Timothy M. O'Brien

Tim lives in Evanston, IL, about thirteen miles North of Chicago, he maintains his own blog at www.discursive.com, and is also frequent contributor to O'Reilly Broadcast covering a range of topics including Science, Technology, and Government. When Tim isn't chasing the news, he is developing hybrid enterprise architectures for a range of clients and writing technical books. After having authored four traditional computer books with O'Reilly: Jakarta Commons Cookbook, Maven: The Definitive Guide, Harnessing Hibernate, and Maven: A Developer's Notebook; Tim has dedicated himself to exploring the emerging area of Free, Open Writing and is currently working to develop several open titles including the Common Java Cookbook.

Tracking Salesforce’s push toward developers

Salesforce's recent investments suggest it's building a developer-centric suite of tools for the cloud.

SalesforceHave you ever seen Salesforce’s “no software” graphic? It’s the word “software” surrounded by a circle with a red line through it. Here’s a picture of the related (and dancing) “no software” mascot.

Now, if you consider yourself a developer, this is a bit threatening, no? Imagine sitting at a Salesforce event in 2008 in Chicago while Salesforce.com’s CEO, Marc Benioff, swiftly works an entire room of business users into an anti-software frenzy. I was there to learn about Force.com, and I’ll summarize the message I understood four years ago as “Not only can companies benefit from Salesforce.com, they also don’t have to hire developers.”

The message resonated with the audience. Salesforce had been using this approach for a decade: Don’t buy software you have to support, maintain, and hire developers to customize. Use our software-as-a-service (SaaS) instead.  The reality behind Salesforce’s trajectory at the time was that it too needed to provide a platform for custom development.

Salesforce’s dilemma: They needed developers

This “no software” message was enough for the vast majority of the small-to-medium-sized business (SMB) market, but to engage with companies at the largest scale, you need APIs and you need to be able to work with developers. At the time, in 2008, Salesforce was making moves toward the developer community. First there was Apex, then there was Force.com.

In 2008, I evaluated Force.com, and while capable, it didn’t strike me as something that would appeal to most developers outside of existing Salesforce customers.  Salesforce was aiming at the corporate developers building software atop competing stacks like Oracle.  While there were several attempts to sell it as such, it wasn’t a stand-alone product or framework.  In my opinion, no developer would assess Force.com and opt to use it as the next development platform.

This 2008 TechCrunch article announcing the arrival of Salesforce’s Developer-as-a-Service (DaaS) platform serves as a reminder of what Salesforce had in mind. They were still moving forward with an anti-software message for the business while continuing to make moves into the developer space. Salesforce built a capable platform. Looking back at Force.com, it felt more like an even more constrained version of Google App Engine. In other words, capable and scalable, but at the time a bit constraining for the general developer population. Don’t get me wrong: Force.com wasn’t a business failure by any measure; they have an impressive client list even today, but what they didn’t achieve was traction and awareness among the developer community. Read more…

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Google’s Spanner is all about time

Did Google just prove the industry wrong? Early thoughts on the Spanner database.

In case you missed it, Google Research published another one of “those” significant research papers — a paper like the BigTable paper from 2006 that had ramifications for the entire industry (that paper was one of the opening volleys in the NoSQL movement).  

Google’s new paper is about a distributed relational database called Spanner that was a follow up to a presentation from earlier in the year about a new database for AdWords called F1.   If you recall, that presentation revealed Google’s migration of AdWords from MySQL to a new database that supported SQL and hierarchical schemas — two ideas that buck the trend from relational databases.

Meet Spanner

This new database, Spanner, is a database unlike anything we’ve seen.   It’s a database that embraces ACID, SQL, and transactions, that can be distributed across thousands of nodes spanning multiple data centers across multiple regions.  The paper dwells on two main features that define this database:

  • Schematized Semi-relational Tables — A hierarchical approach to grouping tables that allows Spanner to co-locate related data into directories that can be easily stored, replicated, locked, and managed on what Google calls spanservers.    They have a modified SQL syntax that allows for the data to be interleaved, and the paper mentions some changes to support columns encoded with Protobufs.
  • “Reification of Clock Uncertainty” — This is the real emphasis of the paper.    The missing link in relational database scalability was a strong emphasis on coordination backed by a serious attempt to minimize time uncertainty.  In Google’s new global-scale database, the variable that matters is epsilon — time uncertainty.   Google has achieved very low overhead (14ms introduced by Spanner in this paper for datacenters at 1ms network distance) for read-write (RW) transactions that span U.S. East Coast and U.S. West Coast (data centers separated by around 2ms of network time) by creating a system that facilitates distributed transactions bound only by network distance (measured in milliseconds) and time uncertainty (epsilon).

Read more…

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DNA: The perfect backup medium

DNA storage could change the way we store and archive information.

It wasn’t enough for Dr. George Church to help Gilbert “discover” DNA sequencing 30 years ago, create the foundations for genomics, create the Personal Genome Project, drive down the cost of sequencing,  and start humanity down the road of synthetic biology. No, that wasn’t enough.

He and his team decided to publish an easily understood scientific paper (““Next-generation Information Storage in DNA“) that promises to change the way we store and archive information. While this technology may take years to perfect, it provides a roadmap toward an energy efficient, archival storage medium with a host of built-in advantages.

The paper demonstrates the feasibility of using DNA as a storage medium with a theoretical capacity of 455 exabytes per gram. (An exabyte is 1 million terabytes.) Now before you throw away your massive RAID 5 cluster and purchase a series of sequencing machines, know that DNA storage appears to be very high latency. Also know that Church, Yuan Gao, and Sriram Kosuri are not yet writing 455 exabytes of data, they’ve started with a more modest goal of writing Church’s recent book on genomics to a 5.29 MB “bitstream,” here’s an excerpt from the paper:

We converted an html-coded draft of a book that included 53,426 words, 11 JPG images and 1 JavaScript program into a 5.27 megabit bitstream. We then encoded these bits onto 54,898 159nt oligonucleotides (oligos) each encoding a 96-bit data block (96nt), a 19-bit address specifying the location of the data block in the bit stream (19nt), and flanking 22nt common sequences for amplification and sequencing. The oligo library was synthesized by ink-jet printed, high-fidelity DNA microchips. To read the encoded book, we amplified the library by limited-cycle PCR and then sequenced on a single lane of an Illumina HiSeq.

If you know anything about filesystems, this is an amazing paragraph. They’ve essentially defined a new standard for filesystem inodes on DNA. Each 96-bit block has a 19-bit descriptor. They then read this DNA bitstream by using something called Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). This is important because it means that reading this information involves generating millions of copies of the data in a format that has been proven to be durable. This biological “backup system” has replication capabilities “built-in.” Not just that, but this replication process has had billions of years of reliability data available.

Read more…

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Clojure’s advantage: Immediate feedback with REPL

Clojure’s advantage: Immediate feedback with REPL

Chas Emerick on how Clojure can make a difference to developers.

REPL is built into Clojure, and you can connect to any running Clojure process and modify and execute code. In this interview, "Clojure Programming" co-author Chas Emerick discusses the possibilities this introduces for Clojure developers.

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Clojure's advantage: Immediate feedback with REPL

Clojure's advantage: Immediate feedback with REPL

Chas Emerick on how Clojure can make a difference to developers.

REPL is built into Clojure, and you can connect to any running Clojure process and modify and execute code. In this interview, "Clojure Programming" co-author Chas Emerick discusses the possibilities this introduces for Clojure developers.

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Jesse Robbins on the state of infrastructure automation

Shifts for sysadmins and a surprising use for Chef.

OpsCode chief community officer Jesse Robbins discusses cloud infrastructure automation and the most surprising use of Chef he's seen so far.

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Data’s next steps

RedMonk's Steve O'Grady weighs in on data's pressing issues.

Redmonk analyst Steve O'Grady discusses the demand for data scientists, the problem of using data to asking the right questions, and why you shouldn't rush into a NoSQL investment.

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Data's next steps

RedMonk's Steve O'Grady weighs in on data's pressing issues.

Redmonk analyst Steve O'Grady discusses the demand for data scientists, the problem of using data to asking the right questions, and why you shouldn't rush into a NoSQL investment.

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Jason Huggins’ Angry Birds-playing Selenium robot

Jason Huggins’ Angry Birds-playing Selenium robot

How a game-playing robot could help shape the future of mobile testing.

If you try to talk to Jason Huggins about Selenium, he'll probably do to you what he did to us. He'll bring his Arduino-based Angry Birds-playing testing robot to your interview and then he'll relate his invention to the larger problems of mobile application testing and cloud-based testing infrastructure.

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Jason Huggins' Angry Birds-playing Selenium robot

Jason Huggins' Angry Birds-playing Selenium robot

How a game-playing robot could help shape the future of mobile testing.

If you try to talk to Jason Huggins about Selenium, he'll probably do to you what he did to us. He'll bring his Arduino-based Angry Birds-playing testing robot to your interview and then he'll relate his invention to the larger problems of mobile application testing and cloud-based testing infrastructure.

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