Category Archives: CTO/CIO

Is Alex Hudson right that software architecture is failing?

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I read Hacker News aka Ycombinator’s popular top 100. I never fail to find useful, surprising & stimulating reading there.

I recently stumbled on Alex Hudson’s software architecture is failing.

It’s very good, I recommend reading it.

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But why did it grab my attention, you might ask? Perhaps I’m a naysayer. But I do find there is a lot of hype, and a lot of sex in software today. It’s as though the shiniest, newest, coolest toys are the ones getting the spotlight.

So when I find an alternative view, I sit up and take notice.

1. Are we making systems too complex?

Right out of the gates, Alex makes a great point:

“We’re not delivering quickly enough!”. “Our systems are too complex to maintain!”. “The application we delivered last year is completely legacy now but it’s too difficult to replace!”.

Our industry’s obsession with the newest & coolest toys, means we’re building things that don’t last very long. A real & ongoing problem.

Related: Why does Reddit CTO Martin Weiner advocate boring tech?

2. Smaller enterprises

One thing Alex pointed out that really struck a nerve was this:

For those in tech who are not working at Facebook/Google/Amazon, we’re simply not talking enough about what systems at smaller enterprises look like.

I couldn’t agree more. As a profession, we watch closely at what the big guys are doing. And that’s useful to a point. But for many smaller companies, to use such architectures would be over engineering in the extreme. Not to mention extremely costly!

Related: How I use terraform & composer to automate wordpress on AWS

3. Not bleeding & far from the edge

Another choice quote from Alex’s piece:


“It’s totally legacy, and no-one maintains it – it just sits there working, except for the occasions it doesn’t. The problem is replacing it is so hard, it’s got great performance, and the business doesn’t want to spend time replacing something working”. This is the problem being ahead of the curve – the definition of “success” (it works great, it’s reliable, it’s performant, we don’t need to think about it) looks a hell of a lot like the definition of “legacy”.

We know the term bleeding edge because it’s tough being out there trail blazing. Here I agree that sometimes legacy is also boring, yet eminently reliable.

Related: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

4. Reduce, reuse, recycle

Should we build it or should we buy it? Here’s what Alex says:


I think we’re often getting the build/buy decision wrong. Software development should be the tool of last resort: “we’re building this because it doesn’t exist in the form we need it”.

Well said. Sure we should consider integration costs & testing. And using a service brings other things to balance. But it means we don’t have to own that code.

Better to focus on our business core competency.

Related: Is Amazon about to disrupt your data warehouse?

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How do I migrate my skills to the cloud?

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Hi, I’m currently an IT professional and I’m training for AWS Solutions Architect – Associate exam. My question is how to gain some valuable hands-on experience without quitting my well-paying consulting gig I currently have which is not cloud based. I was thinking, perhaps I could do some cloud work part time after I get certified.

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I work in the public sector and the IT contract prohibits the agency from engaging any cloud solutions until the current contract expires in 2019. But I can’t just sit there without using these new skills – I’ll lose it. And if I jump ship I’ll loose $$$ because I don’t have the cloud experience.


Hi George,

Here’s what I’d suggest:

1. Setup your AWS account

A. open aws account, secure with 2FA & create IAM roles

First things first, if you don’t already have one, go signup. Takes 5 minutes & a credit card.

From there be sure to enable two factor authentication. Then stop using your root account! Create a new IAM user with permissions to command line & API. Then use that to authenticate. You’ll be using the awscli python package.

Also: Is Amazon too big to fail?

2. Automatic deployments

B. plugin a github project
C. setup CI & deployment
D. get comfy with Ansible

Got a pet project on github? If not it’s time to start one. 🙂

You can also alternatively use Amazon’s own CodeCommit which is a drop-in replacement for github and works fine too. Get your code in there.

Next setup codedeploy so that you can deploy that application to your EC2 instance with one command.

But you’re not done yet. Now automate the spinup of the EC2 instance itself with Ansible. If you’re comfortable with shell scripts, or other operational tools, the learning curve should be pretty easy for you.

Read: Is AWS too complex for small dev teams? The growing demand for Cloud SRE

3. Clusters

E. play around with kubernetes or docker swarm

Both of these technologies allow you to spinup & control a fleet of containers that are running on a fixed set of EC2 instances. You may also use Amazon ECS which is a similar type of offering.

Related: How to deploy on EC2 with Vagrant

4. Version your infrastructure

F. use terraform or cloudformation to manage your aws objects
G. put your terraform code into version control
H. test rollback & roll foward infrastructure changes

Amazon provides CloudFormation as it’s foundational templating system. You can use JSON or YAML. Basically you can describe every object in your account, from IAM users, to VPCs, RDS instances to EC2, lambda code & on & on all inside of a template file written in JSON.

Terraform is a sort of cloud-agnostic version of the same thing. It’s also more feature rich & has got a huge following. All reasons to consider it.

Once you’ve got all your objects in templates, you can checkin these files into your git or CodeCommit repository. Then updating infrastructure is like updating any other pieces of code. Now you’re self-documenting, and you can roll-forward & backward if you make a mistake!

Related: How I use terraform & composer to automate wordpress on AWS

5. Learn serverless

I. get familiar with lambda & use serverless framework

Building applications & deploying only code is the newest paradigm shift happening in cloud computing. On Amazon you have Lambda, on Google you have Cloud Functions.

Related: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

6. Bonus: database skills

J. Learn RDS – MySQL, Postgres, Aurora, Oracle, SQLServer etc

For a bonus page on your resume, dig into Amazon Relational Database Service or RDS. The platform supports various databases, so try out the ones you know already first. You’ll find that there are a few surprises. I wrote Is upgrading RDS like a sh*t storm that will not end?. That was after a very frustrating weekend upgrading a customers production RDS instance. 🙂

Related: Is Amazon about to disrupt your data warehouse?

7. Bonus: Data warehousing

K. Redshift, Spectrum, Glue, Quicksight etc

If you’re interested in the data side of the house, there is a *LOT* happening at AWS. From their spectrum technology which allows you to keep most of your data in S3 and still query it, to Glue which provides an ETL as a service offering.

You can also use a world-class columnar storage database called Redshift. This is purpose built for reporting & batch jobs. It’s not going to meet your transactional web-backend needs, but it will bring up those Tableau reports blazingly fast!

Related: Is Amazon about to disrupt your data warehouse?

8. Now go find that cloud deployment job!


With the above under your belt there’s plenty of work for you. There is tons of demand right now for this stuff.

Did you do learn all that? You’ve now got very very in-demand skills. The recruiters will be chomping at the bit. Update those buzzwords (I mean keywords). This will help match you with folks looking for someone just like you!

Related: Why I don’t work with recruiters

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What’s the *real* way to deploy on Google Cloud?

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I was talking to a customer recently and they asked about deployments. They wanted to do things the real way. Here’s a snippet…

I’m helping out a company called Blue Marble and they are getting ready to deploy a new POS system. The app has been built using a Node.js back-end and Google Cloud Datastore for storage. The current dev build is hosted on AWS and connects to Google for the data bits.

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For prod launch, they are interested in migrating to the “real” way of deployment on Google for everything.

They are pressed on time and looking for someone who can jump in quickly. Are you available? Do you have Google Cloud expertise?

Here’s what I said.

Cultural hurdles


Yep, I’ve have used Bigquery & GCE.

What are they looking for specifically? Full deployment automation? Multiple deploys per day?

I’ve found that sometimes the biggest hurdle to fully automated deploys can be cultural issues.

In other words yes you can automate your deployment so it is push button, get all the artifacts & moving parts automated. Then deploy without much intervention. But to go from that to the team having *faith* in the system, that is a challenge.

Also: Why would I help a customer that’s not paying?

Unit testing


Once the process has been streamlined, a lot often still needs to happen around unit & smoke tests.

If the team isn’t already in the habit of building tests for each bit of code, this may take some time. Also building tests can be an art in itself. What are the edge cases? What values are out of bounds?

Consider for example odd vulnerabilities that show up when hackers type SQL code into fields that devs were expecting. Sanity checking anyone?

Read: Is AWS too complex for small dev teams? The growing demand for Cloud SRE

Integraton testing

What makes this all even more complicated is integration testing. Today many application use various third party APIs, service-based authentication, and even web-based databases like Firebase. So these things can complicate testing.

Related: How to build an operational datastore on Amazon Redshift with S3

Getting there

Although your project, startup or business may be pressed for time, that may not change the realities of development. Your team has to become culturally ready to be completely agile. Many teams choose a middle ground of automating much of the deployment process, but still having a person in the loop just in case.

Same with testing. Sure automating can make you more agile & more efficient. But you’ll never automate out creative thinking, problem solving & ownership of the product.

Related: Why did Flatiron School fail?

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Is maintenance as sexy as innovation?

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A recent NYT piece on our aging american infrastructure got me thinking. It seems that roads, bridges, airports & city sewer systems are all in need of repair. Sadly as budgets to maintain these systems in good repair are often short, they become larger problems to fix as their status becomes critical.

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“Americans have an impoverished and immature conception of technology, one that fetishizes innovation as a kind of art and demeans upkeep as a mere drudgery.”

I’m not sure this is an American-only phenomenon. However I do see it a lot with technology companies & startups.

1. Do we have to manage ops in the cloud?

The cloud has enabled infrastructure automation in some pretty phenomenal ways. Code pipelines can deliver changes to a repo, through automated unit testing, and out to customers all without human intervention. This makes teams more agile, and ultimately businesses faster & more profitable.

We might be distracted enough to stop worrying about operations altogether. After all Amazon knows how to manage broken servers & alert us right? I write do we have to manage operations in the cloud previously, as this sentiment seems to be growing.

Modern applications have a ton of interdependencies. Even with decent integration testing, the full stack is complex, and requires monitoring. Co-tenancy can complicate your performance tuning efforts as neighboring customers may directly affect your application. Third party services may be delivered from smaller or less experienced companies, whose SLA may be limiting besides. And hey if Amazon goes down, I can just tell my customers it was their fault, right?

Also: Is Amazon too big to fail?

2. Do you know Dustin Moskovitz?

Chances are I’m guessing you’ll say no. He was part of the original Facebook team alongside Zuckerberg. You don’t know his name? He had the sexy job of, you guessed it maintenance! He was the operations guy. Did he write the application code? More than likely he knew that code very well as he had to fix & maintain it. Along with the infrastructure to scale & support Facebook’s massive growth.

Read: Is AWS too complex for small dev teams? The growing demand for Cloud SRE

3. Is a little technical debt ok?

Ward Cunningham has an excellent interview about technical debt. Is a little bit ok? Maybe. But each amount is kicking the can down the road. As the NYT article on maintenance makes clear, you can move the responsibility on to the next administration, the next term, or someone else, but eventually you’ll have a critical problem on your hands, which will be much more expensive to fix.

Related: How to build an operational datastore on Amazon Redshift with S3

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How to interview an amazon database expert

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Amazon releases a new database offering every other day. It sure isn’t easy to keep up.

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Let’s say you’re hiring a devops & you want to suss out their database knowledge? Or you’re hiring a professional services firm or freelance consultant. Whatever the case you’ll need to sift through for the best people. Here’s how.

Also: How to interview an AWS expert

What database does Amazon support for caching?

Caching is a popular way to speed up access to your backend database. Put Amazon’s elasticache behind your webserver, and you can reduce load on your database by 90%. Nice!

The two types that amazon supports are Memcache & Redis. Memcache is historically more popular. These days Redis seems a clear winner. It’s faster, and can maintain your cached data between restarts. That will save you I promise!

Also: Is AWS too complex for small dev teams?

How can I store big data in AWS?

Amazon’s data warehouse offering is called Redshift. I wrote Why is everyone suddenly talking about Redshift?. Why indeed!

When you’re doing large reports for your business intelligence team, you don’t want to bog down your backend relational database. Redshift is purpose built for this use case.

I’ve see a report that took over 8 hours in MySQL return in under 60 seconds in Redshift!

A new offering is Amazon Spectrum. This tech is super cool. Load up all your data into S3, in standard CSV format. Then without even loading it into Redshift, you can query the S3 data directly. This is super useful. Firstly because S3 is 1/10th the price. But also because it allows you to stage your data before loading into Redshift itself. Goodbye Google Big Query! I talked about spectrum here.

Related: Which engineering roles are in greatest demand?

What relational database options are there on Amazon?

Amazon supports a number of options through it’s Relational Database Service or RDS. This is managed databases, which means less work on your DBAs shoulders. It also may make upgrades slower and harder with more downtime, but you get what you pay for.

There are a lot of platforms available. As you might guess MySQL & Postgres are there. Great! Even better you can use MariaDB if that’s your favorite. You can also go with Aurora which is Amazon’s own home-brew drop in replacement for MySQL that promises greater durability and some speedups.

If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can even get Oracle & SQL Server working on RDS. Very nice!

Read: Can on-demand consulting save startups time & money?

Does AWS have a NoSQL database solution?

If NoSQL is to your taste, Amazon has DynamoDB. According to . I haven’t seen a lot of large production applications using it, but what he describes makes a lot of sense. The way Amazon scales nodes & data I/O is bound to run into real performance problems.

That said it can be a great way to get you up and running quickly.

Read: Can on-demand consulting save startups time & money?

How do I do ETL & migrate data to AWS?

Let’s be honest, Amazon wants to make this really easy. The quicker & simpler it is to get your data there, that more you’ll buy!

Amazon’s Database Migration Service or DMS allows you to configure your old database as a data source, then choose a Amazon db solution as destination, then just turn on the spigot and pump your data in!

ETL is extract transform and load, data warehouse terminology for slicing and dicing data before you load it into your warehouse. Many of todays warehouses are being built with the data lake model, because databases like Redshift have gotten so damn fast. That model means you stage all your source data as-is in your warehouse, then build views & summary tables as needed to speed up queries & reports. Even better you might look a tool like xplenty.

Amazon’s new offering is called Glue. Five ways to get data into Amazon Redshift. This solution is purpose build for creating a powerful data pipeline, complete with python code to do transformations.

Read: Is data your dirty little secret?

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What does the fight between palantir & nypd mean for your data?

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In a recent buzzfeed piece, NYPD goes to the mat with Palantir over their data. It seems the NYPD has recently gotten cold feet.

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As they explored options, they found an alternative that might save them a boatload of money. They considered switching to an IBM alternative called Cobalt.

And I mean this is Silicon Valley, what could go wrong?

Related: Will SQL just die already?

Who owns your data?

In the case of Palantir, they claim to be an open system. And of course this is good marketing. Essential in fact to get the contract. Promise that it’s easy to switch. Don’t dig too deep into the technical details there. According to the article, Palantir spokeperson claims:

“Palantir is an open platform. As with all our customers, their data & analysis are available to them at all times in an open & nonproprietary format.”

And that does appear to be true. What appears to be troubling NYPD isn’t that they can’t get the analysis, for that’s available to them in perpetuity. Within the Palantir system. But getting access to how the analysis is done, well now that’s the secret sauce. Palantir of course is not going to let go of that.

And that’s the devil in the details when you want to switch to a competing service.

Also: Top serverless interview questions for hiring aws lambda experts

Who owns the algorithms?

Although the NYPD can get their data into & out of the Palantir system easily, that’s just referring to the raw data. That’s the data they ingested in the first place, arrest records, license plate reads, parking tickets, stuff like that.

“This notion of how portable your data is when you engage in a contract with a platform is really, really complex, and hasn’t really been tested” – Tal Klein

Palantir’s secret sauce, their intellectual property, is finding the needle in the haystack. What pieces of data are relevant & how can I present the detectives the right information at the right time.

Analysis *is* the algorithms. It’s the big data 64 million dollar question. Or in this case $3.5 million per year, as the contract is reported to be worth!

Related: Which engineering roles are in greatest demand?

The nature of software as a service

The web is bringing us great platforms, like google & amazon cloud. It’s bringing a myriad of AI solutions to our fingertips. Palantir is providing a push button solution to those in need of insights like the NYPD.

The Cobalt solution that IBM is offering goes the other way. Build it yourself, manage it, and crucially control it. And that’s the difference.

It remains to be seen how the rush to migrate the universe of computing to Amazon’s own cloud will settle out. Right now their in a growth phase, so it’s all about lowering prices. But at some point their market muscle will mean they can go the Oracle route a la Larry Ellison. That’s why customers start feeling the squeeze.

If the NYPD example is any indication, it could get ugly!

Read: Can on-demand consulting save startups time & money?

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Do we have to manage ops in the cloud?

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One of the things that is exciting about the cloud is the reduced need for operations staff. There seem to be two drivers of this trend. One is devops, and all the automation that comes with it. As we formalize configurations, things become repeatable, and fewer people can manage greater armies of servers.

The second is by moving to a cloud hosting provider, we essentially outsource the operations to their team.

1. Pretty abstractions? still hardware buried somewhere

That’s right, beneath all the virtual EC2 instances & VPCs there is physical hardware. Huge datacenters sit in North Virginia, Oregon, Ireland, London and many other cities. Within them there are racks upon racks of servers. The hypervisor layer, the abstraction built on top of that, orchestrates everything.

Although we outsource the management of those datacenters to Amazon, there are still responsibilities we carry. Let’s dig into those more.

Also: Top serverless interview questions to ask an expert

2. Full-stack dev – demand for generalists?

These days we see the demand for a full stack developer. That is someone who does not only front end dev, but also backend. In turn, they are often asked to wear the had of ops. Spinup EC2 instance, decide on the capacity & size, choose proper disk I/O, place it within the right subnet & vpc & then configure the security groups properly.

All of these tasks would previously been managed by a dedicated ops team, but now those responsibilities are being put on developers shoulders. In some cases, such as with microservices, devs also carry the on-call duties of their applications.

Lastly there is likely ops to handle automation. Devops will formalize configurations, into ansible playbooks or chef recipes, so they can be checked into version control. At this point infrastructure can even be unit tested.

Read: Build an operational datastore on aws S3 with Spectrum

3. Design, resiliency, instrumentation, debugging

In previous eras, ops teams would be heavily involved with design of applications & architecture to support that. Now that may be handed to devs, but it still needs to happen.

Furthermore resiliency is said to be the customers responsibility. In the pre-cloud days, hardware was more reliable. It had a slower failure rate. With virtual machines, they’re expected to fail, and all the components to make your applications resilient are given to you. But it’s your job to architect them together.

That means your applications need to be self-healing. Failures need to be detected, taken out of autoscaling groups, and replaced. All automatically. Code or not, that is certainly operations.

Check this: Which engineering roles are in top demand?

4. It’s amazon’s fault we’re down!

I’ve seen quite a few outages in the past year, from Dropbox to Airbnb, and DYN themselves. Ultimately these outages could be tied back to a failure with Amazon. But when your business customers are relying on your service, it is *YOUR* business that answers to it’s own SLA.

In the news we see many of these firms pointing the finger at Amazon, “hey it’s not our fault, our cloud provider went down!”. Ultimately your customers don’t care. They don’t want excuses. If using multiple regions in AWS is not sufficient, you’ll need to build your application to be multi-cloud.

Also: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

5. It’s hard to outsource your expertise

Remember, while you outsource your operations to Amazon, you’re getting very professional management of those systems. However they will optimize for their many customers. Your particular problems are less of a concern.

Read this: What can startups learn from the DYN DNS outage?

6. Only you can thinking holistically about interdependancies

Your application more than likely uses a number of APIs to capture data, perhaps do single sign on or even a third party database like Firebase. It’s your responsibility to do integration testing. All that becomes more complex in the cloud.

Also: How to lock down systems from outgoing employees

7. How do services complicate things?

SaaS solutions are everywhere now. auth0, firebase and an infinite variety of third party apis complicate reliability, security, storage, performance, integration testing & debugging?

Security is a traditional responsibility held by the operations hat. Much of that becomes more complex in the cloud. With serverless applications for example you may use a few APIs, plus an authentication broker, and a backend database. As this list of services grows, the code you write may decrease. But testing & securing it all becomes much more complex.

With more services like this, the attack vector or surface area becomes greater. Each of those services, can and will have bugs. What if a zero day is found in the authentication broker, allowing a hacker to break into a broad cross section of applications across the internet? How do you discover this? What if your vendor hasn’t found out yet?

Read: Is Amazon cloud too complex for small dev teams?

8. How does co-tenancy impact performance tuning?

Back to point #1 above, all these virtual servers sit on real physical servers. That affects customers in two ways. One you may be sharing the same host. That is if you use a very small vm, it may sit along side another customer with a small vm. If those eat up CPU cycles or network on that box, neighbors or co-tenants will suffer.

There are many other instance types where you get your own dedicated hardware. With those you have your own nic as well, so no competition. Except wait there’s network storage! That’s right all the machines in the AWS environment use EBS now, which is all co-tenant. So your data is sitting alongside other customers, and you are all fighting for usage of the same disk read heads.

One way to mitigate this is to configure specific provisioned IOPS for your servers. But that costs more. It’s normally reserved for database instances where disk I/O is really crucial.

Granted the NewRelics of the world will certainly help us with this process. But they’re not giving us a hypervisor or global view of those servers, network or storage. So we can’t see how the overall systems performance may be impacted.

Related: Is AWS a patient that needs constant medication?

9. Operations can be invisible

When security is done well, you don’t have breakins, you don’t have data stolen, everything just runs smoothly. Operations is like that too. When it is done well it can be invisible.

It can also be invisible in a different way. When you deploy your application on serverless, all the servers & autoscaling is completely abstracted away. So when you get some weird outage because the farm of servers is offline, or because you hit some account limit in the number of functions you can run at once, then it quickly comes into focus.

Beware of invisible operations, because it’s harder to see what to monitor, and know how to stay ahead of outages.

Read: Is amazon too big to fail?

10. We can’t oursource true ownership

At the end of the day you can’t outsource ownership of your application or your business. The holistic view of your application in totality can only be understood by your engineers.

And that in the end is what operations is all about, no matter who’s wearing the hat!

Also: 5 reasons to move data to amazon redshift

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Is Amazon about to disrupt your data warehouse?

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Amazon is about to launch a product called glue. As you can see below, this is the last piece in the data warehousing puzzle. With that in place, Amazon will own you! Or at least have push button products to meet all of enterprises varying needs.

Even if you’re a small startup, you can do big-shot big enterprise data warehousing. That means everyone can use cutting edge data driven techniques for product & business decisions.

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What is Redshift

Redshift is like the OLAP databases of years past, the Oracle’s of the world purpose built for warehousing data. Obviously without the crazy licensing model Oracle was famous for. With Amazon you can get enterprise class data warehouse for modest hourly prices.

If my recent conversations with recruiters about Redshift demand are any indication, there’s been a sudden uptick in startups looking for redshift expertise.

Also: Top serverless interview questions for hiring aws lambda experts

What is Spectrum?

Spectrum is a very new extension of Redshift allowing you to access & query S3 file data directly. This means you can have petabytes of data that you can access pre-load time. So you will ETL and load portions of it, but with Spectrum you can still access the offline data too.

In the old Oracle days this was called an EXTERNAL TABLE. I mention this only to say that Amazon isn’t doing anything that hasn’t been done before. Rather they’re bringing these advanced features within reach of everyday startups. That’s cool.

Related: Which engineering roles are in greatest demand?

What is glue?

Glue is still in beta, but if the RE:Invent talk above is any indication, it’s set to disrupt an entire industry. Wow!

Glue first catalogs your data sources. What does this mean, it scans them & models their schemas.

It then generates sample python ETL code. Modify it, or write your own. Share your code on Git. Or borrow other open source pieces, that already address your specific ETL use case!

Lastly it includes a job scheduler which handles dependencies. Job A must be completed before B can run and so forth. Error handling & logging are also all included.

Since these are native Amazon services, of course they’re going to integrate with their dangerously fast Redshift warehouse.

Read: Can on-demand consulting save startups time & money?

What is serverless?

I’ve written about how to throw fastballs at a serverless fanboy and even how to hire a serverless expert. But really what is it?

Serverless means deploying functions directly into the cloud. No servers, no configuration. All the systems administration & automation is hidden. No more devops to argue with! Amazon’s own offering is called Lambda.

Also: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

What is Quicksight?

Amazon’s even jumped into the fray at the presentation layer. Quicksight is a BI tool along the lines of mode, domo, looker or Tableau.

Now it’s possible to stay completely within the cozy Amazon ecosystem even for business insight and analytics.

Also: What can startups learn from the DYN DNS outage?

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Top questions to ask a devops expert when hiring or preparing for job & interview

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Strip by Randall Munroe; xkcd.com

Whether your a hiring manager, head of HR or recruiter, you are probably looking for a devops expert. These days good ones are not easy to find. The spectrum of tools & technologies is broad. To manage today’s cloud you need a generalist.

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If you’re a devops expert and looking for a job, these are also some essential questions you should have in your pocket. Be able to elaborate on these high level concepts as they’re crucial in todays agile startups.

Check out: 8 questions to ask an aws ec2 expert

Also new: Top questions to ask on a devops expert interview

And: How to hire a developer that doesn’t suck

1. How do you automate deployments?

A. Get your code in version control (git)

Believe it or not there are small 1 person teams that haven’t done this. But even with those, there’s real benefit. Get on it!

B. Evolve to one script push-button deploy (script)

If deploying new code involves a lot of manual steps, move file here, set config there, set variable, setup S3 bucket, etc, then start scripting. That midnight deploy process should be one master script which includes all the logic.

It’s a process to get there, but keep the goal in sight.

C. Build confidence over many iterations (team process & agile)

As you continue to deploy manually with a master script, you’ll iron out more details, contingencies, and problems. Over time You’ll gain confidence that the script does the job.

D. Employ continuous integration Tools to formalize process (CircleCI, Jenkins)

Now that you’ve formalized your deploy in code, putting these CI tools to use becomes easier. Because they’re custom built for you at this stage!

E. 10 deploys per day (long term goal)

Your longer term goal is 10 deploys a day. After you’ve automated tests, team confidence will grow around developers being able to deploy to production. On smaller teams of 1-5 people this may still be only 10 deploys per week, but still a useful benchmark.

Also: Top serverless interview questions for hiring aws lambda experts

2. What is microservices?

Microservices is about two-pizza teams. Small enough that there’s little beaurocracy. Able to be agile, focus on one business function. Iterate quickly without logjams with other business teams & functions.

Microservices interact with each other through APIs, deploy their own components, and use their own isolated data stores.

Function as a service, Amazon Lambda, or serverless computing enables microservices in a huge way.

Related: Which engineering roles are in greatest demand?

3. What is serverless computing?

Serverless computing is a model where servers & infrastructure do not need to be formalized. Only the code is deployed, and the platform, AWS Lambda for example, takes care of instant provisioning of containers & VMs when the code gets called.

Events within the cloud environment, such a file added to S3 bucket, trigger the serverless functions. API Gateway endpoints can also trigger the functions to run.

Authentication services are used for user login & identity management such as Auth0 or Amazon Cognito. The backend data store could be Dynamodb or Google’s Firebase for example.

Read: Can on-demand consulting save startups time & money?

4. What is containerization?

Containers are like faster deploying VMs. They have all the advantages of an image or snapshot of a server. Why is this useful? Because you can containerize your microservices, so each one does one thing. One has a webserver, with specific version of xyz.

Containers can also help with legacy applications, as you isolate older versions & dependencies that those applications still rely on.

Containers enable developers to setup environments quickly, and be more agile.

Also: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

5. What is CloudFormation?

CloudFormation, formalizes all of your cloud infrastructure into json files. Want to add an IAM user, S3 bucket, rds database, or EC2 server? Want to configure a VPC, subnet or access control list? All these things can be formalized into cloudformation files.

Once you’ve started down this road, you can checkin your infrastructure definitions into version control, and manage them just like you manage all your other code. Want to do unit tests? Have at it. Now you can test & deploy with more confidence.

Terraform is an extension of CloudFormation with even more power built in.

Also: What can startups learn from the DYN DNS outage?

Get more. Grab our exclusive monthly Scalable Startups. We share tips and special content. Our latest Why I don’t work with recruiters

Top Amazon Lambda questions for hiring a serverless expert

via GIPHY

If you’re looking to fill a job roll that says microservices or find an expert that knows all about serverless computing, you’ll want to have a battery of questions to ask them.

Join 33,000 others and follow Sean Hull on twitter @hullsean.

For technical interviews, I like to focus on concepts & the big picture. Which rules out coding exercises or other puzzles which I think are distracting from the process. I really like what what the guys at 37 Signals say

“Hire for attitude. Train for skill.”

So let’s get started.

1. How do you automate deployment?

Programming lambda functions is much like programming in other areas, with some particular challenges. When you first dive in, you’ll use the Amazon dashboard to upload a zipfile with your code. But as you become more proficient, you’ll want to create a deployment pipeline.

o What features in Amazon facilitate automatic deployments?

AWS Lambda supports environment variables. Use these for credentials & other data you don’t want in your deployment package.

Amazon’s serverless offering, also supports aliases. You can have a dev, stage & production alias. That way you can deploy functions for testing, without interrupting production code. What’s more when you are ready to push to production, the endpoint doesn’t change.

o What frameworks are available for serverless?

Serverless Framework is the most full featured option. It fully supports Amazon Lambda & as of 1.0 provides support for other platforms such as IBM Openwhisk, Google Cloud Functions & Azure functions. There is also something called SAM or Serverless Application Model which extends CloudFormation. With this, you can script changes to API Gateway, Dynamo DB & Cognos authentication stuff.

If you’re using Auth0 instead of Cognito or Firebase instead of Dynamodb, you’ll have to come up with your own way to automate changes there.

Also: Is the difference between dev & ops a four-letter word?

2. What are the pros of serverless?

Why are we moving to a serverless computing model? What are the advantages & benefits of it?

o easier operations means faster time to market
o large application components become managed
o reduced costs, only pay while code is running
o faster deploy means more experimentation, more agile
o no more worry about which servers will this code run on?
o reduced people costs & less infrastructure
o no chef playbooks to manage, no deploy keys or IAM roles

Related: Is automation killing old-school operations?

3. What are the cons of serverless?

There are a lot of fanboys of serverless, because of the promise & hope of this new paradigm. But what about healthy criticism? A little dose of reality can identify a critical & active mind.

o With Lambda you have less vendor control which could mean… more downtime, system limits, sudden cost changes, loss of functionality or features and possible forced API upgrades. Remember that Amazon will choose the needs of the many over your specific application idiosyncracies.

o There’s no dedicated hardware option with serverless. So you have the multi-tenant challenges of security & performance problems of other customers code. You may even bump into problems because of other customers errors!

o Vendor lock-in is a real obvious issue. Changing to Google Cloud Functions or Azure Functions would mean new deployment & monitoring tools, a code rewrite & rearchitect, and new infrastructure too. You would also have to export & import your data. How easy does Amazon make this process?

o You can no longer store application & state data in local server memory. Because each instantiation of a function will effectively be a new “server”. So everything must be stored in the database. This may affect performance.

o Testing is more complicated. With multiple vendors, integration testing becomes more crucial. Also how do you create dev db instance? How do you fully test offline on a laptop?

o You could hit system wide limits. For example a big dev deploy could take out production functions by hitting an AWS account limit. You would thus have DDoS yourself! You can also hit the 5 minute execution time limit. And code will get aborted!

o How do you do zero downtime deployments? Since Amazon currently deploys function-by-function, if you have a group of 10 or 20 that act as a unit, they will get deployed in pieces. So your app would need to be taken offline during that period or it would be executing some from old version & some from new version together. With unpredictable results.

Read: Do managers underestimate operational cost?

4. How does security change?

o In serverless you may use multiple vendors, such as Auth0 for authentication, and perhaps Firebase for your data. With Lambda as your serverless platform you now have three vendors to work with. More vendors means a larger area across which hackers may attack your application.

o With the function as a service application model, you lose the protective wall around your database. It is no longer safely deployed & hidden behind a private subnet. Is this sufficient protection of your key data assets?

Also: Is the difference between dev & ops a four-letter word?

5. How do you troubleshoot & debug microservices?

o Monitoring & debugging is still very limited. This becomes a more complex process in the serverless world. You can log error & warning messages to CloudWatch.

o Currently Lambda doesn’t have any open API for third party tooling. This will probably come with time, but again it’s hard to see & examine a serverless function “server” while it is running.

o For example there is no New Relic for serverless.

o Performance tuning may be a bit of a guessing game in the serverless space right now. Amazon will surely be expanding it’s offering, and this is one area that will need attention.

Also: Is the difference between dev & ops a four-letter word?

Get more. Grab our exclusive monthly Scalable Startups. We share tips and special content. Our latest Why I don’t work with recruiters