Couchbase Live London 2014 stackedI was fortunate enough to attend this years Couchbase Live [London] event. Having experience with MongoDB in production with one of our clients I was keen to see what Couchbase has to offer.

Viber were on scene to talk about their decision to migrate from a MongoDB backend to Couchbase. They started off using MongoDB for persistence, with Redis in front of the Mongo instances for caching, they found that the setup just wasn’t scaling out as they needed so opted for Couchbase and were able to reduce their server count by three fold. Switching to Couchbase simplified their persistence architecture and enabled them to have several clusters and a dedicated backup cluster using XDCR (cross data centre replication).

The first session I went to was “Anatomy of a Couchbase app”, where J Chris Anderson (@jchris) and Matt Revell (@matthewrevell) gave a demonstration of a Node.js and Couchbase backed application that enables users to post video clips onto a web page; like a chat room for pre-recorded videos. As a developer, this session was my favourite, after a quick demo of the app they dived straight into the code and showed you how to use the APIs (from a Node.js perspective, but other languages would have similar features). They covered auto-expiring documents, and binary storage, which were two things I wanted to see how Couch handled, as I already knew MongoDB had good support for these. If you have time, look at the application, it’s on their github

Another session that I found incredibly useful, was “Document Modelling” by Jasdeep Jaitla (@scalabl3). Whilst I already have experience working with MongoDB in production, I have a good understanding of how a document should be structured, but I was a little unsure of how this is implemented in Couchbase. For a start, MongoDB uses collections within databases, whereas Couchbase uses buckets, so there is one less layer of abstraction, meaning buckets can store different types of documents. Also, Couchbase is a key-value document store, so your keys could be a string such as “user:1″ or even just “1″, and the value itself would be the json document (or binary data).

Couchbase also has the concept of document meta-data, for every document stored, it will have a corresponding meta-data document that stores things such as the Id, an expiration (for TTL purposes), document type. The document itself can be up to 20mb, as opposed to 16mb in MongoDB.

Jasdeep then explained various patterns that can be used for storing data, such as a lookup pattern, and counter pattern. This was very useful.

The mobile sessions were not quite as good, I was expecting more of a workshop style whereby we could see some code and get advise on how to implement CBLite, however there were some very good demos of a todo-list and syncing data between various devices (android smartwatch included!). If you’re interested, have a look at the grocery-sync app on github, it is very similar.

The last session worth noting, was from David Haikney; “Visualising a Couchbase server in flight”. David discussed (and demonstrated, perfectly) replication, fail overs, scaling and XDCR. He had a cluster of servers, and was able to remove and add new nodes and demonstrate how the rest of the cluster reacts to such scenarios. You can get a lot of information from the statistics that are built into the admin console, and the top tip I picked up was to ensure the active docs resident is close to 100%, as that shows documents are being served from memory instead of disk.

Some other advice was to take advantage of XDCR, such as creating a backup cluster, or live-hot standby setups, or even using XDCR to replicate to a test environment so that you always have representative live data.

There was a hackathon in the evening, I stayed for this but didn’t participate as I was too keen to setup bucket shadowing on a demo app I was working on. The beta3 release of the sync gateway introduced this feature whereby you can configure your sync gateway bucket to automatically sync with a standard bucket, this is fantastic for exposing your applications data to a mobile tier (you can restrict this of course, using channels). If you want to read more, have a look here.

A great day, I learned a lot, well worth the trip. I even bagged a free Apple TV for being one of the first through registration…



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This is about a recent British Computer Society (BCS) event on Stakeholder Management.

The event was entitled Creating Value through effective stakeholder management and the presenter was Alison Charles.

Date / Venue: Thursday 6.30 start 20th Feb 2014 /  BCS, Southampton Street, London.

Why go to BCS meetings?

My reasoning is to:

        • Learn some new stuff
        • Get a different slant on a topic
        • Remind myself of some of the basics
        • Be able to do a better job tomorrow than I did today
        • Network
        • Enjoy the free buffet!

Back to Thursday evening, here are a few snippets ….

Who needs a slide deck,- not our presenter! Two flip-charts, some marker pens and the confidence and knowledge to communicate effectively.

Melding extensive experience as a Project Manager (PM) with more recent experience of being a Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) trainer; at times Alison got the whole audience on their feet, trying 2 minute exercises in pairs, some of which, at times, made us a little uncomfortable.

The 1st flipchart (there were only 3 or 4 – KISS!) was:

Stakeholders Impact of change for each
Their present mind-set Support needed (= what can they do to help the project? –   but have a contingency, just in case they don’t)
Their concerns, issues, resistance Influence, strategy, responsibility.Test out success areas
Risk – a PM may guess the present mind-sets, instead draft and use questions to get answers
Suggestion – Identify problem areas by comparing your understanding and their understandings. It’s a lot about putting yourself in their position and viewing the situation.

And that leads us on to …


Shared world view, finding common ground, getting along, feeling between two people.

How do we communicate?

Face to face On the phone
pie chart for blogSource   – Mehrabian Communication Model Words 16%Tonality 84%

So it’s not all about what you say after all!

Back to the “R” word, it is not a panacea, but it can get you to a place where you can talk about the issue :>)

The 4 MAT system  ( was mentioned and it turns out that I am a bottom right hand quadrant man. I like What!  So I took notes that enabled me to recall stuff for this blog!

Alison shared some personal experiences including how she converted the adversity of losing her luggage on an international flight into a successful outcome making use of some emergency overnight items provided by the airline (razor, T-shirt and a condom!) – only kidding – she only used one of the items listed!

I enjoyed, and got value, from “Creating Value through effective stakeholder management”. It ticked my “why go …” boxes from above and I will be attending more BCS events.

So why not have a look at what is on offer and give it a try?

How to join the BCS.

I am Gordon Elliott a business analyst/consultant with several decades of experience working in IT. I have worked for Smart421 (part of KCOM) for the last decade and have been a BCS member for 3 years.

Three ‘Smarties’ (code name: 3 Wise Men) were seen blending in with the crowd last night at the Norwich offices of Virgin Wines, for a Christmas special meetup organised by Norfolk Developers (@NorfolkDev) the specialist group for techs by techs.

On a fact-finding mission to gather intelligence and boost their knowledge around Worklight, IBM’s swish mobile development and deployment platform, they didn’t come away empty-handed – or hungry!

Here’s their account:

Covert ops report: filed by JElsey, CSimms and JSpear at 22.00hrs on 04.12.13 in deep cover at Lat 52.634 Long 1.301

From left: Paul Grenyer (NorDev), Vladimir Vladimir Kislicins (IBM) , Andrew Ferrier (IBM) and Dom Davis (Virgin Wines)

From left: Paul Grenyer (NorDev), Vladimir Kislicins (IBM), Andrew Ferrier (IBM), and Dom Davis (Virgin Wines host and NorDev)

A buffet-to-die-for (by @norwichcat) and a delicious choice wines (VirginWines, obviously) ambushed delegates on arrival. Few resisted.

Polite intros by the organisers and adverts about the many tech events in the locality didn’t throw us of the trail. We were 100% focused on the mission at hand (but never underestimate how much is happening for techs and devs in Norfolk thanks to Grenyer, Davis and others).

Vladimir Kislicins, IBM-er at Hursley, was first up. His unassuming and suave delivery looked to us like a “Worklight 101”.  Covering a bit of history and context of Worklight, Kislicins  provided the essential heads-up on things like basic setup and ideal set (you’ve really gotta have iOS and Android devices). He dared a demo or two before the interval.

Eye-witnessing ample vino refills (VirginWines, naturally) and repeated swoops on the buffet, we saw attendees mingling and comparing notes on the event so far. Nobody stood alone. Despite all the hubbub, we retained our cover and stood resolute to our mission; we were here for the facts, not the food… oh ok, maybe one more sandwich then.

Andrew Ferrier, speaking at NorDev

Andrew Ferrier, speaking at NorDev

Andrew Ferrier IBM-er also out of Hursley (@andrewferrier) was second up. Focused on best practices with hybrid and mobile, Ferrier extolled the advantages of Worklight for developers.

And he took off like a gazelle, pouncing this way and that, as he contested the differences between the dojo and jquery mobile frameworks. Armed with his up-beat style and his laser pen pointer, he took us entirely by surprise.  We felt the need to regroup but there just wasn’t time…

Ferrier blasted through debugging options, the pace of change, (iOS 6+: web inspector; Android 4.4) and was unexpectedly intercepted by an inbound challenge on Weinre from dev expert Neil Sedger (@moley666), himself in deep cover amongst the crowd.  But it was ok – Ferrier fielded the intervention with ease and pressed on to cover performance and memory management.

“You have to remember we’re still targeting old devices” he cautioned.  This tip seemed highly significant so we wrote that down, put big quote marks around it and swallowed it. We’d analyse these tops tips later if we all made it back to the safe house (no, not the public house, what do you take us for? Oh c’mon, were meant to be incognitus tonight guys).

Appearance, CSS rules and treatment of lazy-loading images appearing as they are scrolled in were covered before Ferrier could move on to RESTful services.

GET. PUT. POST. DELETE.   - Yup, we got that.

JSON as your data format.  – Yup, got that too.

But Ferrier saved until last his secret weapon – the Worklight Adapter framework. This was very, very neat stuff. Our developers knew to see that one coming, but the crowd clearly didn’t. Ferrier did well to contain his enthusiasm for Worklight Adapters, a jewel in the crown for IBM’s mobile application platform.

Sprinting to finish, Lifecycle would have been Ferrier’s final topic and last hurrah in Norwich, but he saved it for another day and opened the floor for questions.

There was a very lively interactive Q&A, with questions being fired in from all directions. We busied ourselves capturing the intel.

But surprisingly for a tech meetup, everyone was fixated on Worklight pricing. Ferrier looked like he had been tazered, but said he knew nothing about pricing. Pressure from the crowd did force him to let slip the existence of a B2B and B2C pricing model and, crucially, availability of a developer version and a production version.  The secret was going to blown wide open now.

Ferrier cracked and the baying crowd moved in.

“Developers can download Worklight for free!”, he exclaimed,“OK – take it, have a play with it, see what it can do for you, it won’t cost you an penny. But take an app to the outside world, or put it into production in your own organisation, then we’ll obviously have to start charging you.”

We’d got what we came for. It was time to retreat to HQ.

Thinking that Norfolk Developers will be worth another visit in 2014, we disappeared into the night and went our separate ways.

Current status:  Mission accomplished.

No names have been changed. Nobody was that innocent.

Related Links

Blog by James Elsey on Worklight and Continuous Innovation >

Blog by JSpear on IBM Mobile First >

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Mike Butcher

Mike Butcher

The OPEN venue in Norwich city centre hadn’t seen anything quite like this since the SyncConf back in February. I’d estimate 300 people had flocked there, united by a common cause – their passion for tech.

Slick and professional opening intro’s from organisers John Fagan (@johnbfagan) and Fiona Lettice (@FLettice) set the scene perfectly, explaining how this meetup had come about [it started with a tweet – literally – see Twitter 6th May], the purpose of SyncNorwich and the voice of experience from a highly regarded researcher in innovation.

Limbering up for the first half of the meetup, three great start-ups each gave a 10-minute pitch (hey, you’re on: FXHOME, Liftshare and Proxama).

UEA NBS logoBut the pace noticeably picked up when a dozen or so start-ups took turns to deliver a 2-minute pitch, in some cases at near machine-gun speed, baff b-b-baff baff  (take a bow: Haberdash, Pingle, RainBird AI, Sessioncam, 99squared, Photocrowd, 3sixty, Blurtit, Zealify, Supapass, Wordwides).

This sequence of rapid-fire tech pitches left me feeling a little punch-drunk, which was entirely unexpected as I had full advanced knowledge of who would be taking to the stage this evening. Maybe I’m going soft.

Paul Russell pitching

Paul Russell pitching 3sixty

Despite a fully charged battery in the mobile and nifty qwerty keyboard skills, I too tried to keep pace with it all. I think Paul Russell at 3sixty (@get3sixty) probably got the prize for ‘land speed record’ of well-polished pitches. Meanwhile, Michael Ni’man at Wordwides (@Wordwides) would perhaps have to walk away with the accolade for surprise of the night – just 16 years old – reminded me of Nick d’Aloisio all over again, apart maybe from not having a dad who is a merchant banker and a mum who is a patent attorney.

It didn’t go unnoticed that there were a good the number of ex-UEA students among the speakers who had embarked on their first venture, among them Zealify (@Zealify_) who were exactly the sort of thing that Mike Butcher had come to see, and to inspire in others.

Butcher enjoying pitches from tech start-ups in Norwich

Butcher enjoying pitches from tech start-ups in Norwich

After the beauty pageant, a chance to relax over a swift half (bar vouchers courtesy of sponsors Smart421 and Naked Element) and to do some business networking which, as the regulars know, is invariably very good at these SyncNorwich meetups.

When we were all talked out, we felt about ready to take our seats and settle down to listen to the man himself, Mike Butcher (@mikebutcher) Editor-at-Large at TechCrunch.

I heard that on arrival he was somewhat taken aback, probably imagining some tin-pot Norfolk turkey shed and a poxy turnout of aimless ‘hoodies’, rather than a marble-lined former banking hall heaving with savvy people.

Norwich 1. Mike 0.

Jason Gregson, Norwich's unofficial 'Mike Butcher' lookalike

Jason Gregson, Norwich’s unofficial ‘Mike Butcher’ look-alike

Characteristically edgey and moderately irreverent, the leather-jacketed Butcher commenced the second half of the meetup swirling around the stage with some deliberate provocation. Why should Silicon Valley have all the action? Why not other places, why not Norwich? Quite right too.

He declared the situation within the tech industry to be chaotic; the turbulence coming not from the R&D divisions of big vendors with big budgets but from the designers and developers in the back bedrooms with no money, hyper-connected networks of them, bashing out code for disruptive solutions capable of discontinuous innovation in social, mobile and wearables.

He talked of a revolution…

“Who knows, he said, the next Google could be right here in the room tonight!”

Moving swiftly on to cover the tension between these innovators and those who hold the purse strings, Butcher didn’t hold back on the VCs, business angels, and the rich uncles who decide on what is investable or not.  Butcher exhorted us to be mindful of the people not just the product.

“Investors will choose The A team with the B product, not the A product with the B team” he screamed.

Slides listing some of the most active VCs in Europe sent delegates into a bit of a spin, rushing for a pen and something to write on (wot? ain’t ya got Evernote on ya mobile, geeza?)

From left: Mike Butcher, Juliana Meyer, Fiona Lettice, Peter Schmidt-Hansen and John Fagan

From left: Mike Butcher, Juliana Meyer, Fiona Lettice, Peter Schmidt-Hansen and John Fagan

I thought I detected a number of similarities with what I heard Mike deliver at TechCrunch in Italy earlier this year. Having said that, even if some of the content was identical – what difference does it make - the audiences were entirely different.

He definitely brought the majority of us some very helpful new stuff to chew over.

The locals definitely seemed to like it, judging from the numerous nods of agreement and the briskness of twitter feeds on the hashtags #tcnorwich and #syncnorwich

Norwich 1. Mike 1.

Gis' a job, Mike!

Gis’ a job, Mike!

The Q&A session brought forward some great questions, always an acid test as to how well a speaker has stirred things up. Butcher had to think quick on his feet once or twice here.

But he coped, even with a cheeky pitch for a job from an aspiring journo (well, if he’s right in front of you, why the hell not?).

FXHOME got properly name-checked – and we’re not a bit surprised – but a genuine discovery for Mike and one which clearly impressed him.

Norwich 2. Mike 1.

One would hope the Editor-at-Large of TechCrunch will have returned to the bastion of his London HQ with an entirely different view of Norwich than when he arrived.  His talk did us good. He’ll always have a warm welcome back when he returns.

He said he would.

Norwich 2.  Mike 2.

Related Links
All photos by kind permission of Tim Stephenson >

TechCrunch visits Norwich. Relive it again [YouTube video]  >  short URL
Slides from this event are available via
More great write-ups on the same event:
by Naked Element >
by Fiona Lettice at UEA >
by Richard Jones at ip21 >
by Tim Stephenson >

Press articles by Shaun Lowthorpe >

Blogs on past SyncNorwich meetups >

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Joe Parry

Joe Parry

Let’s be clear, the co-organisers at SyncNorwich must be well connected people. Otherwise how on earth could they assemble such quality speakers month after month?

The November meetup surpassed expectations (which were already running high) with three slots timetabled and publicised in good time to attract a 97 registrations and around 60 on the night.

Drinks, intros and business networking on arrival, and our amiable host John Fagan (@johnbfagan) opened with news of upcoming events and acknowledgements to “our sponsors”.

Always great to welcome newbies; I counted four including, Yuvraj Padmanabhan from Mindgraph, founder of a promising young social research start-up, based out of the Innovation Martlesham incubator at BT Adastral Park.  It was also great to see Mint (@mint_norwich) here at SyncNorwich. Giving young people a chance in IT gets full marks from us.

First up was Anna Powell-Smith (@darkgreener) who travelled from Oxford to deliver a genuine SyncNorwich first; a three-course lunch of history, cartography and technology in her session on ‘Modern maps: easy ways to visualise your geographic data’. Opening with how the Domesday Book inspired a full blown tech project, Anna’s clear mastery of all things GIS quickly shined through. Persuasively explaining graphing the correlation of house prices and train times, she moved effortlessly onto tools and data, the Open Street Map, D3.js, GraphODB, Google Fusion, ONS codes, Mercator map projection…

After a swift half, more business networking (which is always good at these events) and eye witnessing people swooping on copies of the luscious new Norfolk Tech Journal, the speaker slots resumed.

Ben Taylor

Ben Taylor

Ben Taylor (@benjamta) stepped forward with a call for beta testers for RainBird (@rainbirdai) a rather nifty web-based platform that enables individuals to capture their knowledge and expertise on any subject to form a knowledge base. Learn about it by watching their video ‘RainBird explained in 60 seconds…here.

Topping the bill was ‘Network visualisation for fun and profit’ by Joe Parry (@parry_joe), founder of Cambridge Intelligence, a start-up with the Cambridge hi-tech cluster focused on visualization software which lets organisations explore the networks in their data.

Joe totally riveted us with demos powered by Keylines, their network visualization toolkit, designed for law enforcement, fraud detection, counter terrorism, CRM, sales & social network data.

“Start with a question, then meaningful visual encoding, interaction, aggregation… and use Keylines, not D3”, advised Joe, by now having won over a ton of street cred amongst delegates.

Joe went on to confirm that Keylines was built from the ground up in Javascript; you have to admire someone who locks themselves away for eight months on a diet of just coffee and sleep, to build his vision.

In under one week, SyncNorwich-ers will convene again for a special meetup featuring Mike Butcher (@mikebutcher) Editor-at-Large at TechCrunch. Originally planned as a Christmas special, the date had to be brought forward. Frankly we’re lucky to get Mike at all. You should see his schedule!  So don’t miss it.  The event already has 260 registered attendees, but has 40 places left so for more info and to register please click here.

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View from the Millbank Tower, London

As part of my focus on developing Smart421’s API strategy, last week I attended Mashery’s one day Business of APIs (BAPI) conference Altitude London,  29th floor of the Millbank Tower on the banks of The Thames.

I’ve been to a fair few events in the last couple of years, from the London AWS enterprise event Robin mentioned in his post this morning to the Gartner AADI conference in May.

The BAPI event had a very different flavour. Although it was a Mashery event, their presence was mainly facilitatory. There was no heavy sales pitch, and no compulsory product demo. The other thing missing was sponsor stands, which was interesting… No need to run the gauntlet with marketing folks to secure your lunch.

What was available in spades was great quality discussion, both from the presenters, and one on one with attendees. The conference was really focussed on the business of building and consuming APIs.

I particularly enjoyed Creating Success / APIs Changing Business from Kevin Flowers, CTO, Coca-Cola Enterprises. Kevin talked about the challenges of launching APIs in a large business. CCE have built a series of internal APIs for managing everything from procurement and finance to sales and service.

This fits well with our internal discussions within Smart421. We think that for many of our customers, the future of integration lies in building and consuming APIs internally first, and then selectively exposing these (or APIs derived from these) to the outside world. Test, learn, do, with the test and learn occurring mainly internally.

TomTom’s Peter Moeykens talked about their experience of building a public API around TomTom’s core map, navigation and point-of-interest assets. He talked about the journey TomTom went on, the (inevitable) missteps made, and the ‘lightbulb moment’ that was the realisation that APIs need to be thought about as products. Again, this is a view I share strongly, even for internal APIs – without taking that outside in view of the world, your APIs will be lifeless. Peter talked about how they sold APIs internally (Answer: demos), and how they sold them externally, and perhaps more to the point, how they got their sales guys to sell them externally (Answer: showing them the kinds of applications the APIs would allow other people to build). Really great, practical advice.

There were a bunch of other great talks too, the slides for which are available on the BAPI website, with videos on the way for the most part. A few of these were only tangentially related to APIs, but were none the less well worth an hour of my time: David McCandless of Information is Beautiful fame talked about data visualisation in a highly amusing talk – well worth a watch when the videos arrive. While Paull Young of charity:water made me laugh – and then damned near cry – with his talk about the work that C:W has been doing on its digital strategy (a topic I’m hoping to talk more about here over the coming months).

So, in summary, a really great event. I’ll definitely be going again next year given a chance, and would encourage anyone interested in this space to go along as well. If you do, hang around a while afterwards – plenty of high quality discussion happened after the main event was over.

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Vegasvenise1 Now that the razzmatazz of AWS re:Invent is over, I’ve taken to some time to step back from the specific new announcements and consider my higher-level conclusions, and what they tell us about the state of the cloud computing market in general.

As for the event itself, the whole “feel” was very start-up rather than enterprise focused, unlike the AWS Enterprise event Smart421 sponsored back in September. The main thing that struck me at the UK event was that wow – this is getting serious. I’ve been “banging on” for a while about the time now being right for enterprise adoption and the enterprise market reaching a tipping point – but the ability for AWS to draw a 500+ crowd from the UK enterprise market says it all, and also the fact that they felt confident enough to do so – even though there has already been a London-based AWS event earlier in the year. AWS subtly adjusted the tone and message for this audience and got it spot on I think – one of their challenges at other events like re:invent is generally that the audience is a mix of hardcore developers/Dev-op types, architects and enterprise attendees. This enterprise space is where Smart421 is used to operating and so it felt…well…just a bit more like home for us.

Hence I don’t interpret the start-up focus at re:Invent as a lack of credibility in the enterprise space really – it’s more that the new cloud-based startups are where the action and excitement is, and the innovation and crucially the adoption of innovation. I only attended one specifically “old school” vendor presentation at re:invent and compared with the other AWS-led sessions I attended – it was so D…U…L…L… that I just turned off. They demonstrated capability by telling – not by showing or doing.

As you’d expect, there was an army of AWS staff on site, but without exception I found them to be very well informed (there was no “give me your card as I’ll get back to you”…), very good, and uniformly excited about what they were doing.

In an least two presentations I attended there was reference to the flywheel effect whereby more and more momentum is created via a virtuous circle of innovation and customer adoption. Whilst I knew this before I went, I found it very striking that AWS’s success is founded on not out-doing the competition (at least not initially), but on out-innovating them. The crucial thing they have solved is how to innovate – sometimes in leaps, but usually in relatively small increments – but very fast, predictably and mercilessly. This creates some difficult tensions with their partners as mentioned in my previous post – ISV partners are especially at risk of being made redundant, but consulting partners like Smart421 have challenges too, e.g. every time RDS becomes more capable (multi-AZ etc) then it’s more likely to be used in one of our deployments, and needs less professional services to design, implement and support than just a database deployed on a virtual machine.

I can see how competitor X could maybe beat AWS today, e.g. maybe VMware can use their scale to defend their virtual desktop market against Amazon WorkSpaces – but who would take a bet against AWS not incrementally improving their offering faster than VMware? I wouldn’t. Innovation pace will always beat an existing market advantage eventually – it’s inevitable.

So does that mean AWS are unstoppable? Of course not – history suggests that they too will get blown away by another market disrupter in the future. Whilst we know this should be the case over a 100 year timeframe, at the here and now it seems impossible. But there are challenges – one challenge for AWS going forward was hinted at by Senior Vice President Andy Jassy – the person who has taken AWS from inception to where it is today – at the UK Enterprise summit. He came up with the quote of the day…

there’s no compression algorithm for experience

…which for me nicely sums up exactly how I feel about the services we offer to customers today. There’s an underlying tension in AWS’s market positioning in that on one hand they say that anyone can get started on AWS, just sign up and start your first instance etc – and it’s completely true – you can be up and running in minutes. On the other hand, enterprise customers know (or are starting to appreciate at least) that the real long term challenges are about managing change – change of architecture practices in their organisations, change of service management processes to consider capacity management differently, change in finance and procurement teams to get their heads around variable pricing etc. Also, once they get past the skunkworks stage, they quickly realise that this stuff is complicated. To get this point across, here’s all the separate Vision stencil icons representing various AWS services and features that we exploit to create AWS designs for our customers…and this was before all the new announcements at re:invent…

AWS Visio Stencils at Sept 2013

…and this set will clearly continue to grow further as AWS’s pace of innovation is simply exceptional. It’s a toolbox for our architects to pick from, so obviously we don’t use all the AWS services for every customer deployment…but you get the point I’m sure. Being intimately familiar with this ever-increasing set of capabilities and how best to exploit them is a full time occupation for our internal AWS Practice – and so I don’t realistically expect most enterprises to have the desire or ability to do so.

AWS will need to take care to balance their rate of innovation with the ability of the bulk of their customers to understand and adopt what they are offering. But that’s a challenge I’m sure their competitors would gladly take!

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Keynote room before we all troop in...

Keynote room before we all troop in…

Here at AWS re:Invent, Werner Vogels  (@Werner) was the keynote compere on day 3, and I quickly realised the formula. On day 2, Andy Jassy announced some new stuff with more of a business value message, but the real techy new announcements were for Werner to unveil. He also made light of the fact that all AWS ever do is bleedin’ mention Netflix, saying that a new drinking game had been created where you have to down a shot every time anyone mentions them.

Anyway, there was a lot of announcements…

  • PostgreSQL on RDS – this actually got a spontaneous whoop from the gathered audience, and so there is clearly a lot of pent-up demand for it. I note that it has multi-AZ support from launch, which hasn’t been the case for other databases on RDS.
  • A new I2 instance family – for uber-high IO
  • A new C3 instance family – for uber-high CPU
  • Global secondary indexes on DynamoDB
  • Cross region Redshift snapshot copies
  • Amazon Kinesis – stream processing that can handle huge data ingest rates and deliver it to a number of consuming applications or services.

So that’s enough for most vendors for a year of releases really.

Later in the day I attended the Amazon WorkSpaces session (which wasn’t previously on the re:invent agenda as it wasn’t announced!) to understand this new offering a bit better. I have to say that the first impression is one of… well… it’s a bit dull. What can I say – it’s a Windows desktop – even if you are accessing it via a laptop, an iPad or and Android tablet. It just does what it says on the tin. It’s the economics of it that are the really interesting thing. It’s not a market I know really well (i.e. the price points of the key vendors), but it’s fair to say that the Citrix guys on the expensive-looking stand in the vendor expo were not looking too happy – or very busy. In a kind of “my breakfast has just been eaten” way.

Interestingly I had a chat with an Amazonian on this point and his view was that Citrix could have easily launched a pay-as-you-go virtual desktop product like Amazon WorkSpaces if they had really wanted to, but I guess Citrix had the classic dilemma of whether to cannibalise their on-premise business model or not. The answer clearly is – you HAVE to do this, as someone else will regardless.

Both Citrix and VMware‘s share prices dipped following the announcement.

VMware’s response was as you would expect from a competitor – as detailed in Erik Frieberg’s blog post:

  • We welcome a new competitor in our market etc etc
  • Ours is better than theirs

What else could he say? But of course I strongly suspect he knows the real unspoken truth here – it’s not AWS’s first product launch you need to worry about (as it will always typically be relatively immature and lacking key features), it’s the pace of product updates that follow it that should concern you.

From a technical point of view, Amazon WorkSpaces uses the same protocol over the wire to “deliver the pixels” as VMware’s product – PCoIP, a UDP protocol that both parties have licensed. Only Windows 7 desktops are supported in this preview release, running on Windows Server 2008r2 under the covers. Other OSs are clearly in the pipeline, including support for browser based clients. Provisioning time is currently 15-20 minutes, but they plan to get that down to 5 mins when it comes out of preview. Active Directory integration is supported.

The day wrapped up with the re:Play party, sponsored by Intel. I had a chat with the Intel guy to understand what their motivation for such a strong sponsorship with AWS. Obviously AWS buy a shedload of Intel chips, but it’s more than that – I just think they know they need to be onboard with the way the wind is blowing, simple as that.

The party was good I must admit, although it’s never a good sign at a party when there is a queue for the men’s toilets but not the women’s :).  There was lots of entertainment laid on – 1980′s video games, Jenga, helicopter flying, laser-dodging etc – and then a set from deadmau5 – who I must confess I was not massively familiar with.  Good to feel your jeans shake with the sub-bass though….


I was off playing Centipede (badly) after 30 minutes of this.  I spoke to a Canadian (Dov Amihod, CTO from Lagoa – a really interesting start-up doing really high quality photo-real 3D image rendering for use in retailer catalogues etc as it’s cheaper than using getting a photo-shoot done) on the way back from the party and apparent deadmau5 is really big there, but he was a bit suspicious as to why he’s want to play in-front of 8000 geeks, for Intel :)

Experience deadmau5 by watching my short clip on YouTube here.

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Yesterday at AWS re:Invent, Andy Jassy delivered the main keynote. As you can see from the photo below, the event was immense – the day before I was in the APN Summit so it was AWS partners only, and that felt big.

1384361167005But this was 9,000 attendees from 57 countries in a room. The photo doesn’t really capture the epic scale – which struck me as kinda like a metaphor for AWS itself, i.e. the scale of the administrative operation was off the chart, it was all very efficiently managed, and it gets bigger every year!

I thought it was interesting that they didn’t even “save up” the recent announcement about the 10% price reduction for M3 EC2 instances that was announced on 5th November for re:Invent. To me, this just shows how baked into the business model these regular price reductions have become.

In content terms, the three main new announcements were:

  • Amazon CloudTrail – the ability to log all AWS API calls to S3 for audit and compliance purposes. This is a nice feature that we’ve asked for before, but actually hasn’t been too much of a barrier to customer adoption previously, probably because we are typically managing the entire AWS layer for a customer anyway.
  • Amazon WorkSpaces – virtual desktops-as-a-service. Interestingly desktop “state” is maintained as you move between access devices, e.g. from laptop to tablet. We’re deployed virtual desktops in AWS for a number of customer projects – either desktops for key users in a Disaster Recovery scenario, or for developers who are located around the world and need a consistent desktop with known applications installed etc in order to access AWS-hosted dev and test environments. So I can see us using this new feature in future projects as I suspect the cost model in terms of the saved installation/build/ongoing patching effort of putting in a bunch of Windows Remote Desktop servers.
  • Amazon AppStream – HD quality video generation and streaming across multiple device types. This is related to another announcement that was made on 5th Nov – the new g2.2xlarge instance type, which has the GPU grunt to enables the creation of 3D applications that run in the cloud and deliver high performance 3D graphics to mobile devices, TVs etc.

Weirdly being at the event you get less time to look into these new product announcements and so you probably have less detail than if you were just reading about it on the web – after the keynote it was straight into a bunch of technical sessions.

I mainly focused on the data analytics sessions. First off, I got to hear about what NASA have been doing with data visualisation – I think all attendees expected to hear about exciting interstellar data visualisations, but it was actually about much more mundane visualisations of skills management, recruitment trends etc – and this in fact made it much more applicable to the audience’s typical use cases as well. There were some great takeaways about how to maximise your chance of success which I need to write-up at some point…

I then attended an excellent deep dive on Amazon Elastic MapReduce (EMR) – this covered Hadoop tuning and optimisation, architecture choices and how they impact costs, dynamically scaling clusters, when the use S3 and when to HDFS for storage, instance sizes to use and how to design the cluster size for a specific workload.

This was followed by some customer technical overviews of their use of RedShift. They had all migrated to RedShift from either a SQL or NoSQL architecture. For example, have deployed two RedShift clusters in order to isolate read from write workloads, but I felt that they had been forced to put considerable effort into building a proxy in front of RedShift to optimise performance – fundamentally as RedShift is limited to 15 concurrent queries and for their reporting workload, they are not in control of the peaks in their user’s demand for reports. So they’ve implemented their own query queuing and throttling mechanism, which sounds like a whole heap of technical and tricky non-differentiating work to me. A key takeaway from this session for me though was that the price-performance characteristic of RedShift had really worked for these customers, and given them the ability to scale at a cost that they just could not before. They were all achieving very high data ingress rates by batching up their data inserts and loading direct from S3.

The final session I attended was about a Mechanical Turk use case from InfoScout. Mechanical Turk is an intriguing service as it’s so different to the other AWS offerings – in fact it’s not a service at all really although it exposes a bunch of APIs – it’s a marketplace. Classic Mechanical Turk use cases include translation, transcription, sentiment analysis, search engine algorithm validation etc, but InfoScout’s need was for data cleaning and capture following an automated by fallible OCR process – capturing the data from pictures of shopping receipts taken on smart phones. The main takeaway for me was about how they manage quality control – i.e. how do you know and therefore tune and optimise the quality of the results you get from the workers executing your HITs? InfoScout use two quality control strategies:

  • Known answers – in a batch of receipt images that is handled by a Mechanical Turk worker, they inject a “known” receipt and compare the data captured with the known data on that receipt. This technique is good for clear yes/no quality checks, e.g. is this receipt from Walmart. This allows them to compute a metric for each worker as to how likely their other receipts have been accurately processed.
  • Plurality – send unprocessed receipt to more than one worker and see how consistent the returned results are. InfoScout use this to build a confidence score based upon this and other factors such as worker tenure etc.

The final event of the day was the re:invent pub crawl around 16 of the coolest bars in The Venetian and The Palazzo hotels. I’m guessing I don’t need to tell you much about that event, other than it started with sangria… :)

Tough but someone has to do it...

Tough, but someone has to do it…

Vegas baby!

Vegas baby!

I’ve survived my first full day in Vegas at AWS re:Invent, the annual Amazon Web Services shindig, although I must admit to being jet-lagged to hell. Handily nothing ever shuts down here so waking up at 2am is not a problem :)

The first day was dedicated to the AWS Partner Network (APN) Summit, and the #1 highlight had to be the announcement that Smart421 have been awarded Premier Consulting Partner status – one of only 3 partners in the EMEA region to be recognised in this way. This is the highest level that there is globally, and it makes me really proud of what our internal AWS Practice have achieved over our four year journey with AWS – this is not something that AWS give to any old partner! It’s recognition of the great customer case studies and deployments that we’ve jointly undertaken with AWS, and the investment in deep skills that we’ve made.

APNThe sheer scale of re:invent is pretty staggering. The venue (The Venetian) is enormous, the rooms are massive, and there’s a huge number of attendees with a very wide variety of interests – enterprise-level, gaming, HPC, start-ups etc. As I was at the APN Summit all day which was on its own floor, this didn’t really hit me until I went to the Expo part of the event at the end of day – where 180+ different vendors are touting their wares. It was a struggle even to walk through the room as it was so busy – although copious amounts of food and alcohol probably helped drive attendance :).

Here’s a couple of other takeaways from the APN Summit yesterday:

  • AWS have just updated the quote that they use to demonstrate the rate at which they are scaling their infrastructure. Anyone familiar with AWS will probably have heard before that one way of quantifying their rate of infrastructure growth is in terms of comparing with the number of servers etc needed to run the retail business at some point back in the past. Well – AWS has carried on growing, and so this comparison metric has had to be updated. They are now adding enough server capacity every day to power when it was a $7bn business – which is quite an incredible statement really. Cloud computing is indeed a scale game…
  • One of the big push areas from AWS is in driving use of AWS to host specific packages such as Microsoft Exchange, various Oracle business products (i.e. not just the technology components such as database, middleware etc), SAP, Microsoft SharePoint etc. Hence yesterday they announced some new partner competencies for some of these products. Personally I don’t quite get this – in my view, the cloud model is not so compelling for these kinds of IT workloads, as they tend to be very “steady state” in nature, not particular peaky workloads and if they are somewhat peaky, then you’ve usually got to have a resilient pair running all the time anyway and so they options for scaling down are limited. There’s a myriad of companies out there offering very price-competitive hosted Exchange and SharePoint models (like our sister company in fact) and they can exploit multi-tenancy across customers to drive a really low price point. Office365 (which wraps in Exchange and SharePoint with other stuff) is also the direction of travel for many enterprise customers. Having said all that, AWS are obviously seeing traction for these more enterprise-level software deployments otherwise they wouldn’t be aligning their partner model to it – as they are clearly not dummies given that they are giving the rest of the IaaS/PaaS market a bit of a hiding.

Today we have the opening keynote from Andy Jassy, and then we get into the more nitty-gritty technical sessions…

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