2013-04-10

Hardware.

Recently a friend of mine asked me what I thought of a new server product that her company is launching.  The friend in question is Yvonne Fosser  the company is Hewlett Packard and the product is HP Moonshot.

What struck me is that although I have at times been a huge consumer of computing power I am spectacularly unqualified to answer that question.  Perhaps precisely because I have had access to the largest non-classified computing resources in the world.  When you deal with massive computing systems, the nature of your interaction with them must necessarily be somewhat abstract.

The last time I fiddled with production hardware directly must have been some time around 1995-1996 or so. Back then I worked part-time for the local university to support myself while starting a company with a few friends.   That was the last time I took a machine out of its box and put it into a rack.

After that hardware has largely been about numbers for me.

Quite early on in the game while I was at FAST, we moved our servers to the US.  So from mid 1999 on I have rarely been on the same continent as the production resources I've been using.  Back then I worked on software that ran on tens of machines.  A few years later, at Yahoo,  I worked on software that ran on thousands of machines.  And finally, at Google,  on "an undisclosed number of machines" (I said non-classified -- not non-secret ;-)).

Nowadays, at Comoyo, we run on a very modest (well, relatively speaking) number of EC2 instances from Amazon Web Services, but there are a few things that have not changed:

  • I never physically see the machines.  They are just numbers to me;  in order of importance: RAM, CPU, bandwidth and storage.
  • I am not on the same continent as the machines.
  • I can provision whatever I need within minutes and ditch it when it is no longer needed
  • The machines are extremely basic (no RAID, no expensive complicating bullshit)
Actually, the precursor of Comoyo did purchase a few servers about 3 years ago.  It was an eye-opening experience.  I was only peripherally involved in setting them up, but we burned an amazing amount of man-hours on dicking around with those servers.  I think all of us had forgotten how much work it is to own physical hardware.

HP Moonshot looks like the right thing to do in many ways: packing lots of computing power into a small space and caring about things like energy-efficiency etc.  But I actually think the bean-counters will be more qualified to say whether the machine is good or not.

That being said, I certainly would not mind having one for use at home or at work.  I know precisely what I'd use it for (an OpenStack-based private cloud for experimenting).

2013-04-04

Then vs Now

The picture on the right has been floating around the Intertubes lately and it seems to make the point that we have not improved space flight.

Huh?

True enough, the space shuttle has been retired.  But for good reason: it is not only obsolete -- it wasn't a terribly good idea to begin with.   Don't get me wrong.  The shuttles did get the job done, but for the amount of money NASA spent on keeping them operational for 135 missions, they could probably have developed a much, much, much more cost effective alternative.

What belongs on the lower right square is probably the Dragon spacecraft (however, there are other initiatives that are worthy of mention as well).  Compared to the space shuttle it is every bit as big a leap as brick phones to iPhones.  It is simpler, cheaper, and it is made from materials that are ridiculously efficient.

However the graphic is right in one respect: we have stopped caring.  And that is a sad commentary on our society.  When Dragon flew last year it was the biggest event in space technology since Armstrong landed on the moon -- yet the media was barely interested.

Millions of people watched Felix Baumgartner jump from 39.000 meters. A fairly unimportant advertising and penis-stroking exercise repeating something that had been done 50 years earlier with slightly fancier gear and a bunch of webcams.

The white square mostly represents our lack of interest in things that take more than 10 seconds to explain.

Because we sure as shit have spacecraft that makes the space shuttle look like something ... out of the cold war era.