Open Insights 49 – Things Fall Apart

Open Insights Newsletter

Issue 49 – Things Fall Apart

November 1, 2008

by Sean Hull

In This Issue:

1. Feature: Things Fall Apart

2. Current Reading

3. Podcast Reviews

4. Past Issues

5. Technical Articles

6. Audio Interviews

7. Lightweight Humor

8. About Heavyweight Internet Group

1. Feature: Things Fall Apart

This month it’s hard for talk of the economy not to makes it way into the conversation.  Our recent global economic meltdown, and in many places near collapse of our banking system have given people the jitters far beyond their retirement and stock investments.  When the fed needs to reassure people that FDIC will be backed 100%, and when I find myself checking into my various bank accounts, and whether their insured, you have to wonder if we’re only a whisper away from a larger run on the banking system.

This month I’ll speak a bit about economics, but mainly to use it as an illustration of larger truths which pervade technology, and consulting projects. 

Complex Systems Break

The first lesson is that complex systems break.  It seems obvious in retrospect, but before the fact these sophisticated systems often because of their size somehow seem more reliable.   So the sudden revelation that they’re actually quite fragile leaves many people shocked and bewildered.

I find myself trolling finance sites like Baseline Scenario, Economic Principals, and Vinny Catalano’s Blog, or listening to NPR’s Planet Money, or FT’s Money Show.  These are all good resources, and certainly do shed a lot of light on what’s been happening. 

Whenever I talk to clients about Oracle technology, or the open-source MySQL, they are often surprised to learn that these enterprise class systems have bugs and problems.  I would almost argue this is more prevalent in departments implement Oracle not because there are more bugs, but more because the bar has been raised higher by the investment dollars, and the marketing folks who sell everything as bulletproof or what is the latest fad term "unbreakable".  All large enterprise level database systems have bugs, issues, and implementation challenges. 

Put simpler, complex systems break.  You need to monitor and manage them closely, be honest about the risks & problem areas, and be prudent about how far out on a limb you’re willing to hang.

Internet Applications, Markets, Dominoes and Interconnecting Pieces

Our recent lessons in the fragility of the global financial systems tells us that their are a huge number of interconnecting pieces.  Huge amounts of new wealth looking for places to invest, mortgages rolled up and repackaged, and sold in foreign markets,  ratings agencies, and regulatory bodies not doing their jobs. 

When the web first got big, a lot of sites were trying to build on heavy technologies.  Examples

might include sites that built using Java which required a lot of overhead, and heavy memory usage, and really didn’t match the lightweight, high transaction nature of the internet.  ASP.NET in some senses falls into this category as well.  This is why you’re seeing more and more sites built on PHP, especially huge very interactive sites like Facebook.  And look how snappy that site responds.

The connection here is that transparency is good, many simpler working components that you can optimize individually is helpful, and each of those pieces being small and lightweight is a good thing.

Lessons Learned

I was listening to Fareed Zakaria on CNN the other day, and one of the financial advisors said "great economic events shape the way people act".  He was referring to how the great depression spawned hears of saving, and a whole different philosophy around money than we have today.  It was more generally frowned upon to get into debt, and being in debt was something you wanted to get out of as quickly as possible.

That’s a far cry from where we were in the 90’s and 2000’s where I commonly saw people buying cocktails at bars with their credit cards.  The idea of the credit card extending your wealth is commonly accepted.  And the idea of businesses, banks, or even countries living on an overly huge amount of debt had become commonplace.  I suspect that will change quite a lot now, as it should.

The lessons I would take away from this in terms of consulting, and technology projects would be three-fold. 

(1) Don’t bite of more than you can chew.  Develop less first, and make your milestones conservative, that way when things get messy, as they always do, you’ll have some give in the schedule.

(2) Be realistic about risks.  This pertains to what technology can do, it’s potentials, as well as it’s hidden surprises.  Expect things to break, and plan for that.  Monitor, and be proactive, especially around areas whose inner workings are less understood.

(3) Be ready with the firefighters.  As the fed deals with the current crisis, trying to put out fires as fast as it can, you should have people at the ready in the same capacity.  Your on-call people should understand some of the problem areas, and know who to call if something falls out of their scope, or area of expertise.

2. Current Reading

The Undercover Economist by Tim Hartford

Most of us are not classically trained as economists, so we need coffee table books to dispense the wisdom.  This is one of those books.  I particularly liked one chapter where he uses Starbucks as a case study.  They have drinks of prices ranging from the inexpensive $1 or so to $4 and up.  Yet if you look at the underlying costs, they are all about the same plus or minus a few cents to produce.  What they are doing is providing thrifty customers inexpensive choices, and customers more cavalier about price with expensive alternatives.  Businesses that use this technique can have it both ways, being appealing to high-end consumers, as well as thrifty ones.  The same technique works in business, and is the way to appealing to a wider field of potential buyers of products and services.  A very interesting read.

3. Podcast Reviews

I’ve been trolling through iTunes in the last few weeks, and have found some real gems.  With that in mind I decided to add a new section to the newsletter to focus on interesting, and technology relevant shows that I find.  By far the best one I’ve stumbled upon is Financial Times – Digital Business

For instance the September 10th episode of this year talked about Mesh Collaboration, Globalization, and Social Networking.  Definitely worth a listen.

You can read it online with updates almost everyday, and the print edition comes out on alternate wednesdays.  The podcast you can find here.

4. Past Issues

Issue 48 – Balancing Time & Money

Issue 47 – Change the Problem

Issue 46 – Interests Aligned

Issue 45 – Contractualities

Issue 44 – Gaining Legs

Newsletter Archives

5. Technical Articles

Intro to Oracle’s Automatic Workload Repository

Intro to PHP + Oracle

Useful PL/SQL Packages

Oracle Automatic Storage Management

Programming Perl + Oracle

6. Audio Interviews

Though we haven’t added a new audio interview in a while, we certainly plan to do some new interviews in the coming months.  So please stay tuned.  In the meantime, please listen to our past audio interviews.

In our last interview we had the opportunity to talk with Norman Yamada CTO of Millburn Corporation.

Norman shares with us his experiences providing world-class computing solutions, and the pros and cons of doing it with open source.

We are hosting our podcast to Odeo.  It is a great service, and provides all the RSS and subscribe links automatically.  So please subscribe if you haven’t already.

7. Lightweight Humor

Sadly, even with humor we have to make a nod to the stockmarket meltdown.  With that I give you the 401 Keg Plan

8. About Heavyweight Internet Group

In a nutshell, databases.  More and more we have clients asking us to manage MySQL at the enterprise level.  With twelve years experience dealing with databases in the enterprise, we bring a wealth of experience to the table on open-source platforms such as MySQL, and traditional enterprise solutions like Oracle.  Whether it is high availability, redundancy, scaling, tuning, or troubleshooting, we can bring you the same level of service and expertise we’ve been delivering for years.

Looking for a top-flight DBA?  Visit us on the web at