Sunday, December 09, 2007
A. A. Michelson Award Acceptance Speech
Last week I was selected as this year's winner of the A. A. Michelson Award for Lifetime Achievement and Contribution by the Computer Measurement Group. Here is a transcript of my acceptance speech.
Thanks to CMG, the Michelson Award winners who voted to add me to their ranks, and everyone who I have met here since I first attended CMG in 1994. I treat the CMG conference as my annual training class, a chance to mingle with my peers, learn and share the things I have learned.
There are some people who I have met at CMG or while working in this field who have become special friends, not just people I see at the conference each year. Cathy Nolan is not only national CMG president this year, she is president of my local CMG group in Northern California and was also instrumental in the process of getting me nominated for this award. We have all learned a lot over the years from Neil Gunther. Neil and I have jointly presented many training classes so I have had plenty of opportunity to learn his material. He has made queuing theory accessible and useful for very many people. Mario Jauvin has been my CMG conference buddy for many years, and for the last three years we have jointly presented the Capacity Planning with Free Tools workshop. Yefim (Fima) Somin encouraged me to attend CMG in the first place, we met in 1994 while working to port BGS Best/1 to Solaris, and we have kept in touch over the years, even though he doesn't get to come to CMG nowadays. Fima and Henry Newman were part of the Universal Measurement Architecture standards body that I joined in 1995, and I have also kept in touch with Henry. We worked to get some of his ideas (like extended system accounting) to be implemented in Solaris. Bob Sneed worked with me at Sun and is now the main contact point and conscience for CMG at Sun.
Outside CMG there are some very significant people I would also like to thank. Brian Wong is one of my closest friends, responsible for getting me to move to the USA in 1993, and is also author of the Capacity Planning and Configuration for Solaris Servers book. Brian introduced me to Rich Pettit, and we worked together for many years to build and extend the SE Toolkit, the vehicle for most of my performance measurement ideas. Allan Packer was the co-author of my first CMG paper on Database Sizing. He knows everything about database performance and wrote the book Configuring and Tuning Databases on the Solaris Platform. We borrowed Allan from Sun's office in Adelaide Australia for a month or two, and he introduced me to Richard McDougall, who we also borrowed from Adelaide. Allan and Richard both ended up working for Sun's Performance group in California. Richard built the first tools that could measure memory usage, fixed the Solaris 8 memory system, and co-authored the Solaris Internals books. He became a Sun Distinguished Engineer and recently joined VMware as Chief Performance Architect. Jim Mauro is the other author of Solaris Internals, we borrowed him from Sun's New Jersey office a few times before he also joined the performance group full time. Finally Dave Fisk worked with Brian Wong and I at Sun, and became one of my closest friends. He knows more about Unix storage performance than anyone else I've met, and I've called on him many times (he's now a consultant) to help figure out what's really going on.
I would also like to thank my family. My father is a retired Statistics Professor from the University of Hertfordshire (a.k.a. Hatfield Polytechnic) in the UK. He was programming himself in the 1960's and gently encouraged me to tinker with computers from an early age. My son recently graduated with his BSc in Computer Science from the same University, and now works as a project manager at eBay in California. My daughter has just started a degree course in European Literature at Royal Holloway College, London, so I'm no help at all with her assignments :-) I'm very proud of them. I moved to the USA on my own a few years ago and met my lovely wife Laurel in 2003. I'm very happy that she has also been able to attend CMG with me and meet many of you.
I have always been glad that I studied Physics, the work we do in performance and the diagnosis and measurement of performance leans heavily on my training as a Physicist and I think that pure Computer Scientists are lacking some of the tools they need to understand measurement and performance issues. Since A. A. Michelson was a Physicist this award is especially gratifying for me.
In 1972 my High School had a link to the computer that my Father used at Hatfield Polytechnic. I taught myself BASIC and Algol during recess....
This is what most people know me for, its getting a little out of date now, since the second edition was published in 1998, but a big thank-you to my co-author Rich Pettit and everyone that bought a copy!
The book documented metrics and performance rules, and they were implemented as an SE Toolkit script called Virtual Adrian. I spent a lot of time with all the tools vendors helping them to manage Solaris better, and with Solaris engineering getting them to make Solaris more manageable. This is what justified my involvement with CMG during my time at Sun, and its the legacy that I am most proud of.
To finish, some of the things I have learned over the years that you may find useful...
If you ever try to write a book, you need to pay attention to Cockcroft's Law of Book Writing. It seems counter-intuitive to people who have never attempted to write a book, but it is the most important thing to know if you ever intend to finish a book. For example, you scope a 200 page book and start writing. After you have written 50 pages you re-scope and find your book is now a 300 page book. You write another 50 pages and find you are now writing a 400 page book. The number of pages you have left to write to finish the book is increasing! You have to reduce scope continuously and plot a trend line that slopes downwards if you ever hope to be published.
If you collect information and share it freely, you will become an expert. You become a magnet for questions, issues and information. Some people tightly control their expertise, this is a huge mistake as it gives others incentives to look for alternative experts or to become experts themselves. If you give out your expertise freely, you become the go-to person in your field, and gather many more recommendations from the people you help. Try it!
Some observations that may help you deal with executive level management. The first one is a big problem that Sun and other manufacturers have, because the things they build take many years to go from conception to delivery. If the managers in charge of these projects don't stick around then the project is likely to be tinkered with and delayed further or dropped. Its nice being at Netflix, where the executives have been there for years and the projects take months to deliver. The second observation is that Capacity Planners have a vertical role in the organization, they gather the lowest level metrics from operations and have to present findings to upper management. We love our detailed metrics, but the only metric that upper management should have to deal with is the dollar. If you can present everything in terms of return on investment (spend $100K to save or grow by $1M) then your executive presentations will be much more effective.
What am I working on now? I'm managing a team that develops the Netflix web site. Its a personalized web service and I think that is the future of the computer industry. The scalability and performance challenges are very interesting. I'm also pushing an idea I call "Millicomputing" which could have a disruptive effect on the industry as storage moves from disks (spinning rust) to flash, and the computers move to ultra low power system-on-a-chip devices. I gave a paper on Millicomputing at CMG07 and have a separate blog on the subject.
My paper at last year's CMG was called "Utilization is Virtually Useless as a Metric", and this answer sums it up. Those who ask questions about utilization don't understand that their questions have no meaning so the answers are irrelevant :-)