On over-engineered solutions

The human desire to over-engineer solutions

On a recent trip, I had way too much time on my hands and was ambling around the usual overpriced shops in the airport terminal. There I saw a 40th anniversary “special edition” of the Space Pen. For $799.99 (plus taxes) you could get one of these pens, and some other memorabilia to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing. If you aren’t familiar with the Space Pen, you can look at learn more at the web site of the Fisher Space Pen Co.

Fisher Space Pen
Fisher Space Pen

For $800 you could get AG7-40LE – Astronaut Space Pen 40th Year Moon Landing Celebration Commemorative Pen & Box.

Part of this pen actually circled the moon!

Salient features of this revolutionary device:

  • it writes upside down
  • it writes in any language (so the Russians bought some of these :))
  • it draws pictures
  • it writes in zero gravity
  • it writes under water
  • it writes on greasy surfaces
  • it fixes broken switches on lunar modules

If you want to know about the history of this device, you can also look at NASA’s web page here. On the web page of the Fisher Space Pen Co, you can also see the promotion of the  AG7-40 – Astronaut Space Pen 40th Year Moon Landing Celebration Engraving.

While in the airport, I saw a couple of security officers rolling around on the Segway Personal Transporter. Did you know that for approximately $10,000 you could get yourself a Segway PT i2 Ferrari Limited Edition? I have no idea how much the airport paid for them but the Segway i2 is available on Amazon for about $6,000. It did strike me as silly, till I noticed three officers (a lot more athletic) riding through the terminal on Trek bicycles. That seemed a lot more reasonable. I have a bicycle like that, and it costs maybe 10% of a Segway.

I got thinking about the rampant over-engineering that was all around me, and happened upon this web page, when I did a search for Segway!

How to render the Segway Human Transporter Obsolete by Maddox.

Who would have thought of this, just add a third wheel and you could have a vehicle just as revolutionary? I thought about it some more and figured that the third wheel in Maddox’s picture is probably not the best choice; maybe it should be a wheel more like the track-ball of a mouse. That would have no resistance to turning and the contraption could do an effortless zero radius turn if required. The ball could be spring loaded and the whole thing could be on an arm that had some form of shock absorbing mechanism.

And, if we were to have done that, we would not have seen this. Bush Fails Segway Test! As an interesting aside, did you know that the high tech heart stent used for people who have bypass surgery was also invented by Dean Kamen?

We have a million ways to solve most problems. Why then do we over-engineer solutions to the point where the solution introduces more problems?

Keep it simple! There are less things that can break later.

Oh, and about that broken switch in the lunar module. Buzz Aldrin has killed that wonderful urban legend by saying he used a felt tip pen.

Buzz Aldrin still has the felt-tipped pen he used as a makeshift switch needed to fire up the engines that lifted him and fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong off the moon and started their safe return to Earth nearly 40 years ago.

“The pen and the circuit breaker (switch) are in my possession because we do get a few memorabilia to kind of symbolize things that happened,” Aldrin told reporters Friday.

If Buzz Aldrin used a felt tipped pen, why do we need a Space Pen? And what exactly are we celebrating by buying a $800 pen that can’t even fix a broken switch. A pencil can write upside down (and also write in any language :)). Why do we need Segway Human Transporters in an airport when most security officers should be able to walk or ride a bicycle. Why do we build complex software products and make them bloated, unusable, incomprehensible and expensive?

That’s simple, we’re paying a homage to our overpowering desire to over-engineer solutions.

How to render the Segway Human Transporter obsolet

Wondering about “Shared Nothing”

Is “Shared Nothing” the best architecture for a database? Is Stonebraker’s assertion of 1986 still valid? Were Norman et al., correct in 1996 when they made a case for a hybrid system? Have recent developments changed the dynamics?

Over the past several months, I have been wondering about the Shared Nothing architecture that seems to be very common in parallel and massively parallel systems (specifically for databases) these days. With the advent of technologies like cheap servers and fast interconnects, there has been a considerable amount of literature that point to an an apparent “consensus” that Shared Nothing is the preferred architecture for parallel databases. One such example is Stonebraker’s 1986 paper (Michael Stonebraker. The case for shared nothing. Database Engineering, 9:4–9, 1986). A reference to this apparent “consensus” can be found in a paper by Dewitt and Gray (Dewitt, Gray Parallel database systems: the future of high performance database systems 1992).

A consensus on parallel and distributed database system architecture has emerged. This architecture is based on a shared-nothing hardware design [STON86] in which processors communicate with one another only by sending messages via an interconnection network.

But two decades or so later, is this still the case, is “Shared Nothing” really the way to go? Are there other, better options that one should consider?

As long ago as 1996, Norman, Zurek and Thanisch (Norman, Zurek and Thanisch. Much ado about shared nothing 1996) made a compelling argument for hybrid systems. But even that was over a decade ago. And the last decade has seen some rather interesting changes. Is the argument proposed in 1996 by Norman et al., still valid? (Updated 2009-08-02: A related article in Computergram in 1995 can be read at http://www.cbronline.com/news/shared_nothing_parallel_database_architecture)

With the advent of clouds and virtualization, doesn’t one need to seriously consider the shared nothing architecture again? Is a shared disk architecture in a cloud even a worthwhile conversation to have? I was reading the other day about shared nothing cluster storage. What? That seems like an contradiction, doesn’t it?

Some interesting questions to ponder:

  1. In the current state of technology, are the characterizations “Shared Everything”, “Shared Memory”, “Shared Disk” and “Shared Nothing” still sufficient? Do we need additional categories?
  2. Is Shared Nothing the best way to go (As advocated by Stonebraker in 1986) or is a hybrid system the best way to go (as advocated by Norman et al., in 1996) for a high performance database?
  3. What one or two significant technology changes could cause a significant impact to the proposed solution?

I’ve been pondering this question for some time now and can’t quite seem to decide which way to lean. But, I’m convinced that the answer to #1 is that we need additional categories based on advances in virtualization. But, I am uncertain about the choice between a Hybrid System and a Shared Nothing system. The inevitable result of advancements in virtualization and clouds and such technologies seem to indicate that Shared Nothing is the way to go. But, Norman and others make a compelling case.

What do you think?

Michael Stonebraker. The case for shared nothing. Database Engineering, 9:4–9, 1986

IE+Microsoft ROCKS. Ubuntu+Firefox BLOWS

I’m running Ubuntu 9.0.4 and it appears that to upgrade to Firefox 3.5 requires a PhD. Could I borrow yours?

Kevin Purdy has the following “One line install”

That’s not a true install; he just unpacks the tar-ball into the current directory.

Web Upd8 has the following steps

But, now I get daily updates?

What’s with this garbage? Complain as much as you want but Microsoft Software Updates will give you the latest Internet Explorer easily.

Could someone please make this easy?

It’s just numbers people!

I hadn’t read Justin Swanhart’s post (Why is everybody so steamed about a benchmark anyway?) from June 24th till just a short while ago. You can see it at here. Justin is right, it’s just numbers.

He did remind me of a statement from a short while ago by another well known philosopher.

It's a budget

I could not embed the script provided by quotesdaddy.com into this post. I have used their material in the past, they have a great selection of statements that will live on in history. Check them out at http://www.quotesdaddy.com/ 🙂

Head for the hills, here comes more jargon: Anti-Databases and NoSQL

We all know what SQL is, get ready to learn about NoSQL. There was a meet-up last month in San Francisco to discuss it and some details are available at this link. The call for the “inaugural get-together of the burgeoning NoSQL community” drew 150 people and if you are so inclined, you can subscribe to the email list here.

I’m no expert at NoSQL but the major gripe seems to be schema restriction and what Jon Travis calls “twisting your object” data to fit an RDBMS.

NoSQL appears to be a newly coined collective pronoun for a lot of technologies you have heard about before. They include Hadoop, BigTable, HBase, Hypertable, and CouchDB, and maybe some that you have not heard of before like Voldemort, Cassandra, and MongoDb.

But, then there is this thing called NoSQL. The first line on that web page reads

NoSQL is a fast, portable, relational database management system without arbitrary limits, (other than memory and processor speed) that runs under, and interacts with, the UNIX 1 Operating System.

Now, I’m confused. Is this the NoSQL that was referenced in the non-conference at non-san-francisco last non-month?

My Point of View

From what I’ve seen so far, NoSQL seems to be a case of disruption at the “low end”. By “low end”, I refer to circumstances where the data model is simple and in those cases I can see the point that SQL imposes a very severe overhead. The same can be said in the case of a model that is relatively simple but refers to “objects” that don’t relate to a relational model (like a document). But, while this appears to be “low end” disruption right now, there is a real reason to believe that over time, NoSQL will grow into more complex models.

But, the big benefit of SQL is that it is declarative programming language that gave implementations the flexibility of implementing the program flow in a manner that matched the physical representation of the data. Witness the fact that the same basic SQL language has produced a myriad of representations and architectures ranging from shared nothing to shared disk, SMP to MPP, row oriented to column oriented, with cost based and rules based optimizers etc., etc.,

There is (thus far) a concern about the relative complexity of the NoSQL offerings when compared with the currently available SQL offerings. I’m sure that folks are giving this considerable attention and what comes next may be a very interesting piece of technology.



Learning from Joost

A lot of interesting articles have emerged in the wake of the recent happenings at Joost.

One post that caught my attention and deserves reading, and re-reading, and then reading one more time just to be sure is Ed Sim’s post, where he writes

raising too much money can be a curse and not a blessing

A lot to learn from in all of these articles.