Do Androids Browse (For Electric Sheep)?

The movie Blade Runner is based on a Philip K. Dick short story entitled “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Perhaps some new questions should be added to this classic…

In an interesting example of science fiction becoming reality, a group of researchers is now creating a sort of world wide web for the robots of the world. Whether or not androids dream, they may soon be able to use social networks for robots, and use public, internet-accessible resources to get their day-to-day work done. The initiative is called “RoboEarth“:

IĀ believe this sort of technological evolution is the wave of the future. It represents a promising confluence of cloud computing, distributed architecture, big data, hadoop-like map-reduce, supercomputing, ubiquitous internet connectivity, and the every-device-has-an-IP-address promise of IPv6. It would be nice if my next Roomba didn’t have to relearn the floorplan of my house, but could simply download knowledge that the older model has laboriously developed. I’ll bet over the next decade, the market will discover hundreds of variations on that theme.

I just hope we’re smart enough to stop before robots start frittering away their time clicking cows on Facebook… :-)

Architects: manage risk like a Vegas bookie

In the world of cloud computing, “risk” is a big buzz word. Lots of analysts are debating how much risk is involved in using SaaS offerings like Salesforce, or hosting corporate applications with a public IaaS provider like Amazon’s EC2. They’re worried about outages (Amazon’s had several ugly ones, most recently for 49 minutes in January), about security, about regulatory compliance, and so forth.

Werner Vogels, Amazon CTO, NextWeb 2008: "Everything fails, all the time."

Werner Vogels, Amazon CTO, NextWeb 2008: “Everything fails, all the time.”

These worries are well founded. However, I pointed out today on Adaptive Computing’s blog that the question “Can I take the risk to use the cloud?” is a bit naive. Sometimes you can just avoid risk altogether. In many cases, however, risk is endemic, and the smart course is to manage it.

How does risk figure in your architectural vision? You should think about it all the time. You should count it, weigh and balance alternative outcomes in ways that would impress even the gaming industry.

Here are 6 key questions to kick-start your pondering:

  • Is my architecture properly accounting for risk of environmental problems such as DDOS, routing failures, brownouts, and temporary loss of an internal component? (See my article about circuit breakers.)
  • When one of my components crashes, will its state be cleanly recoverable (e.g., on transaction boundaries) rather than corrupt? What data loss contract am I targeting?
  • Will it be easy for users or admins to notice when theoretical risks I’ve planned for become true emergencies? How will they be notified?
  • Is it possible to put the system in a “scabbed” state that’s degraded and safe, but functional, while more extensive repairs take place?
  • Am I assuming success too often? (Werner Vogels, Amazon’s CTO, is fond of saying “everything fails, all the time.” That’s on my top 5 list of major insights to remember.)
  • Am I diversifying intelligently, and enabling my customers to do so as well?

Action Item

Make a list of a handful of important risks from your customer’s perspective. How many of them can you help with?

The Power of Simplicity

Most stories about zen masters, gurus, or other paragons of wisdom follow a similar pattern. The pupil discovers a problem. He or she struggles with it. The problem gets more and more overwhelming. Solutions are elusive. Finally the pupil goes to the master and pours out his heart, whereupon the master offers a pearl of insight that radically reinterprets the problem.

Seek the simple... Photo credit: departing(YYZ) (Flickr)

Seek the simple… Photo credit: departing(YYZ) (Flickr)

There’s a reason why this narrative exists in every culture: human beings need the insight that comes from synthesis, pared down to its essence. We crave the simple but profound:

  • Less is more.
  • Do unto others as you’d have others do unto you.
  • A watched pot never boils.
  • Freedom isn’t free.

The software industry desperately needs this sort of insight, but far too often I see us operate in the stage of the narrative where the pupil misunderstands the problem, struggles, and makes things worse. Continue reading