Month: March 2017

Cloud Sentinel

Almost all new software businesses these days are helpers. They offer software to help you use other software or help you make other software. Compared to 20 years ago, it’s much harder to build something as fundamentally seismic to humanity as a Google or a Facebook. On the other hand, it’s much easier to make something that makes a selected group of people happy, thanks to open source culture. The wealth of resources and education available for free means that with a little talent, you can create little earthquakes at a very low cost. Software monitoring is one of these rivers in the ocean of software business.

Software monitoring to software is just like the dashboard to your car. Your car dashboard tells you if you have enough gas or if something is wrong with your engine. Software monitoring tools tell you if something is wrong with your software and the things you use to run it. Monitoring had existed since software existed, but offering a set of integrated tools as a comprehensive service is a relatively new practice. In the past, developers would often patch together several tools and keep them in-house. More recently, some companies have begun to offer a full suite of monitoring tools, integrating them with cloud computing services, and topping up the package with advanced features in analytics. They offer this as a subscription, removing the need to host and maintain locally, and they have managed to make it look sexy.

The main perk is efficiency: it frees up local resources to focus on gaining insights from data. Incorporating nifty visualizations and statistical techniques allows you to feel like you are doing a data scientist’s work rather than a system administrator’s. “Data scientist” is definitely sexier than “Sysadmin,” which is why companies market monitoring from a data science angle. What used to be a dreaded chore becomes appealing, and this is a side effect that is not to be overlooked. Having a reputation of installing ping pong tables in the office, making things fun is a staple allure of the software business.

The old model of monitoring is like having a horse carriage. You buy some horses (monitoring tools), a stable (servers) and a full staff to maintain the health of the horses. The new model is more like having a self-driving Iron Man suit with a supercharged assistant like Jarvis. He is more than a helper; he is a sentinel. He is an artificial intelligence that can auto-adjust your power mode according to flight conditions, verbally alert you to engine problems while cracking jokes, and make you green juice in the morning.

A fairly popular general model of software monitoring is Gartner’s Application Performance Management, which is an apt description, but I’ve already started yawning. Words, names, and imagery do matter, a lot (sometimes even, or especially, punctuation). Data scientists used to be called statisticians or analysts. When someone thought of calling the job a different name, granted that the field became associated with artificial intelligence, the same job evolved into the sexiest job of the century. There has to be a more imaginative name to software monitoring as data science is to statistics. Like Sentinel. Software Sentinel. Cloud Sentinel. Cloud Computing. Data Science. Cloud Sentinel. Got a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? A bit strange at first, but remember, cloud computing used to be a headscratcher not long ago, and now it’s become a beloved buzzword in Techspeak.


Explaining Cloud Computing With Game of Thrones

The other day, I was trying to explain to my parents what cloud computing was. They are intelligent folks that never had to incorporate computers into their careers whatsoever, so they are the kind of people who need help filling out online forms or signing up for social media accounts. You can’t expect them to understand any vocabulary of Techspeak, a professional dialect that technologists hold so dearly in their hearts for good reasons. I like to explain esoteric concepts to people who don’t care about them, and see if I can make them care. This is a practice of the Feynman technique, which not only reinforces the concepts in my own mind, but also reinforces the reasons I should care about them in the first place.

Before telling the story, I want to talk about semantics, which is the issue at heart in trying to explain technical concepts to the uninitiated. I am using “Techspeak” as a neutral definitive term, in a matter-of-fact manner, without any negative connotations. In every field, there is a set of vocabulary that defines the crucial concepts and functions to summarize the existence of the field. When your doctor uses medical terms in Latin to describe your health conditions, you don’t mock them by saying they are using “Doctorspeak.” The use of those terms is simply an accepted convention, partly because they have been used for centuries, and possibly because Latin is more concise in its ability to explain so much in fewer words than plain English.

In the business world, the running joke is on “Corporatespeak,” describing empty rhetoric that people use simply for dramatic effect, without any or much actual content in the communication. In other words, sometimes when people speak, what they are saying is not in the meaning of the words but the fact that they are saying something and the situation they are saying it in. Nevertheless, Corporatespeak in and of itself is just a dialect available for effective communication within a context.

In the world of computer science and technology, the vocabulary used is crucial to the operations at hand. I would argue that the significance of this language is similar to the way doctors use Latin: based on long-standing conventions and the utility of conciseness. Technologists trained in computer science share a common cryptic (to outsiders) professional vocabulary the same way doctors trained in medical schools share a common vocabulary, and that is the de facto language they use to communicate with each other.

Alright, back to explaining cloud computing to my parents. Let’s just start by thinking about having a business and running it. You need computers, obviously, even if you’re running a deli selling sandwiches and beer. You need computers to calculate and record transactions. For keeping track of inventory. To pay your staff. For a deli, maybe you just need one computer at the cash register for the transaction bit, and another computer for the rest. That’s not a big deal, because it’s easy to get and maintain two machines, and to teach your staff how to use and take care of them.

Now, let’s think of a more complex business: a filmmaking company that provides special effects by combining actual filmed footage with computer-rendered images, in order to create spectacular and imaginative scenes. Star Wars, Captain America, Cloud Atlas, Avatar type of stuff.

You’ll need storage space for all the image files. You’ll need servers to dish them out to you when you need them. You’ll need applications to process the images. All of this is written in computer code, transformed into electronic signals, stored in massive physical structures. This is where the hard part is: maintaining these monstrous physical structures and the code required to create the magic.

Not just the physical space you need to rent or buy to house them, or the electrical bills you run up for keeping them on, but also additional staff who know the ins and outs of the thing and how to fix it when something goes wrong. The bigger your company is, the bigger the monster is, and the more steps there are between different points. More things can go wrong.

It’s useful to think of this computer system as a physical monster: like one of those dragons in Game of Thrones whose owner, Daenerys, uses as fighting machines in battles.

As your business grows, you are likely to have to encounter these monsters. The essence of cloud computing is that you find someone who owns these monsters. You pay her for whatever tricks she makes the monsters perform for you: breathing fire to destroy a hundred ships, for example. You don’t have to rent a big house to keep the dragons, and feed them huge amounts of food. Daenerys would do that.

So there you are. Cloud computing is like having Daenerys as an ally. She would release her dragons to help you win battles, for a modest fee.

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