Monday, December 19, 2011

Books For Systems Geeks

I've been involved in lots of system releases over the years. Not only major versions and upgrades for the various companies I've worked for but the monthly or weekly minor (or, "minor") releases that are the norm in startups everywhere.

And like everyone else who's gone through those circuits, I've picked up a bunch of ad hoc, empirically proven knowledge about how to do these things. I know what's worked, and I know what hasn't.

But as the person helming the online systems for my studio's next major game, I thought it was a good idea to see what other people have to say about the complex art of launching a big system. Not just making it scale but the processes and practices that make it a smooth, worry-free (or as close as one can hope) launch. No sense in avoiding the wisdom of others, after all.

Here are my thoughts on a few of the books I've read recently.

The Art of Scalability - This is one of my favorites, and it's a book I'll come back to again and again. While it's light on actual technical details, it does a great job of explaining how scalability decisions are actually business decisions and how you need a culture of scalability, not just a decision to shove it all in at the end.

That sounds obvious, right? That's the other thing the book does really well: Encapsulating ideas you, like me, have probably learned on your own into nice, articulate concepts. I know about horizontal scaling, sharding, and splitting up servers based on functionality. But when they talk about their X-, Y-, and Z-axis scaling cube, it summarizes it quickly. Little phrases like "technology agnostic design" and "swim lanes" become keywords that you can quickly call up when you're thinking, "Something about this doesn't sound right."

Release It! - I was scribbling down notes constantly while reading this book. This is the distilled advice of someone who's seen lots of systems work well and poorly. It's one of the few tech books that is super relevant even five years or so after it was published. (Though it merely hints at the cloud technology that has sprung up since then.)

It documents a slew of patterns and antipatterns that will have you nodding your head constantly. A lot of the topics are things that you probably kind of know if you've done a bunch of launches. But this book takes them out of the realm of intuition and into concrete knowledge, real experience, and practical advice.

Its notion that the time before launch is a comparably short time in your product's life versus the time it spends live won't necessarily apply if, like me, you work in the games industry, where years of work go into a product whose user base drops off, under normal circumstances, rather than grows. But that does not diminish the value of the text. (And I won't always be in games.)

Scalability Rules - This book is the sequel to The Art of Scalability, though perhaps companion is a better word. Whereas the authors were light on tech and heavy on business in the first book, this book is all about the technical concepts you need to launch scalable systems. Again, lots of great advice that I scribbled into my notes. (This book has more to say on cloud systems than the original, earlier book did.)

Best of all, they provide a handy list of the 50 rules in order of "amount of risk management you get" and also provide a rough guess at the amount of work. Sort by most bang for the least buck, and you'll be knocking out a few in no time.

Scalable Internet Architectures - On the other hand, if you really want technical advice, this book gets way down to the nitty-gritty. There's a lot of good info here, but it's going to be most useful if you're on the IT/operations side of the fence versus the development side. That said, his argument that you should focus on scaling down (i.e., cutting costs) as well as scaling up has become a fixture in my architecture.

Continuous Delivery - The notion of continuous delivery, which means that your software is always ready for launch, is a compelling one. The authors are basically trying to convert the seemingly inevitable tension around a production release into a ho-hum experience that most of the team probably doesn't even need to be aware of.

It sounds great, but I'm not sure how much I'll be able to apply to my day-to-day work. The authors set a high bar when they cavalierly suggest that you should have 90 percent coverage just from unit tests. I used to feel fairly good about the fact that I had 40 percent coverage from unit tests and integration tests.

Still, I definitely came out with some ideas that will make our own launches more relaxed once I implement them.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My Radio Broadcast Podcast

While I have an enthusiasm for boppy, bubble-gum music, particularly as a backdrop to coding, I have also had a passion for opera in the past. I've even had questions used in the Opera Quiz on the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts.

Unfortunately, that passion is hard to fit into my life these days. Opera tickets are expensive unless you want to stand, and performances take a long time. This is the nature of opera.

This used to be easier. On Saturday mornings, I'd turn on the radio broadcast and listen to the opera for several hours as I went about my morning. Then I got into food. And farmers markets, my favorite of which are on Saturday mornings. That then became my normal food shopping day, and the radio broadcast went by the wayside. I'm usually coming home from shopping right as the opera ends.

Sure, you can listen to albums, but the Met broadcasts are fun because they provide context. The host describes the costumes, experts provide backstory, and they do the quiz.

When podcasts became popular, I realized that a podcast of the Met's Saturday matinees would be perfect. I sent letters asking the Met to do it. When they called and asked for money, I'd mention it. I'd even tell them that I would pay for such a podcast. Imagine: paying for Internet content!

They've never done it. And so I've fallen behind on opera, enjoying it as much as possible with a ticket or two a year to the San Francisco Opera.

Earlier this year, I was ranting about this yet again when I realized that I could probably craft my own podcast based on the radio broadcasts. What I wanted was the ability to call up a podcast on my iPod and see the latest opera broadcast, already synced. So began a day or two, off and on, of work on a podcast-creation script that would use radio stations as its source material.

Rube Goldberg would like this one.

First, I needed to figure out how to capture the music. A friend suggested FStream, Mac OS X software that had two valuable features: I could open a wide range of streaming URLs with it, and it was scriptable. I like scriptable apps. And these days, one can even use Ruby to do that scripting.

What I ultimately wanted was to not even think about this. That meant that my script would need to know a schedule. It reads in a config file with YAML entries that contain the name of the item, the start time, end time, and streaming URL. When the script runs, it parses the file and checks once a minute to see if it should be recording. If it should (and it isn't), it starts up FStream, points it to the appropriate URL, and tells it to start recording. When it reaches the end time, it tells FStream to stop recording.

Once the file is closed, the script uploads it to S3 and creates an XML file that points to all the appropriate links of the files. Voila: a podcast of streaming radio.

Though I did this originally with the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts in mind, it obviously works for any streaming radio. I've set up new entries for CapRadio's Friday Night at the Opera, and KDFC's San Francisco Opera broadcasts.

There are a couple of problems with this script. One is a bug that causes it to throw an exception when uploading the file. I'll fix that at some point. It just means I have to manually upload the files to S3. The other problem is logistical: Neither of our computers is on all the time. To add one more step to my baroque script, I set myself a reminder so that I know to set up my computer during the appropriate time period. I wonder if iCal is scriptable …

In addition to all the stuff this script is supposed to do, the script passes its config file through Ruby's ERB system. That means that I can actually set up my config file so that the start times are programatically driven (e.g., 9:00am on the coming Saturday).

I'd still like the Met to do a podcast of their own. I'd even still pay for it. But until they do, I not only have their broadcasts in a podcast, I have a wealth of others.

Here's the script, with various sensitive bits taken out. One thing I've found useful is to put my S3 connectivity information in a separate, included script so that I can distribute the main script and not accidentally include my S3 credentials. On the off chance you want to use this script, you'll need a file named aws_info.rb in the same directory as this script which defines three variables: S3_BUCKET_NAME, S3_ACCESS_KEY, and S3_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY.

require './awsinfo'
require 'rubygems'

require 'appscript'
include Appscript

require 'fileutils'
require 'time'
require 'yaml'
require 'aws/s3'
require 'erb'
require 'rss/1.0'
require 'rss/2.0'
require 'rss/maker'

class File
def name
pieces = self.path.split('/')
pieces[pieces.length - 1]

PODCAST_FILE = "podcast.xml"

$schedule_file = 'opera_schedule.yaml'
$is_recording = false
$current_schedule = nil

#constants are defined in awsinfo
def start_s3
:access_key_id => S3_ACCESS_KEY,
:secret_access_key => S3_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY

def stop_s3

def parse_time(time_string)
regex = /^(\d*?)-(\d*?)-(\d*?)\s*?(\d*?):(\d*)/
year = time_string[regex,1].to_i
month = time_string[regex,2].to_i
day = time_string[regex,3].to_i
hour = time_string[regex,4].to_i
minute = time_string[regex,5].to_i

def parse_schedule_file(filename = $schedule_file,
schedule =,'r') {|file|YAML::load( binding)}

#side effect: sets $current_schedule if appropriate
def should_be_recording(
schedule = parse_schedule_file(filename=$schedule_file,time=time)
schedule_flag = false
schedule.each do |schedule_entry|
start_time = parse_time(schedule_entry['start_time'])
end_time = parse_time(schedule_entry['end_time'])
if (start_time..end_time) === time then
schedule_flag = true
$current_schedule = schedule_entry

def next_scheduled_task(
schedule = parse_schedule_file(filename=$schedule_file,time=time)
sorted_schedules = schedule.sort {|a,b| parse_time(a['start_time']) <=> parse_time(b['start_time'])}
return_schedule = nil

sorted_schedules.each do |entry|
if parse_time(entry['start_time']) > time then
return_schedule = entry

def add_file_to_podcast(file,schedule_info=$current_schedule)
xml_file = file_from_pieces(fstreams_dir,PODCAST_FILE)
rss = nil
if !File.exists?(xml_file) then
rss = RSS::Maker.make("2.0") do |maker| = "Derrick's Radio Podcast" = PODCAST_URL + PODCAST_FILE = "Radio programs captured by script"
maker.items.do_sort = true # sort items by date
end,"w") {|file| file.write(rss)}

content = "","r") do |existing_file|
content =
rss = RSS::Parser.parse(content,false)

item = item =
item.title = schedule_info['name'] = File.mtime(file) = "#{PODCAST_URL}/#{}"
item.pubDate = File.mtime(file)
item.enclosure =, File.size(file), 'audio/mpeg')
rss.items << item,"w") {|file| file.write(rss)}

#todo: use fstream.recording flag
def is_recording
fstream = app('FStream')
puts fstream.status
$is_recording && fstream.status == 3

def fstreams_dir
fstream_path = './fstreams'

def file_from_pieces(dir,file)

def sync_dir
dir = fstreams_dir
dir.entries.each do |filename|
next if filename =~ /^\..*/
file_path = file_from_pieces(dir,filename)

# if the file doesn't exist (or it's the podcast file), upload it
if !AWS::S3::S3Object.exists?(S3_BUCKET_NAME,filename) || filename == PODCAST_FILE then,open(file_path),S3_BUCKET_NAME)

def s3_safe_name(english_name)

def start_recording
$is_recording = true
puts 'Starting to record'
fstream = app('FStream')

def stop_recording
puts 'Stopping recording'
fstream = app('FStream')

# find the file most recently created, and rename it
dir = fstreams_dir
filepaths = []
dir.entries.each do |filename|
next if filename =~ /^\..*/
file paths << file_from_pieces(dir,filename)
filepaths.sort {|a,b| File.mtime(b) <=> File.mtime(a)}
filepath = file_from_pieces(dir,s3_safe_name($current_schedule['name'])+".mp3")[0],filepath)

# file can take a while to close
while true
rescue exception
puts "Waiting for #{filepath} to close"

# update podcast file and S3

$is_recording = false
$current_schedule = nil

def do_start_app
if !is_recording && should_be_recording then
elsif is_recording && !should_be_recording then
next_sched = next_scheduled_task
puts "#{} Next scheduled task is #{next_sched['name']} starting at #{next_sched['start_time']}" if next_sched

$schedule_file = ARGV[0] if ARGV.length >= 1
do_start_app if !$testing_mode