Other writing in November 2016

Where have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

The Next Platform

I’m freelancing for The Next Platform as a contributing author. Much like my role with Opensource.com as a Community Moderator, I look at the other names on the list and I just say “wow! How did I end up in such good company?” The articles I wrote last month:

  • Advances in in situ processing tie to exascale targets — The growth in FLOPS is outpacing the growth in IOPS. Analyzing simulations as they run is becoming increasingly important for scientists and engineers.
  • Microsoft Research pens Quill for data intensive analysis — Collecting data is only useful to the extent that the data is analyzed. We have more data these days, but no platform that can handle both real-time streaming and post hoc analysis. The Quill project aims to change that.
  • JVM Boost shows warm Java is better than cold — The Java Virtual Machine allows “write once, run anywhere” but it imposes a performance penalty. For short-running jobs, the hit can be significant. The HotTub project speeds up these jobs (up to 30x in some cases!) by reusing JVM processes.


Over on Opensource.com, I agreed to coordinate the Doc Dish column. I also wrote the articles below. It was a great month for the site. Three times during November, we set a single-day page view record. We also crossed the million page view mark for the second consecutive month and the third time in site history.

Cycle Computing

Meanwhile, I wrote or edited a few things for work, too:

  • Scale in a Cloudy World — I contributed an article to HPC Source about how to scale cloud HPC environments.
  • Various ghost-written pieces. I’ll never tell which ones!

What counts more for community: labels or actions?

I was recently in an argument on Twitter (I know, I know). The summary is that there was disagreement on whether stated party affiliation or cast votes were more indicative of the state of the body politic. We didn’t arrive at a consensus, but it got me thinking about open source communities.

Communities are notoriously difficult to pin down. Where are the boundaries? Is a person a member of a community when they (or someone else) decides to apply that label to them? Are they a member when they make some overt participation effort? Is it a mix of both?

In general, I tend to think that if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, there’s a pretty good chance it’s a duck. That is to say a person is a member of a community if they participate in the community, even if they don’t self-assign the label. For example, if someone considers themselves a political independent but they vote for Democratic candidates 80% of the time, they’re probably a Democrat. Similarly, someone who frequently answers questions in an open source project’s IRC channel or mailing list is a member of the contributor community, even if they don’t think they are (perhaps because they’ve never contributed code).

This isn’t to say that communities shouldn’t welcome people willing to self-assign membership. Unless someone has behaved in a way to warrant exclusion, they should be welcomed and encouraged to become active participants. That doesn’t necessarily mean giving them full access, though. I still consider myself a contributor to Fedora Documentation, even though I haven’t really made a contribution in a while. I still have commit access to the repo, but if someone decided to suspend that, I’d understand.

There’s not a good answer here. How a you define community is largely context-dependent. It’s worth considering how we define the boundary.

Mythbuntu shuts down: is time up for time shifting?

The announcement of Mythbuntu’s death earlier this month got me thinking about the future of the DVR. Mythbuntu is/was a derivative of the Ubuntu Linux operating system that focused on providing a pre-packaged platform for the open source MythTV DVR system. The Mythbuntu team has apparently shrunk from 10 to 2, which is a pretty small team to manage an entire Linux distribution.

I am not surprised people left the project. People leave projects all the time. I’m also not surprised nobody stepped up. The time of the DVR is drawing to a rapid close.

I never used Mythbuntu, but I did briefly install MythTV on my home server a few years ago. My newborn’s sleep schedule prevented my wife and I from catching the shows we wanted to watch. I had some hardware issues, but MythTV itself was really easy to setup and use.

But shortly after I had everything configured, we canceled our cable TV. We just weren’t watching very much, and a Netflix subscription was much cheaper than a cable bill. Cord-cutting obviates the need for a DVR. But even people who keep their cable subscription often supplement with a streaming service. There’s just less of a need to record TV broadcasts anymore.

That’s not to say there aren’t advantages. I do not worry about something getting yanked from the streaming service if I record it. I can still watch locally-recorded shows if there’s a network outage. But for the most part, anything I’d want to watch I can get on demand without having to store it on my hard drive for a “just in case” that will never come.

I wonder how much longer DVRs will last. They are essentially VCRs without the magnetic tape, and VCRs are dead (Full disclosure: I still have and use a VCR). Open source and proprietary DVRs alike must find a new value proposition in order to survive. Maybe they can help me getting around to digitizing all of those home movies I have on VHS.

Well that’s one way to break a WordPress install

Several of you noticed last week that when I shared a new blog post on social media the link resulted in an HTTP 404 (page not found). I attributed it to the fact that I had written the post before I switched from the WordPress plain link style (e.g. “/?p=123”) to a longer style (“/2016/11/06/sample-post/”) and figured the plugin to publicize it didn’t handle that change correctly. But the link was correct, so what was it?

It turns out to be a security feature. I set the .htaccess file to be read-only. This is generally a good idea, but it caused a problem. When I changed the permalink setting, WordPress wasn’t able to write the necessary changes. As it turned out, WordPress was kind enough to let me know about this, but in a very unobtrusive way.

Below the “Save Changes” button, the WordPress settings page displayed this message:

“If your .htaccess file were writable, we could do this automatically, but it isn’t so these are the mod_rewrite rules you should have in your .htaccess file. Click in the field and press CTRL + a to select all.”

Of course, since it was below the save button, I didn’t even look at it. Only after I broke links to the blog posts in a very public manner did I notice what I had done. I blame myself mostly, but I also blame WordPress a tiny bit. “I can’t actually do what you told me to do” seems to merit a more in-your-face message. Big, red text or a popup dialog would have made it clear that I had more work to do.

But in the end, I was able to fix it quickly. Only two people said they noticed, and it’s not like I have more than a handful of page views on a given day anyway. Plus, I got this blog post out of the ordeal.

Measuring HVAC efficiency with degree days

I finally turned my furnace on for the winter this weekend. As I thought about all the money I’ve saved keeping it off for several extra weeks, I was reminded of a discussion I had with a friend earlier this year. He was comparing his electricity bill to the previous year to see how much his new air conditioning unit was saving. Of course, there are a lot of ways to arrive at the wrong answer.

Let’s look at some of the things that affect the dollar amount of a utility bill:

  • The price per unit. Natural gas, propane, and electricity all have costs that vary based on a variety of factors: fuel cost, regulatory requirements, taxes, etc.
  • Weather. Obviously extreme weather will affect how much is consumed, which then affects the final bill.
  • Billing period. At least for my bills, the length of the billing period can vary by one or two days. This is probably due to working days (particularly holidays), and the fact that months are not of equal length.
  • Usage patterns. If you’re out of town for a week in October of this year, but not of last year, your overall usage will probably be down this year. Similarly, if you add, remove, or replace appliances that can have an effect separate from your HVAC system. Or if you switch from working at an office to working from home, you’ll probably see an increase in utility usage.

So how can you see if your new furnace, air conditioner, fancy thermostat, or whatever has made a difference? It’s going to be hard to account for some of the factors above (particularly usage patterns), but the best way is to look at your usage per degree day.

What’s a degree day? It’s a measure of the amount of heating or cooling required. The simplest measure of a heating degree day is to subtract the daily average temperature from 65. For example, if the average temperature for a given day is 55, then you would record 10 heating degree days. Similarly, to calculate cooling degree days, you would subtract 65 from the average temperature. So on a day with a 75 degree average temperature, you would record 10 cooling degree days. The lowest measure of degree days is 0; you would not record negative values. (Note that “average” here means the mathematical average of the high and low, not the climatological normal. If you have more detailed temperature data, you can calculate on an hourly or similar basis to get a more accurate value.)

Utility companies will sometimes include the heating or cooling degree days for the billing period in your bill. If not, you can get values online. Divide your usage for the month (e.g. the kiloWatt hours) by the heating or cooling degree days to get a value you can compare to other bills. If your usage patterns are relatively the same, you’ll now be able to compare year-to-year.

Other writing in October 2016

Where have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Over on Opensource.com, we had our second-ever month with a million page views! While I didn’t have any articles published, I did agree to coordinate the Doc Dish column, so there’s that.

Meanwhile, I wrote or edited a few things for work, too:

I also spoke at the All Things Open conference in Raleigh, NC. It went okay.

The AWS/VMWare partnership

Disclosures: My employer is an AWS partner. This post is solely my personal opinion and does not represent the opinion of my employer or AWS. I have no knowledge of this partnership beyond what has been publicly announced. I also own a small number of shares of Amazon stock.

Last week, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and VMWare announced a partnership that would make AWS the preferred cloud solution for VMWare. AWS will provide a separate set of hardware running VMWare’s software managed by VMWare staff. Customers can then provision a VMWare environment from that pool that looks the same as an internal data center.

As others have pointed out, this is essentially a colocation service that just happens to be run by Amazon. I share that view of it, but I don’t take the view that AWS blinked. It’s true that AWS has eschewed hybrid cloud in favor of pure cloud offerings, and they’ve done quite well with that strategy.

I don’t think the market particularly cares about purity, nor do I think the message will get muddled. Here’s how I see this deal: VMWare sees people moving stuff to the cloud and they know that the more that trend continues, the smaller their market becomes. Meanwhile AWS is printing money but is aware of the opportunity to print more. Microsoft Azure, despite having an easy answer for hybrid, doesn’t seem to be a real threat to AWS at the moment.

But I don’t think AWS leadership is stupid or complacent, and this deal represents a low-risk, high-reward opportunity for them. With this partnership, AWS now has an entry into organizations that have previously been cloud-averse. Organizations can dip their toes into “cloud” without having to re-tool (although this is not the best long-term strategy, as @cloud_opinion points out). As the organization becomes comfortable with the version of the cloud they’re using, it becomes easier for AWS sales reps to talk them into moving various parts to AWS proper.

Now I don’t mean to imply that AWS is a sheep in wolf’s clothing here. This deal seems mutually beneficial. VMWare is going to face a shrinking market over time. With this deal, they at least get to buy themselves some time. For AWS, it’s more of a long game, and they can put as much or as little into this partnership as they want. For both companies, it’s a good argument to prevent customers from switching to Microsoft’s offerings.

What will be most interesting is to see if Google Cloud, the other major infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) provider will respond. Google’s strategy, up until about a year ago, has seemed to be “we’re Google, of course people will use us”. That has worked fairly well for startups, but it has very little traction in the enterprise. Google can continue to be more technically-focused, but that will hinder their ability to get into major corporations (especially those outside of the tech industry).

I don’t see that there’s a natural fit at this point (though I also wouldn’t have expected AWS and VMWare to pair up, so what do I know?). One interesting option would be for Google to buy Red Hat (disclosure: I also own a few shares of Red Hat) and make Open Shift its hybrid solution. I don’t see that happening, though, as it doesn’t seem like the right move for either company.

The VMWare-on-AWS offering will not be generally available until sometime next year, so we have a little bit of time before we can see how it plays out.


Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 is no more. After a number of unplanned combustions, including a few post-recall devices, Samsung has given up on it entirely. This is a wise move. Better to fix the problem for the next version and pretend this never happened. Other than the 1/3 cut to revenue that they predict. That’ll probably be a reminder for a while.

I’m really interested to see how Samsung’s brand recovers from this. On the one hand, they’re clearly the leader in high-end Android devices (full disclosure: my current phone is a Galaxy Note 4 and I really like it). They seem to be the only mainstream manufacturer that can compete with Apple. On the other hand, exploding phones are pretty unprecedented. To my knowledge, the Galaxy Note 7 is the only phone to ever be specifically mentioned in airline safety briefs.

Samsung as a whole will be okay, unless it turns out the board and executives were pushing for the Galaxy Note 7 to be mini-bombs. Even the smartphone division will probably recover, though they may have to pull some extra tricks out of the bag to regain consumer trust. I would not be surprised if the Galaxy Note 7 is the last device to carry the “Galaxy Note” name. “Galaxy” may be retired as well, even though the Galaxy S and Galaxy Edge devices have no history of combustion.

I’ve had my phone for less than a year, so barring an accident, I won’t be replacing it for another 18-24 months or more. The Galaxy Note line has a lot of features I like, and I figured whenever it was time to replace my phone, I’d go with the current of that line. Depending on what Samsung does over the next year, I may have to reconsider.

As I sat down at my desk Monday morning, I found myself being very thankful I don’t work for Samsung right now. I can market my company’s software because I know it does awesome things. Even though it has some bugs, as all software does, they’re not going to burn anyone’s house down. I can’t imagine trying to promote products when your company is associated with exploding phones in the public’s mind.

Hurricanes doing laps

As I write this Thursday night, Hurricane Matthew is approaching the east coast of Florida. By the time this post goes live, Matthew will have just made landfall (or made its closet approach to the Florida coast). Hundreds have been killed in Haiti, according to officials there, and I haven’t heard of any updates from Cuba or the Bahamas, both of which were hit fairly hard.

But even as the immediate concerns for Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas are the primary focus, there’s another though in the mind of meteorologists: a second round.

National Hurricane Center forecast graphic for Hurricane Matthew.

National Hurricane Center forecast graphic for Hurricane Matthew.

If the forecast holds and Matthew loops back around to strike the Bahamas and Florida again, it could exacerbate already devastating damage. It is expected to weaken, so the threat will be more for rain than wind, but with existing widespread damage, it could be significant.

Such an event is not unprecedented, but it is rare. Eduoard and Kyle, both in 2002, did loops over open water, but did not strike the same area twice. Hurricane Esther struck Cape Cod twice in 1961.

From what I’ve been able to find, it looks like 1994’s Hurricane Gordon is the closest analog, but it’s not great. Gordon snaked through the Florida Straights and moved onshore near Fort Myers. The second landfall was near the location of the “seafall” on the Atlantic coast. Gordon’s peak strength was a low-end category 1, not the category 3 or 4 that Matthew will be at landfall (or closest approach).

Matthew is already making its place in history as the strongest storm on record to impact the northeastern Florida coast. Next week, we’ll find out how much gets tacked on.