Tag Archives: infrastructure

Benefits of receiving a UCISA bursary

Giuseppe Sollazzo

 

 

 

Giuseppe Sollazzo
Senior Systems Analyst
St George’s, University of London

 

 

 

 

Last October I was lucky enough to be selected for a UCISA bursary to attend O’Reilly Velocity in Amsterdam. Velocity is one of the most important conferences for performances in IT Systems, which is my area of work at St George’s, University of London: I lead a team of systems analysts who take care of the ongoing maintenance and development of our infrastructure. I had wanted to attend the conference for quite a while, but was always prevented from doing so by the hefty funding required, something that my institution could not readily justify.

The format of Velocity is particularly well suited to a mixture of blue-sky thinking, practical learning, networking with other professionals. Each day ran from 8:30 till 18:30. Following this schedule for three days was intense, but extremely rewarding in terms of learning.

I have written blogs for UCISA day by day throughout the conference. You can read about the specific sessions I followed on each day at the following links: day one, day two and day three. In summary, I learned about a mixture of practical techniques and heard about experiences in a variety of sectors.

As I wrote in my first blog post ahead of the conference, a focus on performance and optimisation is important for academic IT services, and specifically for my institution: with our 300 servers and 30,000 accounts to take care of, this is not just an important consideration, but our major worry on a daily basis. Access to funding is becoming increasingly competitive, as is student and researcher recruitment; it is becoming our primary goal to provide systems that are effective, secure, scalable, fast, and at the same time manageable by constrained staff numbers.

I was interested in three types of sessions:

  • practical tutorials about established techniques and tools
  • storytelling from people who have applied techniques to certain specific situations
  • sessions about new learning about new systems, to see where the industry is heading to.

Velocity has been great to help me crystallise my strategy on how to make St George’s systems evolve. In the past four months, this has translated into taking action on a number of aspects of our infrastructure. The most important are the following:

  • leading the team to build upon our logging systems, in order to extract metrics and improve the ability to respond to incidents
  • increasing our dependability on our ticketing system, by measuring response times and starting a project to make the ongoing monitoring of this part of our weekly service reviews
  • launching an investigation into researchers’ needs in terms of data storage and high performance computing; this has so far resulted in an experimental HPC cluster, which we are testing in collaboration with genomics and statistical researchers who are interested in massively parallel computations where performances are vital to the timeliness of research results for publishing.

I’m very grateful to UCISA for the opportunity it has given me. The knowledge and experience I’ve gathered at Velocity have been invaluable not just for starting new projects and reviewing our current service offer, but most importantly in beginning to understand what our strategy to maintain performances should be to still be able, in five to ten years’ time, to provide excellent industry-standard services to our community.

Interested in applying for a UCISA bursary? Then visit UCISA Bursary Scheme 2018.

Performance management and assessing capacity

Giuseppe Sollazzo

 

 

Giuseppe Sollazzo
Senior Systems Analyst
St George’s, University of London

 

 

 

 

 

Velocity day three – the final one – has been another mind-boggling combination of technical talks and masterful storytelling about performance improvement in a disparate set of systems. The general lesson of the day is: know your user, know your organization, know your workflows – only then will you be able to adequately plan your performance management and assess your capability.

This was the message from the opening keynote by Eleanor Saitta. She spoke about how to design for ‘security outcomes’, or, in other words, ‘security for humans’: there is no threat management system that works if isolated from an understanding of the human system where the threats emerge. We have some great examples of this in academia, and at St George’s one of the major challenges we face is securing systems and data in a context of academic sharing of knowledge. Being a medical school, the human aspect of security – and how this can affect performances – is something we have to face on a daily basis.

One of the best presentations, however, was by David Booker of IBM, who gave a live demo of the Watson system, an Artificial Intelligence framework which is able to understand informal (up to a point) questions and answer them in speaking. As per every live demo, this encountered some issues. Curiously, Watson wasn’t able to understand David’s pronunciation of the simple word “yes”. “She doesn’t get when I say ‘yes’ because I’m from Brooklyn,” David said, triggering laughter in the audience.

Continuous delivery
Courtney Nash of O’Reilly spoke at length about how we should be thinking when we build IT services, with a focus on the popular strategy of continuous delivery. Continuous delivery is the idea that a system should transition from development to production very often, and this idea is taking traction in both industry and academia. However, this requires trust: trusting your tools, your infrastructure, your code, and most importantly, the people who power the whole organization. Once again, then, we see the emergence of a human factor when planning for the delivery of IT services.

The importance of 2G
In another keynote with a lot of applicable ideas for academic websites, Bruce Lawson of Opera ASA has focused on the ‘next billion’ users from developing countries who are starting to use internet services. Access to digital is spreading, especially in developing areas of Asia, where four billion people live. India had 190 million internet users in 2014, and this is poised to grow to 400 million by 2018.

The best piece of information in this talk was the realisation that if you take the US, India and Nigeria, the top 10 visited websites are the same: Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, and so on. Conversely, the top 10 devices give a very different picture: iPhones dominate in the US, cheap Androids in India, and Nokia or other regional feature phones in Nigeria. This teaches us an important lesson: regardless of hardware, people worldwide want to consume the same goods and services. This should tell us to build our services in a 2G-compatible way if we want to reach the next billion users (91.7% people in the world live within reach of a 2G network). This is of great importance to academia in terms of international student recruitment.

Performance optimisation
The afternoon sessions were an intense whistle-stop tour of experiences of performance optimisation. Alex Schoof of Fugue, for example, gave an intensely technical session about secret management in large scale systems, something that definitely applies to our context: how do we distribute keys and passwords in a secure way that allows that secrets to be changed whenever required? With security issues going mainstream, like the infamous Heartbleed bug, this is something of increasing importance. Adam Onishi of London-based dxw, a darling of public sector website development, gave an interesting talk on how performance, accessibility and technological progress in web design are interlinked, something academic website managers have too often failed to consider with websites that are published and then forgotten for years.

As someone who has developed mobile applications, I really enjoyed AT&T’s Doug Sillars’ session about ‘bad implementation of good ideas’, showing that lack of attention to the system as a whole has often killed otherwise excellent apps, which are too focused on local aspects of design.

Velocity has been a great event. I was worried it would be too ‘corporate’ or sponsor-oriented, but it has been incredibly rich, with good practical ideas that I could apply to my work immediately. It has also offered some good reflection on ‘running your systems in house’: we often perceive this dualism between the Cloud and in-house services. This is a technology that can be run in-house with no need to outsource. As IT professionals we should appreciate it, and make the case for adopting technologies that improve performance and compliance in a financially sound way. This often requires abandoning outsourcing and investing on internal resources: a good capital investment that will allow continuous improvement of the infrastructure.