Is Amazon RDS hard to manage?

iRobot1

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I once rented an apartment while traveling in Europe. Unfortunately I didn’t speak the local language of French. So when I got there I had trouble coordinating.

After about twenty minutes of frustration, I found someone who could help. They spoke some broken English. So I would speak very slowly, then they would translate. That back and forth continued, until finally we understood each other.

What would normally be effortless 5 minute process to checkin, became a thirty minute long and drawn out affair. This is essentially what managing RDS feels like. If you’re a day-to-day devops or sysadmin it can be limiting to say the least.

1. Missing command line

If you’ve been administering unix & Linux for some time, you’re using the command line. It’s the lingua franca of systems administration. There are many command line tools that help you manage a MySQL database, from top to innotop, percona-toolkit to mysqltuner. Without the command line your hands are tied. You’re left trying to breathe through a straw.

Is there a plus side to RDS? Yes of course. For those who aren’t schooled in operations, don’t manage servers 24×7, web interfaces are a godsend. They simplify things, and present a field of options to choose from. What’s more they are better dashboards for exposing management to business units.

Related: RDS or MySQL: 10 Use Cases

2. Entrusting someone to your backups

Backups are delicate piece of your infrastructure. Done wrong, and you’re missing data. What’s more when you go to recover, you need options.

Relying on Amazon’s process, means your hands are tied. Done right it will be push button simple. But done wrong and you could have a big mess.

Over the years I’ve been in a lot of fire fighting situations. Everyone is running around yelling, and looking for the extinguisher. You may want any of a number of tools at your disposal. Dumps, hotbackups, cold backups, snapshots. With RDS you’re handing over all your trust & confidence to another party for that.

Pushbutton is great if you’re not comfortable with server operations, but if you are it’s a huge limitation.

Read: RDS or MySQL: 10 Use Cases

3. Can’t tweak operating system

On Linux servers, there are a number of operating system dials that can be useful to performance. One is the IO scheduler, which controls on Linux writes to disk. Another is choice of filesystem. For example you may want xfs or ext4. Furthermore there are tweaks in MySQL that can take advantage of the right filesytem, to simulate raw or unbuffered IO. These can give you a much needed bump in performance as well.

Also: Does a four letter word divide dev and ops?

4. Slow query log limitations

Slow query log is essential. It is your most essential tool for sleuthing scalability problems.

In the early days of RDS, the slow query log file itself was not accessible. You could only use the slow query table logging, which would slow down your server. That meant you couldn’t leave it on perpetually.

Recently Amazon has made the file available, which is a step. But still you have to jump through hoops. With command line you have everything right where you need it. With RDS, you have to first download the file to your desktop, copy it to another server where you have the percona tools installed, then analyze it there. From there you have to open a mysql shell remotely to the RDS box, to run explain plan.

That is lots of hoops for an essential activity like performance tuning.

Read this: Do managers underestimate operational costs?

5. Managing parameters & security the Amazon way

Amazon has attempted to standardize management of servers. Security is managed with groups and RDS is no different. That’s great if you want all your servers setup the same way, but what if you want to tune just one server. You then have to configure multiple groups. It’s again extra steps.

MySQL systems settings are no different. As a regular daily DBA activity, you use SET GLOBAL my_parameter=my_value; But with RDS you are doing a number of obfuscated steps, through a dashboard.

Check out: Why I ask clients for a deposit

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Why I ask clients for a deposit

Editor & writer in friendly dialog

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1. It indicates both parties are serious

A common refrain when discussing terms of a project, and reviewing statement of work – “when shall we get started?”. The answer should be, “I’m ready to get started anytime you like. Would you like to use paypal or ACH for deposit?”.

The deposit signals to the vendor that it’s time to get working. This client has the budget and is serious about moving forward today.

Read: Why Fred Wilson is wrong about Apple

2. It protects against scope changes

Startups & seasoned businesses alike have changing needs. That’s why they may choose a situational resource to begin with.

If the winds change, and we don’t need you tomorrow, a deposit defrays the final invoice, and or discounts you may have applied.

Related: Is Dave Eggers right about risks of social media?

3. Insurance if business fizzles

Fizzling business, is a nice way to say the market has changed. Perhaps the startup has decided to pursue other opportunities. In close to twenty years of business I’ve only had this happen twice.

Once I was working with a rewards card business. They were already having trouble meeting payroll. Turns out businesses have a legal obligation to meet payroll. That’s another way of saying they’re at the top of the who-gets-paid list. And vendors may be closer to the bottom. They owner went back to being a lawyer, his profession before the startup.

All in all, a deposit provides some insurance in these cases.

Read this: 5 cloud ideas that aren’t actually true

4. Signals your maturity to client

This is a hard one for some freelancers and consultants to stomach. “I really want to get going with consulting, and don’t want to turn away this client.” The thinking goes. But consulting is a peer relationship, where vendor and client need to be on an equal footing.

Your need for a deposit, and willingness to walk away without one, says to the client you are professional and have been in business for some time.

Also: If you’re using MySQL in the Amazon cloud, you need to ask yourself this question

5. Protection from early termination

That sounds ominous but it doesn’t have to be. In the world of freelance and consulting, a client can decide they no longer need your services tomorrow.

Why? Perhaps they hired a fulltime resource? Perhaps their needs changed? Perhaps the storm of site outages have passed and the urgency has changed.

Whatever the reason, projects change. If you’ve offered a discount for three months of work, but only end up with one month of work, your full fees may apply. In that case, the deposit should be the discount amount.

Check this: Do managers underestimate operational costs?

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Why Fred Wilson is wrong about Apple

apple_android

If you’ve followed the tech news recently, you may have heard Fred Wilson’s comments about Apple. In essence he believes Apple is too reliant and rooted in hardware, and that hardware isn’t viable in the long term. Mobile hardware, is becoming a commodity.

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To be sure Androids have come a long way, and they may yet improve a lot by 2020 as Fred says. But the aftermarket value of iPhones really does speak volumes. See below.

1. iPhone has never had the best hardware

If you’ve ever watched a Samsung ad, or talked to someone with the phone you probably know this already. Bigger screens, faster processors, first phones with fingerprint readers, or untethered syncing. The list goes on and on.
Also: 5 Cloud ideas that aren’t actually true

Yes Apple is rooted in the hardware business, but not in a way that a commodity can disrupt it. They’re rooted in the hardware business only in as much as it helps them deliver polish. If it helps them deliver a seemless experience, and a device that Jean Luc Picard would appreciate, then they are in that business. . Just “make it so!”.

2. Users are seduced by simplicity

So how is it possible that an inferior piece of hardware could sell more?

Easy. Those users don’t think that way. They aren’t buying hardware. What do I mean?

I would argue many iPhone users buy for the experience, the simplicity, the ease of use. Designers call this User Experience or User Interface, but end users don’t know these terms. What they know is they don’t have a headache. They’re not frustrated trying to move an image from one app to another, or copy/pasting etc.

User interface is that invisible force that just makes everything on the device better. Call it polish, but it’s much more than a pretty face.

Related: Are SQL Databases Dead?

3. Most users don’t care about “open”

Another benefit touted on the Android side is it being “open”. The OS is open-source, and then extended by manufacturers. While this surely brings down costs to them, it may be all be irrelevant to end users and consumers.

Yes open standards are great for competition, great for markets, and ultimately great for users. But Microsoft is a great case study in why consumers often still choose a closed solution.

Read: Do managers underestimate operational costs?

4. Apple is Sexy

That may sound fanboyish, but seriously. Look at the accessories market for blinging your phones.

If that’s not enough, look at the aftermarket value. iPhones retain their value, Samsung’s don’t.

Read: Five things I learned from David Maisterabout trust and advising clients

5. Android is still broken

From where I’m standing, and a lot of experts agree, the Android ecosystem is broken.

For one the AppStore, being historically unregulated, is chock full of malware and dangerous downloads. Most users aren’t computer experts, not good at evaluating security risks, and pay the price.

What’s more many Android phones come stocked with bloatware, slowing down the device, and reducing reliability from day one.

Read: Why the Android ecosystem is broken

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Is Dave Eggers right about the risks of social media?

eggers the circle

I have to admit, though Egger’s is a pretty famous author, I wasn’t familiar with his work. I do however read AVC regularly, the writing of renowned VC & Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson. So when one of the commenters pointed to the book as a great read I grabbed a copy on my Kindle.

Flipping through to the back of the book, the further reading section is telling. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, DeLillo’s White Noise, Huxley’s Brave New World & Orwell’s 1984 are just a few on the list. All books that I’d read & enjoyed not only for their story, but for their cautious warning of a dystopian future.

The Circle story takes place at a fictional Silicon Valley company “The Circle”, whose campus includes wings such as Old West, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Machine Age & Industrial Revolution. The main character Mae, has just been hired in customer experience. Employees at the circle are all but *required* to socialize together. There everything is ranked, from customer satisfaction, to employee participation, comments, likes, posts & shares.

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I came away with five major themes from the book. As the characters march through the pages, watch them sacrifice their morality, free will & eventually human rights too.

1. social media is like snack food

What I loved most about the story, was how extreme the social media use had become. It was as though every moment had to be captured, every interaction “shared”. And with that, others then comment, favorite, and interact.

But as we found later, social media became something of lesser value. It was like eating snack food, a simulation of real food, missing in nutrients, but masquerading as the real thing. The metaphor holds together well, as we see people become fatigued with Facebook in the real world, and the constant sharing of everything.

Also: Is quality journalism dead? What I learned from Ryan Holiday

2. Egger’s fictional technologies are close at hand

At one point in the story, Mae does a search to find out about her family history. What turns up is more than she bargained for. It turns out that her parents had a rather odd affinity for yearly baccanalian partying, and the photos shock & embarrass Mae.

Turns out some neighbor had scanned a whole shoebox full of photos, and from there the internet crawlers took care of the rest, indexing the photos complete with facial recognition & identification. Once that was complete, a simple search revealed pictures even her parents didn’t know exist.

Facial recognition technologies in fact already exist, though are not widely used quite yet. Governments are obviously beginning to use them for law enforcement, but facebook & google are certainly getting into the act too. What’s more the SeeChange cameras described in the story, parallel Google Glass for example, which is maturing quickly.

Related: Do consultants need to balance conflicts of interest?

3. secrets are a real human need

After Mae begins wearing the SeeChange monocle, everything she does is streamed to an online audience. It begins as an exercise in transparency, but we quickly see the trouble it brings as Mae has no moments of privacy.

In this world, moments of intimacy become shorter & harder to find. And we see then how Mae begins to crave those moments, and they become more precious too.

Check this: Why Oracle won’t kill MySQL

4. monitoring changes our behavior

Much of the monitoring and transparency in the Circle story comes from a new technology called SeeChange, a camera monocle worn around the neck, perhaps paralleling Google Glass that we have all heard of.

Surveillance can surely help prevent crime, or provide evidence after the fact. But one other affect of the technology is in warping people’s natural behavior, as though we are all on a stage, all on camera all the time. In Mae’s case she begins to act for the camera, and those around her do too.

Read: Why devops talent is in short supply

5. how social media warps our sense of time & human scale

Another interesting scene occurs when Mae follows up with a friend via text. Her friend doesn’t respond back, so she sends along another text a few minutes later asking if “everything is ok”. By Mae’s fourth & fifth message, she’s sure she’s been kidnapped, and by the tenth message she’s just angry and declares their friendship is over! All this in the span of 25 minutes.

I think Eggers uses a sort of extreme example, but really to illustrate an important point. In the world of always on communication, these types of misunderstandings are more and more common. Our sense of time changes, and we may feel that others are in slow motion.

Also: Are SQL databases dead?

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If you use MySQL in the Amazon cloud, you need to ask yourself this question

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Are you serious about backups?

If you’re just using Amazon EBS snapshots, that may not be sufficient. There’s a good chance it won’t protect you against your next data loss.

That’s why I like to have a few different types of backups

Also: 5 more things deadly to scalability

Protect against operator error

mysqldump is a tool every DBA is familiar with. Same as a hotbackup or snapshot you say? Just more labor? Not true.

A dump allows you to restore one table, or one schema. That’s why they’re also known as logical backups. What’s more you can edit the file, remove indexes, change object names, or datatypes. All these can be essential in the screwy and unpredictable event of a real world outage.

Expect the unexpected!

Read: Why devops talent is in short supply

Test those backups regularly

If you haven’t actually tried to restore, you really don’t know if you have everything. Did you backup stored procedures & database code? How about grants? Database events? How about cronjobs? What about the my.cnf file? And your replication configuration?

Yes there are a lot of little pieces, and testing your backups by rebuilding everything is an attempt to poke holes in your plan, and hit issues before d-day!

Related: MySQL interview guide for managers and candidates alike

Replication isn’t a backup

Replication is getting better and better in MySQL. It used to fail regularly. MyiSAM was very unpredictable. But even in the comfortable realm of Innodb, there can still be data drift. If you’re on MySQL 5.0 or 5.1, you should consider performing regular checksums. These test the integrity of data and compare what’s actually in master & slave. Bulletproofing MySQL replication with checksums.

Read: Why high availability is so very hard to deliver

Have you considered security around your backup files?

While you’re thinking about backups, make sure the files themselves are secure. Remember they contain your crown jewels. Hopefully individual data that’s sensitive is encrypted, but still you should secure their final resting place as well.

If you’re using S3, consider encrypting the file before shipping it up to the bucket.

Read this: Why a four letter word divides dev and ops

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How to increase newsletter signup conversions with nifty iphone trick

If you’re like me & spending a lot of time on twitter, I hope you’re also seeing the traffic growth I’m seeing. I’m sharing a stream of posts using hootsuite, then actively engaging with journalists, VCs, startups & technology experts.

That’s all great, and I’m finding more and more it’s a good use of my time.

Recently I started using a cool iphone feature to let followers know about my newsletter. It’s called a shortcut.

Have you ever mistyped a word on iOS? It then offers up the correct spelling. Through this same mechanism, there is an awesome way to quickly type anything. Use a two or three character shortcut to type a paragraph.

Take a look, here’s what I mean.

1. Click through to Settings->General->Keyboard

Open your iphone settings, and navigate through General, and then Keyboard.

keyboard tab

Also: Why you should track your time on social media

2. Find the Shortcuts tab

Navigate until you find shortcuts. It should look like this:

shortcuts tab

Read: Do managers underestimate operational costs?

3. Create a shortcut

Add a new shortcut with the plus button.

create shortcut

Phrase: “u may also like my newsletter http://iheavy.com/signup-scalable-startups-newsletter”

Shortcut: mytest

edit shortcut

Related: When I had to take the fall

4. Use your new shortcut on twitter

Responding to a new follower, or in a dialog with a journalist? In a response somewhere along the way, type “dyo”. Just like a typo correction, you’ll see iOS offer you a completion, the full text you want to use. Click (space) to accept it.

use shortcut

Check this: Why a killer title make or break your content efforts

5. Post it periodically using trending hashtags

Open twitter & click timelines->discover

Click View more trending…

Scroll through for related topics. For me anything technology, startup, scalability, devops, venture, founder, database related, I’ll use that word, hashtag of phrase.

(BONUS) Create four or five shortcut variations

Nobody wants to see the same thing repeated over and over. So create a few variations. Mix it up a bit.

I’m seeing huge conversion rate on these. I haven’t measured yet (not sure how), but anecdotally I’d say in the 30-50% range. In other words if I mentioned my newsletter to 10 people during the day on twitter, I get about 3-5 new signups. This compared to one newsletter signup per day, passively through my blog.

By directly imploring people to signup, you bring it front and center to their already busy & distracted attention. It works!

Read: Is scaling automatic in the cloud?

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5 Things I learned about bitcoin from Chris Dixon, Balaji Srinivasan & a16z

I’ve avoided the bitcoin hype for long enough. I’ve watched a bit on the periphery, but recently been doing a bit more research. Then I bumped into the new Andreessen Horowitz podcast, and got a crash course on it!

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http://blog.pmarca.com/2014/01/22/why-bitcoin-matters/

1. Goldman Sacks has taken notice

Want proof that Bitcoin isn’t just for geeks? Goldman has released a report and they have real interest.

Specifically Goldman identified the potential for 210 billion dollars in savings in payments that Bitcoin could bring. That’s billion with a “B” and serious opportunity for disruption!

Also: 5 cloud ideas that aren’t actually true

2. Solves online trust problem

There are many who feel Bitcoin doesn’t have potential as a currency. But even those folks feel it’s underlying technology could solve a big problem with online payments, the general ledger problem.

When you want to send digital things, whether a signature, contract, keys or currency, you need a way to establish trust between people. Bitcoin solves this with it’s technical sounding “block chain” which serves as a sort of internet notary public. Anyone can check on this common general ledger the status of a transaction, without fear of compromise, double entries or theft.

For more in-depth discussion, check out Bitcoin & the Byzantine Generals problem. It explains the general ledger aka the block chain in a lot more detail.

Related: Are SQL databases dying out?

3. Better digital wallets

Although currently bitcoin wallets are banned on the iphone AppStore, the potential there is huge. Currently there still isn’t a good digital wallet solution, and bitcoin sits nicely in that space.

Bitcoin is more a platform, and a set of protocols, a new digital infrastructure that solves a lot of big problems online. As new apps are built on top of it, they abstract away the technical complexity, providing day-to-day

Read this: 8 questions to ask a cloud expert

4. Store of value for Greek & Cyprus

Citizens of distressed countries can face the fear of their savings eroding away. That can happen rather quickly as we’ve seen in Greece & Cyprus. Savings in Bitcoin presents an alternate currency within which one could place some of their savings. Since it’s not controlled by any government or power, it provides a hedge against such fears.

Check this: Why Oracle won’t kill MySQL

5. Say goodbye to inflation

Fiat currency, as it’s known, is the currency we live with today. It’s the post gold standard currency, where the federal reserve controls the money supply. Quantitative easing, aka printing money, is the lever the fed uses to keep a small steady inflation on the money supply.

With the gold standard before it, and potentially through something like Bitcoin, you eliminate the government meddling, and inflation along with it. Some argue this would reduce or even eliminate the so-called moral hazard in the present system. With the gold standard, large & systemic firms cannot be bailed out, so they have a huge insensitive to behave prudently, or fail.

Read: Why AirBNB didn’t have to fail

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Why tracking can make or break your content efforts

social index

I’ve become a social media fiend in the past year. Mostly because it’s working. The number of prospects & leads I get each month has been steadily rising. Here’s how I track. I hope it will help you too!

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The image above displays the results of my social media efforts. It’s what I call my “iHeavy social index”. I’ll have a followup post that goes into more detail about how that works.

1. Start measuring your time using social media

Let’s think about this carefully. Why not write down everyday, 1 hour on twitter, ½ hour on Google+, ½ hour adding links to buffer or hootsuite. The more you track the better idea you’ll get of how you’re spending your time. So try to be honest. Mine for this past month was 27 hours.

Read: Why twitter is the best way to reach journalists (and email sucks)

2. Track your time spent creating content

Writing content should be easier to track. For me idea time is two hours and writing time is another few. Last month I wrote five piece of content so 25 hours total.

Read: How to hack disqus, discover experts & new blogs

3. Monitor your total conversion value

If you’re a services business like mine, you’re sending people to your website, but don’t have widgets to sell. So how do you track revenue?

The answer is you still need to value conversions. For me, a visit to my pricing page has a value, as that indicates someone who is zeroing in on a service provider, or at least doing some comparison shopping. What’s more a newsletter signup has a value. But how much?

Suppose a new client is a $5000 piece of business. How many newsletter signups might bring you one piece of business? Consider that people who get your newsletter are already in your inner circle, probably share your insights, and talk about you from time to time. Let’s say for arguments sake 50 newsletter signups will bring you one piece of business. Then a newsletter signup is worth $100.

Some other conversions that have value for a services business, about-us, pricing, download whitepaper, testimonials and so forth. Last month my total conversion value was $4350.

Read: Why a killer title can make or break your content efforts

4. Add it all up

This past month my conversions value came in at $4350. Since I spent 52 hours total on content & social media, my efforts yielded a value of $84/hr.

Now I admit there is a lot of estimating going on here, but the point is, track what you can. If you think your numbers are a bit high, adjust your conversion values (view pricing page or newsletter signup for example) downward.

You *could* also compare the above to actual revenue, but that is likely to be shifted in time. In other words social media that was effective in February, might yield a new client in March, and an invoice paid in May, so 90 days off or more.

Read: Why generalists are better at scaling the web

5. Get real with yourself

If you’re spending more and more time on social media & just hoping, you may be spinning your wheels. Looking at numbers like this forces you to face the hard facts. If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something new.

Remember too, social media can have a residual affect, where people start talking, or your name gains visibility. If you’re getting more business though, folks should surely be checking you out on your website.

Freelancers: Why saying “no” requires such a delicate balance

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5 cloud ideas that aren’t actually true

storm coming

Join 20,000 others and follow Sean Hull’s scalability, startup & innovation content on twitter @hullsean.

Cloud computing is heralding us into a wonderful era where computing can be bought in small increments, like a utility. This changes the whole way we plan, manage budgets, and accelerates startups making them more agile.

But it’s not all wine & roses up there. I’ve heard a few refrains from clients over the years, and thought I’d share some of the most common.

1. Scaling is automatic

Rather recently I was working with a client on building some sophisticated reports. They needed to slice & dice customer data, over various time series, and summarize with invoices & tracking data. Unfortunately their dataset was large, in the half terabyte range.


Client: Can we just load all this data into the cloud?
Me: Yes we can do that. Build a system in Amazon public cloud, can support large datasets.
Client: I want it to scale easily. So we won’t have these slow reports. And as we add data, it’ll just manage it easily for us.
Me: Well it’s a little bit more complicated than that, unfortunately.

Unfortunately this is a rather familiar conversation that I have quite often. A lot of the press around cloud scalability, centers around auto-scaling, Amazon’s renowned & superb virtualization feature. Yes it’s true you can roll out webservers to scale out this way, but that’s not the end of the story. Typically web applications have a lot of components, from caching servers, to search servers, and of course their backend datastore.

But can we scrap our relational database, such as MySQL and go with one that scales out of the box like Riak, Cassandra or Dynamodb?

Those NoSQL solutions are built to be distributed from the start, it’s true. And they lend themselves to that type of architecture. However, if you’ve built up a dataset in MySQL or Oracle, and more so an application around that, you’ll have to migrate data into the NoSQL solution. That process will take some time.

Like teaching a fish to fly, it make take some time. They do well in water, but evolution takes a bit longer.

Related: RDS or MySQL 10 use cases

2. Disaster recovery is free

In the traditional datacenter, when you want DR, you setup a parallel environment. Hopefully not in the same room, same city or same coast even. Preferrably you do so in a different region. What you can’t get around is dishing out cash for that second datacenter. You need the servers, just in case.

In the cloud, things are different. That’s why we’re here, right? In amazon you have regions already setup & available for plugin-n-play use. Setup your various components, servers, software & configure. Once you’ve verified you can failover to the parallel environment you can just turn off all those instances. Great, no big charges for all that iron that you’d pay for to keep the rooms warm in an old-school datacenter. Or do you?

As it turns out, since you don’t have this environment running all the time, you’ll want to test it more often, run fire drills to bring the servers back online. That’ll incur some costs in terms of manpower. You’ll also want to include in there some scripts to start those servers up, and/or some detailed documentation on how to do that. And don’t lose that documentation, either will you?

You may also want to build some infrastructure as code unit tests. Things change, code checkouts evolve, especially in the agile & continuous integration world. Devops beware!

Read this: Why a killer title can make or break your content efforts

3. Machines are fast

Fast, fast, fast. That’s what we expect, things keep getting faster, right? Hard to believe then that the world of computing took a big step backward when it jumped into the cloud. Something similar happened when we jumped to commodity Linux a decade ago.

In amazon, it’s a multi-tenant world. And just like apartment buildings, popular restaurants, or busy highways you must share. When things are quiet you may have the road to yourself, but it’ll never be as quiet as a dirt road in the country!

Amazon is making big strides though. They now offer memory optimized & storage optimized instances. And an even bigger development is the addition of the most important feature for performance & scalability. That said the network & EBS can still be a real bottleneck.

Also: What is a relational database & why is it important?

4. Backups aren’t necessary

I’ve experienced a few horror stories over the years. I wrote about one noteworthy one When fat fingers take down your business.

True EBS snapshots make backing up your whole server, well a snap! That said a few extra steps have to happen (flush the filesystem & lock tables) to make this work for a relational database like MySQL or Oracle. And suddenly you have a verification step that you also need to perform. You see no backups are valid until they’ve been restored, remember?

But even with these wonderful disk snapshots, you’ll still want to do database dumps, and perhaps table dumps. Operator error, deleting the wrong data, or dropping the wrong tables, will always be a risk. Ignore backups at your own peril!

Check this: Why CTOs underestimate operational costs

5. Outages won’t happen

In an ideal world, everything is redundant, and outages will be a thing of the past. We’ll finally reach five nines uptime and devops everywhere will be out of work. :)

It’s true that Amazon provides all the components to build redundancy into your architecture, and very cutting edge firms that have taken netflix’s approach with chaos monkey are seeing big improvements here. But AirBNB did fail and at root it was an Amazon outage that shouldn’t ever happen.

Read: Why Oracle won’t kill MySQL

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Why managers & CTO’s underestimate operational costs

too much inventory

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1. Technology choices & talent shortage

I worked at one firm evaluating their technology stack. When we got to the programming language, I paused in my tracks. “Haskell” I asked? “Oh you haven’t heard of it? It’s a really cool functional programming language, and we found it had some cool features that we really wanted to use”.

I had to fight the urge to roll my eyes. Yes I’d heard of the language, sitting in the club with scheme, lisp & prolog, you study them at university. They’re certainly an interesting bunch and to be sure, can do some things that imperative programming languages can’t. But did it belong in the stack of this run-of-the-mill internet startup?

In this case the developers had full reign to choose any technologies they liked, adding more & more to the mix almost daily. But what are some of the ramifications here?

Two years, three years, or five years down the line, this team will be long gone, and another team will be picking up the pieces. Will you as a manager be able to find a lot of Haskell experts? What’s more operationally will you be able to support those choices? Will updates be made often enough to have a secure stack for years to come?

Also: 5 things toxic to scalability

2. Scalability & server costs

Server costs are easier than ever to estimate. Build your application to serve your first 10,000 customers on Amazon with a couple webservers and a database server. Growing 100x to a million customers, just vertically scale your db, scale out your webservers and you’re good. Or are you?

What happens when you hit a wall? Did you build your application on ORM technology or take on technical debt? I’ve seen firm after firm struggle with technologies like hibernate, eating up precious resources, and being helpless to eliminate the problem. Tread carefully on these types of questions.

Related: Why you’re not hitting five nines uptime

3. Patching, fixing bugs & managing security

Another long term cost of an application will be minor repairs and bug fixes. Those might appear in a slow steady trickle over the years, but security may loom larger. Cross-site scripting, SQL injection and many other threats can be a real headache.

What’s more fixes may involve the libraries your application sits on top of. And when they are upgraded, your application will require tweaks too. It’s all basic stuff when you’re knee deep in development, but when your application has been deployed, the original team is long gone, and you’re supporting it years later, it can surely get messy.

Read: The four-letter-word dividing dev & ops

4. missing operational switches

When building a web application, all eyes are on features. Which ones to include, and which are a priority. Pressure is heavy to build functions that can be sold to customers. Pleasing customers is of obvious importance.

So it’s no surprise that backend switches are often missing. But they can be a real boon for operations team. Suppose you roll out a new feature to support star-ratings on certain pieces of content. An operational switch can be built to allow that feature to be disabled as necessary. If the site is loaded, or trouble is brewing, you may desperately want some switches to disable parts of the site, without the whole thing going down. I talk about this in AirBNB didn’t have to fail.

Another useful thing is a browse only mode. This allows your site to operate, even when writing to the database is not possible. If you’ve ever tried to update on a social network like twitter, facebook or instagram, perhaps late and nite and gotten a “please try again later” message, you’ll understand the value. Here users can’t make changes, but otherwise the site appears to be working, and browsing works normally.

Check this: Are SQL Databases Dead?

5. Consider bitcoin

Mt. Gox, the Japanese exchange handling bitcoin failed in a spectacular fashion. 500 million of the digital currency was stolen. And what’s more since it’s all frictionless currency, untraceable, there’s no marked bills to try and track down. Ooops!

How does this relate to operational costs? The failure was squarely with the operations department. Functionally the site worked fine. But security wasn’t handled well enough, intrusion detection wasn’t employed, and “unspecified weaknesses” were to blame.

Security is one of those things that can be ignored without pain. Until something goes wrong. What’s more if it is being handled well, it’s invisible, and unappreciated besides.

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