Ricon 2012 Recap

Back in July 2012, Basho's Technical Evangelist, Tom Santero, posted an invitation to the riak mailing list to a conference Basho was holding on distributed databases called Ricon. Tom said:


...the goal is to put on a two day event that caters to developers working in, with and
around distributed systems. While Riak will be a primary focus, we've
invited several select speakers whose reputations and work in distributed
systems procceed them.


I've been in and or around the non-traditional database world for a few years now prodding and poking around, checking out the various flavors, reading up on comparisons and perusing their mailing lists. Although garnering a lot of attention ranging from justified to hyperbolic in the last few years, non-relational databases - often falling under the conflated NOSQL moniker - are still a niche, fledgling set of technologies. Who would come to this conference? Basho's Riak simply had not had http://www.google.com/trends/explore#q=riak%2C%20couchdb%2C%20redis%2C%20mongodb&cmpt=q" target="_blank">the same mindshare that a Mongo or even a Cassandra or Couch have enjoyed, not to mention the overall Hadoop ecosystem. In truth, I was skeptical. Oftentimes, a company specific conference devolves into a marketing and sales fun fest that leaves you running for the exits.

Well, turns out Ricon ended up selling out at around 350 distributed database enthusiasts and believe it or not, the conference did not devolve but presented a very interesting mix of academic theory and practical implementation. Others thought so as well:



The Talks

Bookended by two preeminent speakers, Joseph Hellerstein and Eric Brewer, Ricon started and ended like an academic conference. Their talks were both theoretical and practical in that they both presented distributed database concepts like monotinicity and commutative replicated data types (CRDT's) in an approachable way and coupled that with practical next steps for current and future development like Joe and his team's efforts on Bloom language (not to be confused with Bloom filters) and Russel Sears' Stasis. These talks were about as product agnostic as any at Ricon.

There were talks by Basho engineers that built on and further bridged the gap of the theoretical with the practical as implemented in Riak. Sean Cribbs and Russell Brown showed us how some of those theoretical principles are being realized in code by releasing riak_dt, an experimental Riak branch that adds things like counters to standard Riak. Counters have been available in Cassandra for a while now and have been something the Riak community has been interested for some time. And by Riak community, I mean me... and possibly a few others. Bryan Fink gave a talk on Riak Pipe which is the underpinnings of Riak's map reduce implementation. The Q&A after Bryan's talk was dominated by the possibility of leveraging Pipe to create a real-time processing environment in a similar vein to that of Storm.

One talk I was particularly interested in was Ryan Zezeski's Yokozuna presentation which highlighted ongoing development of Riak's search capabilities. The new effort is a fresh start and departure from the current implementation. Yokozuna replaces the current Lucene-like, a.k.a. not Lucene, search internals for actual Lucene by way of integrating Solr directly into Riak. There are quite a few advantages to be had here. As Ryan indicated in his talk, Basho is not in the business of search. By relying on Lucene to drive search, Basho effectively outsources the core search problem to a proven and well-known solution. Additionally, this reorients the current term-based partitioning mechanism with a document-based partitioning mechanism. What that basically means, is that your search index will live on the same node as your document which has implications for most composite search queries. Part of Gary Flake's keynote delved into this particular consideration and how his company, Clipboard, deals with this currently.

Two non-Riak talks that were quite interesting were Dana Contreras's talk on Twitters' internal stack re-architecture employing interconnected independent services and Accenture on how to present "big data" as a concern, opportunity and solution to decision-makers in your organization. Dana's talk took a look at the internal engineering and operational process as it evolves in an orginization as their code base and engineering head count grows. For Twitter, segmenting their internal services not only provided for a cleaner code base but also allowed teams of people to focus on one area of the code base at a time. Accenture's talk was the most "businessy" of the conference but I think it is something that developers and engineers should have some insight into. Market fit, risk, productization and cost are all concerns for your executive suite and as a developer or consultant you need to speak to those concerns when pitching solutions. Accenture's analysis shows that in the last few years, mainly thanks to the popularity of Hadoop, executives in traditional industries are aware of "big data" and are open to entertaining solutions in the space.

Future directions

Where does Ricon go from here? There is always room for improvement. My main concern is that the content remain diverse in terms of products. Politics and money aside (is that even possible?), I would like to see continued participation from other vendors or even end users whose solutions employ other vendors' products if this conference is to continue billing itself as a distributed systems gathering. Riak is not the only solution in the space and it is worthwhile knowing how other solutions are implementing distributed principles. I definitely think, on the whole, an inclusive approach simply stands to grow the non-traditional distributed database/systems pie.

Chatter by conference attendees left me convinced that Ricon was a success. Ricon was-well executed, well-attended and actually interesting. But more importantly, it was relevant. For those of us at the conference, we actually work in this space. We are interested in the ongoing development of distributed solutions to a number of problems. The conference delivered on creating a space that brought us together to share solutions and learn about continuing advancements. For a new conference to have a successful maiden voyage is no small feat in my book. I, for one, am looking forward to the next one.

I would love to hear your thoughts on what would make a good distributed systems conference. Were you at Ricon? What did you think?