Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Five open source Projects I wish I could fund

I've always said to myself that if I ever become independently wealthy, I'm going to bankroll some things I've always wanted that the opensource community hasn't felt a need to provide. Mind you, I'm not independently wealthy so don't expect to see much from me.

Anyway, here's my current "wishlist":

OpenWire Ruby drivers for ActiveMQ.

For that matter, I'd love wire level drivers for a bunch of stuff. In the case of ActiveMQ, it's nice that it's all plaintext but it doesn't support some of the same semantics as the OpenWire drivers and quite honestly wasn't very reliable in the testing I did. Say it with me folks, stateless protocols are not the way to talk to queue servers and ESPECIALLY not over HTTP. REST semantics don't map properly to core message queue concepts.

Non-Win32/DLL Ruby drivers for MSMQ and other Microsoft products

This really bit me in the ass at the AJC. It would have made my life a whole lot easier if we had a method for talking to MSMQ from a non-Windows platform. Sure, Microsoft documents the protocols for the most part but unless I'm planning on learning C and implementing a native extension, I don't see me doing it.

An open source ETL/DW/BI suite built on NoSQL. Bonus points for supporting rolling warehouse loads.

It may sound silly but I always thought that of all the promise of NoSQL concepts, the fact that your warehouse is denormalized makes it a great fit. I also think Map/reduce is a much more logical construct for BI reporting. There are a few headaches though which is why, even as a self-contained suite, it will take effort to gain traction:

  • ETL vendors would need to support the NoSQL engine on the Load side
  • BI/Reporting tools would need to support the NoSQL engine
  • Report creators (many times, employees from each business unit stakeholder and non-technical) need to learn Map/Reduce concepts for scheduled reports
  • Map/reduce is a poor/impossible choice for Ad-hoc queries at least as far as the current crop of NoSQL engines is concerned.

Essentially, you would HAVE to create your own suite - soup to nuts - and provide a way to move people from thinking in SQL for report generation. Maybe a hybrid approach makes more sense. Assuming I were king for a day, the warehouse side would be a hierarchical design - all data is dumped denormalized into a NoSQL engine. Scheduled reporting is done via Map/reduce against that data. Additionally a second load phase either concurrent with or post NoSQL load (does that make it ETLL?) dumps a business rule defined amount of data in a traditional RDBMS store for Ad-hoc purposes. I dunno. I could be over-engineering it ;)

PostgreSQL and MySQL move to a pluggable replication architecture based on message queues.

I'm not sure if this is still the case but many years ago, DB2 was using MQ Series for geographical replication. Message queues are message agnostic and implement all the features required of replication - guaranteed delivery and ordered delivery for instance. Imagine how easy it would be to scale out MySQL read slaves if they weren't all hitting the master server? Message queues are perfect for this. I might implement it something like this with ActiveMQ:

  • Replication messages are pushed to a queue for known slaves. One queue per slave.
  • Said messages are duplicated into a Topic
  • New slaves subscribe to the Topic and come current
  • New slave is then converted to its own queue

Slaves never talk to the master server directly. You can spin up slaves at any time even without a backup. Just bring the slave up, point to the topic and get current on your own time. At some given point, you're converted to your own queue and unsub from the topic.

A DSL for implementing random binary protocols.

I thought this was what protobuf did but as I look at it more, I realize I might have been mistaken. Imagine if you could take the MSDN docs that describe the MSMQ protocols. Convert that information into said DSL and execute 'foo' against the DSL. Blammo, you have a driver for that protocol. Is that even possible?

Anyway, there goes my business ideas for the next century. I do hope someone runs off with them and does something fun. In seriousness, I can't be the only person who's ever thought of these things. Hell, look at the database replication one. I straight stole that from IBM.

Besides, there's probably patents on all of these ideas already =P

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

No operations team left behind - Where DevOps misses the mark

I'm a big fan of the "DevOps" movement. I follow any and everyone on twitter who's involved. I've watched SlideShare presentation after presentation. I've pined for a chance to go to Velocity. I watched the keynote live. I've got "the book". These guys are my heroes, not because they did something new per se but because they put a name on it. Gave it a face from the formless mass. Brought it to the forefront.

Any operations guy worth his salt has been doing some part of what is constituting DevOps for a long time. We automated builds. If we had to do something more than once, we wrote a script to handle it. My favorite item from ThinkGeek was a sticker that said "Go away or I will replace you with a very small shell script". We pxe-booted machines from kickstart files. We were lazy and didn't want to have to deal with the same bullshit mistakes over and over. When I read the intro to the Web Operations book, I was shouting outloud because this was the FIRST book that accurately described what I've been doing for the past 15 years.

I tell you all that so you don't think I'm down on the "tribe" (as Tim O'Reilly called us). These are my people. We're on the same wavelength. I love you guys. Seriously. But just like any intervention, someone has to speak out. There's a "trend" that seems to be forming that's leaving some operations teams behind and those folks don't have a choice.

I mentioned in a previous post that I'm working for a new company. Because of legal restrictions and company security policy, among other things, I can't go into too many details. However, the same things I'm going to be talking about apply to more than just our company.

The company recently formed a dedicated group called "DevOps". The traditional SA/Operations team was reformed into a "DevOps Support" and a handful of other folks were formed into a "DevOps Architecture" team. Right now that second group consists of me and two of the senior staff who moved over from the original SA team. Now you might look at this and say "Yer doin' it wrong!" but there's some logic behind this thought process. Without breaking out a few people from the daily operational support issues, no headway could be really made on implementing anything. This isn't to imply anything about how the company operates or the quality of the product. It's simply a fact of trying to retrofit a new operational model on top of an already moving traditional business process. The same issues arose when teams started migrating from a waterfall to agile. Sure you could implement agile in the NEXT project but forget about upsetting the boat on the current product line. In addition to changing how developers operated, you had a whole host of other stakeholders who needed to be convinced.

I once had a manager who I really disliked but he had a saying - "It's like changing the tires on the race car while it's going around the track"

That's the position many traditional companies are in right now. Walking in the door and telling them they really should be doing X instead of Y is nice. Everyone with a brain knows it makes sense. It's obviously more efficient, reduces support issues, makes for a better work environment and cures cancer but it simply cannot be implemented by burning the boat. So, yes, some companies will have to form dedicated groups and work with stakeholders and go through the whole process that a DevOps mentality is trying to replace just to implement it.

But that's not the only roadblock.


Any publicly traded company regardless of industry has its hands tied by three letters - SOX. Excluding specific sector requirements - HIPPA for medical, PCI for financial, FCPA, GLBA or (insert acronym here), Sarbanes-Oxley puts vague and onerous demands on public companies. Hell, you don't even have to be publicly traded. You could be a vendor to a publicly traded company and subject to it by proxy. Sarbanes-Oxley is notoriously ambiguous about what you actually have to DO to pass an audit. Entire industries have sprung up around it from hardware and software to wetware.

What's most amazing about it is that, I personally think implementing a DevOps philosophy across the board would make compliance EASIER. All change control is AUTOMATICALLY documented. Traditional access rules aren't an issue because no human actually logs onto servers for instance.

However in the end you have to convince the auditor that what you are doing matches with the script they have. In every company I've been at we've had the same workflow. It's like all the auditors went to the same fly by night school based on some infomercial: "Make big money as a SOX auditor. Call now for your free information packet!"
  • Change is requested by person W
  • Change is approved by X stake holders
  • Change is approved by Y executive
  • Change is performed by person Z
  • The person who requested the change can't approve it.
  • The person approving the change can't perform the actual work.
  • So on and so forth.

Continuous deployment? Not gonna happen. It can't be done with that level of handcuffing.

Security Controls

Moving past the whole SOX issue, there are also security concerns that prevent automation. It's not uncommon for companies to have internal VPNs that have to be used to reach the production environment. That means the beautiful automated build system you have is good up until, say, QA. Preproduction and on requires manual access to even GET to the servers. This model is used in companies all over the world. Mandatory encryption requirements can further complicate things.

Corporate Hierarchy

I was recently asked what I found was the biggest roadblock to implementing the DevOps philosophy. In my standard roundabout way of thinking something through, I realized that the biggest roadblock is people. People with agendas. People who have control issues. People who are afraid of sharing knowledge for fear of losing some sort of role as "Keeper of the Knowledge". Those issues can extend all the way to the top of a company. There's also the fear of change. It's a valid concern and it's even MORE valid when a misstep can cost your company millions of dollars. You have no choice but to move slow and use what works because you know it works. It's not the most efficient but when it's bringing in the money, you can afford to throw bodies at the issue. You can afford to have 10 developers on staff focused on nothing but maintaining the current code base and another 10 working on new features.

The whole point of this long-winded post is to say "Don't write us off". We know. You're preaching to the choir. It takes baby steps and we have to pursue it in a way that works with the structure we have in place. It's great that you're a startup and don't have the legacy issues older companies have. We're all on the same team. Don't leave us behind.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Locked down!

So I started at the new company today. I was supposed to start Tuesday but there was some delay in my on-boarding. 
But that's neither here nor there.Here's the interesting thing. The company is a publicly traded financial services company. It's not enough to be publicly traded but to also be in financial services is like taking that giant cake of government scrutiny and slapping on another layer for fun.

Did I mention they're also international?

Anyway, I get my laptop and get logged in. This thing is locked down TIGHT. The kicker is that it's running Windows XP. Because of corporate policy, the only tools I'm allowed to install are cygwin, putty and winscp3. If I want to use an IDE, it's got to be eclipse. Nothing else is approved. Boot-level disk encryption. OS level disk encryption. Locked....down.

So I pretty much spent my entire afternoon trying to get cygwin running in something resembling usefulness. Mind you I haven't used Cygwin in AGES. I haven't used a windows machine for work in at least 6+ years. I've been fortunate enough to work for companies that allowed me to wipe the corporate install and run Linux as long as I didn't bother to ask for help with it. Where I ran into the next problem was with dealing with random cygwin issues.

So I hit google and start searching. Click the first result:

KA-BLOCK as Kevin Smith is fond of saying on twitter.

Blocked because it's a blog. Next result. Same thing. Finally I get a mailing list archive that isn't blocked and get most of the issues resolved. Meanwhile I've set off probably 20 alerts not because of any malicious activity but because I couldn't be sure if the search result would be a proxy violation or not. Hell, half the mirrors for cygwin I tried were blocked in the category of "Software Downloads". Really frustrating.

I finally get some semblance of a working system but I find myself wondering how I'm going to manage my standard workflow with this machine. It's going to be a challenge to say the least. In talking with my peers, it's pretty clear that they all have the same concerns and issues. Most of the time they work entirely in windowed screen sessions on one of the internal servers. This is fine by me but it's a big change in my workflow. I've been using the same keybinds for the past 6 years or so. I pretty much have to unlearn ALL of them because I can't use them on Windows.  The upshot is that I got gnome-terminator installed via cygwin ports. The hardest part was the fact that the homepage for gnome-terminator was blocked, you got it, because it was a "blog".

The point of this post is not to disparage the company in any way, shape, form or fashion. It got me wondering though how in the world people accomplish anything in environments like this? 

Forget the standard employee who uses email and the standard MS Office suite. What about developers who are developing code that runs on an entirely different OS. How many bugs and delays have companies had because the developer was unable to use an OS that mirrors that of the production environment. This particular company is a java shop. Java is a little more lax in this area but you still have oddities like "c:/path/to/file" that are entirely different on the server side. More so how many steps had to be injected in the workflow to get around that kind of issue. 

While I really HATE working on OSX at least it's more posix compliant than windows. My biggest headaches are how services are managed differently and the fact that it's not quite unix-alike for my tastes. It's like the uncanny valley.

I guess I'm feeling some trepidation because in addition to having to learn a new workflow - and a slower one at that - I'm also going to be working in Python. I'm excited about the work I'll be doing (DevOps - see my previous post about DevOps as a title) and the impact it will have but I also feel like I'm doubly behind - new workflow and a new language. The only thing that could make me more nervous is if the entire backend were Solaris - my weakest unix ;)

Anyway, I'll be fine. One upshot is that I AM allowed (as far as I was told) to run VirtualBox in host-only mode. Using some guest/host shared folder magic, I should be able to minimize the impact of the slower workflow.