Tag Archives: performance

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.

Disruptive statistics, Linux containers, extreme web performance for mobile devices

Giuseppe Sollazzo

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Day one at the Velocity conference, Amsterdam

What a first day! O’Reilly Velocity, the conference I’m attending thanks to a UCISA bursary, is off to a great start with a first day oriented to practical activities and hands-on workshops. The general idea of these workshops is to build and maintain large-scale IT systems enhancing their performances. Let me provide you with a quick summary of the workshops I have attended.

Statistics for Engineers
A statistics workshop at 9.30am is something that most would find soul-destroying, but this was a great introduction on how to use statistics in an engineering context – in other words, how to apply statistics to reality in order to gather information with the goal of taking action.

Statistics is, indeed, very simple maths and its difficult yet powerful bits allow practitioners to understand situations and predict their outcomes.

This workshop illustrated how to apply statistical methods to datasets generated by user applications: support requests, server logs, website visits. Why is this important? Very simply because service levels need to be planned and agreed upon very carefully. The speaker showed some examples of this. In fact, the title of this workshop should have been “Statistics for engineers and managers”: usage statistics help allocate resources (do we need more? can we reuse some?) and, in turn, financial budgets.

The workshop illustrated how to generate descriptive statistics and also how to use several mathematical tools for forecasting the evolution of service levels. We have had some experience with data collection and evaluation at St George’s University of London, and this workshop has definitely helped refine the tools and reasoning we will be applying.

Makefile VPS
This talk presented itself as a super-geeky session about Linux containers. Containers are a popular way to manage web services that does not require a full-fledged physical or virtual server. They can be easily built, deployed, and managed. However, they are rarely properly understood.

The engineer who presented this workshop showed how in his company, SoundCloud,  they build their own containers to power a “virtual lab” in order to simulate failures and train their engineers to react. His technique, based on scripts that build and launch containers at the press of the “Enter” button, is an effective solution both for quick prototyping and production deployment whenever docker or other commercial/free solutions are not a viable option (due to funding or complexity).

As much as this was quite a hard core session, it was good to see how services can be run in a way that makes their performances very easy to manage. This is definitely something that I will be sharing with my IT colleagues.

Extreme web performance for mobile devices
A lightweight (so to say!) finale to the day, discussing how mobile websites present a diverse range of performance issues and what techniques can be used to test and improve. However, the major contribution from this session was to share some truly extraordinary statistics about mobile traffic and browsers.

For example, the fact that on mobile 75% of traffic is from browser and 25% from web views (i.e. from apps) – 40% of which is from Facebook. Of course, these stats change from country to country and this makes it hard to launch a website with a single audience in mind. For universities, this becomes incredibly important in terms of international students recruitment.

Similarly shocking, we have learnt that the combination of Safari and Chrome, the major mobile browsers reach 93% on WiFi networks but only 88% on 3G networks; this suggests that connections speeds still matter to people, who might opt for different, more traffic-efficient browsers in connectivity-challenged environments (for example, OperaMini goes up from 1% to 4%)

One good practical piece of advice is to adopt the RAIL Approach, promoted by Google, which is a user-centric performance model that takes into consideration four aspects of performance: response, animation, idle time and loading. The combination of these aspects, each of which has its own ‘maximum allowed time’ before the user gets frustrated or abandons the activity, requires a delicate balance.

There was also some good level of discussion around the very popular “responsive web design”, a technique that has become a goal in itself. The speaker suggested that this should be just a tool, rather than a goal: users don’t care about “responsive”, they care about “fast”. Never forget the users is a good motto for everyone working in IT.

Summary
Velocity’s first day has been a very hands on day. The overall take-home lesson is simple: managing performance requires some sound science, but with adequate tools and resources it’s not impossible to do it on a shoestring budget and in an effective way. As I’m an advocate of internal resource control and management with respect to outsourcing, today’s talks have surely provided me with some great insight on how to achieve this smartly.

Aside from this summary, I’ve also been taking some technical notes, which are available here and will also contain notes from the future sessions.

Heading to Velocity

Giuseppe Sollazzo

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

This blog is the first in a series about my participation in the O’Reilly Velocity Conference in Amsterdam, funded by a UCISA bursary.

My job is to lead a team of systems analysts who take care of the ongoing maintenance and development of our infrastructure. I have a genuine passion for my job; knowing we provide services that benefit future doctors and health professionals in training gives me a positive attitude. As I believe that expanding my horizons is vital in keeping my interest and skills alive, I also have a number of other activities outside of my 9-5 work, most notably as an Open Data activist. I have been a ministerial advisor for Cabinet Office on Openness and Transparency Policy for the past two years.

Until 2012, the academic IT community had a yearly meetup at dev8d, a Jisc-sponsored three day conference. This event gathered developers, systems administrators, devops, digital librarians and support staff in a feast of sessions about development, new services, maintenance of systems, performances, and the future-proofing of everything “digital” in academic environments. The resulting networking and experience swapping had a lasting effect on the quality of academic outcomes.

However, in the subsequent difficult financial climate, events like dev8d have become rare (with dev8d itself being cancelled). In a situation of budget cuts and increased pressure from students and staff, the IT community has had to find alternative ways to get that same level of training and thinking about the future that came from such events. In this context, receiving funding from UCISA in order to sponsor attendance to a conference that my institution could not otherwise afford was welcome news.

My choice of event is O’Reilly Velocity in Amsterdam at the end of October. Velocity is an important conference – it also happens in New York, Santa Clara and Beijing – and it provides forward-looking sessions about performance and optimisation in systems and web operations. The sessions are often very practical, providing attendees with clear, pragmatic, and effective ideas on how to improve services. Engineers, developers and technology leaders share the challenges their businesses are facing and provide insight on technologies, best practices, and solutions that they have successfully employed to address those challenges.

In the situation I have described, it is evident why 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 an important consideration.

With access to funding becoming increasingly competitive, as is student and researcher recruitment, it becomes our primary goal to provide systems that are effective, secure, scalable, fast, and at the same time manageable by constrained staff numbers.

The sessions I plan to attend focus on a single goal; understanding how to improve services and ensure our users are satisfied and engaged with our systems. Some examples of sessions I intend to follow include:

I will be reporting from the conference floor both on Twitter (from my account @puntofisso) and this blog. Stay tuned!