IT Life: The Future Of Computing Is Distributed

Justin Sheehy, CTO at Basho, talks about NoSQL, Grace Hopper and why distributed computing tools shall inherit the earth

Basho Technologies is a US provider of distributed database software technology founded in 2008 by a group of former Akamai executives and engineers. The company’s most successful product is Riak, an open source NoSQL database written in Erlang and used by companies like Adobe, AT&T, Yammer and Angry Birds developer Rovio.

Justin Sheehy, CTO at Basho, says Riak is his favourite project, and he believes distributed computing will become a lot more important in the next few years.

Building a database

Tell us about your company, how long have you been in IT and what are your areas of expertise?

riak-circleMy first paying IT job was in 1993, publishing medical journals in hypertext form just shortly before the World Wide Web began to publicly take off. My tinkering history goes back at least another decade, to around the time of the Commodore PET and VIC-20 machines. Those were the systems that first lit the spark of my own interest in what was possible with computing.

In terms of expertise, I don’t think of myself as a long-term specialist. If there is an area that I keep coming back to, it is distributed systems. I’ve also worked in information security, consumer-facing Web start-ups, and other areas… but distributed systems are where my attention keeps returning.

What’s the favourite IT project that you’ve ever worked on?

Although I’ve had the good fortune to work on many exciting projects, I do think that Riak is my favourite. It has turned out not only to be an excellent database, but a powerful distributed data platform on which even more interesting things can and will be built. It’s also been really rewarding to see how organisations have built upon Riak with such monumental results.

For example, in Denmark, everyone has a national electronic medical record and the country needed a scalable and accessible database to support the constant influx of critical data. With Riak, Danish Health was able to deploy a high-availability and high-performance nationwide system at low cost, allowing them to reallocate crucial funds from technology support to the far more important areas of medicine and research.

What technologies were you involved with ten years ago?

Ten years ago I was at Akamai, working on some of the bits of software engineering there that were responsible for making Akamai’s huge and growing global network mostly self-managing. Many of the technical and organizational challenges that we (though not only we) were dealing with then are things that are now becoming more common, such as building eventually-consistent systems and using a development and operations joint approach that would now be known as DevOps.

What do you expect to be using in ten years’ time?

I haven’t the slightest idea and that is very exciting. We are in a time of very rapid change and anyone who tells you that they know today what tools they’ll be using in 2023 is crazy. What is certain, though, is that computing tools of the future will have to be very good at distributed systems. The time when most of the interesting software was able to effectively run on a single computer is already over.

Waiting for the future

To cloud or not to cloud?

As much as it would be nice to give a simple answer to this question, there is a lot tangled up here. It is not only impossible to give the same right answer for everyone, but also there is often neither a simple “yes” or “no” answer for many. There are a number of cases where consuming computing resources via a cloud will provide valuable flexibility and other cases where the downsides are not worth it, at least today.

Some companies may find it best to use a cloud for some needs and more traditional systems for others. The one thing that is certain is that no one in IT can safely ignore the ways in which cloud computing is changing the territory. Not everyone needs to switch everything to a cloud today, but anyone who pretends it is irrelevant or just a fad will be left behind.

Grace Hopper and UNIVACWho is your tech hero and who is your tech villain?

If I was to pick just one hero in software of all time, it would be Rear Admiral Grace Hopper [sometimes referred to as Amazing Grace]. She created many aspects of the computing field (such as the first compiler) because she saw the need and had both the vision and ability to deliver. She also pushed large organizations (like the US Department of Defense) to switch from centralized systems to distributed systems for many computing needs. Perhaps most importantly, she was an excellent teacher.

Villainy is a trickier thing. I think that there are some who wish to extract value from the industry without   providing anything of value in return. For example: those who take a rent-seeking approach (e.g. by buying patents simply in order to sue with them) rather than a value-producing approach to the software industry would at the very least not be my heroes.

What’s your favourite device ever made and what do you use the most?

My favourite device ever might be a pocketknife, but I almost certainly use either my laptop or my phone more than anything else.

Apart from your own, which company do you admire the most and why?

There are many people I admire, but for a company instead of a person to be worthy of admiration there really has to be something special about it. Charities can be worthy of admiration. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation seeks to give every person the chance to live a healthy, productive life. That is worth admiring.

More along the lines you might have meant, even if I don’t know if I would use the word “admire” exactly, a company that continues to impress me is Amazon. They continuously invest against sound long-term strategic plans, and relentlessly deliver what they must in order to make those plans succeed.

What did you want to be when you were a child?

I don’t think I had a single goal in mind, career-wise, as a child. Some of the people I grew up around, such as my uncle and grandfather, were stonecutters. If I end up making worthwhile things that last for half as long as the things they made, that will be satisfying.

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