On Clouds and Wavey Hands

A friend of mine, Jonathan, was recently busy investigating some web technologies for bootstrapping a project he’s starting on and during his search for easy non-local database alternatives he came across this post that compares offerings from Microsoft and Amazon. Upon reading the post, the following quote caught my eye:

“Not surprisingly, the access to SimpleDB is much faster from inside Amazon’s network than from outside (about three times as fast). Searching the web can lead to some references about how Amazon has optimized its internal networks so that internal access to the different services is much faster than outside access. To me, it seems as a form of lock-in, not a desirable feature, …”

I’ve ranted a bit about a lack of infrastructure understanding before, so even so I encounter something every now and then which leaves me impressed with how little people in general seem to care about how things work; or, otherwise put, with only caring that they work. I’m reminded of the one scene somewhere in the series of The Matrix movies:

Neo: Why don’t you tell me what’s on your mind, Councillor?
Councillor Harmann: There is so much in this world that I do not understand. See that machine? It has something to do with recycling our water supply. I have absolutely no idea how it works. But I do understand the reason for it to work.

Both parts of that statement hold true, and I feel that it’s the latter part that people sometimes miss out on. To bring my point back to the original excerpt, I feel it’s somewhat silly to point out the fact of higher latency access without indicating that you attempted to get an understanding of what causes this, especially if you then want to jump to the next point of saying “it feels like lock-in”. Certainly it’s true that Amazon would try to improve the offering within their network, as it just makes sense to bundle a good services experience, but there are factors to consider when using this sort of service from elsewhere, factors which influence things to varying degrees. The foremost I’d list among these is physics: it takes time for the digital to reach from one location to another, because there’s various forms of media conversion likely to take place (light-to-copper, copper-to-light), there’s routing and switching which needs to happen, there’s probably some service-specific firewalling, loadbalancing and application-server interfacing likely to happen. The list goes from these “run of the mill” items which you’ll encounter on a regular basis to other things such as TCP setup time (which can also influence things in various ways depending on a whole other set of factors).

On a bigger scale, this sort of almost cargo cult thinking is pervasive in various different areas of life, and a quote from Arthur C. Clarke comes to mind: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. At the end of the day, I’m a big advocate for understanding how something works, as well as pushing boundaries and trying to improve things. So while I don’t think we should ever just sit back and be complacent with how things are, I do also think that we should strive to understand just that little bit more than we need to. I feel it’s usually, perhaps always, that extra little bit which puts us ahead of just “churning” and into the position of actually producing something just a little bit better.

Even though that little bit might not be much, a few hundred/thousand/hundred-thousand/… of it adds up. Hopefully I’m not just preaching to the choir with my current audience, but that someone else might also come across this post. And, as always, comments and thoughts welcome!