Velocity CA Recap

Failure is a Feature

The Santa Clara edition of our Velocity conference wrapped up a little over a week ago, and I’ve had a chance to reflect on the formal talks and excellent hallway conversations I had throughout. Here are a few themes I saw, including a few of the standout talks:

1. Velocity continues to grow. I had to qualify that I’d been to the Santa Clara conference, because it’s now cropped up in three more locations annually, starting with China and Europe last year, and moving to the newest location this year: New York in October. I’m excited to see what new perspectives this will bring, most notably on the financial industry side of things.

2. The web is getting faster (barely). Steve Souders mentioned this in his keynote at HTML5 Developer Conference (with a related writeup here), and Tammy Evert’s excellent summary of her experience at Velocity provided a slightly depressing list of things that people still aren’t really doing, or are struggling with: third-party content, images, caching, web fonts and… JavaScript. Along with Tammy, I also noticed some varying opinions about how helpful Responsive Web Design really is when it comes to mobile performance. As mobile usage continues to grow dramatically (and the greatest growth is in developing world, on slow cellular networks & basic devices), these pain points are only multiplied by processors optimized for battery consumption vs. CPU. The highlight on this front for me was Ilya Grigorik’s talk on Optimizing the Critical Rendering Path for Instant Mobile Websites (note: I’m wholly biased here, as I’m editing his soon-to-be-released book, High Performance Browser Networking).

3. Perception matters (and page load time doesn’t measure it). Quite a few talks hit on the idea of getting the most critical information in front of people first, and letting the rest load after. (Steve Souders gave a really great Ignite talk on this as well.) And with single-page apps, the very concept of page load goes out the window (pun intended) almost entirely. My favorite talk on this front was Rachel Myers and Emily Nakashima’s case study of work they’d done (previously) at ModCloth. The bottom line: feature load time was a far more useful performance metric for them–and their management team–when it came to the single-page application they’d built. They’d cobbled their own solution together using Google Analytics and Circonus to track feature load time, but it looks like the new product announced at Velocity from New Relic might just provide that out of the box now. Their presentation also had ostriches and yaks for a little extra awesome.

4. Failure is a feature (and you should plan for it at all levels of your organization and products). The opening keynote from Johan Bergstrom provided  a fascinating perspective on risk in complex systems (e.g. web operations). While he didn’t provide any concrete ways to assess your own risk (and that was part of the point), what I took away from it was this: If you’re assessing your risk as a function of the severity and probability of technical components of your system going down (e.g. are they “reliable”, you’re missing a key piece of the picture. Organizations need to factor in humans as some of those components (or “actors”), and look at the function of a complex system via the interdependencies and relationships between actors. It is constantly, dynamically changing, and risk is a product of all the interactions within the system. (For more reading on this, I highly suggest some of Johan’s references in his blog post about the talk, notably Sidney Dekker’s work.)

Dylan Richard also gave a fantastic keynote about the gameday scenarios he ran during the Obama campaign.  The bottom line: Plan for failure. Design your apps and your team to be able to handle it when it happens.

5. A revolution is coming (and there be dinosaurs). Whither Circuit City and Blockbuster? They didn’t just get eaten by Best Buy and Netflix randomly–they failed to see the writing on IT’s wall. With transformative technologies like the cloud and infrastructure automation, the backend is not so back room any longer. And performance isn’t just about the speed of your site or app. Adam Jacobs gave a talk at the very end of the conference (which Jesse Robbins reprised the next day at DevOpsDays) that was a rallying cry for people in IT and Operations: you control the destiny of your organization. It oversimplified many things, in my opinion, but the core message was there, and something we’ve been saying at O’Reilly for a little while now, too: Every business is now an Internet business. The dinosaurs will be those who, in Adam’s words, fail to “leverage digital commerce to rapidly deliver goods and services to consumers.” In other words, transform or die.

You can see all the keynotes, plus interviews and other related Velocity video goodness on our YouTube channel. You can also purchase the complete video compilation that includes all the tutorials and sessions, as well.