Massive Parallelism and Microslices

I just read James Hamilton’s comments on “Microslice” servers, which are very low-power, but high CPU-to-wattage ratio servers. As he explains in detail, at scale the economics of this design are compelling. In some ways, of course, this is the opposite of another big trend going on, which is consolidation through virtualization. I reconcile these forces like so:

  1. For enterprises with a high ratio of emloyees-per-server-CPU, the cost factors tend to drive cost as a function of the number of boxes / racks /etc. This makes virtualization on to a few big servers a win.
  2. But for enterprises with a low ratio (lots of computing work, small team), the pure economics of the microserver approach makes it the winner.

The microserver approach demands:

  • better automated system adminstration, you must get to essentially zero marginal sysadmin hours per box.
  • better decompisition of the computing work in to parallelizable chunks
  • very low software cost per server (you’re going to run a lot of them), favoring zero-incremental-cost operating systems (Linux)

My advice to companies who make software to harness a cloud of tiny machines: find a way to price it so your customer pays you a similar amount to divide their work among 1000 microservers, as they would amount 250 heavier servers; otherwise if they move to microservers they may find a reason to leave you behind.

On a personal note, I find this broadening trend toward parallelization to be a very good thing – because my firm offers services to help companies through these challenges!

Is your work getting better?

We’ve all heard that life / business / progress are moving faster “these days” than ever before. This feels true to me (in the positive sense, I am no Luddite), but I am also leery of how easily each generation becomes convinced that it invented newness, change, and youth.

On the topic of technical design innovation, though, we are obviously living in an era of very rapid progress. Here is a great example:


The question this raises for me, and that it should raise for you, if you are a field which is at all technical and competitive, is whether you are keeping up with the pace of the world around you. Compared to three years ago, is your work product (code, process, design, attention to detail, vigor) obviously better? How about the next three years?

I Went In a Boy, I Came Out a Man

Apple Store large logo sign

Not really, it just seemed like the sort of over-the-top thing a rabid Mac fan might say.

But I did replace my main Windows PC with a MacBook Pro. I’ve used Apple products occasionally over the decades, going all the way back to the Apple II, IIe, IIgs, and orignal 1984 Macintosh. I’m not “switching”, but rather adding; our client projects at Oasis Digital continue to run primarily on Windows or Linux. Our Java work runs with little extra effort on all three platforms.

Here are some thoughts from my first days on this machine and OSX:

  • The MacBook Pro case is very nice. I didn’t see any Windows-equipped hardware with anything similar. The high-tech metal construction is an expensive (and thus meaningful) signal that Apple sends: Apple equipment is high end. The case also has the great practical benefit of acting as a very large heat sink.
  • The MPB keyboard is a bit disappointing; I miss a real Delete key (in addition to Backspace), Home, End, PageUp, PageDown. At my desk I continue to use a Microsoft Natural Keyboard, so this is only a nuisance on the road.
  • I bought a Magic Mouse for the full Apple experience; but I’ll stick with a more normal mouse (and its clickable middle wheel-button) for most use. I find wireless mice too heavy, because of their batteries.
  • Apple’s offerings comprise a fairly complete solution for common end user computing needs; for example, Apple computers, running Time Machine for backup, storing on a Time Capsule. I didn’t go this route, but it is great to see it offered.
  • Printing is very easy to set up, particularly compared to other Unix variants.
  • VMWare Fusion is fantastic, and amply sufficient to use this machine for my Windows work. Oddly, my old Windows software running inside seems slightly more responsive than the native Mac GUI outside (!).
  • I need something like UltraMon; the built in multi-monitor support is trivial to get working, but the user experience is not as seamless as Windows+UltraMon. For example, where is my hotkey to move windows between screens, resizing automatically to account for their different sizes?
  • Windows has a notion of Cut and Paste of files in Explorer. It is conceptually a bit ugly (the files stay there when you Cut them, until Pasted), but extremely convenient. OSX Finder doesn’t do this, as discussed at length on many web pages.
  • I would like to configure the Apple Remote to launch iTunes instead of Front Row, but haven’t found a way to do so yet. No, Mr. Jobs, I do not wish to use my multi-thousand-dollar computer in a dedicated mode as an overgrown iPod. Ever.
  • The 85W MagSafe power adapter, while stylish and effective, is heavy. I’d much prefer a lighter aftermarket one, even if it was inferior in a dozen ways, but apparently Apple’s patent on the connector prevent this. I’d actually be happy to pay Apple an extra $50 for a lightweight power adapter, if they made such a thing.
  • This MBP is much larger, heavier, and more expensive than the tiny Toshiba notebook PC it replaces; yet it is not necessarily any better for web browsing, by far the most common end user computer activity in 2009. This is not a commentary on Apple, it merely points out why low-spec, small, cheap netbooks are so enormously popular.

Business of Software 2009: Excellent

I just returned from the Business of Software 2009 conference, and can summarize it as excellent. Here are some thoughts on specific bits of it, mostly interesting to people who were there.

  • Geoffrey Moore’s opening talk was an early highlight of the conference; I’ve often been disappointed when a well-known person from somewhat outside a conference’s focus is invited to talk, but it turned out that Geoff had ample highly relevant content. Most notably, his 9-point recommendation for small software firms is dead on.
  • It is highly likely that my next project will be in one of the 20-something categories that Paul Graham thinks will grow. I’m not sure if this is saying much, though, because his points were so numerous and broad.
  • Mat Clayton had strong points about A/B testing, but I felt a bit dirty merely being in the room for his list of “dirty tactics” for social networking promotion. I heard similar feedback from other attendees.
  • Don Norman’s talk was excellent, but would have been more excellent if it was a bit shorter and thus tighter.
  • My favorite talk of the conference was Ryan Carson’s. In conversations about his talk, I heard the idea of several directions that the essence of Ryan’s message was to trade off, to give up profits in order to do various good things instead. I strongly suspect, though, that Ryan is doing the best he can, i.e. the strategy he proclaims is also how he maximizes profits (for a company like his).
  • Paul Kenny talked about telling stories. You must do this. I can’t explain just how important this talk was, so I won’t.
  • Pecha Kucha was this conference’s name for lightning talks. As elsewhere, these talks are usually very dense and very good, because the format forces the speaker to discard all the slow parts, all the boring parts, all the exposition, and instead go directly for their key points. It works.
  • I noticed a large number of people using TweetDeck, and adopted it myself. It is a higher-mental-bandwidth way to consume Twitter and Facebook data streams, and is well suited to the a sane Twitter usage pattern of one short intense sessions per day.

I have only a few criticisms:

  • A few of the speakers went long. Though it would annoy the speaker, it would be much better for the conference if all sessions were promptly stopped on time.
  • Luke Hohmann’s talk on “Innovation Games” felt like a sales pitch for his company, even though he tried hard to talk mostly in general terms.
  • The schedule was a bit too dense. We needed more slack between / before / after, to discuss and absorb the information.
  • It would have been nice to have a talk address the business of custom software development.
  • The swag, in the form of a slanket / snuggie, is much too physically large for an event attended mostly via air travel. Of course I could have discarded it (and some attendees did), this would have felt like waste. I would have preferred if Neil had simply scrapped it and kept that money as profit.

Micro-review: Bose QuietComfort 15 noise-cancelling headphones

I recently bought these Bose headphones:


Yes, they cost $300. Ouch.

If you travel by airplane more than 1x per year, buy these headphones.

Slightly longer review:

These headphones use active noise cancellation to dramatically slash the volume of loud environments; they work best for continuous, white-noise-like sounds (for example, riding in an airplane). The experience of 4+ hours in the air is completely different when you cut down the noise level. Wearing these, vs. not, is a more dramatic difference in overall unpleasantness, than the difference been first-class and steeragecoach.

Each AAA battery lasts a few flights, sometimes more. You can plug in your media player, computer, etc., or just use the noise cancellation alone.

Book Giveaway at BarCampSTL, Nov. 7

A while back I wrote that The World is My Warehouse, and I’ve been making that more true ever since. One tiny example is the stack of books below, which I’m giving away tomorrow at Bar Camp St. Louis.

Cordes books to give away at BarCamp

Please be polite, and only take one book per person.

Two of the books are about procrastination. You are welcome to them; but my advice on procrastication is:

  • Don’t read about procrastination. Rather:
  • Do some work,
  • Produce something of value,
  • or engage in worthwhile leisure.

Update: The book giveaway was a success, the books are gone. It further inspired at least one other attendee to give away some books also.