antipaucity

fighting the lack of good ideas

but, i got them on sale!

Back in August 2008, I had a one-week “quick start” professional services engagement in Nutley New Jersey. It was a supposed to be a super simple week: install HP Server Automation at BT Global.

Another ProServe engineer was onsite to setup HP Network Automation.

Life was gonna be easy-peasy – the only deliverable was to setup and verify a vanilla HPSA installation.

Except, like every Professional Services engagement in history, all was not as it seemed.

First monkey wrench: our primary technical contact / champion was an old-hat Sun Solaris fan (to the near-exclusion of any other OS for any purpose – he even wanted to run SunOS on his laptop).

Second monkey wrench: expanding on the first, out technical contact was super excited about the servers he’d gotten just the weekend before from Sun because they were “on sale”.

It’s time for a short background digression. Because technical intricacies matter.

HP Server Automation was written on Red Hat Linux. It worked great on RHEL. But, due to some [large] customer requests, it also supported running on Sun Solaris.

In 2007, Sun introduced a novel architecture dubbed, “Niagara”, or UltraSPARC T1, which they offered in their T1000 and T2000 series servers. Niagara did several clever things – it offered multiple threads running per core, with as many as 32 simultaneous processes running.

According to AnandTech, the UltraSPARC T1 was a “72 W, 1.2 GHz chip almost 3 times (in SpecWeb2005) as fast as four Xeon cores at 2.8 GHz”.

But there is always a tradeoff. The tradeoff Sun chose for the first CPU in the product line was to share a single FPU (floating point unit) between the integer cores and pipelines. For workloads that mostly involve static / simple data (ie, not much in the way of calculation), they were blazingly fast.

But sharing an FPU brings problems when you need to actually do floating-point math – as cryptographic algorithms and protocols all end up relying upon for gathering entropy for their random value generation processes. Why does this matter? Well, in the case of HPSA, not only is all interprocess, intraserver, and interserver communication secured with HTTPS certificates, but because large swaths are written in Java, each JVM needs to emulate its own FPU – so not only is the single FPU shared between all of the integer cores of the T1 CPU, it is further time-sliced and shared amongst every JRE instance.

At the time, the “standard” reboot time for a server running in an SA Core was generally benchmarked at ~15-20 minutes. That time encompassed all of the following:

  • stop all SA processes (in the proper order)
  • stop Oracle
  • restart the server
  • start Oracle
  • start all SA components (in the proper order)

As you’ll recall from my article on the Sun JRE 1.4.x from 6.5 years ago, there is a Java component (the Twist) that already takes a long time to start as it seeds its entropy pool.

So when it is sharing the single FPU not only between other JVMs, but between every other process which might end up needing it, the total start time is reduced dramatically.

How dramatically? Shutdown alone was taking upwards of 20 minutes. Startup was north of 35 minutes.

That’s right – instead of ~15-20 minutes for a full restart cycle, if you ran HPSA on a T1-powered server, you were looking at ~60+ minutes to restart.

Full restarts, while not incredibly common, are not all that unordinary, either.

At the time, it was not unusual to want to fully restart an HPSA Core 2-3 times per month. And during initial installation and configuration, restarts need to happen 4-5 times in addition to the number of times various components are restarted during installation as configuration files are updated, new processes and services are started, etc.

What should have been about a one-day setup, with 2-3 days of knowledge transfer – turned into nearly 3 days just to install and initially configure the software.

And why were we stuck on this “revolutionary” hardware? Because of what I noted earlier: our main technical contact was a die-hard Solaris fanboi who’d gotten these servers “on sale” (because their Sun rep “liked them”).

How big a “sale” did he get? Well, his sales rep told him they were getting these last-model-year boxes for 20% off list plus an additional 15% off! That sounds pretty good – depending on how you do the math, he was getting somewhere between 32% and 35% off the list price – for a little over $14,000 a piece (they’d bought two servers – one to run Oracle RDBMS (which Oracle themselves recommended not running on the T1 CPU family), and the other to run HPSA proper).

Except his sales rep lied. Flat-out lied. How do I know? Because I used Sun’s own server configurator site and was able to configure two identical servers for just a smidge over $15,000 each – with no discounts. That means they got 7% off list …
tops.

So not only were they running hardware barely discounted off list (and, interestingly, only slightly cheaper (less than $2000) than the next generation T2-powered servers which had a single FPU per core, not per CPU (which still had some performance issues, but at least weren’t dog-vomit slow), but they were running on Solaris – which had always been a second-class citizen when it came to HPSA performance: all things being roughly equal, x86 hardware running RHEL would always smack the pants off SPARC hardware running Solaris under Server Automation.

For kicks, I configured a pair of servers from Dell (because their online server configurator worked a lot better than any other I knew of, and because I wanted to demonstrate that just because SA was an HP product didn’t mean you had to run HP servers), and was able to massively out-spec two x86 servers for less than $14,000 a pop (more CPU cores, more RAM, more storage, etc) and present my findings as part of our write-up of the week.

Also for kicks, I demoed SA running in a 2-CPU, 4GB VM on my laptop rebooting faster than either T1000 server they had purchased could run.

Whats the moral of this story? There’s two (at least):

  1. Always always always find out from your vendor if they have a preferred or suggested architecture before namby-pamby buying hardware from your favorite sales rep, and
  2. Be ever ready and willing to kick your preconceived notions to the sidelines when presented with evidence that they are not merely ill thought out, but out and out, objectively wrong

These are fundamental tenets of automation:

“Too many people try to take new tools and make them fit their current processes, procedures, and policies – rather than seeing what policies, procedures, and processes are either made redundant by the new tools, or can be improved, shortened, or – wait for it – automated!”

You must always be reviewing and rethinking your preconceived notions, what policies you’re currently following, etc. As I heard recently, you need to reverse your benchmarks: don’t ask, “why are we doing X?”; ask, “what would happen if we didn’t do X?”

That was a question never asked by anyone prior to our arrival to implement what sales had sold them.

wonder how many zombie film/tv/game creators are/were computer science nerds

As you all know, I am a huge zombie fan.

And, as you probably know, I was a CIS/CS major/minor at Elon.

A concept I was introduced to at both Shodor and Elon was ant colony simulations.

And I realized today that many people have been introduced to the basics concepts of ant colony simulations through films like Night of the Living Dead or World War Z and shows like Z Nation or The Walking Dead.

In short, ant colony optimization simulations, a part of swarm intelligence, use the “basic rules” of ant intelligence to game-out problems of traffic patterns, crowd control, logistics planning, and all kinds of other things.

Those basic rules the ants follow more or less come down to the following:

  • pick a random direction to wander
  • continue walking straight until you hit something
    • if you hit a wall
      • turn a random number of degrees between 1 and 359
      • loop up one level
      • if you hit food
        • if you are carrying trash
          • turn a random number of degrees between 1 and 179 or 181 and 359
          • loop up two levels
        • if you are carrying food
          • drop it
          • turn 180 degrees, loop up two levels
        • if you are not carrying anything
          • pick it up
          • either turn 180 degrees and loop up two levels, or
          • loop up two levels (ie, continue walking straight)
      • if you hit trash (dead ants, etc)
        • if you are carrying trash
          • drop it
          • turn 180 degrees, loop up two levels
        • if you are carrying food
          • turn a random number of degrees between 1 and 179 or 181 and 359
          • loop up to levels
        • if you are carrying nothing
          • pick it up
          • either turn 180 degree and loop up two levels, or
          • loop up two levels (ie, continue walking straight)
      • if you hit an ant
        • a new ant spawns in a random cell next to the two existing ants (with a 1/grid-shape probability, in a square grid, this would be a ~10% chance of spawning a new ant; in a hex grid, it would be a ~12.5% chance of a spawn), IF there is an empty cell next to either ant
        • if you are both carrying the same thing,
          • start a new drop point
          • turn around 180 degrees
          • loop up two levels
        • if you are carrying different things (or not carrying anything)
          • turn a random number of degrees between 1 and 359
          • loop up two levels
    • if you have been alive “too long” (parameterizable), you die and become trash (dropping whatever you have “next” to you in a random grid point (for example, if the grid is square, you’re in position “5”, and your cargo could be in positions 1-4 or 6-9:

There are more rules you can add or modify (maybe weight your choice of direction to pick when you turn based on whether an ant has been there recently (ie simulated pheromone trails)), but those are the basics. With randomly-distributed “stuff” (food, walls, ants, trash, etc) on a board of size B, an ant population – P – of 10% * B, a generation frequency – F – of 9% * B, an iteration count of 5x board-size, a life span – L – of 10% * B, and let it run, you will see piles of trash, food, etc accumulate on the board.

They may accumulate differently on each run due to some of the random nature of the inputs, but they’ll accumulate. Showing how large numbers of relatively unintelligent things can do things that look intelligent to an outside observer.

And that’s how zombies appear in most pop culture depictions: they wander more-or-less aimlessly until attracted by something (sound, a food source (aka the living), fire, etc). And while they seem to exhibit mild group/swarm intelligence, it’s just that – an appearance to outside observers.

So if you like zombie stories, you might like computer science.

what is happening with news publishers?

I think, closer to the lines of thought that Ben Thompson of Stratechery has laid-out, that news publishing is about to undergo a major nichification – the days of everyone trying to report everything is over.

“Local” (whether by geography, interest, or some other grouping mechanism) publishing in narrowly-defined niches is basically going to finish gobbling the Old Line news publishers in the next 3-5 years. And I see automated “curation” (though, if it’s automated, it’s technically not “curating”) as a clever way to cross-cut unforeseen niches from other niches (and from the handful of “major” publishers that will refuse to die – even through they’re going to dramatically shrink very soon) – think applying pivot table data anaysis concept to news and publishing, rather than mere data.

Jean-Louis Gassée wrote in February the following about Facebook, & Google, about news publishers: “If they are really willing to contribute to a sustainable news ecosystem, as they claim, both should allow publishers to sell subscriptions on their platforms (while collecting a fee, obviously).” 

And that’s certainly an interesting idea – but one that I think will only last, if it even comes to fruition, for a very short period of time. It’s the Napster of news publishing.

I see news publishing undergoing the same sea change the music industry did starting in the late 90s with the rise of #Napster. Until Napster came along, if you wanted to listen to a specific song, you had to either a) wait for it to be on the radio, b) get the vinyl/tape/CD, c) get a friend to record it for you from the radio or some media they had. Then Napster and its ilk came along with peer-to-peer file-sharing, crazy lawsuits from the #RIAA, and services like #Apple’s #iTunes charging a mere $0.99 per track (and $9.99 per digital album) made file-sharing (which became a major attack vector for malware)

Then Napster and its ilk came along with peer-to-peer file-sharing, crazy lawsuits from the #RIAA, and services like #Apple’s #iTunes charging a mere $0.99 per track (and $9.99 per digital album) made file-sharing (which became a major attack vector for malware) far far less interesting: why spend hours searching for and downloading songs (which might be lousy quality, not the “real” song, etc) when you could just go to iTunes and get what you want in a couple minutes for 99¢?

Then came Pandora. And Spotify. And probably all kinds of other services I don’t know anything about. Why? Because people wanted what they wanted when they wanted it.

The same is true for “news”. How much of an average newspaper issue does the historically-average newspaper reader actually read? 10%? 30%? 50%? I’d bet anything north of 20% is highly unlikely overall.

And what do you have to do to “read” the news in a newspaper? You need to skip past ads, you need to flip between pages (and sometimes sections), you need to physically get the paper. And on and on. Paginated websites (like diply, just to name one) try to replicate the newspaper feel (flipping pages, skipping ads, not being able to see everything until you get to the end, etc) in a move to make money by selling ads and forcing eyeballs to look at them. (To combat that, folks like me run tools like pihole and ublock origin.)

Nichifying news is going to be a huge thing very soon: somewhat akin to the idea of targeted newsletters, but for “real” news, and not just something related to a website.

kvp is a lousy way to teach 

Recently on one of the podcasts I listen to, I heard an offhanded comment made about how history is taught not in patterns but as facts. For example, “On the 18th of April in ’75, hardly a man is now alive, who remembers that famous day and year”.

Rarely are the “whys” explained – understandably so at early ages, but not understandably as maturation happens.

“Teaching” in so many subjects has become memorization of what really amount to key-value pairs. Like, Columbus: 1492. Norman invasion: 1066. Etc.

Certainly, facts are important. And some things truly are best learned in a rote memorization form – for example, the multiplication table through 12, 15, or 25. But what about states and their capitals? Sure, they’re “pairs” – but are they more?

This is awesome if you’re a trivia nut. But if you’re not, or you truly want to learn the material – not merely pass a test or regurgitate facts – then you need to understand more than just the “facts”.

Outside history classes, it’s especially prevalent in math – very little (if any) time is taken to explain why the quadratic formula works (or even what it is), instead algebra students are expected to just learn and use it.

My late aunt, who did a lot of tutoring in her life, summed-up the problem with algebra (and other math subjects past elementary school) thusly: before algebra, we give a problem like “3 plus box is 9; what goes in the box?” but in algebra, we swap the box for a t or x or g, and we freak out. She would teach the facts, but [almost] never without the whys.

The whys are illustrated and analyzed very well in some books – like Why Nations Fail (review). But, sadly, they’re not given in more places.

We definitely need more good teachers who want their students to understand not merely enough to pass the class (or the test), but to cultivate the curiosity we’re all born with to become lifelong learners.

First step: stop “teaching” as key-value pairs.

apple tv – how apple can beat amazon and google

In e99 of Exponent, Ben Thompson makes a compelling case for his idea that Amazon Echo (Alexa) is an operating system – and that Amazon has beaten Apple (with Siri) and Google Home (with Assistant) at the very game they both try to play.

And I think he’s onto the start of something (he goes on to elaborate a bit in his note that Apple TV turned 10 this week (along with the little thing most people have never heard of, iPhone)).

But he’s only on the *start* of something. See, Apple TV is cheaper than Amazon Echo – by $30 for the entry model (it’s $20 more for the model with more storage). Echo Dot is cheaper, but also is less interesting (imo). And Alexa doesn’t have any local storage (that I know of).

And neither of them will stream video.

By Apple TV has something going for it – it *already* has Siri enabled. In other words, it has the home assistant features many people want, and does video and audio streaming to boot.

It handles live TV via apps like DIRECTV or Sling. And Netflix and other options for streaming (including, of course, iTunes).

Oh, and it handles AirPlay, so you can plop whatever’s on your iPhone, iMac, etc onto your TV (like a Chromecast).

But Apple doesn’t seem to focus on any of that. They have a device which, by all rights, ought to be at least equal (and probably superior to) with its competition – but they seem to think their competition is Roku or the Fire Stick. From a pricing perspective, those are the wrong folks to be considering your competition.

It’s Google and Amazon Apple should have in its sights – because Apple TV *ought* to beat the ever living pants of both Home and Echo.

If HomeKit exists on Apple TV, and you have Siri on Apple TV, why is it not the center of home automation?

vampires vs zombies

A few years ago I wrote about why I like good vampire and zombie stories.

I had an epiphany this week related to that, that I thought you’d all find interesting.

If vampires exist, zombies can not exist [long] in the same universe. Why? Because they’d be eliminating the only source of food for the vampires. And since vampires are, more or less, indestructible (at least to the wiles of marauding zombies), when they eliminated zombie outbreaks, they’d do it quickly and efficiently – and, most likely, quietly.

hov lanes are misnamed

I dislike HOV lanes on principle, but I also dislike them grammatically: "high-occupancy vehicle" states the vehicle can hold many people (ie, it has a "high-occupancy").

They should be labeled "highly-occupied" vehicle lanes – same acronym, but with better grammar.