to type in your search was sized down and moved to the right, as if it were a "site search" feature. Yes, we'd like folks to explore our discovery features but the navigation for those features weren't great and the de-emphasis on search was again a source of more puzzlement than anything. The release today puts the search box back where it should be: bigger and right in the middle of the of the top third of the page, yay!

Oh, and earlier today Technorati Media released its Engage platform to beta. This is a major step in opening up the ad market place for the blogosphere.

So far, the feedback I've seen on these releases have been thumbs-up. Check 'em out, there's some more goodies in the works but these things only get better with your feedback. And yes, we know there's still more to do, I'm certainly busy with the backend stuff with our cloud platform, ping systems and crawlers (but did you notice the screenshot thumbnails on the search result and tag pages? I need to shake out the latencies producing and refreshing those). Kudos to Dave White, the front end team and the ad platform team for getting these releases out. Onward and upward!


( Dec 04 2008, 06:43:39 PM PST ) Permalink
Comments [2]

20081203 Wednesday December 03, 2008

Can We Just Call It "Flex Computing"?

The moniker "cloud computing" has been overloaded to mean to so many things, it's beginning to mean nothing. When someone refers to it generically, you have to ask them to dismbiguate; which of these are they referring to?

  1. IT infrastructure offered as a services
  2. Hosted application functionality
  3. A virtualized server deployment
InfoWorld wrote What cloud computing really means last spring to help clarify the distinctions but still, I often have to stop folks when the use the C-word just make sure we're talking about the same things.

Examples of the first definition are services like Amazon Web Services (AWS) or GoGrid. They provide metered virtual machines, you pay for what you use and have full access (root) on the machines while you use them. Additional goodies such as load balanced clusters, storage facilities and so forth are part of the deal too. Capacity can be scaled up or down on demand and typically, in very rapid fashion. When Peter Wayner reviewed these guys last summer in InfoWorld, he was enamored with the GUI front ends. Call me old fashioned (or a dyed in the wool geek) but unless they're really saving me a lot of time, I have an aversion to the slick GUI's. For his part, Wayner complained about the AWS command line utilities. Actually, when I use AWS, I use a GUI for an overview of running instances, it's a Firefox plugin (Elasticfox) but what I really like about AWS is programmatic access. Integrating application deployment with command and control functionality is very powerful, my tool of choice is boto, a Python API for AWS.

The second definition refers to hosted application functionality, in years gone by they were referred to as Application Service Providers (ASP). The more modern label is Software as a Service (SaaS). However, these services have to provide more than a console for functionality, they have to provide web service API's that enable them to be integrated into other applications. SalesForce.com was an early leader in this space (remember the red cross-outs, "No Software"), their example and the proliferation of RSS is really want inspired the proliferation of APIs and mashups we see today.

The last definition refers to VMWare, Xen and so forth. By themselves, those aren't really cloud computing in my book. However, you can use them to create your own "private cloud" with tools like Enomaly and Eucalyptus. This is an area of great interest to me.

In his review, Wayner pointed out how very different all of the services are. I don't know why he included Google's App Engine at all in his write-up. Don't misunderstand, GAE is a great service but it more closely resembles an application container than infrastructure services.

I'm imagining IT infrastructure management interfaces coalescing around standards (de-facto ones, not ones fashioned out of IETF meetings). Eucalyptus is a good discussion point. Eucalyptus provides an EC2 "work-alike" interface on top of a Xen virtual server platform. So picture this: if the Rackspaces, ServePaths, Server Beaches and LayeredTechs of this world were to provide a compatible interfaces built on top of Eucalyptus, buying compute power by the hour would become more like buying gasoline. There may be pros and cons to this station or that but fundamentally, if you don't like the pumps at one gas station or the prices are too high, you can go to the gas station across the street. Given compatible interfaces, management of the infrastructure, be it with boto, Elasticfox or using services such as RightScale can be as dynamic as the server deployments in those clouds. Such a compute market place would unleash new rounds of innovation as it eases starting up and scaling online services.

The Eucalyptus folks will be the first to fess up that their project is more academic in nature that industrial strength. However, it is the harbinger of AWS as a standard. Yes, I'm referring to AWS as a standard because of the level of adoption its enjoyed, the comprehensive set of APIs it provides and the rich ecosystem around it. What I foresee is that the first vendor to embrace and commoditize a standard interface for infrastructure management changes the game. The game becomes one of a meta-cloud because computing capacity will be truly fluid, flexibly shrinking and growing with hosted clouds, private clouds and migrating between clouds.


( Dec 03 2008, 10:44:46 PM PST ) Permalink
Comments [3]