Category Archives: Uncategorized

Hosting simple webapps for free with Github Pages

I wanted to put up some simple webapps. In the past, I’ve always had an Internet-connected server handy for such a purpose – either in a spare room in my house or a cheap VPS (I miss you unixshell!) But I don’t anymore. So where to put these webapps? Even a t2.nano is $40 a month! Turns out there is a great solution: GitHub Pages. What makes this great?

  • The code is already in GitHub anyway
  • It’s super simple to turn your repository into a hosted webapp – just go into the repository settings, scroll to the “GitHub Pages” section and select a branch to serve from. Now the index.html in your repository will be loaded when someone goes to a URL like https://you.github.io/your-repo/

And BOOM now you have free hosting of your webapp (if all the logic is client-side).

For an example, check out my simulator for evaluating different toilet-seat strategies. (code)

Or my estate tax calculator. (code)

Both are simple webapps where all the logic is implemented in client-side javascript. And hosted for free! Thank you GitHub!


Scalable Internet Architectures: A Review

I just finished reading Theo Schlossnagle’s Scalable Internet Architectures. This book is seven years old, but the concepts in it are still as current and useful as they were when the book was published. If your job is to design, build, run, or manage systems at scale, this book is worth reading. Now, scale ain’t what it used to be – this book won’t provide you step-by-step instructions for building the next Google or Facebook (mostly because it focuses on technology and tools, not on process). In fact, when this book was written Facebook was probably only 10,000 servers or so. But what the book will teach you will get you a good chunk of the way to being able to build a giant.

Here are some of the things I really liked about this book:

  • It uses an actual, real-life example throughout most of the topics. Including real empirical results on various implementations. This is indescribably awesome, and related to the next thing I love about the book:
  • Theo has been there, done that, and learned from it. He exudes competence on stage or in person, and it comes through in the book. There is a bit of a ‘tude, but it’s easy to look past it.
  • The distinction drawn between performance and scalability is one that many fail to grasp. Theo explains it in some detail, including why it matters.
  • Theo is an extraordinary troubleshooter, and he presents troubleshooting concepts in this book with such clarity of exposition that it’s easy to overlook how insightful they are.
  • For a seven-year-old book, I was very surprised to see the explanation of TCP-level HA and loadbalancing without the use of hardware appliances. Back then I certainly wasn’t hip to these mechanisms.
  • Theo (and Circonus) are well-known for their focus on business-level metrics (a focus I think is spot on). His description of this and metrics in general is outstanding.
  • The discussion of RDBMS vs NoSQL (Chapter 10 – The Right Tool for the Job) is the best I’ve read on the topic. (Even though “NoSQL” wasn’t a thing when the book was written). He analyzes his workload in terms of requirements against ACID and then shows you why those semantics aren’t relevant in this case. He then walks you through the NoSQL implementation and shows you the resultant speedup. Awesome. I’ve seen fairly significant platform decisions made with far less thought and data behind them.

What’s in this book isn’t glamorous. But it works. If you want to know how to build scalable and reliable online systems, there’s nothing better than to spend a day with Theo. If you can’t do that, then read this book. 


A Fond Farewell to Cloudscaling

Earlier this month I walked into Cloudscaling’s offices for the last time as an employee, almost two and a half years after I started. I loved my job. I think Cloudscaling’s future is super bright. While there, I learned a ton, I got to work with fantastic people, and I got to work on cool stuff that I believe will really make a difference in the future of how we do computing. Those of you who have talked to me about Cloudscaling probably already know how much I believe in the company and in its mission. Cloudscaling is democratizing agile infrastructure – taking the patterns and concepts that have fueled the hypersuccess of companies like amazon, google, and facebook and building open systems that will allow everyone in the industry to benefit from them. So why did I leave?

IMAG0767

When I got there, Cloudscaling was a professional services company that was building large-scale clouds for their clients. During my time there, we transitioned to a product company, secured a series A investment round that we used to invest in building, selling, and supporting that product, and secured a series B investment round (announced last week). As VP of Engineering, my goal for the Series B timeframe was to build a sustainable and scalable technology team that could develop, maintain, and support the product and have that team be stable enough to continue doing so without my help. We got there – so now it’s time to pass the reins and let someone else take it from here.

As for myself, I started at Walmart Global eCommerce last week where I’m looking forward to taking the new ideas, concepts, and technologies that I’ve been working on and proving them out in the real world at one of the world’s largest ecommerce players.

To all my friends at Cloudscaling – I miss you all and wish you the best of success. Cloudscaling is the gold standard for Openstack-based products and thanks to all your hard work the future of computing will be here sooner than anyone thought. I will be forever grateful for the experience you gave me and I will be forever proud to be a Cloudscaling alumnus. Thank you for everything.


Technology Culture: The Famous (Infamous?) Netflix Culture Deck

Sheryl Sandberg called the Netflix Culture Deck possibly “the most important document ever to come out of the Valley.” For my part, I dig it, and I think it’s a powerful draw to potential employees. So when Adrian Cockroft was tweeting about #netflixculture with gems from the deck, I sent him a tongue-in-cheek DM saying “Hey! If you keep doing that you’ll make it impossible for the rest of us to hire good people!” His sensible reply was, “If it’s good, why aren’t more people copying?” This is an excellent question, and I’ve been trying to formulate a good concise answer. That’s been really hard, so I’m going to start with what like about it.

There’s a lot to digest in the deck, so here’s my summary:

  • Field the best team that you can
  • Give the people on that team the freedom (and responsibility) to get shit done

The second bullet really resonates with me. My philosophy on management can be summed up in one word: “empowerment.” The Netflix formula is essentially the same as mine: give people the context they need to understand the problems that need to be solved, give them the resources to solve those problems, and then get out of their way. This is not a new or revolutionary idea. I developed a lot of my ideas from reading the literature on self-directed or high-performing work teams that was popular in the 80s. Netflix is applying a lot of these same essential ideas.

So let’s get back to Adrian’s question. Why don’t more people do this?

Freedom and Responsibility

Here’s my summary of these ideas from their deck:

  • Focus on results
  • Fix errors quickly, rather than preventing them
  • Avoid rules and policies

Focus on Results

I think a lot of people actually do do this. This is the basis of the self-directed work teams I mentioned earlier. In the olden days this was referred to as “management by objectives.” More recently people are referring to this as a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE). I try to set my teams up this way, by using metrics like “deliver projects on time” and “have less than X minutes of downtime per quarter” rather than “generate Y lines of code per month” or “process Z tickets per week.” Of course, not everyone does this. Why not? The first and most obvious reason is that it’s harder to manage. Measuring the quantity of work done (or time spent) is easy. How many hours does someone work? How many tickets do they handle? How many times do they break the rules? It’s very easy to generate reports showing these numbers. Judging by real business-relevant results is much harder, both in definition and measurement. Another reason organizations don’t do this is that it requires competent people who already know how to get results. In this way, it aligns nicely with Netflix’ culture of hiring and keeping only the best performers, but not every organization can hire and keep the best performers (more on this later). Focusing on results also requires effective communication from the top down: about the vision, goals, and strategy – as well as transparent communication about the actual results obtained. This communication introduces overhead and has a cost in efficiency – there’s a reason the Marines don’t operate as a democracy. And finally, Focus on Results requires trust in both directions (up and down) as well.

Back to the question at hand: why aren’t more people copying the ‘Focus on Results’ aspect of Netflix culture? In this specific area, I think the answer is that many people are. I think Netflix has advantages here though, where other parts of their culture (compensation, performance management, investment in communication) reinforce and enable a Focus on Results strategy that’s more holistic and more effective than at many other companies.

Fix Errors Quickly Rather than Preventing Them

Everyone in software development knows that it’s far better to find and fix bugs earlier in the cycle than later. Finding a bug after release to production has very high costs, both in impact to the business and in resources to fix (the person fixing the bug will have to context switch back to the code they wrote in most cases a long time in the past, and then the fix will have to go through the full lifecycle of integration/test/deployment). Finding the same bug during the QA phase reduces these costs, and finding it during development largely avoids them. Ergo, the more bugs you can prevent from getting out of the development phase, the better.

Like other things that everyone knows, you periodically need to re-evaluate this assumption and make sure it’s still true and applicable. The Netflix philosophy says that this is not true, at least not universally and definitely not in their specific case. I agree. I believe that techniques like continuous deployment and automated testing have reduced both of the costs mentioned above (the context switching, and the cost of the lifecycle) to the point where this assumption doesn’t apply in many cases.

So why aren’t more people doing this? I think this realization (that the landscape around the cost of fixing bugs is changing) is starting to percolate through the industry, but like anything else that everybody knows, it will take a long time for this to happen – and probably a generational turnover that we’re only now beginning. And it will never be universally applicable because bugs in different industries have very different impacts – the cost of a bug that interrupts people’s ability to watch “She-Ra” on their Xbox is not at all comparable to the cost of a bug that causes a laser scalpel to cut the wrong artery during brain surgery.

Avoid Rules and Policies

This one seems to get the most attention. For example, there is no vacation policy at Netflix. The expense policy is 5 words, vs the 25 pages I’ve seen at other companies. The idea here seems to be twofold. The first is that rules and policies can be confining and in some cases get in the way of getting things done, so when you get rid of them you give people more freedom. The second is that it specifically frees up managers’ time. At other companies, they spend part of their days dealing with PTO requests, approving expense reports, and enforcing compliance with policies. Getting rid of those policies frees up managers to spend their time on leadership, which is a far more leveraged way to spend their time. While this has caught the most eyes and generated the most discussion, I think in terms of real impact this is the least important. Symbolically, of course, it is very important.

Why aren’t more people doing this? People are starting to adopt the no-vacation policy, which I think is the easiest to adopt and probably a good marker for companies that will be implementing more of Netflix culture over time. I imagine there’s more reluctance on the expense policy – there’s a lot of emphasis these days on financial reporting and there’s been a lot of high-profile expense abuse in the news. I also think there’s a generational thing here though, and it’s related to the “fix errors rather than preventing them” idea above. My favorite quote from _Rework_ is that policies are “organizational scar tissue,” kind of like the old adage that behind every FAA regulation is a plane crash. When something goes wrong and people say “we can’t let this happen again!” the answer is generally some new rule or policy. That’s how it’s been done for a long long time, and getting away from that will be very difficult for a lot of folks. And just like the difference between showing videos and brain surgery, there are industries where a no-vacation policy doesn’t make sense – for example in a bank or financial institution where corruption/graft are significant risks, forced vacations are used as a risk mitigation, because such schemes often can’t be sustained when the primary agent is away from their position for a week or two. Finally, for this to really work you have to have what the deck calls “responsible people.” Not every company can hire exclusively responsible people – in this case, as above, other elements of Netflix culture enable them to have the right workforce to support this element of their culture.

Field the Best Team You Can

Complementing the freedom and responsibility side of their culture, the other key element is having a workplace filled with nothing but “stunning colleagues.” They make a very useful analogy to a professional sports team, where the objective is to always have a superstar at every position. This leads to specific strategies and techniques:

  • Pay top of market
  • Don’t settle for adequate performance

Pay Top of Market

Netflix’ philosophy is to pay more than anyone else would. The yardsticks used are how much that person would be paid somewhere else, how much Netflix would pay someone else to come in and do the same job, and how much Netflix would be willing to pay to prevent someone from leaving. It’s the manager’s job at Netflix to make sure that each employee is compensated at the level that meets the above criteria, proactively. This simply short circuits a lot of problems that managers need to deal with at other companies around recruiting, retention, and incentivization. This is largely based on a belief that the best employees (in creative/inventive positions) contribute significantly more value (like 2x-10x) than the average employee – so that paying them more is in reality a bargain.

Why don’t more people do this? Well, obviously not everyone can pay top of market, because then it wouldn’t be top of market anymore. But plenty of companies have explicit polices to pay at mid-market, or at the 75th percentile, etc. I think a big part of the answer here is that there’d be a lot of disagreement that the best employees can be 10x more valuable than the average employee. This is actually something I would love to see more data on – the culture deck simply states this as a fact without supporting citations. In my experience, I think this is a reasonable statement – I’m really curious what other people have to think (please tell me in the comments!)

Don’t Settle For Adequate Performance

I believe this generates the most controversy from the culture deck. Basically at Netflix, if you do an OK job, you are given a nice severance package and shown the door so that a superstar can be brought in to do a better job. At most companies, you are expected to do an OK job, and you’re only shown the door if you’re not doing an OK job. Think of the sports team analogy – if your first baseman is batting .270 with 50 RBIs, he’s doing OK, but if you have the opportunity to bring in a first baseman who bats .320 with 95 RBIs – wouldn’t you do it?

Why don’t more people do this? You can only do this if you are convinced you can bring in a superstar to replace the person leaving, and that assumption requires some of the other Netflix culture charactersitics: namely paying at top of market and having a workplace that’s already filled with “stunning colleagues.” So this is something you can really only do if you’ve already adopted most of the rest of #netflixculture.

Conclusions

What really jumped out at me from writing this post is that a lot of the components of #netflixculture leverage and reinforce each other. For example, paying top of market lets you fill your company with responsible, awesome people, which lets you grow without adding tons of rules and policies. The real question is how much of what Netflix has done is unique to their position in their industry, and how much is generalizable to other companies? I’m looking forward to seeing other companies adopt this culture and seeing how it turns out for them. If your company is doing so, let me know!


Netflix teaches everyone how to host a tech meetup

Netflix has once again set the bar. Not with their technology this time – but with their organizing. I just got back from the first meetup of the NetflixOSS group – and it was spectacular. Let me walk you through it.

The intro was given by Ruslan Meshenberg, and contained a wonderful story about the email exchange that started the ball rolling on Netflix’s open-source efforts: one of their developers had something he wanted to open-source, so he asked about the policy for doing so. He was told “Our policy is we have no policies. Go for it!” To many of the developers in the audience this was a religious experience, because they had experienced very different responses at their companies to the same question. (When Ruslan earlier asked the audience how long it typically took to open-source something at other companies, the loudest response from the audience was “FOREVER!”) At this point the audience was warmed up and already on Netflix’s side, because they’d shown a) that they’re supporting open-source b) that they don’t put bullshit in your developers’ way and c) that they have smart, cool, funny people working for them. Win x3.

Next up was Cloud Architect Extraordinaire Adrian Cockroft, who gave an overview of all the (really cool) platform pieces that Netflix has open-sourced, along with an explanation of why they are doing so in the first place. Adrian’s presentations at conferences are always packed and for good reason – he’s entertaining, charming, and (like Ruslan) knows how to hit developers in their hearts. His talk had enough anecdotes about quirky naming methods, reinforcement of the “stay out of developers’ way” culture at Netflix, and enough hard-won insights from experiences in production (and amusing digs at other platform solutions) to keep the audience’s interest piqued, and at the end everyone was hungry for more details about the components he had introduced. Adrian’s reinforcement of the “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts” message also reminded everyone that the software they’re talking about all works together to accomplish far more than any individual component could ever hope to – which presented a fantastic analogy for the audience to infer about the team and process at Netflix as well.

Then came the brilliant part. There was a series of several lightning talks where one of the developers of each of those platform services talked briefly about what it did and why they needed it. This really stoked the audience’s interest and I know everyone (like I did) had one or two things they heard about that they were super eager to get more information on. This also made even more evident that there a lot of smart, experienced, and accomplished people at Netflix who are working on interesting problems and who have been given the freedom (and responsibility) to come up with the right solutions. Again, a tempting picture to paint for the developers in the audience.

The final stage was the demo room, where food and booze were provided and then those same engineers who had given the lightning talks were standing in front of stations where they would answer your questions and demo the software they had described earlier. So you could find the engineer who talked about what you had found so interesting during the lightning talks, and you could drill in with them. I spent a few minutes talking with Ben Christensen about Hystrix, a library that provides mechanisms for isolating failures in distributed systems so problems in one area don’t cascade throughout the system, as well as providing a dashboard view into the metrics generated by said library. This was fascinating to me for many reasons as I’ve long been interested in how we monitor and manage the connections between systems (sooooo much harder than dealing with the systems themselves) and I thought Hystrix did a very good job of presenting the information in a dashboard that was information-dense and yet at the same time very helpful at highlighting the things that were important. The point being that I found someone I could have a great conversation with about something I found very interesting – and I’m willing to bet that so did the majority of other attendees.

Overall, I had a great time and think it was a fantastic experience. It’s definitely one of the best tech meetups I’ve ever been to (and I’ve been to a lot). Kudos to the Netflix team – I think everyone had a good time, and I suspect a majority of the audience went home tonight thinking to themselves “Wow that’d be a cool place to work!” 

Which, I suspect, was the goal all along…..


Is Ubuntu a good server OS?

My “Openstack IRL” presentation informs the audience that we at Cloudscaling use Ubuntu for the systems we deploy. When I present this live and we get to that slide, I usually say something like this:

We use Ubuntu for our systems. This is somewhat ironic because at least once a month in our office we have a big discussion about how terrible Ubuntu is as a server operating system…

Funny. But is it true? Is Ubuntu a terrible operating system for servers? Let’s look at one data point: Upstart.

Upstart’s raisons d’etre

My distillation of the reasons upstart was created to replace the traditional rcX.d init structure from SysV and BSD is:

  1. the traditional system is serial rather than parallel, meaning reboots take longer than they have to – and people reboot their systems a lot more these days
  2. the traditional system doesn’t deal well with new hardware being plugged in and out on a regular basis – and people are constantly plugging stuff in and out of their systems these days

Do those sound like conditions that affect your servers? Me neither. They are desktop-centric concerns. And there’s nothing wrong with that – unless you’re trying to run a server.

Why does it matter?

From the perspective of a crotchety old-time unix sysadmin (a hypothetical one of course!), upstart is a PITA. Let me try to illustrate why:

Checking what order stuff starts in

In the traditional world, here’s what you have to do to find out what order things start in:

ls /etc/rc2.d

That’s it. The output of that command provides you with everything you need to see at a glance that (for instance) apache is going to start after syslog.

Here’s how you do it in the upstart world:

well I wish I cold give you a simple way to do that, but you can’t. You have to open up the conf file for the service you’re interested in in /etc/init and look at what events it depends on for starting. If one of those events is the startup of another service, then you know your service will start after it. However, if there is no dependency listed on another service, then you don’t know what order they will startup in. Yours might start after the other one, or the other one might start before yours does, or they may both be starting up at the same time. You don’t know, and it isn’t guaranteed that they will start in the same order every time the system boots. This makes crotchety old unix sysadmins nervous, and leads to the second point….

Defining what order stuff starts in

In the traditional world, this is done with 2 digit numbers. You have a 2 digit number (part of the name of the file in /etc/rcX.d) and the scripts are run in the order of the numbers in their filename. So if you want one script to start later than another, just change its number to be larger than that other one. Easy to understand, and all you have to know to do it is how to use mv. And there are no hard dependencies here – if you build one server that doesn’t contain a particular service, that init file won’t be installed, and none of the other init files will be affected and startup will go as you expect.

In the upstart world, you do this by specifying startup dependencies between the jobs that start services. Each job emits an event when it completes that you can use in the conf files for other services. So say you have two services, s1 and s2, and you want to be sure s2 starts after s1. You do this by putting a line like this into /etc/init/s2.conf:

start on started s1

So aside from the crochety old sysadmin spending 45 minutes perusing ‘man upstart’ to figure this out in the first place, the problem you run into here is with distributed systems that can be deployed in varied configurations. For example, sometimes s1 and s2 are on the same node, and sometimes they are on different nodes. If you put the above line into /etc/init/s2.conf by default, guess what happens if you deploy in a config where s1 isn’t on the same node? s2 will never ever ever start.

Summary

My take on this is that upstart is a great thing for desktop systems. For server systems, it’s adding a bunch of complexity and brittleness without providing any actual benefits. And it’s one check mark in the “ubuntu isn’t a good OS for servers” category.


Conan the Ops Guy

Conan the Problem ManagerLately I have been thinking of incident analysis and Problem Management (in the ITIL sense), and when I do that I always hark back to the immortal words of Conan The Ops Guy, who spoke thusly on what was best in life:

To crush your incidents, to have their root causes identified, and to see the prevention of their recurrence.

That is good Conan! That is good.