Ben Lorica

Ben Lorica is the Chief Data Scientist and Director of Content Strategy for Data at O'Reilly Media, Inc. He has applied Business Intelligence, Data Mining, Machine Learning and Statistical Analysis in a variety of settings including Direct Marketing, Consumer and Market Research, Targeted Advertising, Text Mining, and Financial Engineering. His background includes stints with an investment management company, internet startups, and financial services.

Building self-service tools to monitor high-volume time-series data

The O'Reilly Data Show Podcast: Phil Liu on the evolution of metric monitoring tools and cloud computing.

One of the main sources of real-time data processing tools is IT operations. In fact, a previous post I wrote on the re-emergence of real-time, was to a large extent prompted by my discussions with engineers and entrepreneurs building monitoring tools for IT operations. In many ways, data centers are perfect laboratories in that they are controlled environments managed by teams willing to instrument devices and software, and monitor fine-grain metrics.

During a recent episode of the O’Reilly Data Show Podcast, I caught up with Phil Liu, co-founder and CTO of SignalFx, a SF Bay Area startup focused on building self-service monitoring tools for time series. We discussed hiring and building teams in the age of cloud computing, building tools for monitoring large numbers of time series, and lessons he’s learned from managing teams at leading technology companies.

Evolution of monitoring tools

Having worked at LoudCloud, Opsware, and Facebook, Liu has seen first hand the evolution of real-time monitoring tools and platforms. Liu described how he has watched the number of metrics grow, to volumes that require large compute clusters:

One of the first services I worked on at LoudCloud was a service called MyLoudCloud. Essentially that was a monitoring portal for all LoudCloud customers. At the time, [the way] we thought about monitoring was still in a per-instance-oriented monitoring system. [Later], I was one of the first engineers on the operational side of Facebook and eventually became part of the infrastructure team at Facebook. When I joined, Facebook basically was using a collection of open source software for monitoring and configuration, so these are things that everybody knows — Nagios, Ganglia. It started out basically using just per-instance instant monitoring techniques, basically the same techniques that we used back at LoudCloud, but interestingly and very quickly as Facebook grew, this per-instance-oriented monitoring no longer worked because we went from tens or thousands of servers to hundreds of thousands of servers, from tens of services to hundreds and thousands of services internally.

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Apache Spark: Powering applications on-premise and in the cloud

The O'Reilly Data Show Podcast: Patrick Wendell on the state of the Spark ecosystem.


As organizations shift their focus toward building analytic applications, many are relying on components from the Apache Spark ecosystem. I began pointing this out in advance of the first Spark Summit in 2013 and since then, Spark adoption has exploded.

With Spark Summit SF right around the corner, I recently sat down with Patrick Wendell, release manager of Apache Spark and co-founder of Databricks, for this episode of the O’Reilly Data Show Podcast. (Full disclosure: I’m an advisor to Databricks). We talked about how he came to join the UC Berkeley AMPLab, the current state of Spark ecosystem components, Spark’s future roadmap, and interesting applications built on top of Spark.

User-driven from inception

From the beginning, Spark struck me as different from other academic research projects (many of which “wither away” when grad students leave). The AMPLab team behind Spark spoke at local SF Bay Area meetups, they hosted 2-day events (AMP Camp), and worked hard to help early users. That mindset continues to this day. Wendell explained:

We were trying to work with the early users of Spark, getting feedback on what issues it had and what types of problems they were trying to solve with Spark, and then use that to influence the roadmap. It was definitely a more informal process, but from the very beginning, we were expressly user-driven in the way we thought about building Spark, which is quite different than a lot of other open source projects. We never really built it for our own use — it was not like we were at a company solving a problem and then we decided, “hey let’s let other people use this code for free”. … From the beginning, we were focused on empowering other people and building platforms for other developers, so I always thought that was quite unique about Spark.

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Announcing Cassandra certification

A new partnership between O’Reilly and DataStax offers certification and training in Cassandra.

apache-cassandra-certified-300x300I am pleased to announce a joint program between O’Reilly and DataStax to certify Cassandra developers. This program complements our developer certification for Apache Spark and — just as in the case of Databricks and Spark — we are excited to be working with the leading commercial company behind Cassandra. DataStax has done a tremendous job growing and nurturing the Cassandra community, user base, and technology.

Once the certification program is ready, developers can take the exam online, in designated test centers, and at select training courses. O’Reilly will also be developing books, training days, and videos targeted at developers and companies interested in the Cassandra distributed storage system.

Cassandra is a popular component used for building big data and real-time analytic platforms. Its ability to comfortably scale to clusters with thousands of nodes makes it a popular option for solutions that need to ingest and make sense of large amounts of time series and event data. As noted in an earlier post, real-time event data are at the heart of one of the trends we’re closely following: the convergence of cheap sensors, fast networks, and distributed computation. Read more…

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Data science makes an impact on Wall Street

The O'Reilly Data Show Podcast: Gary Kazantsev on how big data and data science are making a difference in finance.

Learn more about Next:Money, O’Reilly’s conference focused on the fundamental transformation taking place in the finance industry.

Charging_Bull_Sam_valadi_FlickrHaving started my career in industry, working on problems in finance, I’ve always appreciated how challenging it is to build consistently profitable systems in this extremely competitive domain. When I served as quant at a hedge fund in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I worked primarily with price data (time-series). I quickly found that it was difficult to find and sustain profitable trading strategies that leveraged data sources that everyone else in the industry examined exhaustively. In the early-to-mid 2000s the hedge fund industry began incorporating many more data sources, and today you’re likely to find many finance industry professionals at big data and data science events like Strata + Hadoop World.

During the latest episode of the O’Reilly Data Show Podcast, I had a great conversation with one of the leading data scientists in finance: Gary Kazantsev runs the R&D Machine Learning group at Bloomberg LP. As a former quant, I wanted to know the types of problems Kazantsev and his group work on, and the tools and techniques they’ve found useful. We also talked about data science, data engineering, and recruiting data professionals for Wall Street. Read more…

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The tensor renaissance in data science

The O'Reilly Data Show Podcast: Anima Anandkumar on tensor decomposition techniques for machine learning.


After sitting in on UC Irvine Professor Anima Anandkumar’s Strata + Hadoop World 2015 in San Jose presentationI wrote a post urging the data community to build tensor decomposition libraries for data science. The feedback I’ve gotten from readers has been extremely positive. During the latest episode of the O’Reilly Data Show Podcast, I sat down with Anandkumar to talk about tensor decomposition, machine learning, and the data science program at UC Irvine.

Modeling higher-order relationships

The natural question is: why use tensors when (large) matrices can already be challenging to work with? Proponents are quick to point out that tensors can model more complex relationships. Anandkumar explains:

Tensors are higher order generalizations of matrices. While matrices are two-dimensional arrays consisting of rows and columns, tensors are now multi-dimensional arrays. … For instance, you can picture tensors as a three-dimensional cube. In fact, I have here on my desk a Rubik’s Cube, and sometimes I use it to get a better understanding when I think about tensors.  … One of the biggest use of tensors is for representing higher order relationships. … If you want to only represent pair-wise relationships, say co-occurrence of every pair of words in a set of documents, then a matrix suffices. On the other hand, if you want to learn the probability of a range of triplets of words, then we need a tensor to record such relationships. These kinds of higher order relationships are not only important for text, but also, say, for social network analysis. You want to learn not only about who is immediate friends with whom, but, say, who is friends of friends of friends of someone, and so on. Tensors, as a whole, can represent much richer data structures than matrices.

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More tools for managing and reproducing complex data projects

A survey of the landscape shows the types of tools remain the same, but interfaces continue to improve.


As data projects become complex and as data teams grow in size, individuals and organizations need tools to efficiently manage data projects. A while back, I wrote a post on common options, and I closed that piece by asking:

Are there completely different ways of thinking about reproducibility, lineage, sharing, and collaboration in the data science and engineering context?

At the time, I listed categories that seemed to capture much of what I was seeing in practice: (proprietary) workbooks aimed at business analysts, sophisticated IDEs, notebooks (for mixing text, code, and graphics), and workflow tools. At a high level, these tools aspire to enable data teams to do the following:

  • Reproduce their work — so they can rerun and/or audit when needed
  • Collaborate
  • Facilitate storytelling — because in many cases, it’s important to explain to others how results were derived
  • Operationalize successful and well-tested pipelines — particularly when deploying to production is a long-term objective

As I survey the landscape, the types of tools remain the same, but interfaces continue to improve, and domain specific languages (DSLs) are starting to appear in the context of data projects. One interesting trend is that popular user interface models are being adapted to different sets of data professionals (e.g. workflow tools for business users). Read more…

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Coming full circle with Bigtable and HBase

The O'Reilly Data Show Podcast: Michael Stack on HBase past, present, and future.


Subscribe to the O’Reilly Data Show to explore the opportunities and techniques driving big data and data science.

At least once a year, I sit down with Michael Stack, engineer at Cloudera, to get an update on Apache HBase and the annual user conference, HBasecon. Stack has a great perspective, as he has been part of HBase since its inception. As former project leader, he remains a key contributor and evangelist, and one of the organizers of HBasecon.

In the beginning: Search and Bigtable

During the latest episode of the O’Reilly Data Show Podcast, I decided to broaden our conversation to include the beginnings of the very popular Apache HBase project. Stack reminded me that in the early days much of the big data community in the SF Bay Area was centered around search technologies, such as HBase. In particular, HBase was inspired by work out of Google (Bigtable), and the early engineers had ties to projects out of the Internet Archive:

At the time, I was working at the Internet Archive, and I was working on crawlers and search. The Bigtable paper looked really interesting to us because the archive, as you know, we used to host — or still do — the Wayback Machine. The Wayback Machine is a picture of the Web that goes back to 1998, and you could look at the Web at any particular time. What pages looked liked at a particular time. Bigtable was very interesting at the Internet Archive because it had this time dimension.

A group had started up to talk about the possibility of implementing a Bigtable clone. It was centered at a place called Powerset, a startup that was in San Francisco back then. That was about doing a search, so I went and talked to them. They said, ‘Come on over and we’ll make a space for doing a Bigtable clone.’ They had a very intricate search pipeline, and it was based on early Amazon AWS, and every time they started up their pipeline, they’d get a phone call from Amazon saying, ‘Please stop whatever it is you’re doing.’ … The first engineer would be a fellow called Jim Kellerman. The actual first 30 classes came from Mike Cafarella. He was instrumental in getting the first versions of Hadoop going. He was hanging around Apache Nutch at the time. … Doug [Cutting] used to work at the Internet archive, and the first actual versions of Hadoop were run on racks at the Internet archive. Doug was working on fulltext search. Then he moved on to go to Yahoo, to work on Hadoop full time.

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Building big data systems in academia and industry

The O'Reilly Data Show Podcast: Mikio Braun on stream processing, academic research, and training.

Mikio Braun is a machine learning researcher who also enjoys software engineering. We first met when he co-founded a real-time analytics company called streamdrill. Since then, I’ve always had great conversations with him on many topics in the data space. He gave one of the best-attended sessions at Strata + Hadoop World in Barcelona last year on some of his work at streamdrill.

I recently sat down with Braun for the latest episode of the O’Reilly Data Show Podcast, and we talked about machine learning, stream processing and analytics, his recent foray into data science training, and academia versus industry (his interests are a bit on the “applied” side, but he enjoys both).


An example of a big data solution. Source: Mikio Braun, used with permission.

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A real-time processing revival

Things are moving fast in the stream processing world.


Register for Strata + Hadoop World, London. Editor’s note: Ben Lorica is an advisor to Databricks and Graphistry. Many of the technologies discussed in this post will be covered in trainings, tutorials, and sessions at Strata + Hadoop World in London this coming May.

There’s renewed interest in stream processing and analytics. I write this based on some data points (attendance in webcasts and conference sessions; a recent meetup), and many conversations with technologists, startup founders, and investors. Certainly, applications are driving this recent resurgence. I’ve written previously about systems that come from IT operations as well as how the rise of cheap sensors are producing stream mining solutions from wearables (mostly health-related apps) and the IoT (consumer, industrial, and municipal settings). In this post, I’ll provide a short update on some of the systems that are being built to handle large amounts of event data.

Apache projects (Kafka, Storm, Spark Streaming, Flume) continue to be popular components in stream processing stacks (I’m not yet hearing much about Samza). Over the past year, many more engineers started deploying Kafka alongside one of the two leading distributed stream processing frameworks (Storm or Spark Streaming). Among the major Hadoop vendors, Hortonworks has been promoting Storm, Cloudera supports Spark Streaming, and MapR supports both. Kafka is a high-throughput distributed pub/sub system that provides a layer of indirection between “producers” that write to it and “consumers” that take data out of it. A new startup (Confluent) founded by the creators of Kafka should further accelerate the development of this already very popular system. Apache Flume is used to collect, aggregate, and move large amounts of streaming data, and is frequently used with Kafka (Flafka or Flume + Kafka). Spark Streaming continues to be one of the more popular components within the Spark ecosystem, and its creators have been adding features at a rapid pace (most recently Kafka integration, a Python API, and zero data loss). Read more…

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Redefining power distribution using big data

The O'Reilly Data Show Podcast: Erich Nachbar on testing and deploying open source, distributed computing components.

power_distribution_alex.ch_FlickrWhen I first hear of a new open source project that might help me solve a problem, the first thing I do is ask around to see if any of my friends have tested it. Sometimes, however, the early descriptions sound so promising that I just jump right in and try it myself — and in a few cases, I transition immediately (this was certainly the case for Spark).

I recently had a conversation with Erich Nachbar, founder and CTO of Virtual Power Systems, and one of the earliest adopters of Spark. In the early days of Spark, Nachbar was CTO of Quantifind, a startup often cited by the creators of Spark as one of the first “production deployments.” On the latest episode of the O’Reilly Data Show Podcast, we talk about the ease with which Nachbar integrates new open source components into existing infrastructure, his contributions to Mesos, and his new “software-defined power distribution” startup.

Ecosystem of open source big data technologies

When evaluating a new software component, nothing beats testing it against workloads that mimic your own. Nachbar has had the luxury of working in organizations where introducing new components isn’t subject to multiple levels of decision-making. But, as he notes, everything starts with testing things for yourself:

“I have sort of my mini test suite…If it’s a data store, I would just essentially hook it up to something that’s readily available, some feed like a Twitter fire hose, and then just let it be bombarded with data, and by now, it’s my simple benchmark to know what is acceptable and what isn’t for the machine…I think if more people, instead of reading papers and paying people to tell them how good or bad things are, would actually set aside a day and try it, I think they would learn a lot more about the system than just reading about it and theorizing about the system. Read more…